Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

20 March 2005

Rational Men Must be Tolerant of Others

There are at least three major reasons why a rational man must practice tolerance with other human beings. These are:

  • Tolerance makes it possible to learn from the efforts of other people. Without tolerance, others are not encouraged to put as much effort into thinking, since the fruit of their labor is too often viewed as evil. It becomes less risky not to think about anything prohibited and if they have thought about it, they had best not share the thought. Without tolerance one lives in the Dark Ages in Europe or the Middle East of the present. Tolerance is essential if we do not all wish to enter the world and spend our lives reinventing the wheel. Tolerance is also the great tool that makes it possible for us to challenge our own ideas with those of others. This makes it easier for us to identify our own errors of thought and correct them. Tolerance makes it possible for a group of thinkers to tackle a tough problem and take advantage of each person's different experience, interests, and thinking abilities to understand the whole of it, when each individual could only contribute a part of that understanding. I will call this epistemological tolerance.

  • Individuals are very complex and highly differentiated. We are different biochemically and structurally. We have different experiences. We think in different ways and have a history of myriad unique choices behind us. We have different values. These differences add immensely to the richness of our experience with other people. Similarly, they make each of us a unique experience to others. Some of the value represented by each individual is precisely found in the uniqueness of each of us. As gold is more valuable than iron because it is more rare, each individual has more value because each is unique. But, of course, not all of our differences from one another are valued by others. Some of those differences may be viewed with mistrust, some with disdain, and some with repulsion. When a rational man practices tolerance with respect to the properties and values of others, he does not sign on to vouch for the value of each property or the morality of all of their choices. This form of tolerance recognizes the fact of reality that people are individuals. It recognizes that there is commonly much that is sufficiently good in the differences we find in others that we will generally profit in our interactions with them. I will call this the tolerance of individuality.

  • Throughout the history of man, the political entities that have controlled men around the world have established various balancings of dogma versus individual initiatives in thought. They have also frequently sought to direct what values a man may seek and achieve. They have often favored men of one race, ethnic group, religion, cast, tribe, clan, or profession over others. In Europe, the Hundred Year's War, largely between Catholics and Protestants, caused untold misery until finally Europe realized a more live and let live philosophy held benefits for civilization. In a capitalist republic, the government does not favor one person over another for these reasons. In fact, a capitalist republic finds value in the differences among its people, since the many differences in interests and abilities allow the society the advantages of many specializations and open the door to a wealth of trading among its citizens. It is also recognized that when one group suppresses another group or any individual, the fighting and the discord are distractions at best and very often fatal to the continuance of either the government or the entire society. This form of tolerance is political tolerance.

Each of these forms of tolerance are related to one another. They are each important to us as thinking individuals. Since Objectivists are thinking individuals, they should be foremost among those proclaiming toleration as a great benefit to each of us and to the societies in which we live. Objectivists are also a minority, who are not infrequently viewed as heretics. They are dependent upon others exercising the virtue of tolerance toward them. Taken together, the forms of tolerance allow us to develop and function fully as individuals. They allow us to trade ideas and values that raise the level of our civilization to much greater heights than is possible for a society or group of intolerant individuals.

Dogma and rigid social custom are the enemies of tolerance. Rational thought directed at understanding reality and the celebration of the productive individual are the product of toleration. Toleration allows us to experiment with ideas and test them out. It offers us a rich complexity of theories and choices, while aiding us in our efforts to evaluate those theories and choices. It allows each man to draw on the individual insights of others. It is a major virtue whenever two or more individuals live and work together.

There are dogmatic Objectivists (a contradiction in terms actually) who need very badly to understand these aspects of reality. Because reason is the individual's means of surviving and promoting his life, that which promotes reason is virtuous. Rationality is the most fundamental virtue. Tolerance is a major virtue because it recognizes that every other individual has the right of their own attempt to use reason, just as I have that right. Tolerance recognizes that it is the individual mind that must of its own volition choose to focus upon the creation of concepts and the use of principles to understand reality in all of its complexity. It is to be expected that individuals, even when highly committed to rational thought, will independently arrive at somewhat differing understandings of our complex existence. Tolerance recognizes individuality and allows us to take advantage of it to gain much greater insight of reality by evaluating the ideas generated by other creative and rational minds. What we gain in value makes us much more productive and much less primitive. We gain the advantage of living in a great civilization, provided we can also provide our society with a healthy respect for the rights of the individual. The concept of these rights and their exercise again requires us individually to be committed to tolerance.

