Against identity: 1

1  Introduction

What I mean to criticize here is a cluster of ways of talking about human beings that have existed for a long time, but have typically made use of the word "identity" since that usage was popularized in the 1950s by a psychologist who called himself Erik Erikson and who I think was a crackpot.  That word has legitimate uses, but as the pernicious pseudoconcept I am concerned with here, it is often expanded as "who you are".  Other expressions that have been used instead of or in association with it are "essence", "self", "core", and "heart".  Of these, "essence" is the oldest.  Bertrand Russell (A History of Western Philosophy, Ch. XXII) says:

...The notion of essence is an intimate part of every philosophy subsequent to Aristotle, until we come to modern times.  It is, in my opinion, a hopelessly muddle-headed notion, but its historical importance requires us to say something about it.

The "essence" of a thing appears to have meant "those of its properties which it cannot change without losing its identity."  Socrates may be sometimes happy, sometimes sad; sometimes well, sometimes ill.  Since he can change these properties without ceasing to be Socrates, they are no part of his essence.  But it is supposed to be of the essence of Socrates that he is a man, though a Pythagorean, who believes in transmigration, will not admit this.  In fact, the question of "essence" is one as to the use of words.  We apply the same name, on different occasions, to somewhat different occurrences, which regard as manifestations of a single "thing" or "person."  In fact, however, this is only a verbal convenience.  The "essence" of Socrates thus consists of those properties in the absence of which we should not use the name "Socrates."...


Through the years, we've grown used
     to the truth-telling boor,
          so rejoice in the yeast
               and its white lies on  beer ---
in the bubble-borne boost
     to the bedlam where you're
          a contented old beast
               in a Happy New Year.

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My unconscious rewrites history

It is not just movies ( that engage my confabulation mechanism.  Casual researches have revealed that I was harboring utterly false versions of recent history:

Musical chairs in San Francisco: Harvey Milk was the mayor.  Dan White, the chief of police, had resigned to run against Milk.  When Milk won, White asked for his job back, and Milk refused him, so White killed Milk.

Only English counts: Salman Rushdie originally wrote & published The Satanic Verses in Arabic.  It was reviewed in the Arabic-language press (including that of Iran) -- mostly unfavorably, but with no threats against the author.  Only when it appeared in English was there widespred indignation culminating in Khomeini's fatwa.  Furious threats were made to prevent the book's appearing in paperback.  I actually believed this incredible story, and remembered it as having appeared in a serious magazine article.  I can find no trace of it on the Web.  (Perhaps it was true of some other book?)

Against nature: 4. Is it all nonsense?

Evidently, if the appeal to nature is foolishness, it is natural foolishness, and as such deserves some attempt at sympathetic understanding.  A notable attempt at a balanced view is provided by Bertrand Russell.  In "What I Believe" he says

There is a certain attitude about the application of science to human life with which I have some sympathy, though I do not, in the last analysis, agree with it.  It is the attitude of those who dread what is "unnatural."...  I think there is a mixture of truth and falsehood in the admiration of "nature" which it is important to disentangle.  To begin with, what is "natural"?  Roughly speaking, anything to which the speaker was accustomed in childhood....  Clothes and cooking are too ancient to be denounced by most of the apostles of nature, though they object to new fashions in either....  [T]hose who preach "nature" are inconsistent, and one is tempted to regard them as mere conservatives.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said in their favor....  [I]n the absence of knowledge, unexpected harm may be done by a new departure from nature; but when the harm has come to be understood it can usually be remedied by some new artificiality.  As regards our physical environment and our physical means of gratifying our desires, I do not think the doctrine of "nature" justifies anything beyond a certain experimental caution in the adoption of new expedients.  Clothes, for instance, are contrary to nature and need to be supplemented by another unnatural practice --- namely, washing --- if they are not to bring disease.  But the two practices together make a man healthier than the savage who eschews both.

There is more to be said for "nature" in the realm of human desires.  To force upon a man, woman, or child a life which thwarts their strongest impulses is both cruel and dangerous; in this sense, a life according to "nature" is to be commended with certain provisos.  Nothing could be more artificial than an underground electric railway, but no violence is done to a child's nature when it is taken to travel in one; on the contrary, almost all children find the experience delightful.  Artificialities which gratify the desires of ordinary human beings are good, other things being equal.  But there is nothing to be said for ways of life which are artificial in the sense of being imposed by authority or economic necessity....

