Thoughts on Les Miserables

Last night I went to see Les Miserables. I really liked it. It was very powerful. I have seen Les Miserables on Broadway in New York and at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I liked the movie the most. I just wanted to share some thoughts about the film and the themes that stood out to me the most about the story.

Conflicting desires/motives.
Having conflicting desires is part of the human experience. We have all felt the inner struggle of having to choose between difficult options. Our decisions in those moments define who we are. The song "Who Am I?" sung by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) amazingly expresses this aspect of the human experience. Valjean had to choose between being condemned by man (to physical prison) or be damned by God (to a spiritual prison). If he choose to be condemned by man, he would free an innocent person (who was mistakenly thought to be Jean Valjean), but he might in turn condemn all the factory workers who relied on him for work. If he choose to let the innocent man suffer in his place, then he would be damned of God, but he would be free from the condemnation of man's punishment. As he is struggling with this choice, he reminds himself of the promise He made to God that he would serve God. Valjean reminds himself that he is the type of man who must keep his promise. His promise gave him a reason to act that was independent of his immediate desires. It is amazing to me how much Victor Hugo and the writers of the music understand human nature.

Dealing with reality
Les Miserables shows how people deal with reality in different ways. The young Cosette tried to evade the reality of her situation by escaping into her imagination (Castle in the clouds). Because she is so young, I think the audience would encourage her escape into her imagination as a means of dealing with reality. I think that we encourage this imagination about Santa Claus for similar reasons (not to escape reality, but to enhance it). I contrast this with Eponine who knows that Marius doesn't love her (romantically), but she uses her imagination to escape reality by pretending that Marius loves her (On My Own). This contrast raises an interesting question: Why is it ok for children to use their imagination in this way, but not so ok for adults to use their imagination in this way?

Some people deal with reality by descending into the basest of wants and desires. The Thenardiers were corrupt and they tried to corrupt anything else that was pure. This is somewhat humorously and disgustingly depicted in the movie when Monsieur Thenardier takes a Santa Claus—a symbol of peace and purity—from the street and corrupts him by exposing him to iniquity. The Thenardiers are the opposite of Jean Valjean. While Jean Valjean would act based on a desire-independent reasons such as his promise to God, the Thenardiers would only act on desire-dependent reasons. On a side note, I thought that Sasha Baron Cohen (who also played as Borat and Ali G) and Helena Bonham Carter were cast perfectly as the Thenadiers.

Sometimes people feel they can't deal with reality when reality doesn't conform to their strict vision of it. The psychological anguish that Javere experienced when Jean Valjean showed him that his vision of the world was false caused Javere to kill himself. Javere preferred his false vision of the world to the actual world. I have encountered people who share this preference. I once asked a Ron Paul supporter what he would choose if he had to choose between living a world that will always have some government coercion or dying. Without hesitation he replied that he would prefer death.

Anne Hathaway
I was so moved by Anne Hathaway's performance. It was as if every muscles of her face and every breath was choreographed perfectly in the song (Dreamed a Dream). I was just in awe at her pure talent and raw performance. She should win Best Supporting Actress.

Revolutionaries look for injustices
Injustice lights the fire of revolution. Sometimes revolutionaries are waiting for an injustice to happen. The revolutionaries have reasons for asking for trouble. One reason to do this is to cause the authorities to commit an injustice so that they can use that injustice to cause people to stop collectively acknowledging the authority of those in power. The death of an innocent woman in the mob and the death of Gavrosh (the young boy) and Eponine stirred the revolutionaries to keep fighting for their cause.

Emotion
The performance in the movie was very emotional. I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. In one sense, I think that good art should not force emotion. It should be an offering to engage with the art. It should allow the freedom to choose our own emotions and empower us to use our emotions to participate with the art. But in another sense I like to feel those emotions and I want to those emotions to be impressed upon me. I seek after those emotion-provoking things for the same reasons that I choose to ride on rollercoasters. Perhaps one reason that I like those emotions to be impressed upon me is because it reflects back on my emotional faculties. Participating in those emotions confirms to ourselves that we are human. It is like we are a thermometer being exposed to extreme ranges of temperature and knowing that we work correctly. So I liked that the movie was emotional but I am also suspicious of whether this is a good thing. Interested to hear other's thoughts on this.

 

Politics and the Limitations of Reality

The purpose of this post is to explain how political goals are limited by reality. Reality Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. When we talk of reality, we are talking of a real world that exists independently of anyone's thoughts and experiences. We call certain propositions "facts" if they corresponds to reality.

