Friday, November 24, 2017

The Answer Key, Item #1

I have an abundance of important points on issues of consequence to make in the posts to come on Ordain and Establish, but I take the present opportunity in order to conclusively answer a question that I think that people have been debating for far too long.*  Tonight, I give you The Answer Key.

This long-debated quarrel has been over the question: "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is close enough to hear it fall, does the falling tree make a sound?"  This question is reputedly difficult to answer.  However, the answer is "Yes"; assuming that the circumstances concerning the falling of the tree are such that a person would have been able to hear it if that person had been within earshot, the tree would make the same sound in the person's absence.

I am aware that many people will be skeptical of or will disagree with my answer (though probably only for the next one or two minutes).  I ask them: if audio recording equipment were left behind in the woods near the tree in question and that equipment were recording at the time of the falling of the tree: 1) Would the audio recording equipment record anything as a result of the falling of the tree, and 2) If so, what would the equipment record?  It is my privilege to supply the answers to these questions as well: Yes, the equipment would record something resulting from the falling of the tree.  Specifically, it would record the sound produced by the falling tree, which the falling of the tree will have produced even though no person was present to hear it.  Additionally, I will insist (and rightly so) that the equipment will have recorded that sound regardless of whether any human being ever listens to that recording and hears its reproduction of the sound that was recorded.

I am also aware that a number of people will attempt to contrive (and might even believe themselves to have succeeded in contriving) a response that will rescue themselves from the necessity of agreeing with what I have written.  For their benefit, I offer the following:
  • If a tree falls somewhere in the woods but the only person within earshot happens to be deaf, does the tree make a sound?  Does the tree make a sound that the deaf person is simply unable to hear, or does the fact that the person is deaf prevent the sound from even existing?
  • Would you say that deaf people can only fail to hear sound while in the company of one or more persons possessing an unimpaired sense of hearing, on the ground that a sound cannot exist unless it is actually heard by someone, which cannot happen when the only person within range to hear the sound lacks the sense of hearing?
  • If a given tree in the woods does not fall at all, but a person a few yards away from the tree happens to experience auditory hallucinations that cause the person to perceive the sound of the tree falling, even though the tree did not fall and create the kind of vibrations that the human ear usually receives as "sound", did the tree nevertheless make a sound?  In the familiar, original scenario, some would deny that a falling tree does not make a sound (even though it makes vibrations of the very kind that register as sound) simply because no one actually would perceive the sound, but in this modified, hallucination scenario, sound is perceived, but this happens without the ear even needing to receive the vibrations which when processed by the ear and nervous system are what result in perception of such a sound.
  • If no person is close enough to the falling tree to hear it make a sound, if we were to suppose that those circumstances prevent the vibrations created by the falling of the tree from qualifying as "sound", what word would we then use to describe what any animals in the vicinity happen to hear?  Is the availability of animal ear-witnesses sufficient to allow the vibrations to qualify as "sound", or would such animals hear something other than sound when a tree falls and no person (in possession of the sense of sound) is present to hear it create a sound?
  • Before any human being had ever seen the far side of the Moon, did the far side of the Moon have an appearance?  Does the far side of the Moon have an appearance only intermittently, manifesting an appearance whenever a human being is positioned as needed in order to see that part of the Moon (and is, at that time, actually looking at the Moon)?
  • When a person is alone in a room without any reflective surfaces in it, does most of the person's face become invisible?
  • Given that I am not colorblind, if a colorblind person and I both look at a rainbow and then I close my eyes or look away from the rainbow, does my act cause the rainbow to have fewer colors than it had possessed only moments earlier?
  • Is it possible for food to possess flavor before it has been tasted, or does its flavor exist solely while it is being tasted by someone?
  • If a used (and fragrant) diaper is left in the woods and there is no one around to smell it, does it still possess an odor?
  • (If the person (though I do not know who that person is) who was originally responsible for the current push for the Indiana General Assembly to raise Indiana's legal smoking age from eighteen to twenty-one years had simply kept that idea to him- or herself, would the idea still have been a noxious stain on the history and the reputation of human thought itself, embracing a plan of contemptuously thrusting the reach of legislative power (or attempting to do so) beyond the outermost bounds of what any honest and thinking person could countenance as conceivably being within the just and legitimate limits of the legislative power?  Of course it would!)
The answer to the original question has always depended on how we happen to use language and what meaning we have come to understand certain words to have.  If it were firmly established and widely known that the meaning of the word "sound" necessarily must either refer to (on the one hand) the vibrations that we may sense or else to (on the other hand) the way we perceive and experience those vibrations when and if they are received and processed by our ears and brains, no one would ever have found the "Tree falls in the woods" riddle either interesting or difficult.  However, though the meaning of that word has not been definitively established to that degree of precision, I think that considering how we use that word and certain analogous words that relate to other senses, the "Tree falls in the woods" question is not difficult to answer.