To the charming example of children in subway cars one might, in our day, add the potent one of children using computers.

In "Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism", tho, he loses his balance:

...Where living beings are concerned, and most of all in the case of human beings, spontaneous growth tends to produce certain results, and others can be produced only by means of a certain stress and strain.  Embryologists may produce beasts with two heads, or with a nose where a toe should be; but such monstrosities do not find life very pleasant....  It is possible to cut shrubs into the shape of peacocks, and by a similar violence a similar distortion can be inflicted upon human beings.  But the shrub remains passive, while the man...remains active, if not in one sphere then in another.  The shrub cannot pass on the lesson in the use of shears which the gardener has been teaching, but the distorted human being can always find humbler human beings upon whom he can wield smaller shears.  The inevitable effects of artificial moulding upon human beings are to produce either cruelty or listlessness, perhaps both in alternation....

...The ultimate psychological argument for democracy and for patience is that an element of free growth, of go as you please and untrained natural living, is essential if men are not to become misshapen monsters....

I fancy there are better arguments for democracy & patience than that.  One might retort that nature can produce monstrosities without the help of embryologists; that they need not find life any less pleasant than their normal parents do, and may even be the beginnings of new species; and that we can hardly avoid artificial molding of human beings, which are (as Skinner points out) the most domesticated species of all.  In this respect even the earlier passage is somewhat incoherent.  People's "strongest impulses" are not necessarily the natural ones.

Mention of children, however, does bring up one fact about human nature that is of great moral importance --- tho more for the problems it creates than for the guidance it provides.  That is the fact that as infants we need to be taken care of, and so as a species we have to be provided with instincts for caring and for being cared for.  We share that program, of course, with other mammals & with birds, but we have carried it to an extreme.  A vast range of habits, including especially those that enable us to live together, is left to upbringing.  As Isaac Asimov ("No Connection") imagines an intelligent bear describing us, we are "gregarious without being social":  We have an inborn need to live with each other, but no inborn ways to do it.  That means, in particular, that the notion of liberty has to be reconstructed in each individual over a period of years.  (From the way some libertarians talk, you might think they had hatched & walked away on all eight legs.)

IMO nature deserves far more respect in esthetics than in ethics.  It is odd that people tend to think of esthetics in connection with art; it seems to me that most of the ugliness in the world is due to art (e.g., make-up, motel signs, Mylar balloons, newspaper advertising supplements, rock and roll, small-business storefronts, and station breaks on vulgar radio stations), and most of the beauty is due to nature.  Except for music, I see little use in trying to create beauty; it is more important to find it & try to avoid destroying it.

Against nature: 3. Nature and normality

In medicine and ethics there is a strong tendency to identify nature, in some sense, with norms.  One can get away with that in some cases, but a lot depends on details.  Here I consider four specimen organs.

3.1  Hearts

Hearts pump blood, and that is almost all they are good for. That was discovered only recently, and only in one culture, but is true of all human beings thruout the ages.  Consequently, the criteria for a good heart are pretty straightforward.  If the valves leak, or the muscles contract in the wrong order, physicians are entitled to give those conditions long, nasty names and do what they can to remedy them.

It is true that hearts have another use: they reveal to each of us, and to others who have gotten close enough, something of our emotional state.  People used to believe that that meant the heart produced the emotions, and metaphors based on that belief (and more vaguely on the position of the heart within the body) are still common:  We say "broken-hearted" and "put your heart into it" and

  I put my hand upon my heart
  And swore that we would never part.
  I wonder what I should have said
  If I had put it on my head.

However, few people these days take such talk literally; everybody knows that emotion as well as intellect is mostly in the brain, and that the two are intimately mixed.  Awareness of heartbeats is not of great importance in civilized life.  If a patient is given an artificial heart that pumps blood quietly, sensible people do not regard the cure as incomplete.

3.2  Feet

Human feet are mostly used for walking & running, and can mostly be judged by their effectiveness for those purposes.  In that respect they are almost like hearts, tho their design is not nearly so well perfected, probably because they came much later in our natural history.  Feet, however, can also be used for stamping, which is useful for killing small animals, putting out small fires, and expressing certain emotions.  In the wild, our soles were thick, and we did not need shoes for those purposes.  (I once knew a lady from Kenya who in childhood had run 20 miles to & from school every day; she brought such soles with her to college, where they did her no harm.)

