Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Dangers of Pretending Politics Is A Geometric Construct

Note:  I'm reposting this first piece ever on this blog   in 2010 because it touches on some of the things I wanted to say at this point in the discussion.  I hope to post a new piece later today.  

Our educations and what our culture teaches us are often useful and on occasion produce a good model of reality to manipulate and find further clarity. But what is presented can also be a really rotten model of reality and when it is over simplified or unrealistic and precludes a more realistic view of life, it can be extremely destructive. A lot of the modeling that we do is unconscious, the product of long habit and unconsidered acceptance of what we’ve been handed. From our earliest years we are taught to esteem this kind of model making and diagram drawing. Being good at it will get you good grades in school and a lot of approval. A lot of that paper and ruler work is for the production of simple lines derived from the alleged identification of two points on that line.

Consider the linear definition of political identity. The line from left to right*. In a recent, lighthearted blog discussion, which motivated this short post, people were trying to place themselves on that line. 

I’m not going to go into how to place yourself on it, or to place other people on it I’m going to ask a different question altogether, one which, I suspect, will be very confusing because it challenges one of the most common automatic habits of thinking. 

Why would anyone think that politics, among the most complex and dynamically changing of social, moral, geographic, cultural, and, in some rare cases, even rational, phenomena we commonly deal with, would fit into far less than just three dimensions is worth considering. And, I suspect, it’s a good beginning for considering one of the habits that are alleged to produce an understanding of complex reality when it only produces a deceptive and artificial form. 

The idea that the analysis of politics could possibly be realistically squeezed into a two dimensional flatland entity and then compressed further, onto the simplest of one dimensional figures is rather obviously absurd. Just defining what one of the points that allegedly comprise political identity, a “position”, is at least as elusive as defining a subatomic particle. Placing that nebulous entity onto a line in order to compare it to other points on the line is an activity that is most likely to lead away from precision and clarity, not to it. And those are the mere positions. If there is anything obvious about people’s lives and minds, the actual beginning and substance of politics, we aren’t those artificial, nonexisting entities, POINTS in space. 

This habit of drawing geometric figures on paper and thinking we've gotten complex phenomena nailed down is absurd. It only kinda works for very simple and well defined things. Even defined by two or more coordinates in a plane or in three dimensional space you won’t find even the most simple person. None of us are points in any kind of space. 

I suspect that this habit of trying to reduce very complex entities and phenomena in order to analyze them is a relic of our intellectual history. In order to generalize about the physical world we’ve been making representations of it since before Pythagoras. And for very simple physical phenomena it has worked reasonably well. That success has led us to the habit of assuming that success, that ability to find reliable truth about these simple, physical phenomena, was transferable to all of reality. But that ignores that the success was due to the ability to capture enough of the essential information about those phenomena in the model. You can move a shape around in space and assume the same geometric descriptions will match, but only as long as the shape remains exactly the same. Plane geometry is a set of assumptions about a range of different shapes just as more complex mathematics dealing with space is a collection about more complex entities. And, least anyone forget, the forms of pure mathematics aren't actually there. People are hardly the same kinds of entities. We are far, far more complex than the most complex forms that mathematics can deal with and far more variable, containing contrasting and often contradictory ideas, many of those seemingly paradoxical. Our societies, comprised of many different people interacting over time, might be even more complex. And it is that human, social “space” that the analogues for points and lines in politics would be found, none of them one dimensional.

In some other reading I've been doing , there was this interesting passage from the mathematician Ruben Hersh

The aspects of the cosmos studied in physics yield to mathematical analysis. That's far from saying the cosmos is altogether mathematical. There can be no basis for such a statement except religious faith. But it's a familiar human tendency to think that what we don't know must look a lot like what we do know. This is a good principle for guiding scientific research. It's not credible as a philosophical principle.

I think a good part of the post-enlightenment cultural tradition has been a struggle between those who try to force overly-complex realities into a tight geometric form, ignoring much of the most exigent issues of reality in order to do that and those who reject that habit. In its most absurdly and dogmatic reductive stands it denies those fully experienced issues and denies the part they play in some of the most important and at times dangerous activities people engage in. Officially, the reductionists have been the winners, but reality doesn't depend on who was given the gold star in that struggle. 

