Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Does History Have Lessons?

As some of you have probably deduced, I'm fascinated by human fallibility. There are so many ways for our brains to go wrong. I've never believed George Santayana's


Those who won't learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.

I simply don't believe that history has any lessons, at least not any that are discernible to mortals.

Having made that bold statement, let me elaborate. Howard said in a recent post against the current policy concerning Iraq;

History’s lesson is that military force in the long run is useless against religious conviction. Remember that relatively few Christians eventually overcame all the Roman legions.

I have the opposite point of view concerning Iraq, so I might also point to history and say that the Christians did not overcome the Legions. Emperor Constantine found it politically useful to convert. But even if what Howard said were accurate, I would point out that in fact, the lesson of history is that military force is highly effective against religious conviction. We might take for example, the Roman destruction of the ancient Jewish nation despite the fact that the Jews of Masada were fervent enough to commit suicide rather than be captured. Simon de Beaufort destroyed the Cathare religion at Montseguer, despite the fact that they fervently chose death rather than conversion. Another case that immediately comes to mind is the stamping out of the Vaudois religion in the mountains of France by military action and repeated the action in the south of France when the Vaudois secretly established themselves there.

I'm not suggesting such a policy in Iraq. I'm simply saying that a lot of factors need to be taken into account before one can propose a general historical lesson in order to support or oppose a current policy.

Too often we create the lesson that supports our viewpoint and then pick and chose among historical data to "prove" the lesson. In science, it only take one contrary piece of data to discard a proposed theory. If the same rule were followed in the study of history, a single contrary example would negate the "lesson" proposed. In my opinion, history is so vastly complicated compared to science that finding it's so-called lessons is impossible. One only needs to look at the disagreements between stock market prognosticators to see that even in a narrow domain so-called lessons are useless. With respect -Joel

12 comments:

Ira Glickstein said...

From: Ira, Re: History Lessons.

"What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history."

The above quote, variously attributed to Napoleon and Disraeli, is undoubtedly true in many cases ... but false in others!

Biological adaptation, as described by the neo-Darwinian concept of Natural Selection, is, quite literally, the means Nature has for learning from history and summarizing those survival and reproductive strategies that work in DNA sequences. As Howard pointed out in a Comment on a different thread, that method is quite expensive for the individual organisms who pay the price (death, extinction) but not for Nature, which has an unlimited research and development budget and schedule.

Similarly in the competition between groups of memes, the price is high for individuals but the lessons, enshrined in those memes that have survived and flourished, undoubtedly have some long-lasting truth in them.

Joel says the lessons of history, if they exist at all, are not discernible to mortals. He writes "Too often we create the lesson that supports our viewpoint and then pick and chose among historical data to 'prove' the lesson."

That is undoubtedly true in many cases ... but false in others!

So, what to do?

First, we need to be extremely suspicious of lessons we or others draw from history. Is it a special case? Has it been "overcome by events" or new technology? Are the conditions comparable enough to draw strong conclusions?

On the other hand, since the "proof" standards for lessons of history are not at levels comparable to scientific proof, and since human minds are particularly susceptable to reasoning by (sometimes non-scientific) reference to history, we should just go ahead and use those "proofs" when they appear to support our pre-ordained viewpoints.

The meme of using history as a precedent is a strong one. Therefore, it must enshrine some truth. Not infallable by any means, but worth considering.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

From Howard Re: Iraq policy

JOEL wrote: I have the opposite point of view concerning Iraq, so I might also point to history and say that the Christians did not overcome the Legions. Emperor Constantine found it politically useful to convert.

HOWARD responds: You may know more about why Constantine became a Christian than I do. Some say it was because his mother was a Christian, some say it was his success in battle. Who can know? Writing to Christians, Constantine says that he owed his successes to the protection of the Christian High God alone (Peter Brown, The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003 p. 60)

In any case, why he converted, or how Rome became Christian does not make my statement inaccurate. I stand by my statement: “Christians eventually overcame all the Roman legions.” Christianity still exists after innumerable attempts to kill it off. Russia and China also have tried. The same is true of the Jewish religion only they have persisted under even more numerous and more vicious military forces. I class Islam as a major religion that since its origin has also withstood many military attempts to wipe it out.

