This is such an interesting take on it and so beautifully worded.
But, you can generalize this view beyond language learning because it’s the perspective of an intelligent entity (individual, family / group, organization, nation-state, and regional society) that changes itself when its natural, social, cultural, etc. environment changes.
In short, be open and flexible so that you can adapt and thrive.
The problem starts when an entity holds to a pre- / anti-modern view that denies plurality, which is a cornerstone of modern society. This is the belief that there exists (only) one best X (society, culture, politics, language, science, religion, method, truth, tradition, whatever).
Unfortunately, if you look around, you’ll find non-/mal-adaptation processes everywhere.
Personally, I’m quite sceptical if homo sapiens can survive as long as our ancestors, i.e. homo erectus, did because our species seems to create much more complexity than it can handle.
See, for example, https://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Societies-Choose-Succeed-Revised/dp/0143117009
Thank you for the link. I’m puzzled about a peculiar way YouTube algorithms work, it knows very well I’m interested in everything language-related and still, not even once, it offered me Phoenix Hou’s videos!
Thanks a lot for sharing this great video on the pain and the joy of language learning. “The bigger the circle of the known, the larger the contact with the unknown”. Couldn’t agree more.
Glad to see you are a reader of Diamond, Peter! That idea reminds me of some of Taleb’s as well. Our Sapiens cognitive biases can be a handicap in our current, more complex than ever environment
Hello Peter, I always enjoy your forum posts!
However, your response on plurality concerns me. If one is not careful, this could lead people to a very nihilistic worldview ensconced in moral relativism. I very well might be jumping the gun, and we might be saying the same thing but expressing it in different ways.
Yes, we are finite creatures limited in scope and ability; we are not God. Yes, the more we know, the more we recognize how much we do not know. Maybe this why some people who are very intelligent may have difficulties with God, because there is a greater gap between the known imperfections of man, society, the universe, and idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God. Some may say, “It is just too simplistic and must be a fairy tale!” The truth is, I think we as humans limit God, placing God in a box or reducing God to what is under a microscope (i.e., God is under the domain of our natural senses).
Note: I am not attributing any of this to you personally, it just all too common for me to witness others conclude this based on your statement of pluralism.
Even though the finite cannot grasp the infinite through science in an absolute sense, mankind can grasp God through love, honesty, integrity in good faith. In fact, I think understanding God is like learning and understanding an entirely new language, much like Japanese for those coming from a romance language as their mother tongue. It may seem completely foreign at first, but after repeated exposure over time through several modalities, the dense fog gradually parts and an ever-increasing detailed picture emerges.
All the “entities” that you mentioned (e.g., society, culture, politics, language, science religion, method, truth, tradition, whatever) must be undergirded and approached with love, honesty, integrity in good faith to be at all effective. It is by these “metrics” (just a sample, not exhaustive) that we can compare ourselves to others and learn from each other and adapt/thrive if you will, but the same heart, the same Spirit remains, and that must be absolute.
All very well, but we are only humans, not robots. We can learn languages - but only a minimum quantity - some people are monolingual, others bilingual, others trilingual, some can learn 7 languages fluently, others perhaps 20 languages - but most of us cannot speak all the languages of the cultures we are interested in.
Your post reminded me of this story: “Darius, the Great King of the Persian Empire, once called together some Greeks and some Callatians, an Indian people, who were at his court. To the Greeks, who cremated their dead, he asked what it would take for them to eat their dead fathers. The Greeks were abhorred, and protested that they would not do such an act for any amount of money. He then asked the Callatians, with an interpreter for the Greeks, what it would for them to cremate their dead fathers, and they protested as strongly as the Greeks had, for the custom of the Callatians was to eat their dead. “Don’t mention such horrors!” they cried. Thusly Darius showed that it is custom, not reason, that guides many of our actions.”
So perhaps underneath a plurality of customs (and “moral” has “custom” as meaning, among others, in latin) a universalitiy of values (sacred respect for the dead) may be observed?
In other words, perhaps social constructs are flexible, but not totally flexible, nor arbitrary; and by their examination common elements or “patterns” can be extracted (where the “absolute” may be found perhaps).
Not really making a point, just thinking out loud…
Of course a religious person would want to rationalize to themselves why higher intelligence and a higher understanding of science correlate with a lack of belief in any gods instead of assuming it might have to do with the belief simply not being rational.
It is actually very simple to reject religions without being a moral relativist. You simply find value in sentient beings having positive experiences and negative value in them having negative experiences. Then you evaluate actions from how they will effect these two things. That makes it very simple to still be able to say some cultural practices are undesirable / morally wrong even if they are considered ok by the society where they are practiced.