* Interestingly, though people have long been divided in the conclusions that they have reached concerning this ancient controversy, the partisans for the two opposing sides have not yet resorted to building up an ideological mythology for themselves, respectively, or to replacing rational arguments with far-fetched blanket accusations about the supposed motivations and intentions of the people on the "side" opposed to themselves.  Perhaps a little investigation and study of this phenomenon would be justified, with a view of finding ways to bring about the same state of things in relation to the plethora of highly divisive controversies that preoccupy large numbers of people with stimulating distractions having very little to do with the issues that they believe themselves to be fighting each other over.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Remembering That the Attitudes and Actions of the People Can Shape the Tendencies of Any Form of Government

"Mr. Montesquieu has pointed out the sentiments or maxims from which men must be supposed to act under these different governments.  In democracy, they must love equality; they must respect the rights of their fellow citizens; they must unite by the common ties of affection to the state.  In forming personal pretensions, they must be satisfied with that degree of consideration they can procure by their abilities fairly measured with those of an opponent; they must labour for the public without hope of profit; they must reject every attempt to create a personal dependence.  Candour, force, and elevation of mind, in short, are the props of democracy; and virtue is the principle of conduct required to its preservation.  How beautiful a pre-eminence on the side of popular government!  And how ardently should mankind wish for the form, if it tended to establish the principle, or were, in every instance, a sure indication of its presence!

"But perhaps we must have possessed the principle, in order, with any hopes of advantage, to receive the form; and where the first is entirely extinguished, the other may be fraught with evil, if any additional evil deserves to be shunned where men are already unhappy.  At Constantinople or Algiers, it is a miserable spectacle when men pretend to act on a foot of equality: they only mean to shake off the restraints of government, and to seize as much as they can of that spoil, which, in ordinary times, is engrossed by the master they serve."

. . .

"The principle of monarchy, according to Montesquieu, is honour.  Men may possess good qualities, elevation of mind, and fortitude; but the sense of equality, that will hear no encroachment on the personal rights of the meanest citizen; the indignant spirit, that will not court a protection, nor accept as a favour what is due as a right; the public affection, which is founded on the neglect of personal considerations, are neither consistent with the preservation of the constitution, nor agreeable to the habits acquired in any station assigned to its members.  Every condition is possessed of peculiar dignity, and points out a propriety of conduct, which men of station are obliged to maintain.  In the commerce of superiors and inferiors, it is the object of ambition, and of vanity, to refine on the advantages of rank; while, to facilitate the intercourse of polite society, it is the aim of good breeding to disguise, or reject them."

. . .

"Entangled together by the reciprocal ties of dependence and protection, though not combined by the sense of a common interest, the subjects of monarchy, like those of republics, find themselves occupied as the members of an active society, and engaged to treat with their fellow creatures on a liberal footing.  If those principles of honour which save the individual from servility in his own person, or from becoming an engine of oppression in the hands of another, should fail; if they should give way to the maxims of commerce, to the refinements of a supposed philosophy, or to the misplaced ardours of a republican spirit; if they are betrayed by the cowardice of subjects, or subdued by the ambition of princes; what must become of the nations of Europe?  Despotism is monarchy corrupted, in which a court and a prince in appearance remain, but in which every subordinate rank is destroyed; in which the subject is told, that he has no rights; that he cannot possess any property, nor fill any station independent of the momentary will of his prince.  These doctrines are founded on the maxims of conquest; they must be inculcated with the whip and the sword; and are best received under the terror of chains and imprisonment."

. . .

"Whilst we thus, with so much accuracy, can assign the ideal limits that may distinguish constitutions of government, we find them, in reality, both in respect to the principle and the form, variously blended together.  In what society are not men classed by external distinctions, as well as personal qualities?  In what state are they not actuated by a variety of principles; justice, honour, moderation, and fear?  It is the purpose of science not to disguise this confusion in its object, but, in the multiplicity and combination of particulars, to find the principal points which deserve our attention; and which, being well understood, save us from the embarrassment which the varieties of singular cases might otherwise create.

"In the same degree in which governments require men to act from principles of virtue, of honour, or of fear, they are more or less fully comprised under the heads of republic, monarchy, or despotism, and the general theory is more or less applicable to their particular case.  Forms of government, in fact, mutually approach or recede by many, and often insensible gradations.

"Democracy, by admitting certain inequalities of rank, approaches to aristocracy.  In popular, as well as aristocratical governments, particular men; by their personal authority, and sometimes by the credit of their family, have maintained a species of monarchical power.  The monarch is limited in different degrees: even the despotic prince is only that monarch whose subjects claim the fewest privileges, or who is himself best prepared to subdue them by force.  All these varieties are but steps in the history of mankind, and, mark the fleeting and transient situations through which they have passed; while supported by virtue, or depressed by vice.

