Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Some Preliminaries: On Determining What is Natural

I'm lingering on the subject of what is natural for a bit because it seems fairly common for a political belief to be defended because something is human nature or to develop a  theory based upon the notion that something is an intrinsic trait of humanity.  While I do agree that there is no getting around human nature, I believe there are very, very few things that are actually human nature and very, very many things that people mistake for human nature that are in fact cultural.  I also have strong doubts that enough of human social behavior is intrinsic and natural to base a society on.  Most things called human nature seem to me to instead be culturally specific beliefs rather than ones that transcend particular cultural values.

In the words of Ibn Khaldun (as translated by Franz Rosenthal and edited by N.J. Dawood anyway) many:

disregarded the changes in conditions and in the customs of nations and races that the passing of time had brought about.  Thus, they presented historical information about dynasties and stories of events from the earliest times as mere forms without substance, blades without scabbards; as knowledge that must be considered ignorance, because it is not known what of it is extraneous and what is genuine...  It concerns species, the genera of which are not taken into consideration, and whose specific differences are not verified.  They neglected the importance of change over the generations in their treatment of (historical material)...
Ibn, Khaldūn, Franz Rosenthal, and N. J. Dawood. The Muqaddimah, an Introduction to History. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton UP, 1969.

Words as true today as in the 14th century.*

So, I regard a simple test as appropriate whenever anyone claims anything to be human nature.  Very little passes it.  That test is that whatever is being claimed as human nature or as a principle or foundational or anything of the sort must be shown to:

a) Emerge independently in multiple time frames
b) Emerge independently in multiple cultural frames
c) Emerge independently in multiple geographic regions

Anything that does not pass these three tests should be considered to be particular, rather than general.  Of course, even if something passes the three tests on a nominal level, more research would be required to establish general applicability.  If the concept under discussion emerges in writings by a lone writer and is not picked up more generally in a given society I wouldn't count it, for instance.

This isn't to say that something should be dismissed just because it is not natural, as long as it is not being used as a starting point to derive general rules from, in which case I find it impossible to accept that something that is the product of a particular culture is in fact general.  Our ancestors weren't stupid, if something was part of the general human condition they were perfectly capable of comprehending it.  What modern man has a step up on is that we can create all kinds of wonderful things that have absolutely nothing natural about them that do amazing things for mankind.  It is important not to fool ourselves into thinking these things are natural, or essential.  They are fragile things built upon extremely complex foundations and thus subject to disruption and ruin.  They only persist because of the systems we have created, if we try to break things down to their essentials there is no reason to believe that our complex social organization would survive, very few of our cultural and social ideas have a sufficient natural basis that I believe they could survive in isolation from other ideas less congenial to the social theorist trying to start from first principles.

Which is why I believe it is better to just accept social theory and history as being entirely contingent and building from what we have rather than trying to imagine some state stripped of all that has been built up.  We're better off not going back to essentials.

* Ibn Khaldun is largely criticizing that those who write or speak of history don't try to make any more general theory to understand the past.  I think we have the opposite problem, people try to make too much general theory without trying to understand the past which is just as bad.  There is a tendency to accept the culturally specific as being instead general to the human condition.  But cultures and ideas change and what is natural to one generation is an alien species to another.

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