Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Condorcet and Dreams of Reason

By Gary Berg-Cross
I’m a big fan of the Enlightenment, its products (Encyclopedia), values (the notion of progress), traditions and influence. I agree with Jürgen Habermas that its ideas along with democratic ideas has the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason. I agree with Kant, that the Enlightenment marked:
"Mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error."
But I also agree with Habermas (and others like E.O. Wilson in Consilience ) that the Enlightenment is an "unfinished project." It was a start on emancipated thinking but has not been able to universalize this or remove large islands of ignorance, intolerance and error. It’s successes and shortcomings are something we can learn from. Like Habermas I think that one of its passionate, strategic thrusts, the idea that certainty in moral, social and politics issues will emerge from the application of the scientific method to society, should be corrected and complemented by modern understanding, but not discarded. 
What type of corrections? Well considerations of rationality for one and how it is applied successfully to reform society, understand morals and politics. With the idea of progress comes the idea that morals and politics will become more the products of rationality and greater factual knowledge generated by Science. That’s not exactly what happened in the 19th and 20th century. 
One inspirational starting point and humbling lesson comes from that the great French mathematician, philosopher Revolutionist, and Enlightenment figure Condorcet (1743-1794- full name Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet). In NNDB, an intelligence aggregator that tracks the activities of people they have determined to be noteworthy, H B Acton described Condorcet as:

Wholly a man of the Enlightenment, an advocate of economic freedom, religious toleration, legal and educational reform, and the abolition of slavery, Condorcet sought to extend the empire of reason to social affairs. Rather than elucidate human behaviour, as had been done thus far, by recourse to either the moral or physical sciences, he sought to explain it by a merger of the two sciences that eventually became transmuted into the discipline of sociology.

He was indeed one of the pioneers in the invention of an analytic, Social Science. He provided the Enlightenment movement some social theory and these remain an important contribution, but his approach did not provide a simple path to Enlightenment goals. Among other things Condorcet struggled to find logical-scientific ways to understand individual and group choice.  One issue was how best (most rationally) conduct voting to advance Democracy. The idea was to apply mathematical principles to social/group decision making and human choice? (Condorcet was a mathematician and well versed in probability which he was eager to apply to social issues. )
So he expected that rational/mathematical analysis could (and would) establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge -something we are still debating and working on. Early on Condorcet argued that through voting, people were more likely to make correct group decisions. But when he modeled voting analytically to check this out he found mathematical paradoxes in it, as did Noble prize winner Ken Arrow many decades later. (In 1972 American economist Kenneth Arrow, together with Sir John Hicks, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for work in this area - “pioneering contributions to general equilibrium theory and welfare theory.”) As explained in Wikipedia the voting paradox (also known as Condorcet's paradox) is a situation noted by the Condorcet, in which collective preferences can be cyclic (i.e. not transitive meaning that if A beats B and B beats C then A also beats C - but this isn't what happens in a cycle). Cycles are paradoxical, because they mean that majority wishes can be in conflict with each other. When this occurs, it is because the conflicting majorities are each made up of different groups of individuals. Thus the usual collective democratic decision-making principles don’t generate correct, consistent and stable results. 
Discouraging as was Condorcet personal  participation in the French Revolution.  Part of that story based on brief biographies is culled below:

When the French Revolution broke out Condorcet championed the liberal cause. He was elected as the Paris representative in the Legislative Assembly and he became the secretary of the Assembly. He drew up plans for a state education system which were adopted. By 1792 Condorcet had become one of the leaders of the Republican cause. He joined the moderate Girondists and argued strongly that the King's life should be spared.
When the Girondists fell from favour and the Jacobins, a more radical political group led by Robespierre, took over, Condorcet argued strongly against the new, hurriedly written, constitution which was drawn up to replace the one which he himself had been chiefly responsible for drawing up. This showed a lack of sense and he paid for it when a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Condorcet went into hiding and wrote his very interesting, seminal philosophical work Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (1795). Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind . Sketch pretty much descibes all he had time for. It was a sketch outlining what was supposed to be a much larger,full picture work. In March 1794 he thought that the house in which he was hiding in Paris was being watched by his enemies and he no longer felt safe. So he fled from Paris but after 3 days he was arrested and imprisoned. Two days later he was tragicaly found dead in his prison cell of unknown causes. Was he murdered or did he take his own life? His death robbed of much including his plan Historical Picture, which was to be the grand defense of his philosophical system.

As J Herival notes of Condorcet:

... Condorcet was no politician. His uncompromising directness of manner and inability to suffer illogical windbags in silence made him many enemies and few friends. His weak voice, lack of oratorical powers, and tendency to bore the Convention by the excessive height of his arguments was one of the tragedies of the Revolution.
Condorcet left us with a martyr to the dream that mankind might directly be freed from error with a simple progressive idea that improves on past belief.  The dream is if only we had processes to get factual information and cogent arguments widely disseminated. Sounds good, but it didn’t work in the emotions of a revolution and now we now understand the problem a bit better. I don't blame a devil , nor do I deem the dreams of reason.  But emotions can override reason, and it happens with some people more than others. Progress can be blocked and the dream of reason deferred. Furthermore, there are probably evolutionary reasons that establish this variability of emotion/reason balance. People who are not as open to the facts are not necessarily stupid or stubborn. Some may be, but others are wired (and acculturated further) to process and react to information differently. As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff put it:
So to attack (that) “belief” through logical or reasoned argument, and thereby expect it to vanish and cease to exist in a brain, is really a rather naive idea. Certainly, it is not the wisest or most effective way of trying to “change brains,”
And changing brains is something needed to advance the Enlightenment vision. One modern interpretation of our dilemma is that rationality and the advancement of knowledge are great values, but they need strategic allies in the Enlightenment effort against institutionalized ignorance that prevent progress.  
For more  on this see my blogs on Confirmatory Bias and for more on Condorcet see Mooney’s "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality."

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