The evidence I have from those who have tried to evaluate the Iraq situation, like the Baker Report and reasonably objective reporters like Ricks (Fiasco) is that the military “war on terror” was making thing worse. Bush’s “war on terror” is generating radical Islamists all over the Middle East.

Hopefully in the face of disaster the administration has finally changed its war policy (with Petraeus) to a policing and containment strategy just trying to stabilize parts of the country, as some think tanks recommend (e.g., http://www.cnas.org/en/cms/?368 ) (Still an uncertain task).

Howard

Howard Pattee said...

From Howard Re: restatement about beliefs

From Joel’s and Ira’s comments I see it was wrong to use history as the teacher when I was actually using observable evidence. What I have observed and learned from psychology 101 is that physical force is not an effective way to change a person’s considered belief about anything.

Let’s get away from Iraq and use a more neutral imaginary example. Ira and I disagreed for years on the metaphysical issue of whether the universe is deterministic or probabilistic. I think initially Ira went along with Einstein’s view, and I followed Bohr’s view, but that’s irrelevant to my point. My point is that if Ira had come into my office and found me angry, holding a gun, and yelling, “Einstein is wrong” I doubt he would change his belief about Einstein. I am sure he would change his belief about his professor. He might appear to agree by saying that Einstein was a fool, but that is only because he prefers lying to being shot.

What is more important for my point is that by using “military force” all of my reasoned arguments have been lost because Ira would conclude that I had lost my senses. I think the same results would hold for torture or any physical threat, and for almost any belief, whether it is religious, scientific, metaphysical, or just the time of day.

Joel’s examples are just cases of effective killing, but not of effective changing beliefs. In fact they demonstrate that beliefs are not even changed in the face of certain death.

Can anyone give a counter example?

joel said...

from Joel: Re: to Howard, counter example, analogy, evidence

joel said...

Hi Howard, (re: counter-example)
You said in one place:

History’s lesson is that military force in the long run is useless against religious conviction. Remember that relatively few Christians eventually overcame all the Roman legions. In fact, brute force inflames the true believer and converts the otherwise moderates by the collateral damage that destroys the infrastructure of their society.


You said in another place:

Joel’s examples are just cases of effective killing, but not of effective changing beliefs. In fact they demonstrate that beliefs are not even changed in the face of certain death.

Can anyone give a counter example?

Joel responds: My examples of "effective killing" were in response to your proposal that there existed a lesson of history which states, "History’s lesson is that military force in the long run is useless against religious conviction." Your historical lesson said nothing about beliefs changing. However, I'll take up your challenge to find a counter-example.

History is in fact full of examples military force being used effectively to change beliefs or religious conviction. (Note that neither the Bush administration nor I have ever proposed that we do so. I'm only trying to promote the notion that so-called lessons are invalid.) Islam was spread largely by military conquest in ancient India, China and Indonesia. Those countries are still Islamic today. Somebody must have had a change of heart. Virtually all of South America is Catholic today. That started because of military conquest and forced conversion. Similarly, France and England are Christian because of the wars of conquest of the Romans. There aren't many Druids today and those that exist are not related to those of the past. I don't want to make a big deal out of this, since you've already conceded the point that you probably shouldn't have used the words "lessons of history." However, you site "historical evidence" in the same fashion and you ask for a counter-example. The reason I (and anyone else) can successfully cite such examples is that every historical event is multi-factoral. It's all about choosing circumstances that fit your own rhetorical goals. It has nothing to do with evidence or proof. Similarly, analogies are useless as proof, because we would end up disputing the factors to be placed in the analogy. In your analogy about you threatening Ira with physical harm while trying to convince him of your point of view, we would start arguing about the assumptions of the analogy. I would say that the analogy ought to be that you and Ira are trying to debate peacefully and an irate student keeps screaming at the top of his lungs that Ira is right and threatens your life if you don't concede. You try to bar the disruptive student by locking him out of your office so that you and Ira can continue to work out your differences. That's my version of the "correct" analogy. It's totally useless to argue in this way, because the analogy is nothing more than a picturesque way of restating our views. What is important is the recognition of our OWN fallibility when dealing with one another.

