The Inductivist Human

By | November 24, 2015

Bertrand Russell once told a story with a purpose behind it. Imagine, he wrote, that a turkey wakes up each morning to a rising sun, a feed and, well, the prospect of a mundane but decent enough day. As the days pile up his sense of security and comfort grows. Then, out of the blue as it were, the Christmas season arrives. His inference that ‘today’ will be like all previous days sells him short. Today is the day he is to be slaughtered for a festive table.

Russell’s point, of course, was that induction, or reasoning from the particular to the general, admits of error. Deduction, or reasoning from the general to the particular, does not: if the premises are true, so too must the conclusion be. Witness the commonplace Aristotelian syllogism: Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore (it can be deduced that) Socrates is mortal. No room for slippage there.

Russell’s turkey was inductivist, and ultimately headless. This short blog is about the inductivist human. How are we to define this subset of all humans? The inductivist human infers that the future can be inferred from the past. What has always – or at least long – been must continue to be. Examples serve well. Here are a few inferences common amongst inductivist humans: (a) it’s human nature to put one’s own interests before those of others; (b) there will always be people who rule and people who are ruled; (c) white western males are best fitted to rule; (d) ………… and (z) Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable.

Let’s just consider (a) and (z) for a bit. With regard to (a), we are indeed beset by competitive and contesting humans, many of them white western males salivatingly eager to clamber over others to cash-in and/or rule. Even Marx announced them progressive as they vanquished feudal barons, and for a while thereafter. But history has rendered such protagonists particularly visible through the multiple and various phases of capitalism. Are they representative of our species? What of the invisible? Do not the invisible outnumber the visible by a factor of, well, many hundreds of thousands to one? What, to ram the point home, of black, non-western females? We might hazard an informed guess that the human majority is not and has never been characterized by its egocentric pursuit of wealth and power.

I always give the example of the Chilean miners trapped underground. When push came to such a life-threatening shove, did they act as an aggregate of self-interested individuals, a Sartrean group ‘in-series’ haggling for personal advantage over dwindling supplies of water and food. No. They shared them.

(z) seems a tad more parochial. On 12 September this year the Labour Party announced that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected its new leader with 59.5% (no less) of the membership vote (turnout of 76.3%). The Blairites had been alerted and horrified long before this by a series of polls predicting victory for the backbench ‘leftie’ outsider. They ranted and railed. ‘We will become a party of protest!’ ‘Labour is now unelectable!’ Well, is Labour unelectable if Corbyn negotiates attempted coups and remains at the helm until 2020? The pundits think so. Is this not the early 1980s all over again? Is he not a reincarnation of Michael Foot, but without Foot’s endearing and oratorical power? It would seem so. Certainly those same people who insist that humans are intrinsically selfish and primed for physical or symbolic fighting are telling us so. And then there’s the bruised, pious and niggling Blairites, whose polling palmistry wondrously accords with their ambitions for country, party and self (did ever democracy get is so wrong)! But on the other hand … Extrapolating (inductively) from extant data can be hazardous (ask the turkey).

What are the lessons here for the inductivist human? There are many but I will settle on one for each of (a) and (z), though they are linked.

With (a) in mind, it should be clear that the neoliberal ideology proclaimed through the pages of the Daily Mail speaks to the interests of its owner and editor. ‘Austerity’ is in truth just a narrative constructed and promoted to rationalize and offer legitimacy to the transfer of material assets from the poor and struggling to the rich and thriving. I have in blogs elsewhere called on Bhaskar’s dialectical critical realism to argue that ‘being is but a ripple on the ocean of non-being’. Against the inductivist, who infers the stability, if not inevitability, of what now ‘is’, must be set the possibility of alternate not-yet-existing possibilities. We do not have to go on organizing our affairs as we currently do in this ever-harsher climate of post-1970s financial capitalism.

Turning to (z), sea changes occur now and again in political systems. They are never predicted by inductivist inference from cross-sectional polling until well underway. What I have long postulated as the most forceful generative mechanism of financial capitalism, its revised class/command dynamic, seems set to ensure Corbyn’s failure. One qualification: so deep is inequality in the UK now, and so committed are the Tories to deepen it further, that a ‘legitimation crisis’ (mooted by Habermas back in the 1970s) cannot be too far off; maybe it awaits an apposite trigger. Sociologists are in my view better at explaining (their true vocation) than predicting. It would be foolish in the extreme to predict a Corbyn win in 2020. But it would be disingenuous in the extreme to rule it out.Humans are supposedly smarter than turkeys.


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