Saturday, January 30, 2021

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 II

There is so much day-to-day information on Russell's life in this book that I can only take it in small doses. It doesn't help that Russell was already well past his intellectual peak by 1924, and his personal life is beginning to look like a fiasco. Dora came into her own as a political activist and an advocate of birth control and wrote books that became popular. At times she and Russell agreed in these matters, but, when it came to politics, he was hardly a man of the people. As a Victorian aristocrat, during his life he had previously had little contact with ordinary workers. Though he admired the Chinese, he disliked the Russians and the African-Americans whom he met, and he had no affinity for the working class. Dora was extremely progressive and liked to think that she was helping the human cause. Russell, on the other hand, vacillated, and whenever he became engaged as a political activist he was soon repulsed by the people. He continued to write books when he had enough time and branched out into science journalism. Since he was familiar with mathematics, he described special and general relativity for lay readers and became popular in that genre.

Because both Russell and Dora were interested in childhood education, they founded the Beacon Hill School in 1927. It was located at Telegraph House, in Sussex, and they rented the property from his brother, Frank. They wanted to give their children, John and Kate, good educations that would infuse them with progressive ideas in the hope that they would become well-adjusted adults. Although the school seems to have had some success, there was not enough money in it to support the family, and it interfered with Russell's writing and lecturing. Dora also had a public career, which caused her to be away lecturing at times. Conspicuously, the living arrangement, with all the teachers and students living on the property, seems chaotic. Russell was having an affair with Alice Stücki, a Swiss governess who had originally been hired to teach John French. Dora was having an affair with a man named Roy Randall, who also became part of the staff. During this period, Russell was impotent in his relationship with Dora, probably for psychological reasons.

As far as I've read, the school isn't working well for John and Kate. They were treated the same as the other students and often felt ignored by their parents. Moreover, many of the other students had behavioral problems and were intentionally sent there by their parents for that reason. The environment seems to have been unfavorable for John, who was often bullied by the other boys. This arrangement seems especially bizarre when you consider that Russell supposedly had a deep love for John and wanted to raise him as well as possible. Monk says that Russell was trying to prevent the psychological strains that he had experienced as a result of the early deaths of his parents. So far, John isn't doing very well, even though he is favored over Kate, who seems to be more intellectually talented and more psychologically stable.

In Monk's telling, Dora is beginning to look rather insensitive and self-indulgent. Specifically, he thinks that Russell was emotionally weak and required a lot of female support, though he himself was egocentric. It sounds as if Dora had a rather naïve progressive ideology in which people loved whomever they wanted to love, and everything fell into place. My take is that she was a highly extroverted person who was incapable of maintaining relationships of any depth. Although Russell himself was rather cold, Dora's insensitivity was difficult for him to bear. On a speaking tour of the U.S., Dora began another affair with another man, Griffin Barry, a left-wing journalist who also admired the Soviet Union and had befriended the American radical, John Reed. As you might expect, this free-love scenario is teetering toward disaster, but it's unravelling at a snail's pace in the book. From my point of view, this is an example of how people who live in the world of ideas can become completely detached from reality and, in the process, lose sight of the fact that they are biological entities who have countless genetic constraints, many of which lie beyond their conception. While Russell didn't have a perfect grasp of the situation, in hindsight he certainly seems to have had a better insight than Dora into the weaknesses of the Soviet Union, which subsequently evolved into one of the most corrupt dictatorships in the world.

In general, I am still sympathetic with Russell, because he recognized that the way forward for humanity was to follow science. However, it appears that he himself did not have much of a scientific mind, and he often seems to have jumped to erroneous conclusions because he didn't consider matters carefully over long periods. This is why more plodding thinkers, such as Charles Darwin, are able to produce more significant results than quick-thinking, intellectually adept thinkers such as Russell.

I had hoped to move faster through the book, but I'm afraid it's going to take a long time.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 I

This second volume, also by Ray Monk, covers the second half of Bertrand Russell's life. It gets off to a rather unpromising start, with Monk warning that during this period Russell seemed increasingly egocentric to his friends, and they also thought that the quality of his writing had declined. Beatrice Webb was disappointed that he didn't produce any significant works on politics or socialism. Ottoline Morrell was disappointed that he wasted his time raising his son, John, rather than engaging in important intellectual work. By 1922, he was becoming more famous than ever, because he, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore, were considered the founders of analytic philosophy, which had taken root in the U.K. and U.S. and had an offshoot in Austria, known as the Vienna Circle, led by Moritz Schlick. Russell had practically stopped reading philosophical works and devoted most of his time to political articles and lectures. He thought that taking a university position would be problematic, since he was divorced, and that in any case he could make more money on popular topics.

