Monday, August 14, 2017

On Racism and Bigotry

On Racism and Bigotry 

Arjun Janah: I am a person whose skin happens to be brown and who also grew up in a country [India] that was very different from this country [the U.S.A.]--but was just as troubled and divided, for at least several thousand years, as this country has been for several hundred. However, despite the gross inequities, injustices and violence of the past and the present, and despite the existence of the debased mass cultures that are as typical of civilization as are its achievements and refinements, it was also a place where the many subcultures were still as interwoven and the humans still as essentially alike at core as they are here.

Liberals/progressives and others believe that racism, bigotry and many other things they view as evils are the results of cultural conditioning. To a great degree, they are right. But these would not arise and continue if they also did not find some innate bases within us, on which they could root themselves and grow. So, like everything else in humans and other social animals, they are, I believe, the results of both biology and culture. Children may be born innocent, but they contain within them the instinctive natures that express themselves in many ways as they grow. Cultures can encourage some tendencies and discourage others, but the tendencies themselves exist within us.

If so, they must exist for reasons having to do with survival--as all innate things do, forged as they were in the fires of our past eons on this planet. So we have a propensity for violence as well as instincts that guard against that; we have capacities for callousness and empathy, for cruelty and compassion, for exclusion and inclusion, for selfishness and altruism, etc.

Clearly, the persistence of these instincts must mean that they were needed for survival. But they exist within us in a balance that varies between individuals and between cultures. Also, certain instincts prevail over others, depending on the context and the "other" in the interaction. So we, along with Timur the Lame, Winston Churchill and Shaka Zulu, might behave in one way with regard to a family member, close human or animal friend, or a fellow member of our "tribal" elite--and quite differently with others.

All of this might seem abstruse and irrelevant in the current circumstances in this country and in many other places.

So Matt is of course right. It is a matter of necessity--of collective survival--that, in a multi-ethnic country, we unite to resist attempts at creating or deepening ethnic divides and at scapegoating ethnic groups for our real or imagined woes. This was so in the subcontinent, where we paid a very heavy price for not being able to do this in the 1940's, and are still paying that price. But the background to this, however cynically exploited by the British Empire, goes back many thousands of years, to at least the violent advent of the racist Aryas--along with the Muslim conquests and the excesses of monotheist zealotry that occurred much later.

And this horror has manifested itself in every continent, in almost every country, throughout history, including of course in this country, from its inception in twin genocides. This terror had stalked Europe, from which we draw our main strengths as well as frailties, for many violent centuries. Most of Europe's major nation states were born out of prolonged and violent ethnic cleansing--initially primarily on sectarian, religious grounds.

In Western Europe, Protestants and Catholics were set against each other. The hundred years' war has had its violent repercussions into our lifetimes, as we witnessed in Ireland. Although the drivers of most such conflicts are almost invariably economic and exploitative in nature, ethnic divisions, however superficial, are what most humans easily latch on to, rarely bothering to see beyond these.

So what occurred in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's had its precedents. Jews, specifically, were targeted, not only in pogroms, but through the organized and violent "ethnic cleansing" of entire regions.

Notable among these was the displacement, mostly into the mainly Muslim countries of North Africa and West Asia, of the Sephardim. This occurred around the time of Columbus, following the expulsion of the Moors from Andalusia. The Catholic Church played a prominent role in this and other persecutions.

The echoes of this and other great displacements and massacres will continue to reverberate for us and for those who follow us.

Yet even the descendants of those most adversely affected by such things are often unaware of the tragedies. The dead cannot speak. The memories and even the cultures of their surviving descendants are erased. We are taught the histories written by those who prevailed.

We need to be cognizant that the greatest such massacre, bi-continental in scope, occurred right where we live, and not in the distant past--and was repeated in Australia.

The colonial atrocities in Africa, such as that carried out by Emperor Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, exceeded, in sheer numbers, what occurred to Jews and others under the Nazis and what befell the Armenians and others during and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire--horrific as these two genocidal massacres were.

