Jacques Monod, I hear you

In the next two posts I am going on a foray above my pay grade, so to speak, and develop some thoughts in response to Monod’s challenge to develop an ethics of knowledge. If you recall, on page 176, he writes, “It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at through knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. . . . one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge.” The principle of objectivity refers to the axiom that the universe is actually unknowable except through empirical means and thereby excludes any religious, which Monod labels ‘animist’, claim to absolute truth. “True knowledge,” Monod asserts, “is ignorant of values,” yet must be based upon a value judgment, an axiom reflecting the very substance and form of our thought.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

I read this first as a humble acknowledgement of human ignorance and our inability to understand in any final form the larger issues of the universe and our existence. All life is local, and our understanding follows along from that. I recall a post sometime back about Vera Rubin (see post 12/29/16), one of the poorly acknowledged giants of astrophysics, who questioned why we would believe that the laws of physics as we conceive them are universal; perhaps different laws operate in other areas of our cosmos and most certainly in other universes. Secondly I read this as an allotype of the absurdist philosophy articulated by Monod’s friend, Albert Camus. While more nuanced and complex than I can render here, Camus asserts that the absurd arises when we confront the disparity between our quest for rational and even perhaps irrational understanding of a universe that is essentially “unreasonable” (in some very basic and strong sense of the word).


Albert Camus: French resistance hero and writer, championed the notion of the Absurd

Consider Camus’ statement that I find resonant with my own philosophy of life and mind: “Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’s heart.” For a person who apprehends the absurd, our ‘knowledge’ is an aesthetic rendering of our experience and our spiritual quest is only to embrace the heart of humanity. Both Camus and Monod write about their apprehension of the basis of modern values, i.e., understanding that the universe, such as we can understand it, operates by mechanical and statistical laws, coldly and without divine feeling, and that acknowledges life’s special place in the universe. Values are biological; they come from us, or as Monod phrases it, “As for the highest human qualities, courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition, the ethic of knowledge both recognizes their sociobiological origin and affirms their transcendent value in the service of the ideal it defines”.

Monod firmly believes that an ethics of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics (and I have a new book to read on that matter, Michael Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality). And given the separation of knowledge and value, he also articulates a modern civilized value that seems to go unrecognized more and more, authenticity, perhaps because many have lost the feel of it; it is not a prominent aesthetic in our social considerations.  From a recent post, to be authentic requires one to think and act clearly about the values held/acted upon and any judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. For example, consider how and why we form and finance government as currently gleaned from our political discourse.

We are currently in a period when “Cut taxes” is a common war cry eliciting shouts of support from many (this is the USA now). To advocate the opposite is called ‘political suicide’. (This in a country where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”  The duty of Monod’s authenticity calls for, first, that actions be based upon true knowledge, i.e., empirically based, and secondly, that the values upon which those actions are based to be articulated. Taxation reflects the biases of the society; check out Thomas Piketty’s monumental work, Capital in the 21st Century. How we tax, who actually pays those taxes, and what those taxes help government to accomplish are all empirical issues. For example, economic history as found in Piketty’s historical survey and in Paul Krugman’s analysis of modern times shows that cutting taxes for the wealthier people does not stimulate the economy but it does increase the disparity between rich and poor. The values behind cutting taxes are more often left unsaid, but generally these have to do with valuing individual achievement (sometimes due to hard work and sometimes exploiting the hard work of others, i.e., self-aggrandizement) over and above sharing resources and promoting the social good. To be authentic, then, a politician should both detail the data supporting their positions and their values leading to their espousal. Yeah, I know, the USA sometimes seems to have abandoned this road, but without an ethics of knowledge, how can we expect to make progress towards justice in an ever-changing modern world where our own actions have drastic consequences for each other and our planet? How can we move beyond the animist ethics of feudalism now mutated to the control by an economic elite few? I will only add that some other nations have understood this and are further along than we are.

What next for the ethics of knowledge? I recently read that knowledge is understood through an epistemology that is necessarily based upon some metaphysical notion of reality. So travel on to the metaphysics that consideration of our biological roots yields.