In 1922, shortly after John's birth, he bought a house near the ocean in Cornwall to live for part of the year. When he wasn't working, he spent much of his time with John and tried to employ some quack behavioral techniques with the goal of making John self-confident and independent when he grew up. In those days, behaviorism was popular, and its followers apparently believed in the erroneous "blank slate" theory of psychological development. So far, John is scared to go into the ocean and is afraid of shadows.

Later that year he had his last friendly meeting with Wittgenstein in Innsbruck. By then, the Tractatus had been published, and the two still disagreed. On the one hand, Russell was a Platonist who wanted to derive all of mathematics from logic, while, on the other hand, Wittgenstein thought that all logic boiled down to tautologies and said nothing about the world. At this point they also had different worldviews. Russell had practically given up on philosophy and thought that it could be replaced by the empirical sciences; he also considered world issues, such as politics, important, though he tended to tire of them easily.  Wittgenstein was obsessed with personal morality and self-improvement. Russell came away from this meeting lumping Wittgenstein in with D.H. Lawrence as a "mystic," though that term is hardly an appropriate description of either. Lawrence was a poet, novelist, painter and utopian thinker, whereas Wittgenstein, I have decided, was autistic. 

Although I don't always seek outside sources to corroborate or dispute statements made in a biography or autobiography that I've read, I came across some recent comments describing Wittgenstein as autistic, and this provided an "Aha!" moment for me. While Monk seems to be doing a good job discussing the oddities of Russell's personality, I think that he has completely missed a key opportunity to unravel the psychodynamics of Wittgenstein. This isn't entirely Monk's fault, because, even though autism had a clinical description by 1980, is was not widely discussed before the 2000's, a decade after he had written Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Wittgenstein clearly had the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. He engaged in highly repetitive behavior, such as only eating certain foods. His confused sexuality can also be a symptom of autism. One of the hallmarks of autism is an obsession with rules, which would explain how Wittgenstein became interested in logic in the first place. The giveaway for me, though, is his apparent inability to fathom how other people think. As I remarked earlier, it seemed unusual that he produced very little written work, and when he did he usually depended on help from other people. This was not because his native language was German and he lived in England: the books for which he is known contain both German and English texts. I think that, like some autistic people, he found it extremely difficult to understand how other people thought, and, for him, writing as if he were like other people was challenging. Thus, he always preferred to go over his ideas informally with others who could insert the correct phraseology, because he didn't know whether what he wrote would be intelligible to people. In my opinion, Monk has used the word "genius" as a broad cover for the fact that there is something about Wittgenstein that he doesn't understand. I'm not going to dwell on this, since I'm currently reading about Russell, not Wittgenstein, but I think it would be possible to write a more insightful biography of Wittgenstein than the one Monk wrote. For someone like me, who doesn't take academic philosophy seriously at this point, nothing is lost by engaging in this kind of demythologizing. I think that in their early days Russell and Wittgenstein were working on the fringes of mathematics, a field that neither needed nor wanted their help. As I said, linking academic philosophy to mathematics was, sociologically speaking, a way to aggrandize philosophy at the time.

In 1924, after his second child, Kate, was born, Russell went on a two-month lecture tour of the U.S. This was arranged by an agent who took a large cut, and the entire purpose was for Russell to make as much money as possible. At the age of fifty-one, he had run through his inheritance, did not have an academic position and, with a family to support, he needed the money. He considered the trip grueling and complained bitterly about it in his letters to Dora. One of the comments that I found interesting was this:

I like the academic audiences best. I always get on with the students. The open forums are rather admirable; they always have very lively questions & discussions afterwards, & they are gradually teaching Yanks to keep their tempers when they hear opinions they don't agree with. But the women's clubs are utterly horrible. I doubt if the human race produces anything more repulsive than the American rich woman of middle age, very fat, very ugly, very expensively dressed, telling you that the pearls that she is wearing are imitation, the real ones being at the Bank on account of recent robberies, boasting that her most intimate friend married a Serbian prince, & at intervals maintaining that pure American womanhood does wonders for morals. If I ever come again, I shall tell Feakins to charge the women's clubs extra.

