Masses

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

According to some people I know, the world is divided between the stupid, ignorant and acritical masses and a restricted group of intelligent and wise critical thinkers. Surprisingly though, they usually hold themselves implicitly to be part of the latter group rather than of the masses. As far as I am concerned, I definitely hold myself to be part of the stupid, ignorant and acritical masses, yet I also consider myself a critical thinker. And I claim to be coherent.

I have realized that I am very ignorant when it comes to technicalities about economics and specific political measures in many fields, starting from immigration, to preservation of the environment, to how to best administrate work and taxation, and so on. Of course I have general ideas about what should be avoided as an outcome and what would be desirable, but the variables are so many and require so much knowledge, that I constantly find myself inadequate to express any opinion on pretty much anything. Yet I do and I must: I belong to society, under a certain description, and through my vote and my opinion I help to shape it. A lack of vote or of opinion shapes it none the less, so here I am: I must act, but I am too ignorant to act.

Why don’t I study more then? Well, I do, but in my specific field, which is some limited philosophical area. That is what I like to study and what I pretend to be good at, not economics, not politics-in-the-making, not many other things on which I am still required to have an opinion. As one of my high school professors was used to tell us, people with the right to vote are like children with Kalashnikovs: provided with way too complex devices for their cognitive faculties and potentially very dangerous.

I have reasons to doubt this very skeptical conclusion but the problem remains: the world is a very complex place, it has always been, but now that we know better, we are faced with the unsustainable weight of the decisions we have to make. But is this problem as pervasive as I take it too be? Doesn’t it regard only the stupid masses?

Well, I think that the degree of complexity of the world we find ourselves in is such, that we are just taking turns in being critical thinkers and part of the masses depending on our field of interest. Moreover, we usually vote depending on what we care about for the most, even with the good of the many in view, but still neglecting many other aspects of reality that are important for other people. An example: some people claim that the most important thing for the life of everyone is having a stable income and acceptable working conditions, so they vote according to those standards. Still, they might vote a party that completely ignores that 50% of the world’s population has often to work twice: at the working place as well as at home. “Acceptable working conditions” may vary significantly depending on how politicians understand domestic economy and the division of labor within a “domestic unity”. Denying the importance of the problem by saying that it is secondary is stupid in the best case, evil in the worst, for such “secondary problems” affect primary problem-solving techniques in a direct way.

In a certain sense then, the more the issues and their kinds, the less each one of us will be an informed chooser, no matter how knowledgeable otherwise. When it comes to administrating a country, the issues become so many and so pressing that no single person can be confident in saying what the biggest issues are and for whom, and how they should be handled. When we are sufficiently detached, we see just a bunch of short-sighted choosers, concerned only with the things they hold important and neglecting the needs of others. Even assuming that each one of us were a super smart critical thinker, the outcome would be the same, because the different contexts we come from determine different rankings of values and different perspectives on the world. Our cognitive faculties are limited in this sense: we have access only to our own individual perspective on the world, however broad and rich, not to a single one more. And even if I believe that for each issue there is an intelligent way of approaching the problem and many stupid ones, our cognition is simply not as far reaching as to allow each one of us to be an expert in every single field we are required to have an insightful opinion about.

Trust in the “faceless” democratic institutions and in the political class, in the various communities of experts in different fields and limitation of the importance of the general and generalist vote, which grounds democracy but isn’t central for its maintenance, are the pillars of democracy. In particular, a good degree of self-criticism and intellectual humility are healthy for the hard task of being a good citizen.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Aunts

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

This is an atypical letter. I would like to sketch the portraits of four unaware role models of my childhood: my aunts. I hope that the brevity of my descriptions will not be seen as a charicature, but rather as the attempt to isolate the salient traits of four Italian women, who perhaps never imagined embodying the kind of person that I was dreaming to become one day when I was a child. Here they are, the four portraits of my childhood heroes:

The Rebel: She laughs as if the days were always sunny. She is constantly cheerful and loves her friends and closed ones deeply. She delievers the right compliments at the right time and no one knows how to be supportive as much as she does. Her intelligence is best expressed through her social skills, but sometimes she might feel pressure to be more serious, and then she loses part of her charm. I call her rebel because I believe that she would like to understand herself under that description, and she always smiles at the memory of my grandfather catching her for a scolding and then, defeated, starting with a disconsolate “let’s reason…”. She never reasoned, and that’s why I liked her so much.