But it would be totally wrongheaded to think that Europeans are to blame for all the misery and death that humans have wrought upon one another. The fairly recent dominance of Europe gave it an outsize role in this. Our awareness of its history make some of us cognizant of the attendant horrors.

But human nature, with its angelic and demonic sides, has been basically the same over time and across the races, cultures, kingdoms and empires. The history of almost every "nation" on Earth is steeped in blood and suffering, inflicted and borne in varying degrees. Empires have advanced in violence and have also retreated or collapsed in violence.

What is more, such things have never stopped. One has only to look at the subcontinent in the 1940's, Indonesia in the 1960's, Rwanda subsequently, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and what is brewing and occurring in the subcontinent and in Myanmar even now--just to cite a few examples of ethnic violence on grand scales.

As for other acts of massive violence, carried out by state military forces raining fire on humans from land, sea and air, with millions perishing and many more wishing that they too had died--can we even begin to list such actions, even if we start from after the end of the second world war? We in this country had a good time watching M.A.S.H., on TV in the 1970's, with most of us oblivious to its setting and the horrific events that had occurred there, only two decades in the past.

Yet humans have still gone about their business, and genes and memes have flowed across the boundaries that were drawn, blurred and redrawn.

This was so in the subcontinent, despite all the strictures of caste and divisions of religion, and so also it has been here, in South Africa and elsewhere where attempts were made, as in ancient India, to separate people by ethnicity and to establish ethnic hierarchies. Humans like to have sex, they fall in love, and they learn from each other.

But one must recognize that there are things that drive these divisions, and that there are real grievances and insecurities to which demagogues and bigots may appeal--along with imagined ones.

2017 August 14th, Mon.
Brooklyn, New York

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Comment in reply to Peter Isackson

Comment in reply to Peter Isackson


1) Facebook post:

2) my previous comment:

3) Peter's previous comment:

This is a comment, Peter, that I tried to make in response to a comment of yours on a Facebook post. But it was too long for Facebook to handle. So I could not post it there.

In desperation, I am posting it below instead. I have not had time to properly edit it. Sorry.

Thanks for your considerate comment and explanation, Peter. As I have drawn this dialog out too long, perhaps, let me just focus mainly on our remnant differences of opinion.

A Personal Mental Model

I will describe here some features of my own mental model of the universe we inhabit. In this model, our universe has realms, including the physical and the mental.  These realms are connected and may be one at a deeper level. But to us they appear to be different from each other.

I have abstracted somewhat here from my earlier simple, commonsense examples, which should hopefully have been understandable.  I had given these examples in an earlier comment. For those who have not read that comment or Peter's response, following this might, in places, be a bit difficult.

Since what I describe is a personal mental model, it should be seen as such and no more. I personally believe this model, which is minimal and simplistic, has some good correspondence with reality, in whose existence I still believe, not have been dissuaded of it so far.

My belief is that the existence of this reality does not depend on our own existences, transient and local as these are.

I also had believed that this model, some of whose features I describe here, might not have differed significantly from what many others may also have constructed for themselves, consciously or not, to try to make sense of their own experiences. I may, however, have been quite wrong in this part of my belief!

Of course, I and others are surely influenced by our own instincts, cultures, inclinations and reasoning in the constructions of such models.

In any case, this model, like all models, should be subject to being amended and even being discarded when needed. The need for this would normally arise, most urgently, from some conflict between it and reality--for those who accept the existence of the latter.


I would dare to disagree with Wittgenstein regarding his assertion that two plus two is four only because we agree it is.

I do not know whom Wittgenstein meant by "we". I think that this "we" would have to include birds and many other animals that can count.

Of course they would not use the words we use in English or any other human language. But I would posit that number is a property of the universe that would still be there, if all living things capable of counting were to vanish.

I will not try to claim that this assertion is provable by any obvious means or try to prove it here.

The concept of number (as manifested in the perception of differences in number,) does not need verbalization until we go beyond the first few numbers that we can distinguish, among like objects, by the use of our sight, our touch or our other senses. And even then, the verbalization serves only as an aid.

