Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chief Marin

Marin County is named after a Coast Miwok whose story is movingly told by Betty Goerke.

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not very far away, the concrete and asphalt of Marin County did not exist. Animals roamed at will, the air was pure, and the seasons passed in regular succession without the threat of expiring into the maw of global industrialization. The county was dotted with people who wove baskets of grass, gathered mussels from the bay, wove feathers into their headbands, and told abundant stories from their past, and from their imaginations.

Local anthopologist and archeologist Betty Goerke recently gathered what evidence there is about these native Americans into her book "Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel, Legend". There isn't very much, since they spoke their stories rather than blogging them, but Goerke is judicious in setting the scene and reading as much as possible from what there is. I highly recommend it.

The principle horror she describes is the California mission system. Now curiosities and museums, the missions were outposts run by Catholic priests, first from Spain (1775 to 1821), then from Mexico (1821 to 1846). The priests had final say over all matters at the mission, including command over small military detachments assigned to them. They regarded baptism as a one-way street, cajoling natives into baptisms that they hardly understood, then sending military parties out to recover any "neophytes" who dared to go home again.

Once inducted into the mission system, neophytes were treated like slaves, worked under military guard in the fields, housed in segregated "dormatories" from which there was no escape, and paid only food and clothing enough to subsist. A fascinating contrast is presented by Fort Ross, a Russian outpost slightly to the north, whose clergy made no project of enslaving the natives, nor did the military harrass them most of the time, but let them trade with and work for the fort on relatively equitable terms. "Runaways" from the Spanish to the Russian establishment were thus a constant problem. Goerke writes "Father AmorĂ³s (of the San Rafael mission) sent out a force of a few soldiers and neophytes to retrieve and harass those who had fled to Colony Ross.", and quotes the Russian Achille Schabelski, who "saw several tents of unhappy fugitives from Mission San Rafael, who, taking me for a Spaniard, fled to the mountains.". One native chief said that the Spaniards "were bad men who took his kinsmen captive and make them work like cattle in the fields".

Eventually, the Spaniards (dragged down by their theocratic tendencies) were replaced by Mexicans, who, enacting the enlightenment ideals of the time and of their own liberation, decided to release the natives with shares of the land, abundant livestock and produce from the missions. Yet corruption carried the day, and the local authorities managed to leave the native Americans with virtually nothing at all. The land they fled to was not generally recorded and deeded, with dire future consequences as Mexico gave land grants to sundry soldiers and other well-connected non-natives. While settlement was sparse this problem was not immediately apparent, but as white settlers arrived and after the Bear flag revolt revisited all the deeds in California, the die was cast for total displacement and disenfranchisement (Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924).

In many ways the native conditions were even worse during this time of "freedom", since the native Americans were hunted for sport and impromtu slavery by both Mexican (by General Vallejo and his relations, among many others) and white settlers. Goerke writes "In the North Bay, according to most accounts by the settlers and the military, the Indians were pursued for capture rather than murder, because the rancho owners needed men to work as laborers. ... the outcome was the same: murder, rape, and enslavement."

The role of Chief Marin in all this is rather murky. He flits in and out of the scene as a sometime pillar of the San Franscisco and San Rafael missions, sometime rebel leader harrassing the missionaries and hiding out on islands in the Bay, sometime prisoner (escaping several times), and sometime ferryman and trusted pilot about the bay. At one point in prison, he fends off a priest as follows: ".. told him with the greatest sang-froid that if the priest would not bother him while he was alive he would give his permission to make a Christian of his dead body. With this statement he dismissed this tormentor." He was respected by his adversaries, which led General Vallejo to suggest his name for the County across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. But all Goerke has to work with are baptismal, wedding, and burial records in the mission archives, and the much later histories and recollections of Vallejo and other Californios (Mexicans), after they were themselves expropriated by the inrushing horde from the east. In the end, her book is most moving in evoking the life of the Coast Miwok before, during, and after the traumas of colonization.

I'll close with one last quote from the book, from the early mission period, referring to the Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue:
Twice a year, some of the Indians received passes that allowed them to return to their native villages for a brief period. Kotzebue observed: 'This short time is the happiest period of their existence; and I myself have seen them going home in crowds, with loud rejoicings. The sick, who can not undertake the journey, at least accompany their happy countrymen to the shore where they embark, and there sit for days together, mournfully gazing on the distant summits of the mountains which surround their homes; they often sit in this situation for several days, without taking any food, so much does the sight of their lost home affect these new Christians.'