The Fashion Icon: There is only one relative of mine that you can’t really take off your eyes of. She is possibly one of the most traditionalist and at a first sight superficial of them, and that goes perfectly well with her delightful taste for clothes. She dares wearing all sorts of clothings, hats, shoes, color, fabric which she combines with intelligence and a specific strategy. Also, her hair is always impeccable. I like the theatrical way in which she steps in, at weddings just as at family dinners, and creates magic, with her moves, self-irony and heartwarmingly manners. She wouldn’t like being called a fashion icon, and she is surprisingly humble and unfortunately conservative. Still, everyone else wouldn’t object to the fact that, along with her clothes, the title suits her magnificently.

The Baroness: Highly educated and an artists, still does practically nothing productive for society – like myself. I love to listen to her stories because she has a talent for narration and nothing speaks “bella vita” like her lifestyle. I discovered in this woman a sensitivity and an openmindedness that I thought was non-existent in her generation, and a strength to resist the bigotry of the mothers’ whatsapp groups that is remarkable. She is capable of giving you a sense of calmness that is rare in northen Italy, where the dominating philosophy is that of industriousness – and boredom. I call her baroness because, like a baroness, she devotes her time to reading, enjoying social relationships and going on holiday. Or, maybe, this is the way I simply like to imagine her.

The Matriarch: At a first glance, she might appear as the most low profile of my aunts. She is a true representative of the Italian traditional mother, always busy in administrating the house and having a word in every affair of her children. What I like about her is that she really seems to give her best in every situation, without great words or great entries, just by working out her way. In a world of judgmental people, you don’t find but transparent respect in her and, somehow, she is able to make you feel like her partner in crime, when otherwise you would feel excluded. I miss the bucolic simplicity I associate with her in my somoetimes contorted life.

Despite the fact that I do not feel any particular bonding to my family qua family and relatives qua relatives, I like to imagine that there is a special connection between me and my aunts. It is as if I had been trying all along to follow in their footsteps and genuinely be like them. I still find funny that a boy who was constantly proposed models of masculinity to adopt, secretly fell in love with a completely different world and absorbed some of its deepest values.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Humanism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In many of my letters I have failed to remark my debts with the great philosophers I have stolen my ideas from. I am a kleptomaniac of ideas. Ideas are precious and I can’t but steal them whenever I have the slight feeling of having mastered some of their intricacies. I also think that good ideas must be of public dominion and not of private property,  both to enrich the public as to undergo public scrutiny. Even if the aim of these letters is not to develop a systematic philosophical thought, and careful quotation of academic personalities would have weighed too much on the humble purposes of my philosophical adventure, I believe I might have been too parsimonious in avoiding to reveal the sources of “my” ideas.

Hence, I would like to start by telling you the story of how I abandoned the belief in humanism, thanks to the philosopher Thomas Nagel, from whom many of my thoughts (especially those related to destiny and realism) are derived.

Once I got rid of the belief in God and in supernatural entities, I was often asked what I was believing in instead. My usual answer was that I had no comparable belief to the faith in God, but if I had to pick necessarily, I would have said human shared intelligence and morality. I inadvertently adopted the humanist motto of the “homo faber”, the man who builds his own fortune, coming from the philosophy of the Renaissance.

The idea that Man could dominate over fortune and nature, within certain limits, seemed promising to ground a new set of values, emancipated from religious ones. However, I was soon faced with new problems. How can we value nonhuman animals, plants, ecosystems and natural resources if we do not lead them back to the tyrannical power of human abilities? And if they are all subject to human domination, what can grant that human beings will treat them well? If human beings have the power to deliberate on the life and death of other species, and are not subject to any supernatural power themselves, what will grant that humans will act as to preserve nature, rather than destroy it by means of exploitation?