So, for all his character flaws, Russell can still be quite entertaining.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time II

 The "Beauty" section describes how humans, unlike other species, came to value and use objects that had no immediate practical use. This occurred in cultural contexts, and what counted as beautiful could vary from one tribe to another. The origin of beauty is probably associated with mate selection, where symmetrical faces are indicative of genetic health. Sabine Hossenfelder, the author of Lost in Math, could benefit from reading this part, which shows how even physicists may be influenced by cultural biases. Vince is stretching the term considerably to include many of the cultural influences that affect how people behave. She weaves beauty in with the development of trade and travel over thousands of years. When the Yamnaya migrated out of western Asia 5,500 years ago on horses and carts, they set the stage for what were to become trade routes. The kinds of things that were traded, such as silk and jewelry, were not essential and indicate that the prestige that we associate with aesthetic objects is fundamental to being human. She notes that even Columbus, much later, was primarily seeking a new route to the Indies in order to procure spices – hardly a critical commodity. Trade routes established contact between distant societies and facilitated the dissemination of knowledge worldwide. Specifically, Vince emphasizes the importance of the cities that appeared on trade routes and became central to the advancement of knowledge.

Hunter-gatherer groups are generally thought to have been more egalitarian than we are today. This was because men and women contributed equally to the food supply. Women were not as tied down by child-rearing as they are now, because other women shared the task. Although hunter-gatherers were violent like us, with small groups and set lifestyles there was no particular reason for men to take dominant roles. This all changed with the introduction of farming about 10,000 years ago, as discussed in The 10,000 Year Explosion. Men became the primary procurers of food, and agricultural communities created laws, private property and administration, which had previously been unnecessary. In this vein, though the book was published in 2019, Vince gets in some jabs at Donald Trump, possibly the apotheosis of stupid male aggression.

In Vince's view, the progress of civilization resulted primarily from cross-cultural fertilization, especially when people from a variety of locations became concentrated in cities. Her thesis is that the main importance of language is in its passing of knowledge from one person to another, which permits information to proliferate, as if it were a cultural version of genes. She likes to point out that innovation is actually quite rare, and that most of the development of civilization is based on copying. I think that this is true, and though she doesn't use this example, I am often amused by the arrogance of American exceptionalists. When I was growing up, Americans made fun of "rice burners" from Toyota. Now Toyota is almost twice as large as GM and Ford combined. In other words, most of the skills in one part of the world can easily be replicated elsewhere under the right conditions. Though it may not occur, there is no inherent reason why China couldn't surpass the U.S. economically in the next few years.

Vince's views on different ethnicities are fairly conventional. She embraces the popular idea that, since all humans are closely related, they're not all that different. This is generally true, but, though she recognizes that divergences occur, I don't think that she would concede, for example, that Ashkenazi Jews possess certain intellectual skills that other ethnic groups do not. In her discussion of genes and culture, she leans toward the more politically correct side that emphasizes culture more than genes as the deciding factor in which group prevails in specific circumstances.

The final section, "Time," reviews our understanding of time, and how it developed. I didn't find it particularly relevant, though I liked hearing about the influence that astronomy has had on the history of ideas. Vince morphs this into a discussion of reason, and she brings up some topics that interest me, such as human cognitive limitations and AI. She does not delve into the questions that come up in the event of the development of superintelligence. Though she does mention the research that I've discussed by Daniel Kahneman, she is somewhat more sanguine than I am about the future prospects for humanity. She correctly notes that religion usually interferes with reason and was responsible for the Dark Age. She mentions some of the avenues by which humans may significantly increase their longevity. In the end, she seems to cop out a little by comparing humans to superorganisms, such as slime molds. This might appeal to some of her more scientific readers, but to me it begs the main question: what is the future of mankind? While the ideas of equality and cooperation are central to the book, like most writers, she doesn't provide much of a roadmap. I thought that this was one of the better books that I've read on these subjects, but it was not completely satisfying, because it made no predictions. That may not be undesirable, though, given our inability to predict the future accurately. Vince, apparently, has not read E.O. Wilson, who provides the vocabulary that I prefer in this field. There is no specific mention of group selection, though that concept seems to support her conclusion.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time I

