November 7, 2012: History as Logos, History as Pathos

History is the record-taking of past or present events for the benefit of future audiences. In A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman states that modern scholars have a particular difficulty discerning precisely what occured in medieval times:

The chronic exaggeration of medieval numbers—of armies, for example—when accepted as factual, has led in the past to a misunderstanding of medieval war as analogous to modern war, which it was not, in means, method, or purpose. It should be assumed that medieval figures for military forces, battle casualties, plague deaths, revolutionary hordes, processions, or any groups en masse are generally enlarged by several hundred percent.

Tuchman explains the reason for this inflation:

This is because the chroniclers did not use numbers as data but as a device of literary art to amaze or appall the reader.

Modern scholars have a difficult time discerning precisely what occurred because medieval scholars were not concerned with recording precisely what occurred. They practiced an alternative mode of history.

To the modern, western mind, the method of the chroniclers seems corrupt. We use history as a means to preserve true records of cause and effect in social/ecological systems. Realism in history helps us understand our actions in a historical context, and better guides our decision-making. Fantasy in history corrupts our decision-making.

The medieval mind used history to a different purpose. The chroniclers provided their histories as a means to inspire action through emotional effect. Some realism would have been required to provide a shared context between a chronicle and the experience of the audience. But embellishments, which strengthened the emotional persuasiveness of the histories, were well suited to the medieval uses of history.

The modern decision-maker relies on realism in record-keeping to make logical decisions, while the medieval mind relied on fantastic embellishment in record-keeping to inspire action through emotion. These historical traditions conflict with each other, but are well suited to the purposes of their creators and their intended audiences.

In future posts, I’ll build two threads that generalize on idea:

  • If you impose a perspective of realism on a historical tradition rooted in ethos or pathos, you destroy that historical tradition. If the audience of that historical tradition is still alive, you have impovershed that audience.
  • That logical arguments carry cumulative effects that do not diminish with time. Emotional arguments are more persuasive individually, but do not build upon each other and decay in persuasiveness over time. The accumulation of logical arguments is a component of the effectiveness of Western civilization.

July 10, 2012: Staff Cultural Orientation

I’m returned from ten days in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where I’ll be teaching, having attended a staff cultural orientation with fifteen new teachers and one new principal.

Outskirts of Tuluksak
Outskirts of Tuluksak

We spent five days in Akiachak where the district headquarters is located, addressing the same questions I’ve been asking myself about the imposition of western culture on native peoples. We explored two threads:

  • The Alaskan sub-arctic is a dangerous and difficult place to live. Yup’ik culture, a product of thousands of years of social evolution, contains a set of implicit rules for thriving in this environment. The language encodes a mindset or worldview that helps its speakers adapt to living here (see the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), and this effect can’t be translated into and transmitted through English. By interrupting the generational transmission of native culture, we are interrupting the transmission of this worldview and set of rules which allow the people to survive the sub-arctic.
  • Through the media and education, western society imposes a worldview and a set of values on the native people. For a variety of geographic, economic, and social reasons, most Yup’ik are unable or do not want to participate in the mainstream western lifestyle. This creates a psychological conflict, which may result in questions about identity and feelings of inadequecy among people who have been made to feel that mainstream western society is superior to their own traditional society. Many native populations are in absolute psychic crisis because of this conflict.

The message was: accept your own ignorance and seek to be an aid to the residents, not a guide.

The other five days we spent in our own villages. We were assigned to wonderful mentors among the village residents, who invited us into their homes and introduced us to a bit of their subsistence lifestyle. We also had a chance to meet those of our students who were attending summer school. The kids definitely try to see whether they can get under your skin, but I feel I passed their tests.

I’ve started to read Enlightenment’s Wake by John Gray. Gray writes that the fulfillment of the Enlightenment is the central project of western civilization. In my own words, the Enlightenment is the instantiation—the particular form, realization, or instance—of the Conqueror Mindset in western civilization; other cultures would have different projects of progress centered on the universalization of Sharia and Islam, Confucianism, etc.

So as westerners, we believe that science and reason can help us produce a template for a prosperous society with a minimal set of rules that allows people to fulfill their own independent, personal values. Since the template allows people to define their own personal values, it can in theory be lain-over any population without disturbing local culture, so long as the population chooses to value and retain that culture. But Gray points out that independence is itself a value that is taken for granted by this Enlightenment project, and that we may be better served by a model of civilization which does not allow for independent assignment of value.

By my interpretation, if you lay the Enlightenment project over a culture which assigns value collectively then the native culture will crumble and fail. More thoughts to follow.

