Sunday, October 11, 2020

264: Unbalanced Society

Audio Link

You may recall that in several past episodes I mentioned the odd pop philosopher Alfred Korzybski and his early 20th-century movement known as General Semantics.   Korzybski believed that the imprecision and misuse of language was responsible for many of society’s ills.   He came up with many supposedly practical ideas to fix this such as using “indexing” and “dating” to add numerical tags to objects you reference, and minimizing the use of the verb “to be” due to its many possible meanings.    A few weeks ago I discovered that one of his books, “Manhood of Humanity”, was downloadable for free at Project Gutenberg, and couldn’t resist taking a look to see if there were any more amusing ideas there.   And I did find one:  a supposed mathematical explanation for the many societal upheavals and conflicts of the past century.

Basically, Korzybski was looking at the pace of change in various fields of knowledge that we have been acquiring over time.   He made much of his observation that we are what he calls “time-binding” creatures:   unlike any other creature on the planet, we can learn things and pass them down to our descendants, so the process of learning and development happens at the level of human society, rather than just of individuals.    According to him, the simple, natural way most knowledge accumulates is through linear or arithmetic progressions:   a series like 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, where you steadily move forward by small jumps.   However, there are certain domains, in areas of science and technology, where in recent centuries every piece of new knowledge has drawn on massive amounts of previous ideas, creating a geometric, or exponential, progression, like 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.    This disconnect is the source of many of our problems.  

In other words, early historical growth in social and political areas roughly tracked with growth of technology, but now technology has zoomed ahead of our social development due to this disconnect.   And this cannot be good for humanity as a whole.   As Korzybski stated, “It is plain as the noon-day sun that, if progress in one of the matters advances according to the law of a geometric progression and the other in accordance with a law of an arithmetical progression, progress in the former matter will very quickly and ever more rapidly outstrip progress in the latter, so that, if the two interests would be interdependent (as they always are), a strain is gradually produced in human affairs, social equilibrium is at length destroyed; there follows a period of readjustment by violence and force.”   He then goes on to state that this is a key cause of insurrections, revolutions, and wars.   

This idea seems like it might actually have something to it, to some degree.    But we do have to be careful here— while everyone is always focused on their own time, and our news media love to sensationalize wars and violence, there has been violence and war throughout the history of society.   Many argue that the real oddity of modern times is the proportion of humanity who can live out their lives secure from violence.     Korzybski did write this just after World War I, though, so we can understand why it might have looked to him like society was falling apart.   

Where he really went off the rails though is when he tried to prescribe a solution for this disconnect in societal vs technological growth:   everyone must use his system of more precise and scientifically defined language, correctly defining ideas like “good”, “bad”, and “truth”, and then we will enable exponential growth in all fields of knowledge.   In his words:  “If only these three words could be scientifically defined, philosophy, law, ethics, and psychology would cease to be private theories or verbalism and they would advance to the rank and dignity of sciences.”     He even claimed that such correct definitions would have lead to the kind of scientific societal reasoning that could have predicted and prevented World War I.    

But when he tried to actually apply his reasoning to a practical matter, we see some slightly more concerning comments.    He tried to use the need to come up with a common base to combine like terms to derive the need for a government to unite the people.   Just as you cannot combine algebraic terms like x^a + y^b without finding  common base, you must find the people a “common base” to unite them.   He wrote, “Germany united the powers of living men and women and children; it gave them a common base; it gave them one common social mood and aim; they all became consolidated in service of that which is called the State… they worked, lived, and died for the State.”    He seemed to like this idea, only complaining that the German leadership then chose the wrong aims for their “united terms”.   

This concept of making the social sciences more precise and mathematical seems to appear continuously in 20th-century writing, from many authors.   It always ultimately fails:  aside from the inherent imprecision of the concepts involved,  there is an obvious need for value judgements that cannot be sensibly derived from any mathematics.    In the end, Korzybski provided a few intriguing ideas, buried within loads and loads of sophistry and nonsense.   I always find it amusing to read this kind of stuff, as long as we all remember not to take it too seriously.    If we want to solve modern society’s problems, we can’t just lie back & let the math provide a magic formula.

And this has been your math mutation for today.