joel said...

From Joel: re: lessons of history.

I found Ira's comments very interesting, but I'd like to nitpick just a bit. To say that nature learns the lessons of history is a poetic use of anthropomorphism, not a truth. Humans and perhaps some other creatures with brains learn a lesson. To say that nature learns a lesson is almost Lamarckian. The individual dna learns nothing. As Ira well states, some dna with a certain valued trait survives and some without that trait does not. The winning dna has learned nothing from the environmental changes, nor has nature. There is no memory of what occurred in nature except perhaps for a few fossils . An observer of the global scene has the illusion of adaptation by nature when actually the dna and nature are totally passive players. I know you are all aware of the above, but our brain's natural instinct for anthropomorphism is a stumbling block to understanding. Nature stores no lessons nor is it any kind of history book. In fact, it's the opposite. It's the last page, torn from the book and the rest of the book discarded, if you're partial to anthropomorphic analogy.

Ira Glickstein said...

From: Ira Re: History Lessons.

I'm enjoying the collegial, fact-based repartee between my Professor friends Howard and Joel! (Joel is a retired engineering prof. and Howard a physicist and retired system science prof. I'm only a retired engineer but I currently "play a prof." teaching an online grad course in system engineering at U. Maryland.)

I agree with Howard that physical violence, per se, does not change *deeply held* beliefs. On the other hand, I agree with Joel that physical violence has played a large role in the outcome of the "clash of civilizations" between warring religions.

How to explain the apparent inconsistency? Well, in any society, "true believers" make up only a small percentage of the population. The majority uncritically accept the strongly-stated opinions of authority figures and/or charismatic activists. Change the authority figures and silence the activists, and, a few decades later, the majority will uncritically accept the strongly-stated views of the new opinion leaders!

In our own lifetime, we have seen the anti-democratic, militaristic and xenophobic views that dominated WWII Japan and Germany replaced by much more moderate, pro-democratic views. In our own country, views about blacks, women, gays, religion, sex, divorce, and many other topics have changed drastically.

Howard is correct that threats of violence would not change my firmly-held belief that the Universe is absolutely deterministic (in the Einstein/Spinoza sense). I had the luxury of a solid engineering job and an understanding PhD advisor (Howard). Had I been an unemployed student seeking a PhD in physics, I most likely would have modified my views to be more compatible with the Bohr/Heisenberg probabilistic view that dominates modern physics and is considered "weird" even by proponents. (See: Action at a Distance about the "EPR paradox" and the 1982 experiment that seemed to show faster than light communications and caused physicists to abandon "locality". The EPR results may be explained by strict determinism, retaining both locality and the limit of the speed of light.)

Joel "nitpicks" me as follows: "To say that nature learns the lessons of history is a poetic use of anthropomorphism, not a truth."

When a child *learns* to recognize the letter "A", or that "1+1=2", or that a hot stove is not a good place for fingers, these facts are memorialized in the tangled web of neuronal connections in his or her brain. The child interacts with his or her environment (mother, teacher, things, ...) and the brain circuitry gets modified until the child's "key" better matches the "lock" of the environment. Successful education consists of storing neuronal sequences in brains. You probably do not remember the exact history of how you learned each of these things. The tangled web of neuronal connections in your brain gives no clue of that history. However, your success at reading and math and not getting burned is proof that the lessons took.