Categorizing Reality Although there is only one reality, there are broadly speaking 2 ways to categorize reality. The first category relates to facts that are observer-independent such as the existence of particles, forces, mountains, and galaxies. I will refer to these phenomenon as Brute Facts. Brute facts exist regardless of what anyone thinks or believes. The second category is often more interesting and more complex. It relates to facts that are observer-dependent such as the existence of money, marriages, elections, and cocktail parties. I will refer to these facts as institutional facts. Institutional facts only exist insofar as they are represented as existing by human beings. (I briefly began to explain how institutional facts are created here). The fact that Barack Obama is president of the United States is an objective fact even though there is nothing intrinsic about Obama that makes it the case that he is president. Obama is simply president because everyone believes that he is the president. If someone were to say that Obama was not the president, he/she would simply be mistaken. The following chart visualizes various types of brute facts and institutional facts.

The Limitations of Reality Political goals are limited by reality. For instance, one cannot create something out of nothing. One must work with the materials available. If Howard Roark plans to build a skyscraper, he is limited by the brute facts of reality. He must understand the structural limitations of load-bearing beams, the effects of temperature on the contraction and expansion of the building, and various geological limitations, etc. Understanding how Roark is limited by institutional facts is a bit more complicated. He limited by whether he can find investors, he is limited by environmental laws, by zoning restrictions, by various city ordinances and other building codes, by the aesthetic tastes of the investors and by others in the immediate community. For example, the city of Charleston, South Carolina has extremely strict building codes that are meant to preserve the historical appearance of the city. Howard Roark could not build a skyscraper in Charleston, not because of any brute fact of reality, but because he is limited by what is institutionally "given". How do the limitations of reality apply to political goals?

Politics Politics, roughly defined, is the art of running government and state affairs. Politics deals with decisions made within a social context. When one desires to achieve a political goal such improving education, or increasing prosperity and human well-being, they essentially desire to change reality. This does not mean that they are trying to change the brute facts such as the existence of forces and particles. It means that they are trying to change social reality—or in other words the observer-dependent aspects of reality. The chances of success in achieving a political goal are increased when reality—both physical (observer-independent) and social (observer-dependent)—are understood.

Political goals are limited by brute facts It is a brute fact of reality that some social goals are impossible. The most basic brute limitations are resources and time. For example, a social goal to give everyone everything they want is impossible because resources are limited. This is called scarcity. Another basic brute fact is the limitation of time. Time is not free. The value of time is whatever alternative opportunities must be foregone in order to use it for a particular purpose. Spending 3 hours watching television costs the couch potato 3 hours that he could have worked and earned money. This is called opportunity cost. Everything has a resource cost and a time cost. Those 2 costs combined equals the total cost of every human activity.

Another vitally important brute fact to understand is human nature. The existence of consciousness itself is a brute fact and conscious beings have a "brute" nature. Human nature is a product of biological evolution. As such human beings are born with innate tendencies. We tend to be mostly self-interested but we can sometimes be cooperative as well. We have strong responses to honor and shame. Men and women vary in their respective natures. Men are more aggressive and women are more nurturing and social. We have free will to choose, but we do not have the power to choose the consequences of our actions. All of these aspects of human nature are observer-independent.

Political goals are limited by institutional facts Institutional facts are dependent on human agreement for their existence. They also ultimately rest upon or bottom out in the brute facts. For example, the institutional fact of money exists only because everyone agrees that it exists, but the status of money is always assigned to some physical brute fact such as a piece of gold, or a piece of paper or a magnetic trace on a computer disc. Once we have institutional facts we can examine how they limit political goals.  Since they are dependent on human agreement and recognition for their existence, political goals are limited by whether or not people agree to recognize a given institutional fact. if you are trying to change social reality and you do not have enough people in agreement, you will fail in your political goals. Institutional facts are like habits. The older the institutional fact, the more difficult it is to change it.

Brute facts about political institutional facts It so happens that there are brute facts about social reality. Institutional facts exist because people agree that they exist. But there are observer-independent results and consequence that do not arise from forces and particles or anything like that, but they arise from human transactions alone. Recessions fit this description.

Recessions are a social phenomenon and they would not exist unless people existed. But recessions do not exist simply because people believe that they exist. They are separate from things like marriages and money which only exist because they are represented as existing. If no one believed it was a recession, it would still be a recession. Whereas in the case of the existence of presidents and cocktail parties, if no one ever believed that they existed, they would never exist. The existence of recessions are brute facts that are discovered even though they are consequences of institutional facts such as buying and selling goods and services. Business cycles are brute limitations on political goals. We cannot create a good economy just by believing and agreeing to have a good economy. We have to recognize that there are some consequences that are independent of anyone's beliefs and intentions that occur because of human transactions.

Inflation is also a brute fact about social reality. The book The Ascent of Money by financial economist Niall Ferguson describes the inflation of 16th century Spain. "They dug up so much silver [in the new world]...that the metal itself dramatically declined in value—that is to say, in its purchasing power with respect to other goods." This inflation was not intended,  but it led to Spain's economic and imperial decline.