Among Objectivists, David Kelley has been the most effective spokesman for the importance of toleration. He has been especially concerned with toleration as a means to increase our knowledge. He has also recognized the virtue of independence in each individual. I highly recommend his book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism to anyone interested in how people can work together to greatly improve their understanding of any subject they may have a common interest in. While he especially addresses issues of Objectivism, there is a great deal to think about and use from this book even for a small group of collaborators in a laboratory or in a factory. It is really about being more productive in thought and action than it is possible for a single individual to be acting alone. As I read this book, I kept thinking that it was a marvelously organized and thought out explanation of many principles that I had found essential to the maximization of productive output in the many groups of scientific and engineering collaborators that I had had through the years.

In those groups, I had long worked hard to set such an atmosphere of tolerance in place. As this atmosphere grew, each such group became more productive. I tried to cultivate an atmosphere in which we maintained high standards for our output, but recognized that errors would be made as we sought solutions to the technical problems on which we worked, especially when we tried our hardest to be creative. Working together, we could makes leaps forward by taking advantage of our differing talents and help to correct each other's errors in a constructive way. In fact, we often learned from our errors. When we became comfortable that making an error was not likely to be viewed as evil or a sign of incompetence, ideas poured forth and our rate of solving difficult technical problems increased. It is surprising how often an idea with an error either contains a partial advance or somehow suggests the correct answer. Sometimes the wrong idea led to a test or experiment which proved it a dead end. Yet, that test provided us a clue to the right path to the answer to our problem. The idea that an error is evil is very wrongheaded. In fact, in certain contexts, making an error may actually be considered good. One does not make errors when not thinking. An error is made when one is thinking. Provided that one goes on to thoroughly evaluate the idea and test its validity rationally, the error is not evil and it may be the spur to the final correct identification of reality. In that context, it may be argued that the error served a good function. In that context, we can and should be less afraid of errors. They beat the alternative of stultification hands down.

19 March 2005

The Individuality of a Thinking Human Being

Of course, every human being is very distinguishable from anyone else. But those who think deeply and over sustained periods of time, both understand many more things and make many more judgments and choices. This increases their complexity immensely over that which they would have simply as the product of genetic code or as a result of the interaction of their genetic code with their environment to produce a biochemical system of great complexity. Even this baseline biochemical complexity is huge compared to that of engineering materials whose complexity I discussed in a previous essay. The body itself is a composite material, not with 2 or 6 chemicals in the mix as in an engineering material, but with tens of thousands of chemicals in the mix. In itself, this is nothing to make light of. Nonetheless, it is the operation of our mind that raises the level of complexity and of individuality of each thinking person to mind-boggling heights. Those of us who think are convolutions of convolutions of ideas and emotions in which the complexity grows exponentially. The more you think, the larger the time constant.

Before thinking more about the effects of thinking upon one's richness of properties, I do not want to make light of the differences that exist in our complex biochemistries. We come into the world with many differences. We generally look different. Babies immediately have different temperaments from one another. My first daughter was impatient and demanding from at least her 2nd day of life, while my second daughter was laid back and quiet from her 2nd day of life. Those character differences have not changed over the course of about 20 years. We know that some babies develop allergies to certain foods, while others do not. Some people may die from eating nuts or fish, while most of us are fine. Some people are cured by a medicine, while someone else is killed by it. Some people survive yellow fever, while others do not. Some people have the cycle cell anemia adaptation to malaria, while most do not. Some people have a great sense of smell, while others do not. Some people feel tickled easily, some do not. Some people learn best visually, some learn best aurally. Some people can cut through the complexity of much detail and see what is essential to solve a very complex problem. Others are faster than they are at solving relatively simple and well-formed problems, but they cannot solve the creative problems that require them to isolate the essentials from a complex situation. Of course, some people can leap 38 inches off the ground, while others cannot. Some are quick sprinters, some are better in marathons. Some people are incredibly flexible, while others are stiff. Some have great rhythm and others are beat-impaired. Some enjoy the complexity of a great symphony, while others enjoy a screamer with a strong beat in the foreground. Some are more the slave of pheromones than are others. There are those only attracted to the opposite sex, those attracted only to members of the same sex, and some who are attracted to members of both sexes. Some are pessimists and some are optimists. Much of this differentiation is likely to be due to the wide ranging biochemical structures of each individual's body. While the music we like is also a function of our conscious choices, it may well be partially a function of our biochemistries as well.