Going back to God was not a solution for me, but luckily, I found a valid criticism of humanism in Thomas Nagel. Nagel thinks that the reasons on which we act are facts independent of our subjective interests and to follow them means to leave behind subjective motivation and conform to objective statements about what is good and right. To put it differently, Nagel believes that there is no way to ground morality or, in this case, respect for nature, starting from egoism. If you say that saving the planet is good for human beings to prosper, instead of being-good-period, you will be led back to an unsolvable conflict of reasons: exploiting the planet is also good for human beings, mass killing of animals satisfies many superfluous needs of humans and uncontrolled deforestation can help economies. Of course you might argue that if you finish unrenewable resources, then you will suffer economic loss, but again, is that a good reason to save entire ecosystems? Don’t we really have better reasons than that?

Nagel thinks we do, and the reason is simply that nature is valuable independently of human selfish interests, no matter of which political party. If we understand ourselves objectively as beings among others, we find a realm of objective and logical relationships between natural entities and obligations that are not grounded on being beneficial for us, but rather on their being valid independently of our arbitrium.

Not only shall we develop a self-conception of being obligated by objective facts, but we are also obligated by our evolutionary origin and material nature (understood objectively). This is a thought I borrow from Christine Korsgaard, who herself draws ideas from Aristotle. According to Korsgaard, we share our appetitive and vegetative identity with animals, and since our identity is normative to us, the same identity we find in animals does also obligate us. But why not go all the way down to plants and microorganisms? Our identity belongs to our evolutionary history as a fact about life on this planet and our “identity with nature” is a source of obligation independent of our self-interest.

We can think about it as a kind of godless religiosity. Discover values in nature because we belong to it (not because we need it) and be obligated by nature’s wonders and “worship” them in all their forms. Nature is the source of value, and the humankind shall be devoted to it, not the other way round.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Bewertung

Liebe Prinzessin ‘Ishka,

Kürzlich habe ich über die Beziehung zwischen Lehrer und Schüler nachgedacht. Selbstverständlich ist die Beziehung hierarchisch geprägt, indem der Lehrer eine höhere Machtposition besitzt und der Schüler gehorchen soll. Aber wie soll der Lehrer seine Macht ausüben? Was ist die Rolle von einem Lehrer bezüglich seiner Macht?

Ein Lehrer ist ein Erzieher und jemand, der sich für Bildung bekümmert. Das ist nicht das Thema von diesem Brief (mehr zum Thema efährst du hier). Was mich gerade interessiert, ist die bloße Fähigkeit von Lehrer ihren Schüler Befehle zu geben, sie zu bewerten und sie möglicherweise zu bestrafen. Wie soll diese Rolle eingerichtet werden? Was ist die Bedeutung von Bewertung? Wozu bewertet man Schüler?

Eine ertse Antwort lautet: Man bewertet die eigene Schüler, damit dass sie Kriterien kriegen um zu verstehen ob sie gut gearbeitet haben oder ob sie sich besser bemühen sollen. Lehrer geben “objektive Feedbacks”, die bestimmen sollen, wie gut ein Schüler ist. Wenn man eine solche Perspektive annimt, wird man Befehle wie objektive Regeln interpretieren, die Schüler zu bessere Bewertungen führen sollen.

Ein Problem mit dieser Auffassung ensteht darin, dass es nicht immer der Fall ist, dass Schüler sich mit Befehlen verbessern. Manchmal finden Schüler schwierig Befehle zu folgen und manchmal sind ihre Ergebnisse entäuschend in Vergleich zu dem, was der Lehrer erwarten soll. Das Glauben an obiektive Bewertungen hilft nicht weiter: manche Schüler finden Bewertungen “an sich” nicht motivierend.

