March 22, 2017

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, “€œThe 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 “€œsensitivity-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 “€œsensitive”€ mode of discourse will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as “€œhateful,”€ “€œintolerant,”€ “€œbigoted,”€ “€œmisogynistic,”€ “€œhomophobic,”€ etc….

Frequently, those who denounce opponents as representing “€œhate”€ 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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