Finally, feet can be used for kicking.  For that, however, nature has equipped us poorly (by the standard of, say, horses), and I don't suppose there is much of it in cultures that haven't invented shoes.  Besides expressing emotion, kicking can be used for breaking things and in various stages of fighting.  But in civilization its main use is in propelling small objects for amusement.  Kicking is thus contrary to nature in two senses: it is a deviation from the most usual & conspicuous use of our feet, and it requires artificial avoidance of natural consequences.  Does that make football a perversion?  I leave it to His Holiness to bring that news to Notre Dame.

I recently saw a photograph of the feet of a man whose people spend a lot of their lives climbing trees barefoot.  They were not shaped like yours or mine, but they were probably good at what he needed them for.  If he came to civilization & were examined by a naive doctor, she probably would look in vain in the literature for the name of his deformity, and would recommend either some elaborate surgery or amputation & prosthesis.  She would have a point:  As he was, he would have trouble buying shoes, and in his new tribe he would not often wish to climb trees barefoot.

3.3  Sexual organs

The sexual organs are often called reproductive organs, and that is reasonable in that if you or I want to reproduce, the use of those organs is usually the easiest way.  It is not reasonable, tho, to say that sex is for reproduction, even in the sense that hearts are for pumping blood or feet are (mostly) for walking.  From the top down --- considering first reproduction & then sexual reproduction --- the sexual aspect is an impediment rather than a means.  Suppose there were a species that, instead of sexual reproduction, had sexual vision.  Half the individuals would have eye sockets with retinas but no lenses; the other half would have no eyes but would have a lens at the end of each little finger.  In order for a pair of them to see, a male would have to climb onto a female's back and lock his hands over her face.  Wouldn't you wonder how such an awkward arrangement could be selected for, by natural selection or even by intelligent design?  And yet, when it comes to reproduction, which is far more fundamental biologically than vision, we take it for granted.

In fact, biologists are not agreed on why sex is so common.  It is urged that the mixing of genes is essential to adaptation & speciation; but bacteria manage that without complementary organs and the requirement of one organism from column M & one from column F.  Even among animals, there are parthenogenetic lizards and rotifers.  (The lizards even go thru the motions of mating.  Do they count as lesbians?  The alliteration is tempting.)  True, the lizards are evolutionary dead ends; but it appears that the rotifers have managed to evolve & speciate without the help of males.  The trouble with the rest of us, according to one suggestion, is that in us an obscure but essential biochemical pathway is blocked unless we mate, and the rotifers have found another way around the blockage.

Another idea is that multicellular organisms fall into this bifurcation because of some long-term instability in the very process of their reproduction.  Perhaps traits as well as organisms can be parasitic, and sex is a parasitic trait, propagating without actually improving the fitness of the individuals or species it infests.  (That might be true, in particular, if it were helpful for speciation.)  It does seem that most of the individuals so afflicted are miserable or dead, and most of the species are extinct.

However that may be, it is clear that in judging the use of the sexual organs, an appeal to nature is even less plausible that it is for feet.  If there is objection to their being used to express this or that emotion, or for this or that kind of play, then that objection had better depend on details.

3.4  Brains

Brains are badly understood, and they have a variety of uses, for good or ill.  A lot of doctors say they know what constitutes proper fuctioning of brains ("mental health"), but they are bluffing, like the priests before them.  Indeed, it may turn out best to say that a brain is not one organ, but a collection of several thousand, forced to live together by their confinement in the same skull and by the needs of cooperation & competition for access to the various sensory & motor nerves, in something like a political process.  (Such ideas may be found in The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky.)  If so, then it is likely that each individual is missing some of them thru genetic accident or early deprivation of exercise, so that we are all several dozen kinds of cripple, but manage thru various workarounds.  Also, it may well be that an organ's participation in one possible coalition makes it unavailable to others, so that again there have to be workarounds.  In such a situation, the notion of normality will not be helpful.

Against nature: 2. Why do people talk that way?

2.1  Nature as a stand-in for God

If you do not believe in God, it is rhetorically helpful to have some other powerful authority to appeal to.  That has been an increasingly important maneuver among primitivists in recent times.