Das ist aber oft nicht der Fall, werden andere argumentieren. Negative Bewertungen wirken wie Bestrafungen für Schüler, während positive Bewertungen wie gewonnene Preise. Leute die so denken haben aber eine andere Konzeption von Lehre. Der Lehrer hat die Macht Schüler zu bestrafen oder zu loben und er entscheidet wer würdig ist als gute Schüler betrachtet zu werden und wer nicht. Dieser alte und konservative Ansatz zur Bildung ist benkannt für die Probleme die sie verursacht: Schüler interessieren sich nicht mehr für ihre Fächer und streben ausschliesslich nach guten Noten, sie entwickeln Angst vor ihren LehrerInnen statt Respekt und fangen an zu glauben, dass eine negative Bewertung ihren Minderwert impliziert.

Ich bin weder von dem obiektive-Bewertung Ansatz, noch von dem Bestrafung-Preis Ansatz überzeugt. Beide Konzeptionen teilen die Idee, dass die Arbeit sich zu verbessern ausschließlich beim Schüler liegt. Der Job des Schülers und der des Lehrers sind ganz unterschiedlich und die Hierarchie wird sehr deutlich vorgestellt: Schüler müssen gehorchen, Lehrer müssen Befehle geben un bewerten. Ich stelle in Frage, dass diese Struktur haltbar ist.

Meiner Meinung nach sollen Lehrer und Schüler zusammenarbeiten. Ihre Hierarchie wird durch gesellschafltichen Rollen und unterschiedlichen Kompetenzen bestimmt, aber sie gehört nicht verstärkt in ihrer persönlichen Beziehung. Lehrer sind fehlerhaft und ich bezweifel, dass wir zu Recht erwarten können, dass sie den Wert von anderen Personen objektiv bestimmen können. Bewertungen sollen weder objektive Feedbacks noch Bestrafungen sein, sondern der Versuch zu verstehen, ob ein bestimmtes Fach die Begabungen eines Schülers entspricht oder nicht. Motivation kriegt ein Schüler von seiner Interesse für seine Lieblingsfächer, nicht von den “Preisen”, die er damit gewinnen kann.

Die Macht des Lehrers soll einem Schüler erlauben zu verstehen, ob ein gewisses Fach “sein Weg” ist oder nicht. Das heißt, dass der Lehrer sich bemühen soll, aus unterschliedlichen Perspektiven zu zeigen, wie man das eigene Fach verstehen und weiter lernen kann. Noten sind Zeichen dafür zu verstehen, wie passend eine gewisse Richtung für einen Schüler ist, aber sie sagen gar nichts über den Wert von dieser Person.

Wenn Bewertungen wie solche Zeichen gelten, das Problem von negativen Bewertungen wird gelöst: eine schlechte Note heißt nicht, dass der Schüler sich zu wenig bemüht hat oder zu dumm ist, es heißt nur dass es unwahrscheinlicher wird, dass das Fach zu seinem Weg wird. Solche Zeichen sollen rein für Schüler gelten und nicht für Institutionen: Wenn ich nicht exzellente Noten in Mathe kriege aber trotzdem Mathe liebe, das soll nicht heißen, dass ich nicht zugelassen werden darf, Mathe weiter zu lernen (zum Beispiel an der Uni). Aber eine schlechte Note könnte für mich heißen, dass ich tatsächlich mich mehr bemühen soll, falls ich Mathe weiter lernen möchte.

Auch wenn meine Gedanken sehr oberflächig bleiben, glaube ich, dass die Richtung für ein besseres Bildungsystem ist die, die sich mehr auf die Besonderheiten und spezifische Bedürfnisse von unterschiedlichen Schülern fokussiert und die positive Interaktion zwischen Lehrer und Schüler entwikelt. Macht ist ein Instrument, um Schüler zu helfen ihren eigenen Weg zu finden, nicht um ihre Fähigkeiten zu loben oder zu unterdrücken.

Dein für immer,

‘Miasha

Millenials

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The internet is flooded with articles about the difficulties of millenials. Paradoxically, the generation of those who were born in the last couple of decades of the 20th century lives in a world of economic abundance and technological avant-garde, but has a hard time finding a stable employment, leaving the parental house and building individual independence. Moreover, millenials are often exploited by companies which capitalize on their economic insecurity and contribute to the consolidation of their poverty.