In order to take a break from Bertrand Russell, I decided to read this short book by Gaia Vince, who is a science journalist. I have been avoiding books by Yuval Noah Harari, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Tomorrow, because, according to reviews I've read, they contain errors. Harari is a historian, and apparently he has delved into areas in which he has no particular expertise. Vince, on the other hand, is a science writer, and she seems to have a good grasp of the relevant research. I've so far read three of the five sections and find them to be informative and well-written. This is one of my favorite subjects, and I am always surprised to see how little people are interested in it, because it explains both how we came into existence and who we are now. There is no way to acquire a good understanding of human nature without familiarizing yourself with this research, yet many people seem to prefer living in ignorance. 

The first section, "Genesis," briefly describes the physics of the formation of the solar system, the atoms and molecules that were present, and the early evolution of the planet. It becomes apparent that a series of chance events, such as the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, were necessary for us to reach our current position in the world. The next section, "Fire," discusses the emergence of the first hominid species on the savannas of Africa and the complex interplay between the environment, genetic mutations and culture. The most important change then was the movement from a primarily vegetarian diet to a mixed diet that included meat. This was first made possible by wildfires on the savannas, which killed animals and made them available to eat. When cooking was invented, plant foods were broadened, providing, with meat, greater nutrition from the environment. Some plants that had been inedible became edible through cooking. Improved nutrition is what precipitated hominid divergence from other primates. For most mammals, brain size is limited by nutrition, because large brains like ours require more energy than most animals can afford, given the amount of energy necessary to find and digest food, escape predators, etc. 

Once the diet of our ancestors changed with cooking, other characteristics of modern humans began to emerge. Our brains continued to increase in size, making it necessary to walk upright in order to balance them. Childbirth and childrearing became increasingly problematic, with babies whose heads were too large to fit through their mothers' birth canals and birth at a period far from maturity. In many species, babies are born almost mature, and their mothers soon become unnecessary for their survival, but human children take years to become independent. The difficulties associated with childbirth probably made women instinctively cooperative with other women, because it became necessary for their survival and the survival of their children. Alloparenting became the norm for humans.

The section, "Language," describes how the size of the brain continued to increase when language came into existence. Vince says that hunter-gatherers were multilingual and would change languages according to the territory they were in. Language itself causes increases in brain size, and the more languages you know the larger your brain has to be. The use of language made it easier to expand knowledge, and stories became the medium for storing that knowledge. Our early ancestors were awake far longer each day than other mammals, and they used the extra time to tell stories around a fire in the evening.

As with many books that I read, I like to compare the ideas with actual experiences that I've had in my life. I have noticed that women are more innately cooperative than men. Whereas men tend to be solitary and engage other men in competitive activities such as business or sports, women tend to be more practical and are constantly trying to expand their networks of female friends, which they instinctively know they may need at some point. At this stage in my life, I find that all of my male friendships have been superficial and transitory. In old age, all of the men I know have limited social lives, except for the ones presented to them by women. Women continue to establish social networks with other women throughout their lives. This situation actually mimics other eusocial species, in which the role of males is minute and colonies are controlled by females. It isn't hard to see that males often rise to power through aggression alone and frequently have very little to offer to society as a whole. In a political context, you can see just how incompetent male leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nicolás Maduro and Rodrigo Duterte compare to competent female leaders such as Angela Merkel, or, in the U.S., Gretchen Whitmer. To be sure, some men are effective leaders and some women aren't, but I think that an incompetent leader is more likely to be male than female.

I've also been thinking about language as it applies to me. I am not much of a linguist, and my attempts in school to learn French, Spanish and Homeric Greek met with limited success. I feel that it took me a long time to become proficient in English. Rather than being multilingual, I even disliked learning American English when I moved here from England. My family continued so speak with English accents at home, and I always experienced cognitive dissonance when I used English pronunciations rather than American pronunciations. According to Vince, multilingualism stresses the brain, and those who know multiple languages have to actively suppress other languages when speaking in one. I think that it would have been easier for me to learn other languages if I had grown up hearing them, but I didn't.

There are two more sections left in the book, and I should finish up on my next post.