These biochemical differences are themselves important. By taking advantage of them, we can assemble teams of incredible athletes for football or swimming. We can figure that no matter how bad the epidemic, some part of the population will survive. Our differences may make one person better suited to be a soldier than another, one a better scientist, another a better farmer, another a better actor, et cetera. Of course, one may be better at any of these jobs with thought, but some require different temperaments than others, some quick thinking, and some deeper thinking with plenty of time. Some jobs are inherently aural, some inherently visual. Some suite a quiet person, some require someone very outgoing. Our differences rooted in our distinct biochemistries better enable us to specialize. This is somewhat analogous to building a technological society upon specialized engineering materials. You cannot build cities simply upon a single low-carbon alloy steel. It takes many specialized alloys, as well as many glasses, ceramics, semiconductors, inorganic compounds, and polymers. Similarly, we can take tremendous advantage of our biochemical differences to increase the likelihood that we can find the right person for the sales job, the bank manager job, the ladies hairdresser, the pharmacist, the teacher, the street paver, and the telephone lineman. We should not forget that many of these differences may actually have been selected by the evolutionary process because it was useful to man that there be a great range of natural abilities, temperaments, outlooks, and sexualities.

As important as our biochemical differences may be, we add to these the tremendous differences in how we utilize such capability as each of our mind's holds. As we focus our attention upon identifying the nature of reality and from that investigation select our values, we more and more develop an individual nature. Some of this individuality comes from what aspects of reality we focus our effort upon. Some comes from how rigorously we critically evaluate what we think is true. The degree to which we can think independently is a key factor. Another is how well do we learn from what others have already learned. Everyone of us could spend his lifetime simply trying to reinvent the wheel or learning how to make flint weapons, if we did not learn from others. We also benefit from recognizing the advantages of trade for acquiring goods and services from those best able to provide them.

We have to learn how to trade with others for their ideas, services, and goods, as well. This includes such complex issues as granting them the necessary freedom of conscience to develop their ideas and choose their values, so that we will have these available to us at a later time as potential trade items. Again, to make this possible, we need to extend the same sense of tolerance to them that we will need them to extend to us. We live in a complex world which we will inevitably make mistakes in trying to understand. So will our fellow man. If we are too eager to evaluate these errors as evil, then we will act to stamp out the development of new ideas, which often pick a path through errors to final enlightenment. Since the world is complex, the first person to understand something may have a hard time convincing everyone else that he does understand it. They may well react with intolerance for the heresy of the new idea, as they did when the idea that the earth was the center of the universe was challenged. They did this when bacteria were understood to cause many of the deaths previously attributed to the wise hand of God. We also benefit in our own rich mental complexity when we are cognizant that the very individuality of man causes others to sometimes irritate us, but also makes their mental efforts complementary to ours and improves the chances that they may have some ideas we may never have. Tolerance recognizes individuality. Intolerance defies that fact of reality. Tolerance aids the interactive process of learning with and from others, while intolerance is the path to dogma and ignorance.

To the extent that a man wants to maximize the richness of his mind through understanding as much as possible about our complex reality and the complexity of others and their interactions, he will value the trade of ideas with others. To the extent that he recognizes the futility of having to figure out everything without help, he will value the individuality of others. He will grant them the freedom of conscience to make their own choices and to evaluate ideas in their way, because he knows he will benefit from at least some of the ideas of others to the extent of many lifetimes of learning on his own.

Objectivists are likely to recognize this intellectual advantage given them by Ayn Rand, but they too often do not recognize that we have the advantage of many other life-enhancing ideas from many other people as well. They fail to note that if Americans did not have a very substantial commitment to tolerance, Ayn Rand's ideas would have been stamped out. She and all of her followers would have been hunted down and killed. Yet, how commonly they call Objectivism a closed philosophical system, which accommodates only those who are virtual clones of Ayn Rand and cannot make manifest their own individuality. The individualist thinker is not tolerated by them, though Objectivism supposedly values the individual life as the source of all value and the individual as the holder of all value. Well, the individual is the source of all reasoning! The individual is also the source of all error, but retains the ability to correct each error and to proceed to a pretty accurate perception of reality. Just as Ayn Rand made great advances over the philosophy of Aristotle, someday, one hopes that someone else will greatly advance Ayn Rand's understanding of philosophy. We should be tolerant enough that such an advance is allowed to happen and that we can recognize it when it has happened.