Picketty’s r>g

Follow up on art and science in my last post:

In my last post I discussed Balzac’s prescient understanding of evolutionary science evident in his story Pere Goriot. I was reading Balzac because Thomas Piketty stimulated my curiosity in his admirable book Capital in the 21st Century. To illustrate the changes in capital and distribution of wealth from the 18th century until today Piketty cites authors from back then such as Balzac and Jane Austen who wrote frankly about the moneyed classes, how much income they needed to live well and the amount of capital needed to sustain that level independently of any work they might do, because, as Piketty explains, the income from work alone would support only a meager existence. Piketty’s book was well received when it first came out in 2013 in part because he gathered a monumental data set from historical and modern sources in order to analyze the evolution of capital since the 1700s and in part because his analysis is erudite and cautious in values yet strong in its conclusions. Thank you, Monsieur Piketty.

Thus he was able to confirm the economic basis for Balzac’s and Austen’s portrayals (and though unmentioned Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and much of Dickens as well). Capital was a difficult book for me as I lack any education in economics; Piketty helps by keeping an historical frame and emphasizing basic concepts in several ways. For the 18th century he shows that, in short, to live “comfortably” required an income of 50 -60 times the average income of that period and that could not be achieved through merit by working hard and smart in a profession but could by amassing capital either through inheritance or through commerce, as old Goriot did but then gave away for his daughters’ dowries. In post-Napoleonic France the top 10% held 60-70% of the wealth (the aristocracy), the next 40% held the rest, while the bottom 50% had virtually no wealth at all—they lived day by day in a state of perpetual poverty and near starvation.

Piketty contrasts this state of affairs with ancient hunter-gatherers where equality was the more the rule. The tribal leader and warriors might have gotten the choicest cut of meat but resources were shared and not accumulated because wealth is hard to transport. In an agricultural society like England and Europe in the 18th century wealth was accumulated as farm land and then the industrial revolution marked a transformation of capital from agricultural resources to ones for industrial production, e.g., factories, transportation, control of natural resources. This did not mark any change in the inequalities of wealth. What did affect the inequality were the two world wars, which decimated much of the old wealth (for awhile) and allowed a middle class to develop. The bottom 50% still had next to nothing but the 40% above that had more and the highest 10% held just a little less. I do not think the top 1% or .1% suffered much loss at all.

Now consider modern times when the top .1% holds 20% of the wealth, the top 1% holds 50%, the top 10 % holds 80-90%, leaving the bottom 90 % to hold, if they can keep it, the remaining 10% (this part of the middle class owning their own homes). The bottom 50% as is historically the norm holds nothing. He further states that the trend in the 21st century is to increasing inequality of wealth soon to approach the extreme levels of 1910 (think Downton Abbey before WWI initiated a period of change that temporarily lessened the gap between rich and poor).

These changes reflect what Piketty calls a basic (ah, both simple and complex) law of economics, r>g. ‘r’ is the rate of return on capital that historically Piketty shows runs from 3 to 10 per cent (the rich get the greater return while the rest of us make do with the lesser). ‘g’ is growth and may comprise increased population, education and skills (that lead to increased productivity), or technological innovation. Piketty demonstrates that while increased ‘g’ is a force for equality, the power of ‘r’ is a force for inequality and ‘r’ is growing in political and economic power as I write. Piketty presciently says that the rising ‘r’ and inequality from globalization would result in an upsurge from those left behind of isolationist nationalism and that is a large part of the story of western civilization this year, ain’t it?

I appreciate anyone who marshals extensive data sets for analysis and development of their ideas and Piketty did all of that. Having finished the book, I began to think about the r>g law of economics and wondered how it might play out from the perspective of sociobiology. I mean, a law is a law and could be expected to reflect some important underlying dynamic that contributes to the viability of a population. Piketty shows how the transitions from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial to information-age global societies reflect this law; now how about its roots in our evolution? Frans de Waals and others document social structures in other primates and how these affect the distribution of resources. Certainly rich natural resources supports population growth that then affects the sustainability of those resources. Rich or scarce natural resources may also engender conflict and competition with other groups.

Piketty’s main argument from this law r>g is that it leads to inequality and that there is no necessary counter-balance to keep wealth distribution equal enough for social viability. Capitalism can run amuck unless democratic processes exert some controls. Certainly dictatorships like North Korea and oligarchies like Russia create and maintain huge inequality to the detriment of most. While humans gather and hold wealth in our own special ways, other animals also do so in their special ways. Consider squirrels and nuts, bees and honey, rodents and grain, etc. Many animals develop technologies, e.g., apes use sticks to gather termites and rocks to smash nuts. Are there corollaries of r>g for other species? How are alpha males curbed so others have enough? De Waals documents gender differences and dynamic alliances in primates. How does mammalian social organization based upon empathic connections distribute resources? I will re-read some of de Waals in the future with an eye to this facet. Travel on.