Summary I have tried to broadly describe the concepts of reality as it applies to a specific type of institutional change—namely political change. There are 2 categories of reality—brute facts and institutional facts. Political goals are best achieved when one understands and accepts the limitations of reality.

Reality and Consciousness

Reality is that which exists. Everything that exists in reality has an identity. Consciousness is the means by which we can identify everything that exists. Existence is identity, consciousness is identification. The process of identification involves conceptualization. We categorize and group things based on their similarities and differences.

There are 2 broad categorizations of things that exist in reality:

(1) The first category is that which is exists independent of consciousness. This includes things like matter, time, forces, and particles. These are observer-independent features of reality. They would still exist even if conscious agents did not. Also, the fact that consciousness exists is an observer-independent fact.

(2) The second category describes everything that is dependent on consciousness for existence. This includes things like the United States of America, money, language, and marriage. These are observer-relative features of reality. They could never exist without conscious agents.

Natural science deals with observer-independent facts. The social sciences deal with observer-relative facts.

This distinction is foundational. I will use this concept to support 2 arguments in upcoming posts. I will explain some things that God can do and cannot do. And, I will explain the difference between eternal laws and temporary laws.

 

Stereotypes

A stereotype is a conceptual categorization often in reference to a group of people. Examples of stereotypes are: Jews are wealthier than white anglo-saxton protestants, blacks are more likely to be on welfare than whites, students in business are more conservative than students in the arts, men are stronger than women, homosexuals are effeminate etc.

The most important question regarding stereotypes is this: Is it more often the case that stereotypes reflect reality or more often the case that they affect reality?

Those who assume that reality is mostly socially constructed tend to reject the idea that stereotypes reflect reality. Those who believe in an objective reality that exists independently of beliefs and opinions are more likely to be suspicious of the effect of stereotypes on reality. I find myself in this latter group for the following reasons:

First, the human mind forms concepts based on differences and similarities between objects, events, and people. Our ancestors in our evolutionary past had a stake in forming correct concepts about their world. Those ancestors who took the time to see if every large feline they met was dangerous would not have survived long enough to pass on their genes while those who were able to make quick judgements in order to react would have more likely survived. In other words, concept formation is useful because it helps us understand the world our around us without having to engage in the impossible task of treating every experience as completely new and wholly uncertain. I suspect that most people would find this uncontroversial except when it comes to concept formation (i.e., stereotyping) about people. 

The second and more convincing reason is this: the claim that human concept formation is merely socially constructed is self-refuting. An argument is self-refuting when it must assume the thing it is arguing against. The act of stating that something is true or false, or valid or invalid necessarily assumes the validity of concept creation. Therefore, rejecting the idea that stereotypes (in the sense of conceptual categorizations) in general reflect reality is also self-refuting. I qualify the previous sense with "in general" because I am not saying that all stereotypes are accurate. (That would be a false stereotype).

People don't hold stereotypes forever. As people live and engage with reality, people are often quite willing to change adjust their stereotypes. For example, my grandfather was a LA Firefighter during the Watts riots of 1965. Because of his harrowing experiences, my grandfather had formed some discriminatory feelings against blacks. However he also had many close associations with black co-workers for whom he had no negative feelings at all.

According to the cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker in his Pulitzer finalist book The Blank Slate,

"People's stereotypes are consistent with the statistics, and in many cases their bias is to underestimate the real differences between sexes or ethnic groups. This does not mean that stereotyped traits are unchangeable, of course, or that people think they are unchangeable, only that people perceive the traits fairly accurately at the time. Moreover, even when people believe that ethnic groups have characteristic traits, they are never mindless stereotypers who literally believe that each and every member of the group possesses those traits. People may think that Germans are, on average, more efficient than non-Germans, but no one believes that every last German is more efficient than every non-German. And people have no trouble overriding a stereotype when they have good information about an individual. Contrary to a common accusation, teachers’ impressions of their individual pupils are not contaminated by their stereotypes of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. The teachers’ impressions accurately reflect the pupil's performance as measured by objective tests."

As stated previously, accepting the general validity of stereotypes does not mean that all stereotypes are accurate. False stereotypes are likely to persist if there is no consequence for them persisting. And of course, stereotypes do not justify racism or sexism, though it does justify discrimination which is not a categorical evil. Stereotypes are not "simply human inventions that have done more harm than good." In fact it would be harmful to deny the realities reflected by stereotypes if our goal is to elevate cultures that disproportionately tend toward socially harmful behavior.

Check the comments for a good treatment of stereotypes in Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature .

Do unicorns exist?: The limits of thinking

One can conceptualize based on what he/she can sense (see, hear, touch, etc.) in reality. Our minds have the capacity to create concepts that do not refer to anything in reality. We can do this by grouping objects based on similarities and differences. We can also combine concepts. Concept-combinations are the beginning of creativity. For example we can take the concept of horn based on our experiences with horns in the past. We can take the concept of horse based on our experiences with horses in the past. Then we can then combine them and create the concept unicorn.