17 March 2005

The Complexity of Reality

The complexity of reality seems a strangely abstract subject for an essay. Why is that of interest to an Objectivist or indeed to anyone? Well, because reality consists of particular existents, or to be less formal, of particular things. Among these things are us and we are extraordinarily particular, or as we say of people, we are very distinguishable as individuals. Now, if we are in the habit of underestimating the complexity of materials, tables, and cows, are we not much more likely to underestimate the complexity of people and their interactions? It is common for people to do just this and Objectivists are sometimes among the most shameless in oversimplifying everything in our quest for tight, simple, logical arguments.

There is a real place for simplification, but we need to retain consciousness of how and why we have performed it in our thinking. As Ayn Rand astutely noted, concept formation depends upon a kind of simplification. It requires that we delete certain measurements of the attributes of things. A table is a table whether it has four legs or three. It may be 4 feet high or it may be 3 feet high. It may be 6 feet long or 12 feet long. Having the concept of a table is valuable to us. It allows us to say, "We need a table for our dining room." Having noted that, we can next consider the particular characteristics that this table should have. We want it to be high enough that we can sit comfortably in chairs around it and yet do not have to reach too high to gain access to our plates. The height of the table can be so chosen. We need to consider how many people should be able to eat at the table at one time. We need to be sure it will fit in the dining room. We had best think about whether it will fit through the doors, so we can put it there. So, as useful as the general concept of table is, we must in many cases put the dimensions of a particular table back into our thinking as we make use of the general concept of a table. As we do that and consider the materials from which it should be made and how they should be processed, we have an individual table again. Finally, as we use it, it will acquire its own set of particular scratches and stains. We live in a world of particular things.

Particular things can be incredibly complicated. Sometimes this seems inconvenient, but actually it is often very essential to our modern technological control of our human environment. Consider the tools that man had to develop in order to gain enough control over the world that his life became less desperate than that of being the prey of lions, tigers, bears, bacteria, and viruses. Without tools, he was subject to the extremes of heat and cold, to the loss of water, and to starvation. At first he had to work very hard to make wood, stone, and bone tools. This was not easy. Making sharp and durable edges from stones is very difficult and tedious work and actually took a lot of skill. Working with wood in all of its varieties was never easy either. But, the varieties in which each material came, did make many applications of these materials possible. But, let us move on to the age of metal use.

The four most common elements in the earth's crust are, starting with the most prevalent, oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron. Of these, iron was discovered about 2500 BC. But oxygen was discovered in 1774, silicon in 1824, and aluminum in 1825. For a long time after its discovery, aluminum was more expensive than gold, because it was so hard to unlock from its oxides and other mineral forms. There was no chance of an early Aluminum Age to preceed the Bronze Age. Aluminum was bound up in all kinds of rocks, schists, micas, and clays, but was never found as a vein of pure metal. Fortunately, copper and tin we also discovered in 5000 BC and 2100 BC, respectively. Copper and tin proved relatively easy to work with, so the Bronze Age preceeded the Iron Age. But, copper, tin, and iron are all very soft and of little use for structural purposes in their pure forms. To be useful, one has to have the right additives as in the case for iron and the right mixture of copper and tin in the case of bronze. In the modern era, we use a plethora of iron alloys. Most of these are useful for engineering purposes only when a host of processing conditions are carefully controlled. These alloys are rather complex and often have very individual characteristics that make them suited for the many different applications we have for them.

First, for our more sophisticated uses, we make pure iron, which involves a good deal of processing, which was largely accomplished in the 1800s, but has continued to be improved up to the present time. We now have cast irons such as gray iron, ductile iron, compacted graphite iron, malleable iron, and many alloy cast irons. We have a host of carbon and low-alloy steels as cast steels, hot-rolled steels, cold-finished steels, extruded steels, spring steels, forged steels, bearing steels, dual-phase steels, and ultrahigh-strength steels. There are hardenable steels. There are steels optimized for high temperature use, for neutron radiation resistance, for low-temperature properties, for maximum fatigue resistance, to resist embrittlement in various environments, and to have high toughness. There are wrought tool steels, powder metallurgy tool steels, maraging steels, ferrous powder metallurgy steels, austenitic manganese steels, wrought stainless steels, cast stainless steels, elevated temperature stainless steels, wrought and powder metallurgy superalloys, polycrystalline cast superalloys, and directionally solidified and single-crystal superalloys. All of these are based on iron as the primary ingredient. These hundreds of alloys have a host of individual properties based upon their elemental ingredients, the temperatures they were heated to, the rates at which they were cooled, the manner in which they were beaten, and the order and sequence of all these processes. Iron is alloyed with carbon, manganese, chromium, nickel, vanadium, molybdenum, cobalt, titanium, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur, boron, copper, niobium, zirconium, tungsten, tantalum, aluminum, nitrogen, beryllium, lanthanum, yttrium, hafnium, and selenium to produce various properties.