Is our generation hopeless? Ideologies are gone and nihilism, either passive or cynical, is pervasive in our society. But I dare to think that this is not the whole story. I think that the lack of interest for owning a car, making up a family or securing a stable future also reflects a change in lifestyle that needn’t necessarily be linked to the corrosive effects of capitalism.

Our generation is the first generation to address on a mass scale problems related to gender inequality and inclusion of minorities. Thanks to the possibility of travelling more easily and having access to news from all over the world in almost real time, we can develop a more far reaching consciousness of the consequences of our lifestyles and we are not anymore concerned only with what happens in our neighbourhood.

We have constructed a much greater sensitivity for environmental issues than that of our parents and grandparents and we are willing to take action, both individually and through voting, to contrast the irresponsible treatment of our planet. Moreover, a great number of us stopped thinking of animals as tools for human needs and entertainment, and started thinking of them as inhabitants of ecosystems which should be preserved and carriers of life and value which go well beyond their treatment for selfish purposes.

I do believe that our generation has great potential, and the endorsement of more socialist policies could help us find more economic stability. At the same time, we need to fight our nihilism through the adoption of positive and progressive identities, which can’t be anymore constrained by our nationalities or traditional gender roles. We need to reinterpret religion and support with all means the freedom of atheists and of non-conforming religious people. We need to come close despite the differences and make the world a better place. Because we can.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Optimism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Optimism, pessimism and realism are often considered three alternative views about life and fortune. “Realism” is however a misleading term: if by that we simply mean absence of delusion, realism doesn’t really stand in opposition to optimism and pessimism. I thence suggest to employ the more suited term “neutralism”.

In this letter I will argue that optimism is the most interesting of the three conceptions and that, contrarily to what it is often taken to imply, it is just as realist as pessimism and neutralism and superior from other points of view.

Let’s start with very broad definitions. Optimism sees fortune as an opportunity and life as a place of flourishing and improvement. Pessimism considers fortune as an obstacle for human freedom of action and happiness, and life as a brief and pointless struggle before death. According to neutralism, fortune doesn’t exist and life is to be conceived as a neutral development of one’s story, and quite unsurprisingly so.

My main argument against pessimism is that its perspective on fortune starts from the right premises but lands on the wrong conclusion. It is indeed true that fortune constrains us: we are born and raised in specific environments and our experiences are constrained by all sorts of happenings. This could appear to imply that we are constrained in our freedom, but this is absurd. For what conception of freedom is the pessimist holding? Freedom of being unconstrained, it seems. But can there be freedom at all without constrains? To put it more specifically: how can we talk about freedom (of choice, action, thought, etc.) without criteria and frameworks? And aren’t those criteria and frameworks the product of the specific contexts we find ourselves in, our “constrains”? I think that the pessimist implicitly holds an idealized conception of freedom that doesn’t really make sense.

On the other hand, the idea of the meaningless life sounds more coherent, but is also very poor. Life has many meanings, some of them very trivial and others more subtle. The pessimist seems again to hold very high standards (indeed implausible standards) of what it is to have meaning and thus concludes that life is meaningless (click here if you would like to read more on pessimism).

Neutralism sounds just wrong to me. To say that fortune doesn’t exist is to forget that we are all endowed with a subjective point of view on the world which is constrained by objective states of affairs. If being born in conditions of poverty, discrimination or abuse are not signs of misfortune, from the point of view of the subject, then the neutralist is not speaking my same language (click here for more discussions on fortune and destiny).

The most problematic point of neutralism is however its view on life: how can you act if you take your life to be an estranged piece of world, slowly unravelling before your eyes? How can you do anything if you are not an “active agent” but rather a passive observer? Of course you find value in things and you first personally see certain things as interesting (science and philosophy, for instance, I suspect). If this is so, neutralism simply cuts off from its depiction of the world the source of action, and it results in being even poorer than pessimism.