This easily allows you some measure to separate which actions are good or bad depending on the culture and which are good or bad independent of it. For example giving someone the finger in Western culture is rude, because of it´s meaning, so doing it to a random stranger would generally be bad, but it could just be a sign for “hello” in another culture, thus not rude, so doing it to a stranger there would generally be good. Physically torturing random people, would cause a lot of suffering, regardless of whether the local culture said it was ok, would cause great harm and suffering, so that would still objectively be wrong.
It would be completely impossible to learn all the languages on Earth of course. I think there is great variation in people´s ability to learn languages, or anything for that matter, but a lot of it is also dependent on opportunity and interest. There are without a doubt a lot of people who could have learned more languages than they speak, but never had any motivation and/or opportunity to do it.
I am a polyglot and speak a few languages fluently, but it has a lot to do with me having had great opportunities to learn. I did well in languages in school but nothing out of the ordinary. It was because of opportunities to stay abroad in different countries that I became a polyglot. I could have easily not have had them and neither me or anybody else would ever have given it any thought whether I had some sort of talent for languages.
On the other hand if I´d been born into a situation where there were multiple languages being used in my environment right from the start and I´d quickly have gotten even more opportunities to learn, gotten noticed for being a fast learner and encouraged to make something more of it, leading to me deciding to dedicate my life to languages, I´m sure I could have been a hyperpolyglot by now.
It leads me to think there are probably a lot of people who could have been polyglots or hyperpolyglots who are only mono or bilingual.
Have a look at this, @Jokojoko83
I always enjoy your forum posts!
Thank you. Nice to hear that you find them interesting.
“your response on plurality concerns me. If one is not careful, this could lead people to a very nihilistic worldview ensconced in moral relativism.”
I understand what you mean. But affirming plurality doesn’t necessarily lead to the consequences you mention.
What I’ve written here is primarily based on a social science perspective (esp. sociological systems theory / social complexity research, history, and political science), which goes “far” beyond language learning.
That is: Plurality has always been a fact of everyday life. People simply have different opinions about all kinds of things. But, society since the 1750-1830s has seen a “radical” change of its “basic structure”. That is: Our society is no longer vertically integrated with politics/religion at the top, but it’s more horizontally distributed with a wide variety of different domains (politics, mass media, economy, science, medicine, religion, sports, etc.).
These domains (in the social sciences they’re called “systems”, “practices”, or “discourses”, for example) have their own rationality, expertise, experts, organizations, and lingo, i.e. specialized jargon.
Also, they tend to subdifferentiate themselves, i.e.: they can have sub-domains and sub-sub-domains and sub-sub-sub-domains…
The result is:
- An explosion of social complexity
- An explosion of social (and individual) perspectives
- An explosion of information/data
etc. like never before in the history of mankind.
From this social science perspective, an “absolute” perspective is
- either pre-modern (in pre-modern times such a position was plausible due to the vertical integration of a stratified society with political and/or religious leaders at the top of the pyramid)
- or anti-modern (e.g., as fundamentalist religious or authoritarian political movements, the theocracy in Iran, or authoritarian regimes such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China today).
IMO, these vertically integrated and hierarchical positions are no longer suitable for a society that seems to be changing its basic structure again, i.e. from horizontally distributed social domains to networks (beyond the technical infrastructure).
In other words, pre-modern and anti-modern “solutions” are neither complex nor resilient enough to be viable in the long run (at least that is my thesis).
In other words, as long as we don’t experience some kind of dystopian apocalypse with a massive reduction of all levels of societal complexity, social complexity will continue to increase. A plurality of perspectives, opinions, approaches, etc. will therefore remain - at least for the foreseeable future.
As a consequence, all kinds of systems (individuals, families, organizations, etc.) have to increase their own complexity if they want to adapt to the higher levels of their (societal) environments.
See Ashby’s cybernetic law of “requisite variety”: “a model system or controller can only model or control something to the extent that it has sufficient internal variety to represent it.” ( The Law of Requisite Variety).
So if an organization, let’s say a company, isn’t able to adapt for some time, it’s very likely that it will disappear. And if an individual isn’t able to adapt, he/she will face serious social consequences (see the Rust Belt in the US, Andalucia / Jaen in Spain, etc.).
Complexity and plurality aren’t equal to anything goes-relativism, complete indifference, or informational entropy. In real life, there are always “constraints” (time, energy, space, budget, whatever) and individual or social “consequences”.
Or, to choose a more metaphorical language: Complexity and plurality don’t refer to a night where all cats are gray. Rather, they refer to different times of day with colorful cats. And these cats aren t created equal
The development of more complexity and plurality on an individual or societal level has nothing to do with “nihilism”, e.g. in the sense that “life is meaningless”.
On the contrary, people, families, organizations, etc. can have many “purposes.”
But the view that there must be a “transcendent or absolute” purpose for every system, i.e., every person, family, organization, state, or society, is probably hopelessly premodern.