Friday, January 23, 2009

Reduction or emergence?

How bad is reductive thinking, and how useful is the concept of emergence?

Nothing gets new age folks, theists, and other supernaturalists upset like the reductive scientific approach to knowledge. What could be more dry, stultifying and un-holistic than the practice of smashing a mystery to pieces and figuring out how those mundane pieces fit back together? In a similar vein, some scientists are becoming enamored with "emergence" as a way of describing the novel properties of complex systems that may not be "reducible" to more elementary phenomena, or at least whose relationship to them is unknown or obscure. A proponent of this angle is scientist Stu Kauffman, who sits on the fence of using sacred language while promoting what is at heart a Spinozist, Einsteinian, secular view of reality- that if one must have a god, it should be one of reality in its incomprehensible totality, not an infantalizing, tribalizing, patriarchal, and blood-soaked totem.

One confusion in this debate is the question of whether we can possess truth. As Hume and Kant described, we can not know reality in a comprehensive way. We can model aspects of it more or less accurately, and follow pragmatists like William James in making practical benefit and closeness to concrete reality the metric of a model's accuracy. That is the best we can do. We would like to be omniscient and god-like, but we are not, and no amount of imagining will get us there.

How does one use past events to predict future ones? The first step is of course to understand past events. And we can not do that without breaking them down into their component relationships. Whether one hypothesizes supernatural causes or natural ones, every event in the world has its causes, and our analysis of the past consists of enumerating what these are, both in principle to find out whether such causes are possible, and in practice, to find out whether such causes actually connect to their hypothesized effects. Once all the pieces are laid out and understood, we can build the abstract models we use to "understand" the world. Thus we come full circle, synthesizing what has been previously reduced, into mental models of reality that are (at best) powerful, useful and accurate. This as holistic as we can reliably get.

Ideally, these causal relationships are tidy enough to be described mathematically, like Newton's gravitation. But phenomena like biology are not so tidy, and there we have to make do with more or less localized causes like chemical principles, molecular shapes and interactions, and ecological constraints, combined with the relatively general principle of natural selection. Because of our mental incapacity to grasp reality whole, as well as our lack of the knowledge to even begin that task, grasping it in bits and pieces is the only way forward, and has allowed imposing edifices of practical abstract knowledge to be constructed back up out of those pieces. In short, reductive thinking is hugely successful, just like the practice of breaking down tasks to smaller levels has allowed great complexity to flourish in economic affairs, in software programming, in manufacturing, etc.

There is a huge temptation to believe that we take a shortcut, that we can grasp the whole of reality by force of intuition, through our unconscious mental capacities, or in consulation with ancient gurus possessing esoteric wisdom. It is true that in some areas, such as the social sphere, intuitions can be powerful ways of knowing- faster at any rate than explicit rational capacities. But of course there are many other areas, like the natural world at scales other than our common experience, where this is not true at all, since the evolution of our intuitive faculties failed to account for quantum mechanics, the deep histories of geology and biology, celestial mechanics, and much else. And even where it is powerful, intuition is not dispositive. In the end we have to use reason to tell whether intuition has been accurate, as the current Madoff financial scandal makes so painfully clear for his conned customers. The close relative of social intuition is the intuition of spirits and spiritual "realities". While clearly palpable to many people, its effects never have been and never are verified by reason, and appear to be fundamentally in error. Believers thus must take refuge in faith alone, for what that is worth.

Once such refuge is taken, other forms of knowledge become a threat rather than a boon, making believers nervous about those taking the reductive approach to knowing. Faith requires mystery, which requires ignorance. Those who would reveal and resolve mysteries strike at the very heart of faith, for where can god live but in the gaps of knowledge? What room is there for esoteric and transcendent human (or super-human) potentials in a world where humans are material beings down to their very electrons?

Returning to reductionism, the product of reductive and integrative analysis is still an incomplete view of reality, and will always remain so. Thus the attractiveness of other modes of thought that offer greater vistas at various levels of fatuousness, like holism, Gaia theory, Gnosticism, etc. "Emergence" is a relatively sober term used by scientists to describe phenomena that can not be easily constructed (in our minds, at least) from more elemental phenomena, such as the emergence of weather patterns out of the complexity of atmospheric physics, or the emergence of social networks out of the buzz of the internet.