Now, optimism is often presented as the most naive position, if not directly delusional. I would like however to distinguish an optimistic view of life from hope. Hope is about having positive expectations for the future without an iota of proof that things will turn out well. Hope can still motivate action, but without any guarantee of success other than blind faith. That is why pessimists and neutralists often appeal to hope as an important factor for motivating action, given that they believe that the circumstances of life do not provide enough motivation on their own otherwise.

Surprisingly for someone, optimists do not need hope or anything like blind faith to “carry on”. All they need to acknowledge is that life comes with motivating forces and with our capacity to direct some of them. What makes them optimists is that the direction of these motivational forces should be ameliorative and that, given the appropriate conditions, and non-delusional knowledge of good chance of success, our actions can indeed transform the world into a better place.

I think optimism could be even more ambitious than that. The very reason why I am writing these words, if not necessarily ameliorative, is believed by me to be a positive expression of my life and worthy of being written. Even the greatest pessimist who were to write a book on pessimism would act from optimistic grounds, just because he must find that activity valuable. As for the neutralist, I don’t really know what he could be writing about for, to me, he just sounds clueless.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Reductionism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I have been recently in Munich for a conference on the relation between values and rationality (roughly). I took the opportunity  to visit a dear friend of mine, M, with whom, as it sometimes happens, I had a discussion greater than the one within academic walls. We debated on the possibility of reducing scientific fields to more fundamental fields, and I hope to show how this also relates to the topic of the conference toward the end of this letter.

My current aim is to report the content of the conversation between me and M as honestly as possible, making an effort to explain his points as consistently as he did. However, I am biased in this report by the urge of clarifying my own ideas, to which I will eventually give more relevance. In real life, M and I came to some kind of true disagreement and I deem our discussion far from having been settled.

To put it briefly, we posed ourselves the following question: “Can chemistry, given appropriate tools of calculation, explain the Darwinian theory of biological evolution (DTBE for short) exhaustively?” He answered yes, I answered (and still answer) no. Before getting into the nitty gritty of the debate, let me point out a couple of things we didn’t disagree upon:

  1. Neither of us believes that DTBE has been so far reduced to any more fundamental theory.
  2. We both believe that there might be a theory more fundamental than DTBE, of which human beings don’t know anything about so far, that might explain biological evolution on a more fundamental level than the one of natural selection of biological organisms.

So, where’s the disagreement? M thinks that the theory, which could potentially explain DTBE, is chemistry, and the reason why the reduction hasn’t happened yet is twofold:

  1. It is unpractical: the explanation of biological organisms at the level of molecules would be just too complicated and organisms offer a useful simplification.
  2. Our instruments of calculation are not sophisticated enough to calculate the “translation” of DTBE into chemical language.

However, he thinks that this translation is possible in principle, whereas I deny that it is. His main argument is that the universe is made, without exception, of molecules (and atoms) and physical void and if we have a theory to explain molecules and their interactions, we have a theory for everything that takes place in the universe, DTBE’s objects included.

I do not deny that the universe consists of molecules and void. What I deny is that the laws governing the molecules and their interactions can say anything interesting about biological evolution. How then? I shall arrive at it by steps.

M and I believe that different sciences create their objects of inquiry for practical reasons (like developing useful categories, e.g. physical forces, molecules, living organisms, ecosystems, and so on)  as for human cognitive limitations. We also agreed on the hierarchy of sciences: more fundamental ones, giving constrains to less fundamental ones. In a certain sense, biology depends on chemistry in a way that chemistry doesn’t depend on biology: biologists must have background knowledge of chemistry to enquire into their field, while chemists do not need biology. This is because chemistry imposes boundaries on biology, and offers a tool to falsify biological theories: if they are inconsistent with chemistry, they are false, and not the other way round, namely that chemistry is false. Why? Well, because the objects of chemistry are simpler and can be more easily treated with mathematics than the objects of biology (this was also a point of agreement).

But then, why can’t we just conclude that we have not calculated enough to reduce DTBE to chemistry? After all, chemistry is more fundamental, isn’t it?

