Cultural Caviar

Diversity Versus Debate

March 22, 2017

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Diversity Versus Debate

The recent riot at Middlebury College by science denialists who put a woman professor in the hospital while attempting to do violence to Charles Murray has elicited passionate defenses by advocates of intellectual conformity.

For example, former university president Robert Weisbuch wrote to The New York Times:

When an advocate of eugenics-oriented bigotry appears on campus, is it any wonder that students of color and their friends would cry out: “No more! We won’t hear it!”?... Rational debate is the lifeblood of a college campus, but…we should all stand with those students who turned their backs on Mr. Murray to say, Never Again.

Similarly, Brown student Chloe Rosenberg argued:

Most of those who believe that campuses are losing their status as bastions of free speech attended college decades ago, when it was the only avenue for sheltered former suburbanites to gain access to other points of view. However, times have changed.

America used to be able to afford nice things such as freedom of speech, science, and disinterested objectivity. But now we are blessed with diversity, peace be upon it, so we can’t tolerate our Western heritage anymore.

That raises a question that ought to be of interest to investors: Does the increasing campus hysteria and antirationality portend bad news for Silicon Valley? If students increasingly grow up in a culture in which the person with the most wounded feelings rules, will they be able to code emotionless computers as well as in the past?

One possibility might be that intimidating smart young white men out of the public sphere of meaningful debate might be good for business because they will stop wasting their time on larger questions and instead focus on smaller domains.

For example, since the 1970s, Bill James has fostered a revolution in baseball statistics analysis. Baseball stats have served as a safe space for high-IQ white guys who enjoy the increasingly forbidden pleasure of pattern recognition. Nobody is gonna get all Middlebury on sabermetricians for noticing, as long as they only notice on-base percentages.

“America used to be able to afford nice things such as freedom of speech, science, and disinterested objectivity.”

Some analysts have done very well for themselves. For example, the American aristocrat Theo Epstein, the grandson of screenwriter Philip Epstein—who with his identical twin, Julius, composed the greatest line in Hollywood history, Casablanca’s “Round up the usual suspects”—used his Charles Murray-like statistical skills to general manage the Chicago Cubs last fall to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

Theo has a fraternal twin who is a high school guidance counselor. Do you think Epstein has any interesting opinions about politically incorrect subjects such as genetics and heredity?

Nobody knows! He’s a baseball stats guy.

On the other hand, history suggests that the health of science, which is tied to prosperity, does not necessarily thrive without a supportive culture. For example, information technology, the dominant industry of the 21st century, has its roots in the West’s ancient penchant for abstract objective logic that disengages subjective interests from reason.

The Atlantic offers a lucid history by Chris Dixon, a general partner at Sand Hill Road venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz, of how Western philosophy laid the groundwork for computing. Dixon’s article has the clickbaity title “How Aristotle Created the Computer,” but its subtitle gets his point across: “The philosophers he influenced set the stage for the technological revolution that remade our world.”

Aristotle may seem like the antithesis of getting rich in Silicon Valley because the point of philosophy is to argue over questions that the best minds of all time have so far failed to fully answer. Once somebody figures out how to stop arguing and start making money off a branch of philosophy, it stops being a branch of philosophy. For example, James Watt was a “natural philosopher” until he perfected his steam engine, after which he went down in history as the chief inventor of the Industrial Revolution.

But the arguing seems to have to come first.

And logic provides a system for keeping score.

When I asked Murray in 2003 about his book Human Accomplishment, “Who was the most accomplished person who ever lived?” he responded:

Now we’re talking personal opinion, because the methods I used don’t work across domains, but I have an emphatic opinion.


He more or less invented logic, which was of pivotal importance in human history (and no other civilization ever came up with it independently).

Aristotle’s most celebrated logical schema is the syllogism:

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

But what if, because your grandfather died, you find the word “mortal” to be triggering?

And isn’t “All men are mortal” sexist? Perhaps you are concerned that some will find “Socrates is a man” to be cisnormative? Which pronouns did Socrates volunteer? What if you, personally, hate Socrates because of his microaggressions against Xanthippe?

