Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Zeno

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 3

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In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy never actually mentions the hedgehog and the fox, but he does talk at length about another animal made famous by an ancient Greek. About a third of the way from the end of the novel, he inserts an extended aside about Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which allegedly proves that all motion is impossible. Tolstoy notes that calculus, “a modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small,” offers one possible solution, and he goes on to make the same argument for historical science:

In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units…Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history. To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie.

Reading this section over again, I realized for the first time that I’d seen much the same language somewhere else. More than seventy years before the Foundation series, Tolstoy was talking about psychohistory, and in remarkably similar terms. For Tolstoy, the perfect historical science would be a matter of integrating all the infinitesimals of individual human behavior; for John W. Campbell, it would take the form of symbolic logic; for Isaac Asimov, it was something like the ideal gas law. (If there’s one thing we can say for sure, though, it’s that Asimov wasn’t directly influenced by Tolstoy—he says in his memoirs that he tried and repeatedly failed to finish War and Peace.) And all three men were interested in seeking what they conceived as the laws of history, which would allow it to be treated as a science with the same explanatory and predictive power as physics or chemistry. The problem, of course, is that this collides headlong with the troublesome notion of free will, as Tolstoy writes in a lengthy epilogue to his novel. The italics are mine:

In history what is known to us we call laws of inevitability, what is unknown we call free will. Free will is for history only an expression for the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life…Only by reducing this element of free will to the infinitesimal, that is, by regarding it as an infinitely small quantity, can we convince ourselves of the absolute inaccessibility of the causes, and then instead of seeking causes, history will take the discovery of laws as its problem…And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

And Tolstoy was never able to reconcile his unmatched knowledge, as a novelist, of the unique qualities of individual men and women with his desire for a calculus of history, which requires, as Isaiah Berlin observes in The Hedgehog and the Fox, that all of its infinitesimals be “reasonably uniform.”

If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d presumably be interested in the rise of data journalism, which represents an attempt to implement some of these principles in practice. In reality, it’s as vulnerable to error and wishful thinking as anything else, and much of it represents the same old punditry dressed up with a fancy new infographic. Both the qualitative and quantitative forms of political coverage suffer from a tendency that Tolstoy identified nearly a century and a half ago:

Postulating some generalization as the goal of the movement of humanity, the historians study the men of whom the greatest number of monuments have remained: kings, ministers, generals, authors, reformers, popes, and journalists, to the extent to which in their opinion these persons have promoted or hindered that abstraction. But…the connection of the people with the rulers and enlighteners of humanity is only based on the arbitrary assumption that the collective will of the people is always transferred to the men whom we have noticed.

Replace “men” with “information” and you have a fairly good critique of the fundamental weakness of so much data journalism. Just because an available set of numbers is interesting, seemingly correlates with broader trends, and fits nicely into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean that it has predictive or analytical value, and equally important factors may go unremarked. And Tolstoy’s original point about the overemphasis on great men holds as well. Trump, if nothing else, is one of “the men whom we have noticed.” We can hardly help it. And this makes it hard to look past each day’s new outrage to get at anything deeper.

So where does that leave us? Tolstoy, unsurprisingly, ended by becoming cynical about intellectual claims of any kind, to the point of sounding a little like Trump himself, as Berlin writes: “Tolstoy looks on [intellectuals] as clever fools, spinners of empty subtleties, blind and deaf to the realities which simpler hearts can grasp, and from time to time he lets fly at them with the brutal violence of a grim, anarchical old peasant, avenging himself, after years of silence, on the silly, chattering, town-bred monkeys, so knowing, and full of words to explain everything, and superior, and impotent and empty.” (Tolstoy’s trust in “the untouched depths of the mass of the people” also has a slightly more sinister ring to it today.) Some degree of skepticism is obviously warranted, even if, as Berlin notes, it can all too easily turn into despair:

This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos—a chaos of which the heightened form, the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war.

The paradox of psychohistory—which we see in both Tolstoy and Asimov—is that it becomes especially attractive in wartime, when our desire to predict the future feels particularly urgent, even as the events themselves make nonsense of our pretensions. That’s worth remembering now, too. And perhaps the only lesson that we can take from all of this lies in Berlin’s conclusion: “We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand…We ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2017 at 8:36 am

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