I think the concept of emergence is however simply a label for ignorance. If we can not build a complete model of how a butterfly's wingbeats affect the weather a year hence, it is not because of a supernatural principle that generates emergent properties out of thin air, as it were, but because we are ignorant- both of the full causal chain that these wingbeats put in motion, and of the overall chaos/noise in the system which may allow this effect to either amplify or damp out to nothing. Chalking a phenomenon up to emergence may be a shorthand for cases where complexity totally overwhelms our capacity to analyze what is going on, but it is not in itself explanatory, since causes are still afoot, and we would be better off trying to understand them rather than labelling them with a word.

A case in point is natural selection- Darwin's mechanism of biological evolution. How does that arise from simpler phenomena? Or must we label it emergent, and leave it at the biological level only? Its principle lies in competition, which exists at all sorts of levels, from chemical to astronomical. On the astronomical scale, the gravitation of massive objects leads to competition for mass accumulation, forming the lumpiness that we see as galaxies, stars, black holes, nebulae, etc.

Chemicals compete automatically as well in their race to lowest energy, reacting with the first possible partners that come along, sucking the most reactive species out of a collection, then the next reactive, and so forth. Such competition is part of the basis for pre-biotic evolution, where vast numbers of organic chemicals, combined with abundant inputs of energy, appear to have generated reactive units of increasing sophistication, both in terms of competing for metabolic resources from the medium, and eventually also in reproducing themselves- the ultimate case of emergence, as it were.

Incidentally, emergence also pops up in the philosophy of consciousness, renamed in this case "emergentism", which goes something like: while the world may be causally closed, complex properties like consciousness can not be understood as made up of more elementary ones (or be reduced to them) but exist de novo, as new empirical facts, understandable only at the appropriate level. It is rather telling that the Wiki page on this topic offers a series of chemical examples that are then acknowledged to be entirely reducible after all.

For another example, the Philosophy Bites podcast interviewed a philosopher of mind (Tim Crane) who attempts to argue this position- for a sort of confusion and ignorance on behalf of our inability to reduce consciousness to brain functions, yet at the same time claims to not be a dualist, soul-ist, or Cartesian. The questions are excellent, the answers much less so. There is absolutely no reason to grant this veil of ignorance to the phenomenon of consciousness, (complex as it is), which is being studied assiduously, with excellent prospects for understanding that will blow away the fog of "emergentism" (see a recent post).

To close, let me offer a quote taken from a podcast interview by Ginger Campbell of one of my scientific heros, Georgy Buzsaki, neuroscientist and author of "Rhythms of the brain" (see side-links) about brainwaves, where he expresses his view of reductionism:
"The complex systems (area of engineering) offered a very rich toolkit for neuroscience to think about interactions in the brain in a new way, but it also was very important to realize that many of these ideas are important because you can view things differently, but ideas and principles that have a common thread across different disciplines are substrate-free. But whenever we want to understand the mechanisms we have to translate these interesting principles into mechanisms on a given substrate. So when I learned, and with other people we tried to say ... 'oh, the brain is a complex system which has particular dynamics and is non-linear' ... all of these things, it didn't tell me anything, as it doesn't tell anything to the average reader, because the mechanisms have to be understood and broken down into pieces. And that's where I think the responsibilities of neuroscientists lie- that the hand-waving, interesting explanations have to be translated into neuronal mechanisms. And this is where I think the new field of neurocomputation and experimental neuroscience must work together to see the ideas that spring out from your brain or from your head can be really tied to reality, rather to just express imagination."

Incidental links:
  • Radiolab audio episode on the sometimes bizarre joys of science.
  • Review of the science vs religion debate in TNR, making special mention of prominent scientists who try to have it both ways, as well as the so-called Intelligent Design movement. This is a specially trenchant and thorough article- highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Childish things

A quick note about the inauguration.

After being so moved by the inauguration, a couple of thoughts. First, the benediction by Joseph Lowery was wonderful, far more positive, rooted, poetic, and appropriate to the moment than the mess presented by Rick Warren. If we need such things, (we need the poetry, not the theism), inclusive ecumenical expressions will beat exclusive, divisive ones every time. And it was better poetry than the official "poem" as well!