April 21, 2012: The Conqueror Mindset

I now have a contract, for teaching secondary mathematics in Tuluksak, AK:


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Tuluksak is populated almost entirely by native Yup’ik. Anyone can guess that the culture will be different. But how different can two human cultures really be? This videogot me thinking that the answer could be “very different”. The relevant quote:

And performance is the bottom line in the culture of the lower 48. Here [in rural Alaska] it’s not performance; it’s family and community. So there’s a real conflict there, between the two ways of life. I had to give up the performance approach to the community/family approach.

–Richard Stasenko

Why the drive to perform? Almost every major culture on earth is descended from a conquering society. My ancestors were bumming around western Europe until they were conquered by either the Romans or the Vikings. Latin America was conquered by the people conquered by the Romans. What started as a small nucleus of kingdoms in China eventually made most of East Asia into vassal states. India, North Africa and the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the pre-Columbian Americas have similar stories.

The majority of human cultures, including the native cultures of your ancestors, have been displaced by a small handful of empire-building cultures. Each of these few cultures ascended because they cared about performance; if they hadn’t cared about performance they would have been absorbed by some other, more effective culture. We are the cultural descendents of performers. They have passed to us the conqueror mindset: a desire to perform beyond the needs of survival and comfort.

Ran Prieur likes to point out that there are cultures which have no concept of freeloading. If we enjoy our labor and we’re able to survive comfortably, why should we care whether others benefit enough from our work that they themselves don’t have to work? Ran suggests that it’s because we don’t actually enjoy our work. I’ll also blame the conqueror mindset. The conqueror mindset says that there is always work to be done towards the advancement of society, that we must continually progress in our capabilities, and that everyone can and should contribute to that progress.

The conqueror mindset is the engine of science and industry which continually asks, “How can this be done better?” The conqueror mindset pursues “better”, “improvement”, and “more”. Those are constantly rising bars, standards which can never be reached. A culture without the conqueror mindset, though, might pursue “enough”, or “comfort”. These are goals that can be reached, goals that you can reach and then stop working towards for awhile.

Consider that it took us ten-thousand years to go from pottery to metalworking. And the atlatl may have been the height of technology developed in the thirty-thousand years of fully-modern humans preceding pottery. These transitions would not have taken millenia if “better”, “improvement”, and “more” were fundamental human drives.

Until the mid-20th century, the Alaskan interior didn’t seem to have many resources worth conquering. Like with many native populations, there was continuous and low-level inter-tribal warfare until western intervention. But the region never produced or attracted the serious attention of a real empire-building culture until America found the whole region well placed for a defense against the Japanese, and saturated in oil besides.

When Richard Stasenko says that the Yup’ik he taught are not focused on performance, it says to me that their culture was not produced by conquest. And it has some really difficult implications for my role as a teacher. Western education does not teach you how to survive comfortably, to enjoy life in your community among your family, to know when you’ve done enough. Western education prepares for the jobs of tomorrow, prepares for excellence, prepares you to extend human knowledge, to be a contributing citizen. These are the goals that were given to us by our conquerors. What do I teach to a person who has no interest in the jobs of tomorrow?

It’s not a hopeless question, just my own prompt for thought.

February 18, 2012: A Mathematician’s Defense of Functionalism

Mind and Function

A central question in philosophy of mind is what constitutes the basis for conscious experience. One branch of modern philosophy—functionalism—claims that any system which functionally replicates human thought and behavior would also replicate human consciousness. Other philosophers suggest that functional equivalence to the human mind is insufficient for producing consciousness, that conscious experience transcends the ability to produce thought or behavior.

I wrote this essay just as I was moving from advanced math into brain and behavior. It’s a mathematician’s defense of functionalism against the arguments of John Searle, the Chinese Room thought experiment, et al.:

Functionalism, the idea that mental states are characterized by their function, formally arose in the mid 20th century in response to earlier attempts at demystifying the mind(Levin, 2009). Many felt that behaviorism had failed to describe the mind at an appropriate conceptual level, or that attempts such as identity theory were overly restrictive upon the conditions of mental states(Levin, 2009). Functionalists declared that the particular physical processes underlying mental activity in an entity were inconsequential; what mattered was the functional role a state played in that entity’s existence.

…In this paper, I don’t try to prove that functionalism is true. Opponents of functionalism will always be able to find harbor in the the ineffable, the empirically unobservable. I only wish to show that functionalism is valid, that it’s plausible, that it’s potentially consistent with our experience of the world.

…We can formalize this notion a bit more by appealing to the mathematical formulation of isomorphism. Let G and H be sets, and the function f be a one-to-one mapping between them. Let ★ be the function from G to G that we wish to preserve. Then f is an isomorphism with respect to ★ iff f[★(a)]=★'[f(a)] for all a in G<read entire paper>

For some good introductory point/counterpoint on the topic of functionalism, read John Searle’s Mind: A brief introduction and Daniel Dennett’s Conciousness Explained.