Elod P Csirmaz’s Blog: October 2012

27 October 2012

Blame the Victim and Play the Lottery: We Must Learn to Cope with Randomness

It seems that we as a species are unable to deal with randomness in life. This manifests itself, among other things, in our clinging to a higher power or will, a design or a master plan in the world. We feel that it would somehow demean us if we conceded that we as humans are here as a result of highly unlikely random events rather than as a result of some necessity. (Let us, for the moment, forget about the question whether the Universe is deterministic, which would mean that there is a "master plan." Even if it is, with our current knowledge and tools, we cannot determine it sufficiently to predict, for example, individual actions or thoughts.) Our thinking is teleological: that is, we seek a purpose in everything, even though every fact appears to point to its precise lack.

Is, for example, the fact that most organisms around us devote most of their time and energy to reproduction a result of a sentence in Genesis? Can't one argue that in any population where some living organisms focus on creating offspring, and others don't, the former will soon crowd out and finally destroy the latter? Looking at the overall population a few million years later, as we do, we will hardly see any exception to the reproduction rule. Or, to take another example of teleology, what would we think of Douglas Adams's famous sentient puddle, who gets convinced of the existence of a deity because he fits his hole so well it must've been designed for him?

But our inability to grasp randomness does not end here. There's also our sense of justice. It is unusually hard for us to accept that random bad things can happen to otherwise good people. While it is natural and laudable for everyone witnessing an unfortunate accident to wonder what could have been done to prevent it (lock your doors, drive at an appropriate speed, &c.), we usually go further than that, and, deep down, remain sure that the victim must have done something to deserve what had happened. And where else would this argument be the most visible than in the case of one of the most despicable crimes: rape? Who hasn't heard that the victim "had it coming," encouraging healthy males by lewd behaviour and scant clothing?

And then, last but not least, there are the games of chance. I hope no one thinks that anyone would spend real money on horses, blackjack, lottery or fruit machines unless they believed in lucky streaks and third time's the charm, almost deliberately turning a blind eye to the fact that one draw, deal or race has (or at least is supposed to have) no effect whatsoever on the next.

Randomness is a beautiful and liberating thing. Stop believing that your thoughts or wishes can alter the course of events, or that anything has happened, ever, with us humans in mind, and the world will be a better place to live in.

20 October 2012

Empiricism and Lévi-Strauss's Scandal, or What did Derrida See?

In a previous post I tried to call attention to how Derrida, in his "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," attempts to present Lévi-Strauss's definitions of the natural and the cultural and the non-categorizable-ness of the incest prohibition as a decenetring, a decentralising, a point around which metaphysics is torn along the stitches. I argued that the fact that incest prohibition appears to be both natural and cultural is, instead, quite explainable employing logical categories and common-sense observation, that is, from inside the very structures this "scandal" is supposed to deconstruct.

Let me quote Derrida's paraphrase of Lévi-Strauss's definitions once more:

[T]hat which is universal and spontaneous, and not dependent on any particular culture or on any determinate norm, belongs to nature. Inversely, that which depends upon a system of norms regulating society and therefore is capable of varying from one social structure to another, belongs to culture.

Now isn't the difference between natural and cultural as defined above reminiscent of the supposed difference between analytic and synthetic statements? Analytic statements are those which are true by some intrinsic property (like "A=A"), that is, their truth-value is "not dependent on any particular" well, not culture, but world, or state-of-things, or circumstance--that is, which are universal, and natural in Lévi-Strauss's sense. Synthetic statements rely on outside facts for verification, like the statement "this is a blog." The truth-value of such statements is "capable of varying from one" circumstance "to another"--in other words, they are cultural according to the above definitions.

With this connection in mind, it should come as no surprise that there are things that are both analytic and synthetic, just like incest prohibition is both natural and cultural. The near impossibility of drawing a border between the two sets has been superbly illustrated by W. V. Quine in his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (in From a Logical Point of View), where he shows the circular nature of nearly all attempts to demarcate analytic from synthetic statements. In the end, he suggests rejecting this dichotomy altogether as the first dogma of empiricism.

I think here is a telling difference between the Continental and the Analytic branches of philosophy here. Quine, belonging to the latter one, sees accepting and operating in this dichotomy as a central and grave problem (a "dogma"), but he treats it mainly as an erroneous presupposition. Derrida, who can be classified as belonging to the Continental tradition, sees something much more grandiose growing out of the faulty categories Lévi-Strauss stumbled upon. The unsustainability of the definitions, in his system, immediately leads beyond logos, beyond metaphysics, and--in a quite Heideggerian vein--, beyond what can be talked about.

It was a matter of five years that Lévi-Strauss couldn't read Quine's book (his The Elementary Structures of Kinship was submitted in 1948 and published a year later; Quine's book appeared in 1953); a five years, it seems, most fortunate for Derrida.