The line that encapsulates the inaugural address for me is "the time has come to set aside childish things". This is the tenor that Obama is bringing, after 20 years of food fights in Washington, brought to us by the power-at-all-costs bomb-throwing of Newt Gingrich and colleagues. In several ways and times Obama touched on this theme, in what is surely an attempt to extend his personal inclusiveness and judiciousness to the general tone in Washington which has been mired in so much stasis. A government which, as Obama pointed out, has put off so many important hard decisions while deranging our institutions and public morals in favor of a fearful security state.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Christian culture?

Do we live in a Christian culture? Or one that has long been turning into something else?
Hi, Romanus here, speaking in the second year of the reign of Emperor Decius. Delightful how we keep the old holidays- Saturnalia in early winter with its exchange of presents, Lupercalia in late winter, and Floralia in spring. The youth don't seem to be so excited about them, but I know they will come around when they get older. Many of the youngsters are going into new cults like Mithraism, Cybelism, even the Elusinian mysteries. Well, so long as they believe in something- that's all I say.

I know some scoffers ask "How can there be several hundred gods? They can't all be real, can they?". Well, I'll tell you, the more the merrier. Rome is strong from its welcome of many gods, even though Jupiter is, of course the most powerful. Rome is also strong from its cultivation of ancient ritual, from augury to animal sacrifice. The wine and sacred bread sprinkled on the sacrificed animal is as important as the haruspicy we do to verify its fitness. All is fit and proper, and all redounds to the power of Rome!

What I can't stand, frankly, are those atheists who call themselves Christians who follow the Jews in renouncing all the ancient and civic gods. How dare they? They are a danger to the morals and peace of the empire. One day they will bring it down, and woe to us then ... a dark age is sure to follow, with their pigheaded intolerance and care for nothing but their pathetic Jesus.

Remember Rome- how long it took for their gods to die ... to pass from belief into myth and literature? We still have countless living momentos of that culture, such as months, holiday festivals, language, engineering, myths and symbols. But it clearly does not signify that their culture is alive. No, it is dead, and humans have learned from it, found new ideals and founded new cultures. The same is happening to Christianity in the present day. Just as the Holy Roman and Apostolic church echos faintly the glories of ancient Rome, so we in our enlightened age echo faintly, in our festivals, institutions and language the age of Cathedrals and scholastics, when the queen of the university was theology and the best and brightest went into the clergy.

What succeeded the Roman religion was worse- intolerant, closed-minded, with fatally conflicting ideals and obsessive focus on non-reality, leading to a long dark age. Thankfully, that same Christianity, now heading down the same road of unbelief as the Roman gods of yore, is being replaced by a distinctly superior philosophy. This secular, scientific, and humanistic ethic is cosmopolitan, rational, and tolerant. Its templates and forerunners are the golden ages of yore, like those of Athens, Islam, Italy, Netherlands, and Scotland. Those who still hunger for spiritual expression continue to find many avenues, from classic religion to new age, scholarly immersion, and environmentalism. The reconciliation they seek between the sacred and the mundane is, however, strongly affected by today's tolerance and engagement with reality, so it is very hard to persevere in complete fantasies such as the supernaturalisms and fundamentalisms of old. Conversly, it is easier to cast what is real, such as nature and the cosmos, in spiritual and meaningful terms, since so much is now known of their truly epic scale and history. The core culture is wedded to progress both socially and materially through enlightened engagement with reality, and that is a hopeful and worthy position.

Incidental links:
  • Barak Obama's mother was secular and raised him with no religion.
  • Podcast presenting the Jesus myth hypothesis. At any rate, the evidence either way is minimal.

Keynes lives!

Why Milton Friedman was wrong, and Keynes was right.

Fiscal or monetary, that is the question. Milton Friedman insisted that monetary stimulus alone could solve recessions and depressions. That is to say, the Fed fiddling with interest rates and bank reserve requirements could correct any macroeconomic bubble fallout and liquidity problems. Paul Krugman wrote a fine article laying this argument to rest, since in the current crisis, (and in Japan's of the 90's), interest rates are at zero, yet deflation and other dislocations still threaten. However he did not really delve into why a fiscal stimulus can do what free money to the banks can not. (A slate guy tried to, though).