Nor will I attempt to define or claim I can define what is meant by "like". I know that you and others could claim that this "like-ness" is again is a matter of perception and agreement. I could replace "like" by "identical", but again I will encounter the same difficulty.

Number is, in my opinion, an entity of the mental realm, which we apply in the physical realm. Of course the two realms are connected. I will not try to explain the connection or claim I understand that connection.  I will say more about these two realms, that I mention here, later.

On Mathematics and Science

I believe scientists who have thought about it are acutely aware that they are proceeding based on certain assumptions. They may agree on the assumptions, or they may not. This is one of the things that liberates science, to a degree, from more doctrinaire fields. Of course, scientists, like all other living beings with minds, have their pet beliefs--including, in their case, about their subjects.  So they quarrel about this with those with other beliefs. Yet, although one might give many counterexamples, this does not result in as much acrimony as in the humanities.

As for mathematicians--these usually restrict their criticisms to real or perceived faults in the logical or other means of proof of their conjectures and to the logical or other consistency of their constructions. So there is even less acrimony among them--at least about the things most scholars of the humanities, or even in the natural sciences--argue about.

I am aware of the critiques of what I have stated about the objectivity of scientists and am willing to grant the partial validity of some of the critiques, without ceding much in what I have stated here.

Now some may take this relative lack of dispute about basics among mathematicians and, to a lesser degree, among scientists, to be evidence of their lack of perception or awareness. Perhaps so, perhaps not.

You had said, at one point earlier,

"The pure truth, whether scientific, philosophical or theological, doesn't exist. It's filtered through human interaction, which can never be perfect."

I would put it differently. I will attempt to do this.

Let me leave aside mathematics, where I strongly believe we can make statements that are perhaps as true as we can ever hope about a statement.  Let me also leave aside philosophy and theology, where I am not at all qualified to make any kind of statement regarding truth--and suspect that anything I say will be objected to.

Let me turn instead to the relative simplicity of the natural sciences. These sciences are focused on the physical realm. And now let me venture to make the considered statement that follows.

We can never be certain that we have perceived the truth, or reality, wholly or perfectly. All we can say is that we have created a mental model (or set of such models) that appears to correspond, in many ways, to physical reality. This remains, nonetheless, a mental model, however elegant and time-tested it may be.

So our conception of reality is a model we have constructed; it is not physical reality itself. We need to have the wisdom to always keep this in mind, and the humility to amend or discard this mental model when we find that it cannot describe reality.

Objective Reality

When I talked about objective reality, about which I gave several simple and concrete examples, I meant two things:

Firstly, we can have a substantial degree of agreement about this objective reality, because you and I can try to independently check a statement about it.

I have explained, with examples, that there are situations where we cannot check such a statement.

But if indeed we can check on that statement, but do not agree, it is most unlikely that we will hold that this shows that there is no objective reality. We would say that one of us has probably made a mistake, or that the statement was not precise enough for it to be checked.

So this is simply the kind of disagreement that might occur about an observation, including a measurement.  It is not the kind of disagreement that occurs in human affairs, or, frequently, in the humanities, involving opinions or inclinations or world views,

I had also qualified my assertions by saying that we do have conceptual frameworks based on which we make observations and measurements. I concede that my assertion of the existence of an objective reality might be attacked based upon my concession.

So let me come then to the second point I wish to make about objective reality, and which I might perhaps not have made earlier.  This is going to be an assertion, rather than a proof.

But let me first illustrate this second point with an example: if, by some catastrophe, you and I and all humans--and even all of life--were to vanish tomorrow from this Earth, I would assert that the sun and the planets and moons would continue to exist; they would continue with their motions and interactions; so would the remnant dispersed materials of our bodies.

The sun, the earth, the water and the air exist, independently of our agreement on its existence. This, I assert.

We may have our conceptions about this physical reality. But that, I (along with most scientists and most humans) believe is a cloth that covers and conforms to the reality underneath. If a magician were to whisk away the cloth, that reality would remain, even sans an audience.

And that is my second point. Put quite baldly and generally: objective reality does not need our agreement, or even existence, to be. It is.