"Perfect democracy and despotism appear to be the opposite extremes at which constitutions of government farthest recede from each other.  Under the first, a perfect virtue is required; under the second, a total corruption is supposed: yet, in point of mere form, there being nothing fixed in the ranks and distinctions of men beyond the casual and temporary possession of power, societies easily pass from a condition in which every individual has an equal title to reign, into one in which they are equally destined to serve.  The same qualities in both, courage, popularity, address, and military conduct, raise the ambitious to eminence.  With these qualities, the citizen or the slave easily passes from the ranks to the command of an army, from an obscure to an illustrious station.

"In either, a single person may rule with unlimited sway; and in both, the populace may break down every barrier of order, and restraint of law.  If we suppose that the equality established among the subjects of a despotic state has inspired its members with confidence, intrepidity, and the love of justice; the despotic prince, having ceased to be an object of fear, must, sink among the crowd.

"If, on the contrary, the personal equality which is enjoyed by the members of a democratical state, should be valued merely as an equal pretension to the objects of avarice and ambition, the monarch may start up anew, and be supported by those who mean to share in his profits.  When the rapacious and mercenary assemble in parties, it is of no consequence under what leader they inlist, whether C├Žsar or Pompey; the hopes of rapine or pay are the only motives from which they become attached to either.  In the disorder of corrupted societies, the scene has been frequently changed from democracy to despotism, and from the last too, in its turn, to the first.  From amidst the democracy of corrupt men, and from a scene of lawless confusion, the tyrant ascends a throne with arms reeking in blood."

. . .

"Democracy seems to revive in a scene of wild disorder and tumult; but both the extremes are but the transient fits of paroxysm or languor in a distempered state.  If men be anywhere arrived at this measure of depravity, there appears no immediate hope of redress.  Neither the ascendancy of the multitude, nor that of the tyrant, will secure the administration of justice; neither the license of mere tumult, nor the calm of dejection and servitude, will teach the citizen that he was born for candour and affection to his fellow creatures."

- Adam Ferguson, from "An Essay on the History of Civil Society"

[Note: I am fairly confident that I initially obtained the preceding material from the magnificent Online Library of Liberty maintained by the equally excellent Liberty Fund.  However, I do not at the moment have a way of verifying this, since I copied this extended quotation into my personal notes in early 2016.  I will look as soon as possible into what original source I was using when I took those notes last year, and if I find that it came from the Online Library of Liberty, I will update this post and the previous post with proper citations.]

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Remembering the Difference Between Power and Right

"Prior to any political institution whatever, men are qualified by a great diversity of talents, by a different tone of the soul, and ardour of the passions, to act a variety of parts.  Bring them together, each will find his place.  They censure or applaud in a body; they consult and deliberate in more select parties; they take or give an ascendant as individuals; and numbers are by this means fitted to act in company, and to preserve their communities, before any formal distribution of office is made.  We are formed to act in this manner; and if we have any doubts with relation to the rights of government in general, we owe our perplexity more to the subtilties of the speculative, than to any uncertainty in the feelings of the heart.

"Involved in the resolutions of our company, we move with the crowd before we have determined the rule by which its will is collected.  We follow a leader, before we have settled the ground of his pretensions, or adjusted the form of his election; and it is not till after mankind have committed many errors in the capacities of magistrate and subject, that they think of making government itself a subject of rules.

"If, therefore, in considering the variety of forms under which societies subsist, the casuist is pleased to inquire, what title one man, or any number of men, have to control his actions? he may be answered, none at all, provided that his actions have no effect to the prejudice of his fellow creatures; but if they have, the rights of defence, and the obligation to repress the commission of wrongs, belong to collective bodies, as well as to individuals.

"Many rude nations, having no formal tribunals for the judgment of crimes, assemble, when alarmed by any flagrant offence, and take their measures with the criminal as they would with an enemy.  But will this consideration, which confirms the title to sovereignty, where it is exercised by the society in its collective capacity, or by those to whom the powers of the whole are committed, likewise support the claim to dominion, wherever it is casually lodged, or even where it is only maintained by force?  This question may be sufficiently answered, by observing, that a right to do justice, and to do good, is competent to every individual, or order of men; and that the exercise of this right has no limits but in the defect of power.  Whoever, therefore, has power, may employ it to this extent; and no previous convention is required to justify his conduct.

"But a right to do wrong, or to commit injustice, is an abuse of language, and a contradiction in terms.  It is no more competent to the collective body of a people, than it is to any single usurper.  When we admit such a prerogative in the case of any sovereign, we can only mean to express the extent of his power, and the force with which he is enabled to execute his pleasure.  Such a prerogative is assumed by the leader of banditti at the head of his gang, or by a despotic prince at the head of his troops.  When the sword is presented by either, the traveller or the inhabitant may submit from a sense of necessity or fear; but he lies under no obligation from a motive of duty or justice."

- Adam Ferguson, from "An Essay on the History of Civil Society"