Meanwhile, David Brooks decides that since he has no understanding of fiscal policy, the whole thing is very risky and shouldn't be attempted (in the hallowed tradition of doubt mongering on tobacco, climate change, etc.). And the Cato institute puts out the ever-helpful advice that what would fix the current economic problem is a large dose of tax cuts.

With all the years and brains devoted to economics since the great depression, one would have thought that more was learned. Indeed, more has been learned, but media megaphones are usually held by those who have other interests than the pursuit of disinterested economic theory. I am no economist, so once again, caveat emptor!

We find ourselves in an odd place. A massive credit bubble has collapsed, slicing values of assets, loan portfolios, loan collateral, and investments of many sorts to fractions of their former bid-up values. The musical chairs of greater-fool (and unregulated) investing has ended, with substantially fewer chairs than players. The prospects of many kinds of future cash/investment flows has suddenly declined, inducing a whiplash effect on the banks that deal in future-denominated assets (i.e. credit). All that free money on loan from the Fed is filling craters that used to be shiny assets but now turn out to be hockey pucks, or, though the magic of leverage, craters of debt.

So the Cato guy is right- funnelling free money to the banks (and even buying up their stock to provide capital) is not going to force them to lend- not in declining economic times when the next shoe to drop may be their own. The banks play a key role in the system, and monetary policy is essential to keep banks solvent, preventing total collapse, and for setting the stage for economic recovery. But it is not enough if lending is not yet attractive, either due to the wounds already inflicted by the collapse, or due to the lack of positive growth prospects.

Monetary policy alone is enough for many things, like slaying inflation, and mild recession balancing. But deflationary spirals appear to be beyond its reach. Banks and other major investors have fled to safety- specifically, to the safety of T-bills, and that is the key to the conundrum. Banks can clear a small profit from investing their zero-rate Fed money at T-bill rates, and any other investor interested in safety goes there as well. So the government ends up with vast amounts of low-interest money siphoned from the economy. What to do with it?

The obvious answer is to recycle it back into the economy, through a stimulus package like the ones being contemplated currently. The point of monetary policy, after all, is to maintain economic activity, especially jobs, so that the tender flame of money flowing around the economy does not sputter and go out. If the banks won't step up to the plate and the government is seeing a glut of cautious investment dollars coming its way, then it simply has to employ those dollars to give the flame a bit more fuel. Of course, if the government spends the money (as it would in a stimulus) instead of lending it (as the Fed does), then it is setting up future generations to pay back all those T-bill holders in the form of taxes.

That is where the theory of a stimulus gets interesting. The ability of future generations to repay all this money is going to depend on whether they end up better off (i.e. more productive) than we are today. If they are, then repayment will be a piece of cake. If not, they may be faced with currency devaluation or inflation as round-about ways of reneging it. The money thus should ideally take the form of investments that serve the common good in economically beneficial ways, especially in the long term. Usually, this kind of allocation is best left to private parties (forgetting for the moment the monumental short-sightedness demonstrated by our management culture in both the dot-com and finance bubbles), but now, of course, willy nilly, this decision is up to the government.

Let's consider a few different uses of the stimulus:
1. Tax breaks, as per the Cato guy. This has the virtue of leaving the decision of how to invest the money with private citizens. Unfortunately, among the rich, the money is quite likely to end up in T-bills or their equivalent once again ... not a productive use of the money at all, either short term or long term. At the lower end of the income spectrum, the extra money is likely to be spent rapidly, which is indeed good in the short term, since it would fuel the flame of economic activity in a generic way. But it would not constitute any kind of productive investment, especially if used towards the basic needs of food and gas that are likely targets. This kind of spending will maintain the economy, but productive investment must change the economy.

Incidentally, we do not know quite how stimulated the economy should be. If it was overheated and inflated two years ago, and if it is depressed and sagging today, where is the happy mean? That is a delicate question, indicating that the stimulus should be kept to a fraction (like 1/4) of the total wealth lost in this downturn. Economists probably have decent ideas about it, however. One sure-fire measure is the unemployment rate. Below is another measure, part of a Taylor rule presentation, courtesy of a treasure trove of economic data at the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

2. Foreclosure amelioration. Plummeting conditions in the real estate market underlie much of the current pain. Banks do not know how much their loans are worth, builders do not know when they will ever be able to get back to business, and wealth continues to evaporate. It would do a great deal of short-term good to prop up the mortgage industry with renegotiations and refinancing, as is being done now with voluntary programs with the banks and breathtakingly low interest rates. But this is dangerous as well, since we do not know what the natural level of the real estate market should be. If the government takes over loans that later slip further under water, what have we gained? Not much. And the unfairness of helping the most profligate mortgage holders while responsible holders get left paying the taxes to clean up the mess is also quite unattractive.