Subjective Reality

Let me now come to subjective reality.

Firstly, let me clear up a misunderstanding for which I was probably at fault, as the words "objective" and "subjective" might be open to misinterpretation.

I did not mean to imply that subjective reality is any less real than objective reality. I only meant that it is a different kind of reality.

As I had explained with simple examples, only you have access to your subjective reality. I can only try, at best, to infer it from my observations of you and from what you tell me or others. 

And vice versa: You cannot access my subjective reality.

Subjective reality is the reality of the mental realm. We exist in at least two realms, in my opinion: the physical and the mental. These are surely connected and may be one at a deeper level. But for most practical, commonsense purposes we can clearly differentiate between them.


The Mystery

This brings us to a well known mystery. Our sentience exists in the mental realm. And all our perceptions exist only in that realm, not in the physical one.

Indeed, you and I do not exist in the physical realm.

If I were able to search through every organ, tissue, cell, molecule or atom in your body, seeking for Peter, I would not be able to find him. No neuron knows of your existence. Nor is there a homunculus in your brain or solar plexus that is Peter in essence.

I mean by this, the one who knows he is Peter and answers to that name--and would know he is he, even if he forgot or was never given his name.

And it is exactly the same with me.

Does this mean that you, I, the cat and the cockroach are ethereal beings of this mental realm that I have asserted exists--but which can only be sensed as a subjective reality?

I do not think it is that simple. But it may be so, or even simpler. I really have no clue. None.

We are each, as perceived in the physical realm, a giant collection--a swarm--of a trillion cells, and each of these itself is a giant collection--again a swarm--of untold numbers of molecules and their atoms.

The giant swarm of molecules within each cell is gathered into structures and processes that are as complex as any one can find in our multi-cellular processes and structures--only more so.

As you know, there is probably not an an erg or a gram, or even a photon or an atom, within your physical body, that was there when you were born. So in this we are like clouds or storms that form and dissipate. We are complex processes or flows, rather than static objects. Of course, so also are the hills and the continents. Matter and energy flow through us as they do through clouds and storms and through ocean waves and currents.  And there is no "us" in "us".

There is also no real physical separation between our bodies and the rest of the universe. There is no sharp demarcation in space. There is no real barrier. There is no surface where we start or end. The belief in our separateness is an illusion--not that much different from the illusion that is perceived as a cloud.

It is the same in time. We have no clear beginning or end in time.

So in all of this we are as waves in the ocean, as ripples on a pond.

Patterns persist in us, as they do more briefly in hurricanes or much more persistently in Jupiter's great red spot. The processes that we are made of involve not only the interactions of matter and energy, in space and time, but also the flow (although that may be wrong metaphor) of information.

Our atoms are talking to one another, as are all the parts of the universe, including the galaxies.

Our molecules are also stores of knowledge, as seen in our persistent DNA, passed down through the eons, written to and erased, split apart and combined, and found copied a trillion times over in our living bodies. And our molecules are also processors of knowledge, in constant communication with one another, just as much as they are bricks and machines,

And so also, at different levels of organization, are our cells, tissues and organs in constant communication with one another, using chemical and electro-chemical means.

So where, amidst all the vortices, and where, amidst all the chatter that extends from the atoms to the galaxies, is sentience?  Is it that chatter itself?  Whence  arose this speech that pervades and permeates all?  Whence came this myriad of speakers and listeners at every point in the infinity of space and the eternity of time?  Can they be truly separate from one another--this endless, countless multitude--or are they one?

Or where, we may alternatively ask, are the elusive I, we, you, he, she, it, they of our human grammars? Should they be done away with? And who will do that doing away, pray?  How could the who arise from the what and how could the one ebb back into the other?

The Quantum Realm

You may have noticed that I have stayed away from the mysteries of the quantum realm. I have done so for two reasons. Firstly, there is a tremendous amount of confusion about those mysteries, including among physicists themselves. Secondly, there is mystery enough, as I have described here, for us to wonder at and ponder, even in the realms we thought we understood.