Tuesday, April 7, 2020

What is Truth?

I assume that I am a lazy person. Even though given the very best opportunities, I have never taken proper advantage of those, either to become prosperous or to dive deeply into some academic field (those two being obviously related for me, since just becoming prosperous would be as meaningless as spending my life computer gaming, say. That's just me - I'm not making any judgement about you!).

I console myself with how much work I've put into literacy with Chinese. Nothing lazy about that, except that I didn't ever pursue it as my life's work.

Well actually, I think I've worked objectively harder than more prosperous folks I know, but that would be another story. I've just had too damned many lines of work is all. Chronologically: paperboy, house painting and repair, lawn and pool care, bike-mechanics, retail sales and store management, ski-mechanics and sales, bartending in London, more bike-mechanics and sales, more house repair, wooden boat restoration, beer delivery, Chinese teaching, private school headmaster, grad assistant supervisor of student teachers, university project manager, local area network administrator, computer tech support, WAN and local network architect, IT manager, HIPAA security officer, database programmer, curriculum developer on university team to host visiting Chinese academic delegations, project manager for college campus in China, translator. . . That's not to list the work I could have had but didn't take. Three different attempted but never finished PhD's. Moving from engineering to physics to Chinese literature across three droppings out from undergraduate college at Yale.

When you combine my weird work history with how many times I've criss-crossed the country, and how long I've dwelled in various urban, exurban, rich and poor places, I guess I'm qualified to be president, but not much else. Truth be told, I'd be way over-qualified by current standards. Especially given the Yale diploma, which seems to be the best predictor, regardless of what or how well you studied. But then, I was never so ambitious as my classmates, most of whom wanted to shoot to the top in any way possible, as far as I could tell. Most of them seem to have made it.

In my reading, my reach always exceeds my grasp. I guess I am a committed generalist, and here my excuse is that, in a Kuhnian sense, the paradigm has clearly been getting shifty during my lifetime. So, it is my conviction that not only is there a reason to remain a generalist, there is almost an imperative. No particular disciplinary field will break through paradigms which have been the basis for sustenance in that field. That's the deal, says Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolution.

I know how self-serving that sounds, and actually is, of course.

But we're in a period of what Kuhn called normal science, if I remember correctly, as far as gaining knowledge goes. It's not that we think we know everything we need to know. It's more that we think we have all the structures in place to keep knowing more.

I hit my own early brick wall with physics, and gleaned some insights from Chinese. I don't write well enough - I'm probably also just too lazy or stubborn to learn how - but I don't write well enough to have gotten anywhere with what I felt I realized in a marathon moment of Eureka back in 1983.

Anyhow, the flourishing world order we thought might last forever as the end to history is now on pause (writing in the time of the plague) is certainly not the place to look for resolution.

I'm trying to read Chomsky again. He feels so freaking brilliant. He speaks and writes clearly, but he's not always so easy for a layperson to follow. Exposing his generative grammar narrative, I learn that there is a line of criticism of his approach, to the effect that no-one has located the "black box" where grammar is genetically housed, in any structure of the brain. I'm probably out-of-date on that.

A set of analogies Chomsky uses relates to the function of the hand or of the heart. He opposes functional descriptions (the hand is for grasping, the heart is for pumping blood) as being like collecting butterfly specimens; potentially very engaging and interesting, but not science. They don't explain anything, and there are no hypotheses to use as the basis for empirical testing to reveal deeper explanatory structures.

So he rejects 'language is for communication' because that adds nothing to understanding the psychology of language, and its empirical basis in, presumably, the human brain.

Language it isn't only for communication. It can be like petting, for instance, or other matters of social construction. A structural functional description of language doesn't add to our understanding of how the brain works language.

To say that the hand is for grasping doesn't help in understanding human nature and how it arose. One would have to develop hypotheses for how the hand evolved, or how it actually works according to as yet invisible structures that we don't understand yet.

It certainly doesn't do any good to say that hands were developed for the purpose of using tools, any more than it helps to say that language developed for the purpose of communication. These things come about as the result of evolutionary change, and cannot be the cause of it. Teleology is rigorously excluded in the scientific method. Chomsky has plenty of good criticism of Marxism on that basis.

Chomsky doesn't seem to think his linguistic theories are finished - his work is just a kind of early inchoate set of conjectures which will have to await more fulsome treatment in the future. He implicitly seems to believe in progress. Galileo observed anomalies in the heavens well before any theory of inertia and gravitational action-at-a-distance might explain those. We will someday understand how language works.

The book I'm reading is a translation back to English from a recording that was published in French. The original recording (including the original English) was lost, so it's a two-way back and forth from which sense would normally be lost as well (and surely lost if it were machine translation). But Chomsky has vetted and edited and the writing seems coherent.

But the book's coherence might still make an ironic commentary about bedrock truth. Does that kind of truth improve by the process of translation? Well, perhaps it actually does.

This irony is itself remedied by Chomsky's insistence on the necessity for "ideal forms" in the pursuit of understanding. One needs a model trimmed to its essentials in order to test it against reality. The scientific method doesn't and can't deal with the totality of anything.

If an hypothesis is sound nothing need be lost in translation. Indeed, the hypothesis will be improved by the highlighting of some parochial assumptions. I guess I'm suggesting that scientific knowledge is precisely that which doesn't get lost in translation. Science needs to be true in any language, before it can be said to be true.

As a social critic and political commentator, Chomsky is also very concerned with truth. He is the fanatic who digs up the details to expose the lies in the public-facing 'official' narratives deployed by the power structure to prop itself up. This feels like extremely important work.