Engineering metals are usually polycrystalline, with each crystallite called a grain and separated from other grains by a grain boundary. The crystallites consist mostly of very ordered planes of atoms stacked neatly with respect to one another. Iron has chemical phases with carbon called martinsite, austenite, and pearlite. Carbon can be distributed throughout the iron in clusters of graphite. The alloying elements may form various carbide chemical phases distributed in the alloy. The alloying elements may be found preferentially at the grain boundaries or at the metal surface. The size of the grains may be large or small. The grains may be elongated along one axis. The crystallites may have atomic vacancies, interstitial (extra, squeezed) atoms, dislocations (abrupt misalignments within crystallites), twin dislocations, and slip planes. There may also be various intermetallic phases in which the ratio of one element to another is locally precise, but different from areas around it. There is a wealth of possibilities. These materials have a level of complexity that provides us with a huge range of properties and hence of applications of each alloy. We are constantly discovering more useful alloys.

Now, this is just iron alloys. We have copper, nickel, aluminum, titanium, cobalt, tungsten and many other alloys. We also have semiconductor, glass, ceramic, polymer, mineral and inorganic compound, and composite materials. We have thousands of materials and thousands of ways to process them and tens of thousands of ways to use them in thousands of different environments. From the standpoint of an analytical laboratory owner, we investigate materials all the time that are not quite what they are supposed to be. Many errors are made in processing materials to manufacture them to the complex recipes required for each material. Sometimes, fraud and shortcuts were the cause and there are moral implications, but mostly these materials are made well by men operating in a rational environment and still some errors arise. Generally, suspect materials are sent to us for analysis by people who want to produce a good product and they want our help in identifying what is wrong with the material. This is the moral action of rational men. As we proceed in our laboratories to analyze the material we learn more and more about it. Along that path of investigation, however, it is not uncommon for us to have a wrong idea about the implications of our data with respect to the properties of the material. Afterall, materials can be very complex. We simply keep adding up the data from our measurements and observations and try to formulate an idea of the material composition and structure which is compatible with the data we have acquired. Sometimes, we consult with the customer, since he often knows a great deal about his own material and how they have attempted to process it. Faced with all of the complexity of materials and with a considerable complexity in the experimental techniques we use to make measurements and to observe these materials, we have a great deal to sort out and keep track of. We commonly call on multiple members of our staff with training and experience in different fields, with various materials, and with the analytical techniques to make sense of all of the results. In the end, it is amazing how often we figure out what the material is and identify the problem and its cause.

What a wonderful complexity. There is so much richness here that we can support an incredible technological society upon it. The individuality and distinguishability of our engineering materials supports our civilization and makes our lives more security and more likely to be happy. It gives us many opportunities and many choices.

So, if there is so much advantage in the individuality of materials, should we not suspect that there is at least as much advantage in a society of individual men and women? Could it not be that having people of different appearance, experience, athletic abilities, musical abilities, mixes of visual versus aural learning abilities, career interests, reading interests, acting abilities, math and science abilities, favorite sports, disease resistance, dreams, child-raising talents, philosophical beliefs, and sexualities is an advantage to all of the individuals in a society? I find it hard to believe that it would not be an advantage.

However, I constantly observe that many people are certain that anyone different than themselves is not so good as they are. In fact, if they have a different philosophical belief they are likely to be considered evil. By losing sight of the complexity of reality, we lose sight of the reason that people make errors. Even geniuses make errors without having any evil intent. It is also common to condemn those who have a different sexual expression. Apparently, the idea that they are different is unacceptable.

Such judgmental leaps are unfortunately not uncommon among Objectivists, just as they are not uncommon among people who identify themselves with less rational philosophies. Many people are sorely tempted to over-simplify reality and to define the good very tightly and narrowly. It makes thinking about topics easier. In fact, if we simplify enough, maybe we can reduce any complex situation into the equivalent of a situation Ayn Rand addressed and quote her to find the truth. Now we do not have to think for ourselves at all. How convenient. But, we may well have thrown context out the window. We may have made the error of not appreciating the complexity of the situation or person. A terrible consequence is that we lose sight of what makes us individuals and of all the value that comes from that individuality. We have lost the Individualism which is a cornerstone of Objectivism. We have lost much of the richness of experience that makes life so worth living.