Well…okay…but the great Greek realization was that your personal feelings about this particular syllogism don’t really matter. The general principle still applies. As Dixon says:

You can replace “Socrates” with any other object, and “mortal” with any other predicate, and the argument remains valid. The validity of the argument is determined solely by the logical structure.

I suspect that Aristotle’s working out of formal logic in the mid-300s B.C. was the culmination of a Greek innovation in cultural attitudes new in human history.

A few generations before Aristotle, the philosophers Parmenides and Zeno had arrived in Athens. Zeno specialized in frustrating reductio ad absurdum paradoxes such as that Achilles couldn’t catch up to a tortoise because

the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.

Eight centuries before, Achilles would have likely resolved this paradox, much like a Middlebury social justice jihadi confronted with Charles Murray’s vast research, by punching Zeno in the head.

Yet in the Classical Athens of Socrates’ youth, the brightest men found Zeno’s type of argument challenging and felt that there ought to be a way—logic—to figure out who wins. So Zeno was a celebrity.

I suspect, without much proof, that this evolution had something to do with the emergence of organized sports in Greece. (The Olympic Games date to 776 B.C.) While Zeno’s opinions were outrageous, he had played by the nascent rules of logic, and thus could only be defeated by better arguments.

An Aristotelian golden mean of debate as the Olympics of the mind was briefly achieved, navigating between violent reaction and formless acceptance.

This Greek and Hellenistic apogee of scientific thought didn’t last all that long, declining sharply after the Roman Republic’s conquest of Greece in the second century B.C. The Romans admired Greek culture and wished it to continue to thrive, but the Greeks lost intellectual momentum, perhaps due to their political humbling leading to a decline in confidence.

While the Romans were highly competent at practical skills such as engineering, war, and administration, they never replicated the scientific brilliance of the Greeks, suggesting that civilizations might be more subtly delicate than we may assume.

Aristotle’s logic reigned unchallenged for two millennia, satisfying even Kant, until the 19th century, when mathematical philosophers George Boole and Gottlob Frege extended it.

Mathematical logic still remained an abstruse field. But, as Henry Ward Beecher said, “The philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next.”

In the mid–19th century, Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer had failed to launch an industry, in part because the precision machinery needed to work with decimal numbers was too expensive. Fortunately, in the late 1930s, the MIT grad student Claude Shannon, having heard of Boolean algebra in a philosophy class, pointed out that Boole’s binary system (true or false, 0 or 1) was perfect for electronic computing. Dixon writes:

Shannon’s insight was that Boole’s system could be mapped directly onto electrical circuits…. This correspondence allowed computer scientists to import decades of work in logic and mathematics by Boole and subsequent logicians.

Shannon’s Booleanism provided a master theory for exploiting the greatest innovation process of the last seventy years, the shrinking of electronic circuits under Moore’s law.

Despite its triumphant revival in the West in the prior millennium, the Ancient Greeks’ view of logical debate as a no-hard-feelings contact sport seems to be fading as our culture becomes more female-dominated. Intellectual disagreement is now taken very personally.

Alastair Roberts, a British theologian, blogged in 2012 about how the now-dominant “sensitivity-driven discourse” melts down into Middlebury-like temper tantrums when confronted with dissenters:

Without a bounded and rule-governed realm for negotiating differences, antagonism becomes absolute and opposition total. Supporters of this “sensitive” mode of discourse will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as “hateful,” “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “misogynistic,” “homophobic,” etc.…

Frequently, those who denounce opponents as representing “hate” are projecting their own hatred.

Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect…. Constantly pressed towards conformity, indoctrination can take the place of open intellectual inquiry…. Even with highly intelligent people within them, conflict-averse groups are poor at thinking. Bad arguments go unchecked and good insights go unhoned and underdeveloped.

This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing.

As we’ve seen, the current conventional wisdom, as exemplified by Hillary Clinton’s hilariously inept 2016 campaign, fell apart when confronted by a challenger bumptiously confident enough to point out that the empress had no clothes.

But the larger question may extend outside of the merely political realm. Can our Western tradition of objectivity and sporting cognitive combat, which made possible our enormous technological progress, survive the demands of diversity?

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