One idea is to develop incentives that encourage banks to resolve foreclosures by transforming them into market-rate rentals rather than evicting and selling at extremely steep losses. The flood of foreclosures is the worst kind of panic selling that hurts everyone- banks, householders, and the economy. The government could use HUD, or another agency along the lines of Fannie Mae to buy up titles to such properties and manage them, for eventual sale when the market improves.

3. Specific projects. Stimulus money would ideally to go into economically beneficial investments, like targeted education, power grid upgrades, green technology, research, broadband upgrades, and health system upgrades. The record of government direct investment is decidedly mixed. It brought us the internet and the highway system, but also the boondoggles of synfuels, hydrogen cars, the space shuttle, and nuclear power. Government tends not to do well in big projects, but can effectively broker small projects, as is done by the peer review system that has been such a stellar method of resource allocation at the NIH.

I'd like to see at least part of the stimulus go to small grants awarded rapidly on a peer reviewed basis on the broadest range of topics, from the arts to green technology to social policy development. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and perhaps a new internet will take root.

These investments will help shape the economy that will remain after the economic crisis is over. Short-term thinking is not useful, and over-allocation to any one sector (like research, for instance) would create unsustainable growth leading to retrenchment later on. Thus we will be shaping consciously what the future will look like, anticipating what the market will do once the current crisis, and the government participation it has called forth, leave the stage.

Incidentally, we might ask whether we even want economic growth!
  • Later link- Krugman narrates the same story, summer 2009.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Politics of temperament

A temperamental argument for political resentment

Continuing last week's discussion of psychological types, the book Please understand me also has some trenchant things to say about the educational system. Following on Carl Jung's four-dimension system, Kiersey and Bates condense it into four basic types, mixing in a bit of Hippocrates to get the "Dionysian", "Epimethian", "Promethian", and "Apollonian" temperaments. To be crudely brief, the Dionysian (SP) temperament is experiential, impulsive, and freedom-loving, the Epimethian (SJ) duty-bound and methodical, the Promethian (NT) intellectual, curious, and self-directed, the Apollonian (NF) imaginative and highly empathic. Schools tend to be run by and for the Epimethian type, and teachers have a rather hard time understanding students who do not obey directions, line up in rows, seek approval, and do their work on time- a description of the Epimethian temperament. 

This regime serves the Dionysian type particularly poorly- the student who has to be active, who learns by doing and handling things, whose impulses must be obeyed and expressed, who, as the authors state, needs to "fly the plane, drive the truck, climb the mountain, toot the horn". These students lose interest quickly, tend to say to their neighbors in class that "this is stupid!", and run off to join the military right after high school, if indeed they make it through at all. They think about now much more than the future, and handle people, negotiations, and crises well. They make up over one-third of the population, and according to the authors are massively under-represented in higher education. Not because they are not intelligent, but because their style of learning is not suited to the dominanat style of teaching. One can easily make an evolutionary argument about this, but I'll pass on that now. Examples of this type, according to last week's political link, are John McCain and G. W. Bush- both impatient with abstractions, eager to mix it up, and who thrive on excitement and crisis.

Dionysians in our society live in a somewhat alien world that values abstraction and book learning, and many of whose ever-growing complexities are difficult to master in concrete, hands-on ways. Thus it seems that they are probable candidates for political resentment in US politics, forming a class of voters who resent the success of those who get the rewards of higher education purely because they can sit still, not because they are particularly bright- those who are the self-annointed elites, while it is the Dionysians who eagerly run the levers that actually make the world go around. Dionysians naturally appreciate leaders who, like them, denigrate pointy-headed pencil-pushers, and who "go with their gut" to make decisions. 