Yes, chemistry is more fundamental, but the principle of evolution captures an aspect of reality that is new: it is a new mechanism with new laws determining new objects of enquiry. Nothing of what DTBE is about is made of magical stuff, exonerating from chemical existence. It is just that particular conformations of molecules obey laws that do not belong to chemistry in principle and chemistry can’t describe them because it is bound to molecules as its “unity of measurement”. These particular conformations of molecules, from viruses to plants and animals and us, can’t disobey chemical laws, they simply start obeying new laws that can’t contradict chemical of physical ones. Still, they are genuinely new.

The mainstream version of DTBE consists of two main principles: natural selection and genetic drift. Depending on the conformation of the environment, the traits of organisms determine their survival, and these traits are in turn determined by genes. Neither the environment, nor the traits or genes are exonerated from being made of molecules, it is just that their meaningful interaction is of no interest for chemistry as the study of molecules. This is not because it would be too boring to calculate such interactions in terms of chemical stuff. Rather, DTBE deals with concepts that are new (however constrained by the more fundamental chemical level), such as life and death, survival and extinction, replication and reproduction, and so on. These terms are not useful labels for more complicated chemical stuff: they do not make sense as chemical entities! In chemistry there are no such things as life and death, but constant interactions between molecules or clusters of molecules. Chemistry indeed explains everything of the molecular composition of genes and of their effects on the traits of organisms, but it doesn’t tell anything about the evolutionary meaning of those traits for the organisms in their “battle for survival”. The very concept of selection would disappear in an extremely complicated hodgepodge of molecules, but it wouldn’t be explained. Why? Well, because the question DTBE is asking is not “What is there in the universe when an antelope is hunted by a lioness, and how did the universe come to this point?” but rather “According to what laws did the antelope develop strong, jumping legs and the lioness powerful jaws?”. The question constrains already the meaning of the answer, in the sense that to answer the second question with an immense chemical formula would be to have misunderstood the question. The answer is not a chemical formula (although such a formula probably exists), it is the law of natural selection.

To better explain my point, I am going to employ two analogies.

Here’s the first one: A state has certain laws for its whole territory, for instance, that chemistry and biology must be taught in high schools. A province of this state can’t contradict the laws of the state. However, it can formulate new ones, insofar as they are consistent with the more fundamental ones of the state. For instance, it can say that biology and chemistry must be taught together by one single teacher per class. It can’t however legislate that no chemistry be taught, for that would contradict the law of the state. Suppose further, that there is a city within this province. This city is under the law that biology and chemistry must be taught and by one single teacher per class. However, nothing hinders that that teacher must wear a pink cape with blue dots. So the city legislates that chemistry and biology be taught by one single teacher per class, mandatorily wearing a pink cape with blue dots.

The laws of the state couldn’t predict what more specific policy the province would have adopted, let alone the city. This is not a matter of not calculating enough. The state has specific worries about what to teach the pupils at all, which are more fundamental worries than how many teachers are needed to fulfill the teaching at high school level. These, in turn, are more fundamental worries than the dress code to be adopted by such teachers. With more fundamental I only mean “constraining what is less fundamental”, but how on earth can we understand how many teachers we need to teach biology and chemistry from the law that biology and chemistry must be taught? These two laws are about different things, and the fact that one is more fundamental than the other in our technical sense, doesn’t mean at all that the less fundamental can be deduced with more calculation.

Going back to our point, saying that DTBE is reducible to chemical laws is like saying that there is a way to deduce what color of cape a teacher must wear, given that we know that only one teacher per class teaches certain subjects. That is absurd, because the two kinds of laws address different problems, some of which are more fundamental than (pose constrains to) others.

