Flags, collectivism, and quantum physics (seriously)

Adam Gurri has posted a followup to my post about the subjective meaning of flags and other symbols. It’s well worth a read. In it, he argues essentially that I’m hung up on the whole subjectivity/objectivity framework when there’s, like, a whole other world out there, man*:

Rob complains that I “elevate intersubjectivity to the level of objectivity,” but that’s simply a symptom of being stuck in subject-object thinking. You begin to think “objective” is a synonym for truth.

Well, yes. I think that a proposition that is objectively true is, um, true. I don’t really see any alternative.

But Adam suggests that instead of seeing things in terms of subject/object, I should maybe try looking at them as true or false:

Rob trips up because he think truth just is objective truth. But the subject-object distinction is very young, compared the the distinction between truth and falsehood.

He goes on to provide lots of reasons to think that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol, concluding that anyone who claims that the flag is not a racist symbol is therefore holding onto a falsehood.

I would point out that members of the Confederacy proclaimed that the cornerstone of their cause was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” I would also point out that the designer of the flag argued that “we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race”. Finally, I would point out that the flag was not even flown by the state of South Carolina after the Civil War until 1961, precisely to signal its position on the Civil Rights Movement, which was mounting at the time.

Notice, though, that the reasons Adam gives for this proposition are what most people would call “objective facts.” So the statement “the Confederate flag is a racist symbol” is (objectively) true because of these (objective) facts. The whole subject/object versus true/false thing would seem, then, to be a red herring. It doesn’t really make any difference, at least in this case, whether we say something is “true” or “an objective fact.” The result is the same.

But for the sake of argument I’ll adopt Adam’s language, so that we end up with:

“The statement that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol is true.”

Or, more succinctly:

“The Confederate flag is a racist symbol.”

But notice as well that all of the facts Adam cites in support of this proposition are incidences of people expressing their belief that the flag is a symbol of a racist ideology. He points to the beliefs of “members of the Confederacy” and the “designer of the flag” and the presumably racist motivations of government officials in flying the flag after 1961. In other words, his entire argument rests on the subjective beliefs of other people.

So we are left with an argument that is essentially: “This flag is a racist symbol because these individuals believe/believed it’s a racist symbol, and if anyone would know, it’s them.” If the intent of this argument is to show that the proposition “The Confederate flag is a racist symbol” rests on more than an aggregate of subjective beliefs, it fails.

Another example Adam gives of a symbol that supposedly has meaning over and above its aggregate subjective meanings is the dollar:

This is not about adding up percentages of people who believe a dollar is money. A dollar is money. It can certainly cease to be money. But when that happens, it is unlikely to look like a process where fewer and fewer people agree with you that it is money. If you’re just looking at subjects, it happens like a cascade—all of a sudden you can’t find hardly anyone who thinks money is money.

But isn’t this exactly what happens in the case of hyperinflation? In fact, that description seems like a pretty good summary of what happened in the Weimar Republic prior to World War II: The Reichsmark gradually lost value until eventually more and more people accepted the fact that it was no longer money in any real sense.

Fewer and fewer people agree with me that this is money.
Fewer and fewer people agree with me that this is money.

The abruptness of the final phase of this process, from the loss of 99%+ of the currency’s value and the final acceptance by virtually everyone that it was no longer money, seems immaterial to me. Sometimes beliefs are communicated very quickly. So what? Of course, the paragraph uses the weasel words “look like,” and I will grant that depending on your vantage point, it may not look like that is what is happening. But that doesn’t change the fact that that is exactly what is happening.

Yes, a dollar is money. This is a true statement. But here’s the thing: money is a concept that is fundamentally linked to value, and value is a concept that is fundamentally linked to (wait for it) subjectivity. There is no value outside of an individual’s preference for one thing over another. A dollar is money because you can use it to pay for things, and you can use it to pay for things because people value it. So to say “a dollar is money” is to say nothing more than that a dollar has subjective value to various people.

Now at this point Adam is reading this and going, “Seriously, dude? You’re going to insist that the most meaningful way to talk about money is in terms of its subjective value to hundreds of millions of individual people? You don’t see how awkward and unwieldy that is?”

So let me to clarify that no, that isn’t what I’m saying. There are certainly times when it is useful to talk about money as something that has (what I would call) objective value over and above its subjective value. I would even grant that such statements can be “true,” given a certain framework of other premises. What I object to isn’t the use of different sets of terminologies for different circumstances, but the importing of terminology from one set of circumstances to another.

As an example, consider the entire body of classical physics. No one would argue that classical physics isn’t useful. On the other hand, it also happens to be completely wrong. This isn’t an overstatement. All the physics you learned in high school has been completely debunked. Feel free to research the matter yourself. Read Feinman’s lectures if you don’t believe me.