You do not have to believe Nature is Conscious in the human sense to accept that it *learns* from the interaction of animals in the environment and memorializes these *lessons* in the DNA code that survives and reproduces most successfully. DNA sequences in the biosphere change over time as animals evolve to better fit the changing environment. The tangled sequences of molecular strings that make up your DNA give no clue of that history. However, the success of that DNA encoding proteins that give rise to organisms that successfully live and reproduce is proof that the lesssons took.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

From HOWARD Re: recognizing fallibility

JOEL says: What is important is the recognition of our OWN fallibility when dealing with one another.

HOWARD emphatically agrees! I would only add that this recognition is just as important when studying nature. I find it is very difficult to recognize my biases and even my motives, because both are usually subconscious enough to be inaccessible without outside probing and analysis by someone who has a fundamentally different view. That is why I find discussions like this are so valuable, and why I have enjoyed discussions with Ira for many years. Talking only with people who have the same biases is ineffective and not very interesting. I would like to pursue this bias and motive problem further.

The question of how one’s beliefs (or biases) originate and how they can be changed is part of the problem. I agree with Joel that linear causality is an illusion and that everything has multiple concurrent causes (also possibly illusions). I also agree that military conquest has imported cultures and altered beliefs over extended periods of time, but I don’t find this a persuasive counter example because the meaning of conquest itself involves multiple causes beyond what I meant by military force acting on the individual.

I do not know enough history to explain in detail how religious beliefs have been spread by military conquest. I think missionaries were one of the causes. I suspect that the examples you gave must have involved conveying information beyond winning military battles. For example, I don’t see how native South Americans Indians could become Catholics unless they were instructed in the faith. I am proposing that my example about Ira has some general truth. I don’t believe an Aztec is converted to a Catholic just because a soldier pointed a gun at him. My point is that instruction is an entirely different cognitive process than being frightened by a gun.

I have tried to think of a counter example. What is meant by “force”? Torture came to mind, also brain washing and drugs. I could also have threatened not to sign Ira’s dissertation unless he agreed with me. As Ira says, none of these threats would have changed his belief in determinism. But my most relevant point was that he would change his opinion of me (he might also change his dissertation). I think that is also a general result of coercion of any type.

Joel brings up “forced conversion” presumably by threat or torture, which has certainly occurred. The question is how many such conversions were a sincere belief change rather than merely a ritual appearance of change, as in the Ira case. There is also the “no atheist in a foxhole” cliché but this is usually a return to faith or not generally true. I have tried to think of what influences other than direct experience, instruction, thought, meditation, or insight (e.g., “revelation”) could change my beliefs. I don’t mean just religious belief, but any belief, even a simple fact, like today is Aug. 17, 2007.

Can anyone give other examples of a direct physical threat that in itself changes an individual’s belief (except beliefs about the threatener)?

Ira Glickstein said...

From Ira, Re: History Lessons.

Howard wrote: "... I find discussions like this are so valuable, and ... I have enjoyed discussions with Ira for many years. Talking only with people who have the same biases is ineffective and not very interesting."

Absolutely - and that is why I was so fortunate to have Howard as Chairman of my PhD committee! These Blog discussions have been a wonderful re-creation of my grad-school days (without the heavy cloud of dissertation approval hanging over my head :^).

Had Howard or any other member of my committee or the outside examiner insisted I change a key opinion as a condition of signing, I would certainly have thought worse of that person! If appeal to the others did not resolve the issue, I most probably would have "held my nose" and made the demanded change. I doubt my personal view would have been altered, but, you never know!