If you do believe in God, then nature is part of Creation, so it has to be good in some sense; but some parts of Creation are embarrassing.  Thus, calling something natural is a way of intimating that it is good or at least tolerable without the blasphemy of calling it divine.  For this purpose, nature is often personified as female and called Mother Nature.  That, of course, is heretical if taken seriously: it was not God the Father who needed an help meet for him.  In the Christian scheme, as Chesterton justly complained, Nature is not our mother but our sister.  In either case, however, making her female eases the notion of her doing God's dirty work.  Having to piss or shit is a "call of Nature" --- part of a mother's job, no doubt; "call of God" would be in terrible taste.  "Nature's Mistakes", the sign at the freak show used to say:  "God's Mistakes" would have been blasphemous, and "Mistakes of Nature and of Nature's God" would really have been giving the show away.

The substitution of Nature for God can also be a license for harmless fun.  Burns says:

  Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
    Her noblest work she classes, O:
  Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
    An' then she made the lasses, O.

Nature made man first --- but that was only for practice!  Burns could not have gotten away with making that joke about God.

Mencken, who was a skeptic, had another kind of fun:

The central aim of civilization, it must be plain, is simply to defy and correct the obvious intent of God, _e.g._, that the issue of every love affair shall be a succession of little strangers, that cows shall devote themselves wholly to nursing their calves, that it shall take longer to convey a message from New York to Chicago than it takes to convey one from New York to Newark, that the wicked shall be miserable and the virtuous happy....

2.2  Nature as an excuse

In some arguments (most notably, these days, those about homosexuality), it is supposed to be important whether certain desires and behavior are genetically determined or are due to environmental influences.  Heredity, being due to "nature", is supposed to be unchangeable or perhaps divinely inspired; contrary environmental influences are supposed to represent culpable choice or Satanic perversion.  There is no sense in any of this kind of talk.  Genetic tendencies can be resisted; indeed, because they conflict, some of them have to be --- even if they are not wicked, which some of them are.  (A great deal of evil has deep roots in human nature.  If I had to choose one Christian dogma to believe in, I think it would be Original Sin.)  And plenty of learned tendencies are far more difficult to change than many inherited ones.

The fact that my hair was once blond & is now gray is undoubtedly due to hereditary influences.  It is also partly a matter of choice, because yonder lady in the supermarket has dyed hers orange, and I could do the same if I wished.  If I had become a beach bum in my youth, there would have been streaks in my hair, and that would have been due to environmental causes.

The fact that I speak English is undoubtedly due to my childhood environment.  The fact that yonder Cambodian immigrant in the laundromat speaks English is a matter of choice (more precisely, the choice of a package that includes that as well as wealth, freedom, and a smaller chance of getting shot); he is following up that choice with some effort.

A law against speaking English would be far more oppressive to me than a law against gray hair, altho I was born with a propensity to the latter & not the former.  Either law would be beyond the moral competence of government.  Whether getting rid of either would be worth a shooting war is a prudential question, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.  Nature & nurture have nothing to do with it.

Against nature: 1. Introduction

The appeal to nature as a criterion (or the criterion) of value is an ancient habit of our culture whose continuing popularity has irritated me for most of my life.  It is in Aristotle and the canon law and the Declaration of Independence and the advertisements for shampoo.  Some years ago I looked up "nature" in a philosophical dictionary & was steered to a wonderful book (Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, by Arthur O. Lovejoy & George Boas), whose appendix listed 66 overlapping & conflicting definitions of "nature", most of them commendatory and almost all of them, it seemed to me, silly.  The one that makes the most sense to me is No. 17:  Nature is the exterior of artifice.  To say that metallic aluminum is not found in nature, but metallic gold is, is to say that if I find a piece of aluminum in a stream bed, someone put it there; if I find a piece of gold, perhaps not.  That is a useful notion, but it has no more moral content than "outdoors".

Here I mean to say, in the plainest possible language, why the rest is all shampoo to me.

Prehistory of the Internet

Reading:  M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (Viking, 2001).  Jim gave it to me.

An intellectual and business history of computer development from the 1960s to 1990 --- the prehistory of the Internet, woven around the career of one "Lick", whom I had never heard of but who turns out to have been pretty important.  He had a vision, even during the mainframe era, of linked computers for the masses, and he was good at assembling & inspiring smart people and raising money for them from various government, academic, & business bureaucracies (they seem not to be all that different).  I couldn't actually follow the story (far too many names & acronyms to tell apart), but it is pleasing (tho chastening) to read about people who know their business and are doing something worth doing.

I suppose the vulgar short title was supplied by Viking.  The book itself is written in a vigorous colloquial style (sometimes a bit breezy) with remarkably few obeisances to journalese.