Fortunately for aerospace engineers and the like, classical physics is still an extremely useful approximation. It’s so useful for determining behavior of the objects you’re likely to experience in your daily life, in fact, that high school physics textbooks contain such lies as Force = mass x acceleration without even an explanatory footnote. For almost all practical purposes F=ma is true.

The only time you’ll actually run into a problem using classical physics is when you try to explain the behavior of very small (or very large) objects. If you try to use classical physics to predict how one atom will react when struck by another atom, your prediction will be laughably, absurdly wrong. That’s because the so-called “laws of physics” that we “know to be true” don’t really kick in until you’ve got a whole bunch of atoms to work with. Sound familiar?

In essence, we have two different sets of rules for physics (although in reality classical physics is a subset of quantum physics), and you have to know when to use each one, or Very Bad Things will happen. If you prove something on the macro level with classical physics and then try to apply that knowledge to individual atoms, you will fail spectacularly. Similarly, if you’re a panelist on CNN, you can probably safely assert that the Confederate flag is racist. If you’re sipping moonshine with Jedediah the hillbilly in his cabin, you might want to consider a different approach.

Remember, the issue isn’t which approach is “correct” or “true.” The issue is which approach is more useful. If Very Bad Things start to happen, there’s a good chance you haven’t picked the most useful approach. I noted in my previous post that collectivist logic applied at the individual level results in some very troubling conclusions:

After all, if people are to the nation-state as cells are to a human being, then executing a few dissidents should bother us no more than excising a suspicious mole.

Adam’s rejoinder to this is:

First, as David Hume pointed out long ago, pointing out the consequences of a theory does not make it false.

But remember, we’re not talking about what’s true or false. We’re talking about what’s useful. And if your theory results in the conclusion that it’s acceptable (or even desirable) to execute dissidents, I would venture that it is perhaps not the most useful theory to use under the circumstances.

Regarding my contention that collectivist logic leads to totalitarianism, Adam responds:

The idea that believing that groups have no ontological status outside of aggregating individuals will protect us from tyranny seems to overstate things quite a bit.

I agree. Of course, I never said it would. What I said is that we should be careful not to assign to groups attributes which are properly the domain of individuals, such as “consciousness, intention, or moral authority.” Groups have, by definition, properties that their constituent members do not possess. I’m not objecting to that idea. I’m objecting to (1) assigning particular attributes to a group without compelling reason to do so; and (2) applying conclusions derived at the group level to individuals (as I’ve already detailed above).

Let me add, too, that this isn’t some fanciful slippery slope argument about collectivist logic someday leading to totalitarianism. I see examples of both (1) and (2) on a daily basis, and there is a clear connection between those two errors and the encroaching power of the centralized state. Books have been written on this topic, but I’ll just give one obvious example: Politicians often speak of the “common good,” which is evidently some sort of good that benefits the nation as a whole. The problem is that each of these politicians has a different idea of the “common good,” and they seem to be unable to agree on any objective criteria for determining what that good is. So we take it as a given that the “common good” exists, and that it is an admirable goal, despite the fact that nobody seems to know what it is.

The libertarian explanation of this curious state of affairs is that there is no common good. There are only individual goods, because each individual values things differently. The idea of a common good is an illusion resulting from treating groups as if they were individuals. In other words, we’ve anthropomorphized the group, granting it attributes that are properly the domain of the individual. That’s an example of error (1) above.

This error leads directly to error (2), applying collectivist logic at the individual level. Now that we’ve decided we must pursue the “common good,” we find that certain troublesome element stand in opposition to this laudable goal. Some of these troublemakers even deny the very existence of a common good! We weigh the “common good” of the group up against the selfish desires of these dissidents and find that the group’s needs are more important. The dissidents (a very small group in the scheme of things) are eliminated, and society continues to progress toward its ineffable goal.

On a group level, this makes perfect sense. Again, if individuals are cells in a the body of the state, then eliminating dissidents is comparable to excising a suspicious mole. The health and survival of the state is the main concern. Of course, on an individual level, this solution is horrific. But if you don’t accept that the individual is sacred and that there is a specific set of rules to be used when dealing with individuals to avoid horrific outcomes, it’s very easy to fall into that trap. Every collectivist society has.

One final point: the illustration of classical versus quantum physics is illuminating in another way. Although it may appear that quantum physics is only used in certain rare situations, quantum physics is actually the more comprehensive of the two systems. Classical physics is simply a set of approximations that are useful in certain special cases. All of the properties of classical physics are actually the aggregate of quantum properties. They don’t look that way to the untrained observer (or to the trained observer most of the time), but it’s true. Again, does this sound familiar?

It may seem like groups are completely different things from individuals, and there are certainly handy rules that we can use for making sense of the behavior of groups. But in the end, groups are simply an aggregate of individuals. Individualism is the default system. Collectivism is the special case. Unless you want Very Bad Things to happen, never use collectivist thinking when individualism will suffice.


*Adam does not actually talk like this as far as I know, but it’s more fun if you picture him talking like The Big Lebowski.

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