Those lies are pernicious in the same way that fake science is. That is even though Chomsky himself seems to disavow any organic connection between his professional work as a linguist and philosopher, and his political commentary. Lies about history are likely precisely the sort of conjecture which don't and wouldn't survive translation. Their validation would be far too subjective, almost by definition.

In a naive sense - way before I knew of the Sapir-Whorf theory - I "decided" (there was not much "choice" at the outset, though it may have determined my decision to persist. Isn't that how choice works anyhow?) to study Chinese because of some variation of that theory. The idea is that the morphology of specific languages affects or even determines what is deemed to be reality for those within those language communities.

At least in the case of reading and writing Chinese, there is some evidence of energizing of different parts of the brain, with a different hemispheric distribution. Those differences would seem to indicate some difference in the way our thoughts are formed and informed by differing kinds of literacy.

This particular Chomsky book seems to belie any strict separation between Chomsky's professional work and his social commentary. That's why I chose it. His core belief structure seems to exhibit a fanatically rigid supposition that it is both possible and worthwhile to get at the truth about what is real. And who could disagree with that? In language or abroad in the world. I find that he is the primary opponent to Sapir-Whorf. Duh!

Just now, it seems that nearly all the narratives that once did evince shared belief are being deconstructed. Cracks are showing in the America which once showed its strength through military and economic might. It may even become clear that when capitalism is allowed to take over every single corner of productivity, and regulatory government is systematically dismantled, there is no-one and nothing left to care for the public good. It may also be that we simply fall apart.

When the public good is no longer cared for, the social construct will have been abrogated. When that abrogation is discovered, it will already too late. But, at the moment, it's not too late to repair the breach. The revolution has hardly gotten a start.

I would like to argue that recent history has made clear that truth is less important than a believable narrative. This is not to denigrate the importance of truth, but rather to focus less on the details that have been gotten wrong, if there remains an overall believable shape with is believable as the essential truth. Even though parts of it are made-up, like a pretty person's face.

As Chomsky both says in his critique of American democracy as a perfect front for fascism, and as the less-than-widely read reach of his commentary also shows, the exposure of truth hardly ever seems to change the narrative. If anything, it may accelerate the denial of reality when it's too hard to look at.

I am intensely grateful for Chomsky's fanatical digging for the truths and especially for the falsehoods within America's collective historical narrative.

But there are reasons the warts-and-all take on ourselves is so often ignored and rejected. It's just not how we wish to see ourselves. There is probably a genetically programmed black-box for that in our makeup as well. It is at least a sign of respect to any interlocutor to put on our best face. To do some grooming. To keep our language clean. To want to be wanted and accepted.

I feel pretty certain that no specific "organ" will be discovered as the "black box" of generative grammar. That's because the somatic basis for a universal grammar is already so obvious. The brain is the necessary background instrumental condition for the verbal throwing that arms do, and the noun/thing's condition of being thrown. The critics are looking in the wrong place for the structure of grammar. Perhaps, so is Chomsky. Subject is subject, object is object, and verb is verb. That's how our bodies construe the world. We don't even need to speculate so far as the brain. We did a lot of talking before words were ever uttered.

The hand is for grasping, the vocal cords and the shaping of the mouth for speaking, the heart for pumping blood. The brain manipulates each of these in different ways. Many people think that the mind is mediated by language. As Chomsky says, plunk a pre-verbal human in New York and he will become a New Yorker. That would presumably happen across time too, if that were possible. There is no genetic or morphological difference between primitive and modern man. The differences all relate to language. To money. To credit. To books. To machines. It's hardly our genetics which has made us human. It's what we did with all that endowment, that was never programmed in.

I have taken dogmatic positions on many subjects. I hate the capitalists, I hate the vectorialists, it's obvious that we absolutely must have single-payer healthcare. That sort of lazy thinking.

Then along comes this fellow who I discover on Twitter. Twitter is one of the evil social networking sites that I try so hard to stay clear of, because they veer so close to surveillance capitalism. Because they so often don't mind pandering to liars in the interest of profit. Because the platforms care nothing for the public good, but still have so much influence on it. They disavow themselves of any responsibility as publishers. They don't consider it their responsibility to vet for truth value. That makes them even worse than Fox News, but then there was this:
Peter Kolchinsky has written what promises to be a very cogent book about what's wrong with American healthcare when it comes to drug pricing. Presumably the argument could be generalized to healthcare overall.

Kolchinsky isn't pushing for single-payer. He's pushing to fix what's wrong. In conversation, I'm not really so dogmatic. I like to focus on the low-hanging fruit to get things started. I don't see much value in engaging in big polarizing wars. I hope that many legislators or their staffs will read this book.

So as I try to moderate my hatred of social media and as I try to moderate my loathing of Trump, because I certainly don't loathe those who follow either, I shall try to moderate my other dogmas as well. Trump was created by the same media master minds who are now humanizing Andrew Cuomo. A little healthy skepticism is always on order.

We can't regain our shared narrative until we find our way to trusted news media. We really need to regulate Fox news out of business. That was once-upon-a-time possible in our not-too-distant past before the massive deregulation championed by Reagan. Yes, indeed, make America great again. Bring back the labor unions, the local newspapers, the carefully considered regulation of media, the living wage. . . Bring back the social contract.

COVID-19 may be helping us along. The cracks will let in the light. Leonard Cohen couldn't endure the current regime, but he gave voice to our better angels. Well, he was Canadian. So many of our actors and entertainers are.

Anthem, by L. Cohen

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see
I can't run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
A thundercloud
And they're going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
You can add up the parts
You won't have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in

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