Judgement’s Penalty

Value judgements impede understanding

In medieval times and in primitive societies an explanation for events was a matter of morality; of good and evil, right or wrong. A death, say by tuberculosis, was explained as the action of evil forces. Witches maybe. Or perhaps the death was explained as good; justice – retribution for a wrong done. They didn’t understand natural cause as an explanation for affliction. So they suffered the afflictions until natural cause became philosophy.

A philosophy of natural cause – science – directs one to examine the world without a value judgement. No question of justice or morality governs the weather, the stars, bird migrations … We seek the cause of illness in the workings of nature independent of any moral stance. We find that tuberculosis is not a moral reprimand to the afflicted but rather a phenomenon of nature that can, in fact, be conquered. As long as a philosophy of moral cause reigned no progress in dealing with afflictions could be made.

Value judgements – like or dislike, good or bad – are a formidable hindrance to understanding. This is the idea explored at Notions of Justice Hinder Understanding

For taking action value judgements are essential; precisely value judgements govern what action to take. But for understanding the world, value judgements are lethal.

Action and understanding can be at odds. The exigencies of action can strangle understanding. In the waging of war understanding is deliberately suppressed in the interest of maintaining morale for battle. You are proscribed from examining the justice your opponents see in their cause.

Scholarship is concerned with understanding – rather than with action. The principle of keeping ones prejudices – one’s likes and dislikes – out of scholarly discourse is some 500 years old. But there exists current literature in the medieval style! The pollution of understanding by value judgement is still with us. As an example I cite the book called ‘Sapiens’ (2015) by Yuval Noah Harari. My good nephew, Zeb, gave me a copy as a gift.  A ‘Brief History of Humankind’ is the book’s subtitle. It is a mockery of historical scholarship. Hopefully the author meant it to be that; a mockery. Whether meant or not it is comedy; a book interpreting history in terms of parochial prejudices; judging it through personal values.

The book is physically heavy. Unusually so for its 400 pages. That’s because each page is thick and glossy. Presumably to assure its readers that the material is substantive – heavy. Heavy book, heavy intellectual content. Pretty funny.

Some people are interminable complainers. “This is no good. That is no good”. Harari, the book’s author, has taken the art to new heights. The entire history of humankind is no good. Harari’s book is an elaborate rant. His thesis is that humankind has been going from bad to worse throughout history. In Yiddish a complainer is called a kvetch. Harari has written a Kvetch History of Mankind. All that humans have done doesn’t suit him.

Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah. That’s what makes some of us spoon down an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke. p.41

This is sitcom television historical analysis, unfounded kitchen-table gossip. He cites no evidence for the connection between jumbo Cokes and life on the savannah. Instead of evidence he invokes his personal conviction; obesity is due to archaic genes.

… they (hunter gatherers) lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies … p.52

What could ‘better life’ mean? Harari doesn’t define it. But, betterness for Harari is, evidently, not material well being. Hunter gatherers didn’t have better material well being. They had shorter lifetimes. Suffered far more violence. ‘Better lives‘ is a value judgement based on some fantasy idea of what a good life is. Harari lets some currently fashionable new age health-food idea (their “wholesome and varied diet” p.52) infect his portayal of history.

It is hard to measure the goodness of lives, even today when evidence is available. And the ‘goodness’ found ranges down to ‘badness’ when comparisons are made around the world. We cannot answer the question whether life is better today than it was 10 years ago much less eons ago. Judging history by good or bad is not what a scholar does. A scholar informs us how life was lived – the daily tasks, the customs, the diet, the longevity, the tools … And makes connections that have verifiable meaning.

In his chapter “History’s Biggest Fraud” he decries the transition from hunter gatherer to agriculture as a step backwards in human welfare.

.. the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. p.81

Harari spends many pages on making his argument – ten. Had Harari been in charge at the time of the Agricultural Revolution he would not have let it happen.

Humankind was better off as hunter gatherers says Harari. It would be pointless to argue with him on this matter. The matter is undecidable. ‘Better’ is a value judgement with no basis for a conclusion. In the sandbox children have serious arguments about whether green is better than red. Evidently the matter will never be resolved. There is no substance to it. So it is with Harari’s value-laden writing. No substance.

Harari finds our ancestors guilty of the extinction of the Australian megafauna.

Why … did (the giant diprotodon of Australia) disappear 45,000 years ago? … The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills. p.66

But he doesn’t stop there.

… mass extinctions akin to the … Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia – whenever people settled another part of the Outer World. In these cases Sapiens guilt is irrefutable. p.66

Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology. p.74

If things continue at the present pace, it is likely that whales, sharks, tuna and dolphins will follow the diprotodons, ground sloths and mammoths to oblivion. Among all the world’s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark. p.74

Imagine tackling the problem of ‘Why is grass green?’ from the perspective, ‘It ought to be blue’. It isn’t a wise strategy. Without explicitely stating it, Harari takes it as axiomatic that species extinctions are ‘bad’; there ought not to be species extinctions. And then finds that man is “guilty” of causing many of them.

But extinctions are natural phenomena. Previous extinctions were requisite for Sapiens’ very existence. Is it not the destiny of humans – as it is of every species – to perturb their environment? Even to extinguish other species? A scholar does not deprecate the workings of nature. A scholar strives to perceive nature as natural. When a scholar feels he must complain about nature then he knows he doesn’t understand it. Not so Harari.

A truly scholarly book on world history is “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by David Landes (1998) Norton, N.Y.

I have studied and written on population dynamics – how populations vary with time. To study this subject one must purge oneself of preferences – prejudices on what we would like or dislike for the population of humans. The purpose of my 2012 paper on the subject, Fundamental Principle Governing Populations, was to deduce a quantitative description of population dynamics from a single overriding principle that governs all organisms. Because the description is quantitative – a mathematical equation – the idea is empirically testable. The principle is this: The effect on the environment of a population’s success is to alter that environment in a way that opposes the success.

For some this principle is repugnant; too negative. It is rejected because it is not ‘liked’. But suppose it is true! Then to know it gives us power. (It turns out that under this principle populations do not easily go extinct. They can oscillate also. They can never grow indefinitely.)

Harari’s fundamental failing (or comedic acuity) is to confuse scholarship with advocacy. Harari wants desperately that humankind alter its ways and save itself. He is sure of the problem: that humankind is destroying itself. So he bends history to portray humankind as misbehaving. His value judgements have overwhelmed scholarship. Harari has read widely but not thought deeply.

My view on humankind’s future is quite different. It may very well go to extinction. Everything else in nature has a lifetime. Is not humankind part of nature? But if anything will extend the lifetime of humankind it will be the power of thought. And that power derives from scholarship uninfected by value judgement. The power comes from trying honestly to know how the world works without distorting the findings by personal fancy on how it ought to work. I suspect that humankind doesn’t lack advocacy; it lacks understanding.