One problem is that, while the Dionysian has just as much native intelligence as anyone, there really is a point to sitting down and hitting the books. Impatience with abstractions can be fatal if key aspects of the world are best understood on exactly that basis. Important concepts and processes really are imparted in the precincts of higher education, though making people better leaders or more compassionate or moral are certainly not among them. This is not an argument for sending more students to college (let alone treating hyperactive students with drugs!). Indeed proposals to send all high schoolers to college are dead-wrong, sure to waste the time of both students and teachers. It is an argument to value those with different skills and temperaments by beefing up alternative hands-on education systems like trade schools, internships, apprenticeships, arts schools, etc., so that each person can flourish in the most congenial and effective way.

One can take this kind of typology too far, and no person is a pure type let alone just a type, but it seems beneficial to realize that people are different in deep ways, to the extent that they can be almost mutually incomprehensible. Thus it can be helpful to have explicit descriptions for (and appreciation of) differences that I, for example, as an Epimethian, would otherwise be oblivious to. 

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Introvert's revenge

Introverts are looked down upon, regarded as abnormal, called names. But we have a weapon!

Humans are not created equal, political ideals notwithstanding. Visionary, practical, dutiful, impulsive, sensitive, brusque, intuitive, realistic, creative ... all sorts occur among us, and psychologists have labored to classify the most important and immovable types of psychological variation. Carl Jung came up with one much-used four-dimension system, nicely described in a book by Keirsey and Bates: Please understand me. (New edition.) One of the most salient of these dimensions is introvert/extravert. As Keirsey and Bates relate, extraverts give parties, and leave from them energized. Introverts leave drained, and seek private spaces and solitude instead. Extraverts feel lonely when they are alone, whereas introverts feel alone when they are in crowds!

The population apparently divides 75% extravert to 25% introvert. Naturally, extraverts run everything in society, from political affairs to social clubs and businesses. They also think that introversion is a problem- that "social skills" are essential for a "normal" life, and that not wanting to participate in social affairs is excentric, deviant and disreputable. One has to ask how introversion ever arose, and what keeps it at a stable proportion in the population (it is strongly heritable). One approach lies in evolutionary psychology- asking about the settings in which we evolved. Currently, we live in huge societies where introversion can be quite painful, and it is common for many to want to get away from the crowds into their own single-family home, cacooning in their own space with their own home theater system, etc. Clearly we never evolved at the population densities of today, but in far more modest tribal or extended family settings, where introversion was less of a problem.

So how is (or was) introversion beneficial? Social life is far from the whole point of human existence. Though being "inner-directed" may sound egotistical, it is actually quite different. The introvert's focus on and sensitivity to non-social issues may yield better perceptions of reality- better vigilence over the natural surroundings, for instance, which can benefit everyone. Art also has little to do with social issues, but is an exploration of the inner life- what it means to be human, what kinds of novel views one can take of reality and of ourselves, what heights of feeling humans can attain. And then there is spirituality, the ultimate inner experience. When it comes to deep feelings and spiritual impulses, introverts are more likely to have them, to pay attention to them, and protect them from the mundane intrusions of the external world. That is, to be inspired. As the joke has it, spirituality is what introverts do to make extraverts feel guilty.

Thus the constant seeking that many people experience for traditions and gurus who have the most deep and esoteric things to say about the human condition. This goes back to the position of the shaman, an apparently constant part of early human society, though present in an infinite variety of incarnations. These explorers of the inner life are respected for their special powers, sometimes amplified by vigorous PR and the incomprehension that extraverts have of this other mode of life. Some of these powers are undoubtedly real, since shamans cultivate alternate views of reality that can be important antidotes to the constricted, reality-driven views of the majority. Keeping alive a sensitive, inspired, and imaginative approach to life has great utility, and human populations doubtless benefit from a vibrant mix of the various personality types- a mix that is apparent in the work of Jane Goodall and others on chimpanzees as well.

Ironically, once societies grow in size, their spiritual/religious functions are captured by those who run everything else in society- extraverts (whether tied to the state or not), who have little idea where the original inspiration came from, who take the figurative ideas of the prophets with unimaginative literalism, who create hierarchies of "spiritual" bureaucrats, and who ultimately "stone the prophets in their turn", in the words of William James. However, when the religious marketplace is free there is a constant turning to new prophets, sects, and movements that can put people in touch with the wellsprings of spirituality without the accretions of extraverted (and spiritually dead) organizations, ceremonies, and dogma.

Incidental link: an illuminating analysis of the political campaign last spring in personality terms, involving, naturally, extraverts exclusively.