[OPE-L:1801] Re: subjectivity

Paul Cockshott (wpc@clyder.gn.apc.org)
Mon, 15 Apr 1996 16:43:34 -0700

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Jerry asks:

Please answer the following questions:

* What objective force led you to write [OPE-L:1769]?

* Was it not an expression of your will?

* Putting aside the question of nature, who transforms the world if not
individuals, acting individually and as parts of social classes and

* What role do individuals have in history?

* Are individuals merely unconscious actors in a historical process?

These questions are only tangential to the explicit subject
matter under discussion in the ope list. Not withstanding this,
they are pretty closely tied to what is, in the last half of
the 20th century, one of the key battlegrounds between idealism
and materialism - the possibility of a materialist theory of
human thought and behaviour.

I will try to give an answer to your questions, grouping them under
two headings, those relating to 'will', and those relating to history.

Will - the place marker

* What objective force led you to write [OPE-L:1769]?

* Was it not an expression of your will?

Force is an important concept. As a mechanical process, a depression
of keys, my writing of [OPE-L:1769] certainly involved forces exerted
by muscle on bone. But the concept of force is quite limited, it relates
to the ability to impart motion, to overcome mechanical inertia.
Its compass does not extend to explaining the creation of a complex
information structure like a email posting.

Here we need to explain how this particular sequence of characters
was generated. This posting of a few lines is so astronomically
its probability of arising by chance being of the order of 1 in
10 raised to the power of 400, that its particularity demands
explanation. Force, the mere overcoming of momentum, can not explain such
order. So what is left?

The will and its creativity, suggests Jerry.

But is this really an explanation?

I would suggest that it is not an explanation but a place-holder,
a linguistic token demanded by a set of possible sentences. This
may seem a little obscure, but to illustrate the sort of thing
that I am refering to, consider the sentences:

"It is raining."
"Paul is writing."

What is the 'it' that rains? There is obviously no real 'it' that
does the raining, but English grammar demands a subject for the
sentence, structurally equivalent to the Paul who writes.
The 'it' is a placeholder demanded by the sentence form.
We gain no understanding of the weather pattern that led to
the rain by using it, but it is impermissible for us to say
simply "Is raining".

The question "what led me to write", demands an answer of the
form "x led me to write", with some linguistic subject "x".
Grammar allows the substitution of a proper name for x, as
in "William led me to write", or "my Bill led me to write".
Instead the abstract noun 'will' can be used:

"my will led me to write".

The word 'will' is then a placeholding subject, analogous to
the 'it' responsible for the bad weather this last
week. The 'will' is philosophically more sophisticated, than
'it', being one of the conventional tokens that idealist
philosophy uses to translate a non-terminal symbol of a
grammar into a constituent category of reality. The will
is the symbolic grammatical subject in philosophical garb,
the linguistic subject becomes The Subject.

An explanation of what is causing rain to fall, would go
something along the lines of "an updraft of warm moist air
is causing condensation as pressure falls, and this precipitates
as rain". Here, instead of a placemarker, we have a description,
albeit abstract, of a physical process. One can give a highly
abstract description of my writing in terms of my brain being
a probabalistic state machine that undergoes state transitions
whose probability amplitudes are functions of it current state
and its current input symbols, and whose output symbols are
a lagged function of current state. For [OPE-L:1769], the
relevant input symbol would have been the message that I was
replying to [ope 176x], and my current state would be the
cartesian product of the states of my individual neurones.

It may be objected that this hopelessly abstract, as abstract
almost, as talking about will. But there is an important
difference. The approach of treating the brain as an automaton
has engendered a productive research program. One can, as
Chomsky did in the 50s ask what class of automaton is required
to recognise languages with different classes of grammars, and
show that some features of natural language imply automata
that are at least Turing equivalent. One can begin to look
at how it is that things like visual perception can occur,
as neurophysiology has done over the last 30 years, etc.
In contrast, 'will' will take us nowhere. It closes of

Individuals and history

* Putting aside the question of nature, who transforms the world if not
individuals, acting individually and as parts of social classes and

I have a 3 year old daughter, and today as we sat down to supper,
she pointed to the pie in the middle of the table, and asked us
'who is that?'.

We explained that this was the wrong question, she should have
asked 'what is that'. A who question, demands a person as an answer.

"who transforms the world?"

Why, the Great Helmsman, il Duce, those supermen who bestride history
like colossi.

Ask instead, what tranforms the world, and other answers spring up:
maize, smallpox, gunpowder, the automobile, capitalism.

* What role do individuals have in history?

To suffer and glorify God, for who else could have written the
play and assigned them roles?

* Are individuals merely unconscious actors in a historical process?

Ask me instead whether the laws of history are knowable, whether
parties can make calculated attempts to exploit this knowledge, and
I would answer yes.

Ask me instead whether people can be made to believe
that their actions contribute to diverting the river of history,
and again I answer yes. Are their beliefs born out by events?

For those on the winning side, yes.