A second analogy requires a little bit more of imagination. Think about a net made of rope. This net is passed through by certain objects falling from above, which are precisely of the dimension of its holes. It is made in such a way, that nothing can distort its pattern: everything going through its holes is “screened”  as something cubic or parallelepipedal. Some of these objects are however slimy, like little blobs and they pass through it, but could also change their form. Under a certain description, they are of the form required to pass through the net, but there is something important to them that the net can’t capture: their sliminess or their “blobbiness”. Still, these blobs can’t distort the net, and they are screened just as solid cubes and parallelepipeds. In order to understand what is peculiar about these blobs, we need a new kind of ‘net’, distinguishing between blobby things and solid ones. For instance, a funnel, with a very tight hole. All the solid cubical things will get stuck before reaching the hole, whereas slimy things will go through it easily, by changing their form.

Again, chemistry can be thought of as the rope net, screening everything passing through it, without exceptions. As the net wants to make sure that everything has the form of its holes, so does chemistry expect that the universe is made just of chemical stuff. But then the question changes and it becomes of different nature, because we want to capture specific aspects of the universe that the first screening was incapable of grasping, due to its constitution. We need new instruments and laws: in one case a funnel, to distinguish blobs from solids, in the other case natural selection, to appreciate biological evolution.

No one denies that a technologically advanced scanner could both detect the cubical structure of the falling objects, and also distinguish blobs from solids, but a scanner is not a sophisticated version of a rope net: It is a new kind of net!

It is important not to be fooled by this second analogy into thinking that there is something special in the blobs. The first screening couldn’t simply distinguish them from solids, but it accounted perfectly for both insofar as it was concerned with the task of letting specific objects fall through its holes. It is not the constitution of blobs that is special, it is the constitution of the net that is concerned only with a limited task. The same can be said with respect to chemistry: it is not that biological objects have a special constitution, it is rather that the constitution of the chemical science is such that it oversees them. It can only see a bunch of molecules, and this independently of how sophisticated its calculations are.

Indeed, I am not an emergentist (click here for my criticism of emergentism). I do not believe that specific conformations of molecules give rise to new (ontological) properties. There is nothing new in the universe when a lioness chases an antelope: no new special property is added to molecules and void. All I am claiming is that we are not asking that question when we are looking for the evolutionary significance of what is happening: we are looking for the laws of living organisms, not those of molecules. There is no new stuff, only new laws.

M asked for more concrete examples, but I don’t really know what I shall be adding to these arguments. We started from the “concrete question” and then went backwards to explore the more abstract prerequisites. At the same time, I am not sure if I made justice to his point, also because at the end of the talk he mentioned an example of how computers work, namely with binary codes, which make appear “windows” on our screens and the words I am typing right now. Even if we had no time to develop that point further, my intuition is that it wouldn’t have been much different from the ones already treated: the words you are reading belong to a realm of meaning that is obscure at the binary level of 0s and 1s, despite the fact that, for each character/word/phrase, there is a corresponding formula in binary language, without remainders.

The reason for my intuition about how to interpret M’s view is also based on something he said after the conference (I promised at the beginning of this letter that I would have connected the two topics, and here I am). He said that we (human beings) are not rational, after all. That was puzzling and sounded very wrong at first. How couldn’t we be rational? We had a meeting and we both showed up, we were hungry and we went eating, we had reasons for our beliefs and we discussed. How are these things not rational?

The reason why M said that we are “not-rational-after-all”, is probably to show skepticism about the idea that there is anything over and above “neuronal determination”. After the disquisitions in this letter, I hope it is clear that the two fields (rationality and neurology) can belong to different sciences, one more fundamental than the other, but independent from one another. When someone is asking “Why are you eating pizza?” and you answer “Because I have a neurological asset that determines my eating a pizza” you clearly misunderstood the question, for neurological determination is indeed what is going on, but not what was asked. The question was about your reasons for eating a pizza (being hungry for instance, or spending some time with a friend in a restaurant), not about some state of affairs in the world. If the question were understood descriptively rather than normatively, you couldn’t protest by saying “you should have waited for me to join” or complained about the fact that Italians decided to eat pizza in Germany. For neurological descriptions don’t allow for assessment of decisions: the very concept of decision would be meaningless. And, by the way, we ate that pizza because it was delicious.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha