Saturday, 13 December 2014

Why 'dialectics' is important to vitality of civilization

The term "dialectics" is defined:

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method), from Ancient Greek διαλεκτική, is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to European and Indian philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.

The term dialectics is not synonymous with the term debate. While in theory debaters are not necessarily emotionally invested in their point of view, in practice debaters frequently display an emotional commitment that may cloud rational judgement. Debates are won through a combination of persuading the opponent; proving one's argument correct; or proving the opponent's argument incorrect. Debates do not necessarily require promptly identifying a clear winner or loser; however clear winners are frequently determined by either a judge, jury, or by group consensus. The term dialectics is also not synonymous with the term rhetoric, a method or art of discourse that seeks to persuade, inform, or motivate an audience. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic)

The Wikipedia entry on Dialectic continues:

Different forms of dialectical reasoning have emerged throughout history from the Indosphere (Greater India) and the West (Europe). These forms include the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian dialectics, Marxist, Talmudic, and Neo-orthodoxy. (ibid)

The Talmudic dialectical method (of Rabbinic Judaism), especially the Avot Tractate, or, "The ethics of the fathers", relies on the four principles of interpretation called, PaRDeS (an acronym of the four levels of exegeses) but it places extreme importance to fidelity to the Holy Scriptures, to not only in what it says but to every stroke and sequential integrity of the actual Hebrew letters:

Each type of Pardes interpretation examines the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning [emphasis mine]. The Peshat means the plain or contextual meaning of the text. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, and Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations or when a "hint" is determined by comparing a word with other instances of the same word. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardes_(Jewish_exegesis))

Ideology and its twin, Dogma, are two demons that ever seek to lull the unwary into dead-ends and they seem to be inherently built-in to any rational discourse especially where definitive answers/solutions are necessarily rare and only hard-won by sheer effort and perseverance. There seems to have been two spectacular instances where the twin demons apparently won in the venerable discourse of scientific thought: the so-called String Theory and Darwinian evolution.

In the Darwinian theory of evolution, the will to monopoly (through no fault of anyone, really) seems to have asserted itself right from the get-go. In David Berlinski's book, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (2009), there is a beautifully crafted passage (is there any other way he writes?) that illustrates this need for dialectical exchange and the consequences when it is ignored (quoted here in its entirety just because no other way is possible):

Together with Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace created the modern theory of evolution. He has been unjustly neglected by history, perhaps because shortly after conceiving his theory, he came to doubt its provenance. Darwin, too, had his doubts. No one reading On the Origins of Species could miss the note of moral anxiety. But Darwin's doubts arose because, considering its consequences, he feared his theory might be true; with Wallace, it was the other way around. Considering its consequences, he suspected his theory might be false.

In an interesting essay published in 1869 and entitled "Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates and the Origins of Species," Wallace outlined his sense that evolution was inadequate to explain certain obvious features of the human race. The essay is of great importance. It marks a falling-away in faith on the part of a sensitive biologist previously devoted to ideas he had himself introduced. Certain of "our physical characteristics," he observed, "are not explicable on the theory of variation and survival of the fittest." These include the human brain, the organs of speech and articulation, the human hand, and the external human form, with its upright posture and bipedal gait. It is only human beings who can rotate their thumb and ring finger in what is called ulnar opposition in order to achieve a grip, a grasp, and degree of torque denied any of the great apes. No other item on Wallace's list has been ticked off against real understanding in evolutionary thought. What remains is fantasy of the sort in which the bipedal gait is assigned to an unrecoverable ancestor wishing to peer (or pee) over tall savannah grasses.

The argument that Wallace made with respect to the human body he made again with respect to the human mind. There it gathers force. Do we understand why alone among the animals, human beings have acquired language? Or a refined and delicate moral system, or art, architecture, music, dance or mathematics? This is a severely abbreviated list. The body of Western literature and philosophy is an extended commentary on human nature, and over the course of more than four thousand years, it has not exhausted its mysteries. "You could not discover the limits of soul," Heraclitus wrote, "not even if you traveled down every road. Such is the depth of its form."

Yet there is no evident distinction, Wallace observed, between the mental powers of the most primitive human being and the most advanced. Raised in England instead of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a native child of the head-hunting Jivaro, destined otherwise for a life spent loping through the jungle, would learn to speak perfect English, and would upon graduation from Oxford or Cambridge have the double advantage of a modern intellectual worldview and a commercially valuable ethnic heritage. He might become a mathematician, he would understand the prevailing moral and social codes perfectly, and for all anyone knows (or could tell), he might find himself a BBC commentator, explaining lucidly the cultural significance of head-hunting and arguing its protection.

From this it follows, Wallace argued, that characteristic human abilities must be latent in primitive man, existing somehow as an unopened gift, the entryway to a world that primitive man does not possess and would not recognize.

But the idea that a biological species might possess latent powers makes no sense in Darwinian terms. It suggests forbidden doctrine that evolutionary  advantages were front-loaded far away and long ago; it is in conflict with the Darwinian principle that useless genes are subject to negative selection pressure and must therefore find themselves draining away into the sands of time.

Wallace identified a frank conflict between his own theory and what seemed to him obvious facts about the solidity and unchangeability of human nature.

The conflict persists; it has not been resolved. (Berlinski, 2009, pp. 157-159)

As if the idiocy of over-extending an incomplete scientific theory into fields not of its purview, and the ill-advised-ness of pontificating and issuing papal bulls prematurely (as the Dawkinses and the Pinkers of this world have done) were not abundantly clear yet, Berlinski continues further down:

Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, the Japanese mathematical biologist Motoo Kimura argued that on the genetic level—the place where mutations take place—most changes are selectively neutral. They do not help an organism survive; they may even be deleterious. A competent mathematician and a fastidious English prose stylist, Kimura was perfectly aware that he was advancing a powerful argument against Darwin's theory of natural selection. "The neutral theory asserts," he wrote in the introduction to his masterpiece, The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, "that the great majority of evolutionary changes at the molecular level, as revealed by comparative studies of protein and DNA sequences, are caused not by Darwinian selection but by random drift of selectively neutral or nearly neutral mutations." (ibid, p. 194)

Most people who know me, or have read enough entries in this blog, may have already surmised that I'd say: BURNED! to both sides of the Creationists/Evolutionist divide, the right-wing nuts who use social Darwinism to justify their arrested-development of becoming fully human.

Sorry.

Dialectics, then—rather than promising definitive answers—seek to draw in as wide a range and diversity of thought in knowledge acquisition as possible, as long as advocacy is rationally articulated and done in good faith.

Had the theory(ies) of evolution been sifted through the dialectic sieve, people like the Nazis, the Stephen Harpers, the Ayn Rands, the Tea Party militants, the so-called Moral Majority movements of this world may have been proven much less virulent, even peripheral to Western civilization. The United States of America—that brightly shining mansion on the hill—may have been given half a chance to truly be the promise of the suffering humanity rather than the sorry, pathetic husk it has become in pursuit of its manifest destiny, after the image of the military-industrial complex.

Jay

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