The "Stockholm syndrome" is the best example "of a direct physical threat that in itself changes an individual’s belief"

Here is an excerpt from WikiPedia [emphasis added]:

"Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response sometimes seen in an abducted hostage, in which the hostage shows signs of loyalty to the hostage-taker, regardless of the danger (or at least risk) in which the hostage has been placed. Stockholm syndrome is also sometimes discussed in reference to other situations with similar tensions, such as battered person syndrome, rape cases, child abuse cases, and bride kidnapping. The syndrome is named after the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, Sweden, in which the bank robbers held bank employees hostage from August 23 to August 28 in 1973. In this case, the victims became emotionally attached to their victimizers, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal. The term Stockholm Syndrome was coined by the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, who assisted the police during the robbery, and referred to the syndrome in a news broadcast."

Applying the Stockholm syndrome to one of Howard's examples, I agree an Aztec is NOT converted to a Catholic just because a soldier pointed a gun at him. However, if his native Aztec forms of worship are obliterated, and he and his society are forced to perform Catholic worship, he may find himself reasoning as follows: "The Catholic God and His priests are clearly superior to the Aztec dieties and priests, and, in any case, if I want to prosper under Spanish rule, I better conform. Perhaps Jesus really is the Savior!" Even if the Aztec does not change his beliefs, his children and grandchildren, brought up with Catholic worship, most likely will!

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

from Stu:
Howard said:

"I have tried to think of what influences other than direct experience, instruction, thought, meditation, or insight (e.g., “revelation”) could change my beliefs. I don’t mean just religious belief, but any belief, even a simple fact, like today is Aug. 17, 2007."

The thing or process that changes beliefs is evidence . The problem is: what constitutes evidence? What is considered evidence in one field is not in another. For example, I learned from a History of Science expert that, in a court of law, when a scientist gives testimony as an expert witness, the opposing lawyer assumes that either he is telling the truth or he is lying and proceeds his interrogations under that assumption! Even worse, most scientists are not aware of these ground rules.

So it is not surprising that historians accept different sorts of evidence than does a scientist or an art critic. And since we all tend to see evidence thru our individual lenses (shaped by our nature and our nurture), it is all the more important to be aware of the different systems that define what evidence is.

Ira Glickstein said...

From Ira, Re History Lessons.

Thanks Stu for your Comment in which you wrote, in part: "...The thing or process that changes beliefs is evidence. The problem is: what constitutes evidence? ..."

That statement is undoubtedly true for things that were *originally* learned by a reasoned presentation or encounter with *evidence*. Something learned via evidence *may* be unlearned or modified by further *evidence*. But that is far from the whole story!

The problem is, for the initial seven or so years of our lives, we are mostly incapable of evidence-based reasoning. Additionally, there are things that are "hard-wired" into our psyche by our genetic inheritance and our experiences in the womb.

Also, even after our powers of "reason" have developed during our later childhood and teens and adult years we are exposed to the dramatic realities of life, including traumatic events. Many things learned due to these emotional events are not fact-based and may conflict with reason.

Anything learned independent of reasoning powers *cannot* be unlearned by reasoning! Our emotional system prevents us from unlearning those things as a way of preserving "tribal" customs and protecting the greater society. When the "war drums" begin beating, it is important for the survival of our "tribe" that we react in *un*reasonable ways and march off to fight! When we are tempted to harm our fellow "tribe" members our consciences will make us feel "guilty" (if we were properly socialized). Our emotional system is the "ombudsman" for the society that socialized us during the years prior to the full development of our reasoning system.

Anything learned via emotions can only be unlearned by stronger emotions. Even things learned by "reason" can be unlearned if we are exposed to emotional trauma (e.g., "Stockholm syndrome").

One of the few areas where I disagree with my favorite philosopher, Spinoza, is where he dreads the domination by emotions of human minds. I believe what he calls "passive" emotions (those whose true causes we are unaware of) are what makes the survival and reproduction of the larger society possible.

Ira Glickstein

Stu Denenberg said...

from Stu:

I especially liked Ira's insight:

"Anything learned independent of reasoning powers *cannot* be unlearned by reasoning!"

This jibes with the mystical contention that the meditation experience (which eschews rational thought) can lead to insights and understandings that reason cannot.