Tho some of the older people in the book (including Licklider) died before Waldrop started researching it, he did get to talk to very many of the younger ones, and of course there is a lot in print or in archives about their work, and he seems to have read it all.  I occasionally wondered how he knew what was going on in people's minds, but the copious quotations are all referenced, and I am inclined to trust him not to have made anything up for the story's sake, the way people do these days.

In a couple of places he mentions things I happen to know a little about, and (this always seems to happen) he makes me raise my eyebrows.  Some of his heroes were academic psychologists at some point in their lives, and they participated in the change of fashion from behaviorism to cognitivism, so he describes behaviorism at some length --- mostly, it seems, on the basis of cognitivist folklore, which he ought to have looked up.  In particular, the following sentence, about B.F. Skinner, is disgraceful:

He had raised his own infant daughter partially inside a baby-sized, Plexiglas "Skinner box" rigged for the appropriate rewards and punishments....

The box was not a Skinner box (tho it was a box, and invented by Skinner); it was an air crib.  A real Skinner box is a laboratory apparatus for training small animals, and it is indeed equipped for rewarding them (Skinner did not like punishing).  An air crib is a crib, that is, a place to put a baby to sleep (is that what "partially" "raising" one means?); like most cribs, it is not "baby-sized", but a good deal bigger than a baby (  It may contain a few toys & decorations, but it does not reward or punish.  It differs from ordinary cribs in being enclosed, so that the temperature & humidity can be controlled and the baby does not have to be bundled up.  Behaviorism played no role in its invention; it could have been invented by a Freudian or a Marxist or an imaginative nurse with no academic training; and the article cited suggests that its chances of adoption would have been better if it had not come from the notorious Professor Skinner.

I hasten to say that I am not & never have been a behaviorist.  I was brought up Freudian, and I have since become skeptical of all attempts to develop a technical language for discussing human behavior that does better than ordinary mentalistic language with critical additions & deletions.  I do not admire Skinner as a philosopher of science; I think he had a bad case of physics envy, which (as usual) he might have been disabused of if he had learned more physics.  I thought Chomsky's hatchet job on Verbal Behavior was well deserved.  But I do admire Skinner as a moralist.  We need a lot more of his experimental approach (Yankee ingenuity!) to making life better in this or that detail.  The air crib is one example; his utopia Walden Two contains plenty of others, well worth sorting out from the occasional foolishness.  (The commune I belonged to, Twin Oaks, was originally inspired by Walden Two, and has managed to confirm some of its suggestions.)

In his description of SAGE --- the network of state-of-the-art (vacuum-tube) computers that was built around 1960 to coordinate continental defense against Soviet bombers --- Waldrop is of course mainly concerned with its role in advancing computer technology.  He does make one comment about what other use it may have been:'s hard to say how effective the SAGE system really was in military terms, since it was (fortunately) never used in combat.  Arguably, in fact, the SAGE system was obsolete almost from the day it was commissioned, since by that point the United States and the Soviet Union were hard at work on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead across the North Pole in under an hour....

On the basis of chitchat I heard at Lincoln Lab about that time, saw in the press thereafter, and am able to confirm in part with Google, I think he might have gone farther:  SAGE was a kluge and a boondoggle --- the SDI of its era.  At best it was supposed to shoot down 75% of the incoming bombers, never mind missiles.  Also, it required a continuing programming effort to integrate new weapons into it.  A sizable bureaucracy was set up for that purpose, and it never caught up, even with our own improvements, much less the Russians'.  Years afterward, SAGE was being cited in some circles as a good example of what not to do with computers.  But who knows?  If a war had happened soon enough, it might have saved a few of us.

Oh, and PM wasn't a "socialist magazine".  It was a somewhat fellowtraveling daily paper.  And "sputnik" doesn't mean "little traveling companion".  It is the standard Russian astronomical term for satellite.  It also means traveling companion, but the "little" doesn't belong there at all.  "-ik" is indeed a diminutive suffix, but "-nik" is not.  (Bitch, bitch, bitch.)

Fuzz day

FuzzI get my hair cut once a year, when winter is officially over, as judged by the following criterion: temperature in the 70s, predicted & achieved, two days in a row.  That varies surprisingly: in the 27 years I have kept records, the earliest was 13 March 2012, the latest was 22 May 1992 & 1999, and the median is 5 May.

It was a half-hour struggle to get this picture to appear right side up.  I tried to make it smaller, but that only clipped it.  I have no idea how I might have put this text to the right of it.