And I don’t think this view can be restored - unless we experience a catastrophic reduction of all levels of social complexity. But, I’m not sure if humanity or our planet would survive such a catastrophe.
Have a nice day
Great story, Jokojoko83!
social constructs are flexible, but not totally flexible, nor arbitrary; and by their examination common elements or “patterns” can be extracted (where the “absolute” may be found perhaps).
I agree. Flexibility (or: plurality) isn’t the same as complete arbitrariness (indifference, informational entropy, complete relativism, etc…). That is: Our real-life experience is that many things are possible, but not that anything goes.
On the other hand, finding an “absolute” principle (a first mover, a simple origin, a divine entity, transcendental conditions, etc.) is no longer plausible because of the rise of “self-reference” (Hofstadter, Derrida, Luhmann, Spencer Brown, Baecker, etc.) in the 20th century.
That is, we can simply turn all absolute beginnings (including the Kantian approach to determining transcendentals) into paradoxical, because self-referential, loops.
For example like this:
- Set X (a transcendental or absolute condition)
- Set non-X (the contrary to a transcendental or absolute condition) because without non-X nothing would exist (here: an “empirical domain”, the “world”, etc.).
- But, if you have to start with a distinction like “transcendental/empirical”, there’s no simple (undivided) origin or first principle possible.
- This further means that the transcendental can’t regulate or determine the entire empirical realm, otherwise this realm would be completely predetermined. And in such a deterministic universe, chance, the emergence of something new, etc. wouldn’t be possible.
- So what you have here is a paradoxical situation: 1) The origin / first priinciple isn’t simple, but needs always a distinction, that is: it’s neither simple nor absolute, but always divided. 2) The transcendental is a necessary condition so that the empirical realm can exist, but, at the same, time, it can’t regulate it completely (in this sense: the transcendental is non-transcendental).
- Therefore you have a kind of “indeterministic” and paradoxical self-referential loop à la X = X and X = NOT X = Y. For example:
- the transcendental = the transcendental AND the transcendental = the non-transcendental = the empirical Shorter: transcendental (transcendental / empirical)
- God = God AND God = Not God (the World) → God (God / World)
- Beyond philosophy and religion all categorization processes based on a type / token logic: Type (Proto-Form) = Type AND Type = Not Type = Token → Type (Type / Token).
What we used to call the “absolute”, “transcendental”, etc. is nothing more than a self-referential, paradox and indeterministic dynamic without beginning and end.
Note 1: I’m not entirely sure, but it seems that some strands of Buddhism operate with similar self-referential figures rather than simple beginnings, as (Western) religion and philosophy used to do
Note 2: You could apply this paradoxical logic to the Big Bang in the domain of physics, too, but it wouldn’t be primal any more
Note 3: If all this has put you in a paradoxical mood, you can play with paradoxes like: If an entity like God exists and is omnipotent, it must also be able to not exist, otherwise it would not be omnipotent. So, God exists and, at the same time, it doesn’t exist
Have a nice day
It turns out I had watched this video some months ago, when I was looking for information about Africa’s history, although I had pretty much forgotten its content so I gladly watched it again.
My knowledge about these topics is merely amateurish, so I can be wrong of course. However, I think this criticism does not hold out too well.
I do not think that Diamond’s point was so strong as to call it “deterministic”. I think it describes civilizations as “conditioned” by their geography, rather than “determined”. But the Cynical historian makes a very valid point that Diamond’s theory applies better to the New World than to Africa.
Still, the west-east axis of Africa is widest in areas where the climate is “not optimal”. The same width of axis may have yielded different results under different climate conditions I guess, for instance, had the Saharan desert kept a milder, more humid weather, as it is my understanding it was once upon a time. The Nilo-Saharan languages might be the remnants of such widespread culture, when the climate was more suitable for higher population density.
Also, even though Tombuctu or Zanzibar are good examples that (many) African cultures were never isolated, the degree of cross cultural fertilization is perhaps not comparable to the Eurasian strip of land.
In these two aspects it would not be a matter of “either / or” but a matter of “degree”. Sure, Africa was not isolated, it had its own crops etc but perhaps it was simply “not enough”. When emerging properties are involved, a difference in density or quantity may sometimes lead to a qualitative difference as well.
I think (a simplistic understanding of) Diamond’s theory holds worse when applied to Sinitic vs European civilizations, a.k.a. “Needham’s question”. But I think we need to allow some room for pure chance, and chaotic dynamics to be introduced as well in the picture.
At any rate, these are just my thoughts… What do you think?
Thank you Peter! Very well said, my term “absolute” was certainly inappropriate. Transcendental would be equally inappropriate.
Could it be better described as “time/space-independent”, within the time scope of Sapiens history?
Even though I am only an amateur in these topics, my intuition is that, to the (limited) extent of what I have read, evolutionary psychology may hold some of the answers. Even though as a field, it is prone to deviate into non-rigurous, speculative strands of thought. Just like the origins of human language, no matter how rigurous you wish to be, it is difficult to walk any distance without falling into speculation. Nevertheless, we are bound to look into these questions, we cannot help it I guess.
So I mean that the plurality of human cultures may point to elements that are (sometimes, admittedly divergent) developments of common (in the sense of “common to all the biological Sapiens species”) core elements. Those core elements may be encodings of our evolutionary past. They need not be trascendental, just like the dragon-type figures of many cultures may very well derive from the very material dangers of snakes creeping through the savanah, harrassing our hominid ancestors for thousands of years.
Thus, rather than a tabula rasa and “anything goes” of social constructivism where our brains would be a hardware that could allow any kind of software; and an essentialist, trascendentalist worldview; I would rather suggest that our software has certain constraints (and also biases) that suggest our “tabula” is not only “not rasa”, but that it contains a core that is worth exploring, even though advancing in this direction is problematic and there are many pits in which we may fall.
I enjoy reading in very different directions, without limiting myself to authors I may agree with, deliberately looking into people with different political biases for instance. Jung and Mircea Eliade are one of these strains, more prone to idealization, conservativism and transcendental-searching. I think evolutionary psychology may be a more promising field in which to look into, an off-shoot of those thinkers in a limited way. However I also find these topics in authors very far away from those previously mentioned. I enjoyed reading “Debt: the first 5000 years” by David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist miles away from Jung for instance. In this latter case, anthropology and investigating so-called “primitive” societies seemed to shed some light into many “modern” financial-related problems. It helped me rethink some ideas regarding finances and the nature of money when I was exploring these topics back in the 2009 crisis.
What all these matters have in common is that, despite the seemingly pluralistic, relativistic plethora of cultures and social constructs, there is something deep and common to all human endeavour. Something we find hard not to explore, for some reason, despite the many pitfalls along the way.
Just to clarify, I am not affirming that you hold any of these views or those opposed to them, I was just trying to elaborate upon my previous message, admitting your point that “absolute” (or, also, trascendental) could not be found in this path.
Thanks for the feedback!
But… is it simple, though?
Why do we attach value to positive value in sentient beings feeling positive experience? It is not self-evident to me that this is a purely rational step. It seems to me rather like the endpoint of our voyage up to this moment, contingent upon historical evolution.
It is just as “rational” to assume that we should thrive, even at the expense of others. I mean, selfish and empathic are both equally “rational”.
Do not get me wrong, I do not promote selfishness as a rule for life, what I have in mind is that giving empathy a supreme value is by no means simple. It seems to me we have fought several millenia over some of these things and it has been a historical evolution of sorts. Religion being at least part of this voyage - and a very important part, quite probably.
Thank you for your comment. I do agree with the Cynical Historian’s take as explained in the video. In particular, I totally agree with the quote in the video about Diamond not taking into account the role of contingency in history.
I also agree that Diamond’s work has value as the video explains but at the end of the day his main theor IMO is an example of the tendency to over-explain complex phenomena. Diamond, Zeihan and the like imply that everything that happened historically had to be that way because geography, climate or whatever made it inevitable. That is simply not true and an example of “hindsight bias” (Hindsight bias - Wikipedia). There are tendencies but also contingency. Things could’ve been very different for pure random variation. Notice that even in the physical world there’s an irreducible amount of randomness. It is very naive to suppose that human history should be less random or more determined than atom movement.
At the end of the day Blaut’s quote sums it all rather nicely:
“Geography is important but not that important”
" Why do we attach value to positive value in sentient beings feeling positive experience? " - because we evolved as group animal and thus evolved empathy. Good or bad aka the moral sense of “right” and “wrong” (not the logical sense, which has the same meaning as “true” and “false”) don´t really have any meaning without any sentient being having some sort of sensation/emotion that they like or do not like. Religion has certainly played it´s role in the way humans rationalized morals and such, but it is not necessary for it to be rationalized.
Many other animals have empathy and some sense of fairness and morals, especially intelligent group mammals like dogs, wolves, chimps and gorillas. Just like humans these animals also have a sense of self worth or self importance and ambition for themselves which can certainly override their sense of morals, causing them to act in “evil” ways.
Thanks for the answer.
Sure I agree empathy is part of evolutionary package, but that is not the whole package. Other values coexist, and sometimes it is not easy nor simple to figure out which overrules which.
The more we take a long-term and broad approach, looking into different cultures as the video suggests, the less simple it looks to me… even though we agree that empathy ended up reigning supreme in our hierarchy of values, the details and the history of that process are - I think - a difficult, zig-zagging path
Thank you for your reply. My memories of the book are not that it was so deterministic, but I may remember it wrong, perhaps I will reread it under this new light and rethink it.
I have not read Zeihan but I read George Friedman, and they have worked together. It did strike me as overly deterministic.