Elsewhere in the same piece, Hersh says this in response to a statement by Martin Gardner:

“For this reason, he places great importance on the uncertainty of mathematics”, Martin Gardner

No, not for this reason. The reason the uncertainty of mathematics is so important is that for centuries the search for certainty in both mathematics and religion has been a major motive for Platonism, or, as Gardner prefers to call it, realism.

I was looking into Gardner’s** and his associates work for several years before his recent death and what struck me most is how they seemed to want to relax into a position of easy certainty. Anything that upset that relaxing equilibrium of post-war intellectual culture would motivate him to exert his, admittedly, brilliant, though not always honest, mind to restore his balance. And Gardner was the best of them. But in that, he was anything but a brave and bold questioner of his local orthodoxy, he was one of its most esteemed pillars. Even well informed people like to pigeon hole things in order to ignore them. But that certainly isn’t what is going to save us, the ease which we can lull ourselves into isn’t going to last for eternity like the imagined forms of pure mathematics are alleged to.

I think that search for certainty, in at least a form that can be published in scholarly publications and withstand the competitive professional struggle which that form of political activity lives on, is what leads us into a myriad of false assumptions about reality, constructing an artificial intellectual universe that isn’t a good model of real life. And I think it is one of the major contributing factors in the failure of our political institutions as well as others. That certainty isn’t there, it’s never going to be there, people and societies, the biosphere and the nonliving physical basis of those aren’t comprised of static forms lying outside of time. The extent to which a political system or a philosophy denies the reality of real life the more you can expect bad results from it. 

It’s no coincidence that demagogues and fascists are among those who draw the simplest pictures of political reality. As seen in the Tea Party phenomenon, the people listening to them don’t care that those pictures aren’t real. When presented with the most solid of evidence that those positions are lies, that doesn’t matter to them. As long as the person lying to them is believed to occupy the same point they put themselves on the line of political identity, anything they say suffices. They relax into a false certainty and the most awful things result. And in that, we can see from the dangers of these well esteemed habits of extreme reduction and analysis, they  don’t just produce good results. 

* I plead as guilty as anyone to doing that, to making reference to that phony line as a lie of convenience in trying to get other ideas across. I’m trying to break the habit and find new ways to talk about it, but doing that and getting people to understand your point isn't easy.

** I regret that Gardner died just as some of that research was leading to conclusions that are important. But he never let up on the people he attacked because they had died and couldn't answer him, so I don’t have any qualms about criticizing him on that basis. 


  1. Not, I know, exactly what you were going for, but this quote:

    The aspects of the cosmos studied in physics yield to mathematical analysis. That's far from saying the cosmos is altogether mathematical. There can be no basis for such a statement except religious faith. But it's a familiar human tendency to think that what we don't know must look a lot like what we do know. This is a good principle for guiding scientific research. It's not credible as a philosophical principle.

    Put me in mind of the more petty squabbles I get into on the intertoobs (never here or at my blog, honestly): whenever I try to maintain the complexity of an issue, I'm eventually told I: a) don't understand or b) am a troll.

    The scandals du jour around the AP phone records are a prime example.

    It's mildly annoying, but it's that desire for certainty, for a simple narrative that answers all questions and puts a baseball bat in someone's hands, the better to (metaphorically, of course) beat up the "other side."

    It's really interesting how much people who supposedly despise "faith" actually rely on "faith" to get them through the day.

  2. I'd already decided there was a really big problem with how political identities became codified and hardened, people figuring if you had a particular belief they could figure out everything else about you, no matter how untrue that is. Then there were the people taking the enormous leap from far left to far right (it hardly ever seems to go the other way) with the greatest of ease, only, when you look at many of the basic ideological bases of those folks as "leftys" they weren't much different from the bases they had as "righties". Little things like treating people like objects, considering them as economic units instead of loci or rights.

    We're having family trouble, just now. Hard to get time to write.