We can do the same with the concept of horse and human.

Or with women and fish...

Mermaids don't exist in reality.

One might say, "but that is not a "real" mermaid." It is in the correction that they are making a mistake. There are no "real" mermaids or centaurs or unicorns in reality. They only exist as concepts derived from a certain combination of other concepts in the human mind. Science fiction writers like George Lucas who imagine aliens on other planets cannot really create a truly original alien. Imagined aliens are always combinations of what is seen on earth. They have human bodies with squid-heads or octopus tentacles with huge eyes etc.

Star Wars Aliens

Absolute "creativity" would consist of creating something out of nothing. This is impossible. The only meaningful way of talking about creativity is recognizing that creativity is only a process of combining what already exists in reality in new ways. We can create conceptual combinations of combinations of combinations.

This has an interesting implication. It means that the creativity of a generation is limited by the combinations of concepts developed by previous generations. Stories, technologies, and ideas in general are determined by which concepts were developed or not developed in the past. More on this in future posts.

Conclusion Premise 1: Thinking depends on concept-formation. Premise 2: Human concept-formation is limited by (1) the objects that we have access to in reality, and (2) by the higher lever concepts that we are aware of. Conclusion 1: Therefore thinking is limited by our awareness of objects in reality and higher level concepts. Conclusion 2: Therefore, you are only as creative as your conceptual resources. Conclusion 3: Therefore if you want to be more creative you must (1) consume large amounts of concepts (become an infovore), and (2) Exercise your mind by combining concepts into new ways.

Concepts and Reality

Sensations lead to perception. We simply perceive too many objects to remember every individual thing. We mitigate this problem through conceptualizing our perceptions. What is a concept? A concept is cognitive unit of meaning—a symbol that refers to objects in reality. Humans can form concepts because we can recognize similarities and differences among objects in reality. We summarize these similarities or differences through a process of abstraction. Let me give a few examples of concepts and concept-formation.

The color green: Green is a concept. Green does not exist by itself just floating somewhere in reality. There is no "green" that one can point to. But we can see a green mango, a green car, and a green turtle. These each have the property green. Green does not exist apart from green objects.

Colors: We can also create concepts of concepts. Once we understand the concept green and the concept yellow, orange, red, purple, and blue. We conceptualize these concepts into a higher concept called "color."

Properties: A property is an even higher concept. It is a concept that can group color, shape, mass etc.

Humans: When we see a particular human that we have never seen before, we don't think, "Whoa, I have never seen this before; I have no idea how to interact with it." Instead we automatically create the concept "human" through our past experiences with other humans and we then know how to interact with new "humans" that we have never seen before. Now the word "human" does not refer to any one thing in reality. There is no one "human" that we can point to. Instead "human" is a concept that refers to any object that shares certain similarities among other concepts such as arms, language, body odor, etc.

From these examples, we see that the human mind can create more concepts than objects in reality. Concepts can refer to reality. But the farther the concepts move away from reality, the more likely people will be confused. We must be vigilant in making sure that (1) concepts accurately reflect reality and that (2) our concepts are properly integrated with all other concepts to avoid contradictions.

An axiom is a foundational proposition that cannot be proved but can be validated. Propositions are axioms when one must assume the proposition when trying to deny it. Conceptualization is an axiom because one must use it in order to try and deny it. Likewise the validity of the senses are axiomatic because (1) the senses lead to concepts and (2) one must use concepts to attempt to reject the senses.

Reality and Traditional Christianity

This post is belongs to a series of posts on Reality and Mormon theology.

As I mentioned in a previous post, traditional Christianity believes in the Absolutism of God. Some believe that the Absolutism of God implies that God could literally do anything, including making murder good, or making contradictions exist.

This is debatable whether this view was part of original Christianity. Some early church fathers such as Justin and Origen of Alexandria rejected the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. So where did this belief come from? According to some biblical scholars, it entered Christianity in the first century by a jewish philosopher from Alexandria named Philo Judeaus. He attempted to reconcile Hellenistic metaphysics with Hebrew scriptures. "Philo rejected the Aristotelian concept of the world as uncreated...By the end of the second century the ex nihilo doctrine was accepted almost universally in the church..."

This view is generally rejected by LDS teaching. According to Joseph Smith,

You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end.

In other words God did not create reality ex nihilo nor could He. In contrast to Traditional Christiatinty Joseph Smith taught that God is bound by law and not a law unto himself. Some LDS scriptures suggest that those who seek not to be government by law, but seeketh to become laws unto themselves, cannot be sanctified by the law. Becoming a law unto oneself is the ultimate goal of Satan. For example, he wants to choose how to act and he wants to choose the consequences for actions (D&C 88:34-39).