How to Learn about People

A chance encounter with a Medieval definition of God, used as the title of a sculpture, leads to an ancient plane tree and to more consideration of what can go wrong with public opinion polls.

Ancient plane tree of Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 9, 2010

Ancient plane tree of Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 9, 2010

Before the American Presidential election of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, I was leery of trusting the pollsters’ predictions. You cannot predict people’s behavior as if it were the return of Halley’s Comet. You can try; but you will be assuming a uniformity of human behavior that belies human freedom. If people have always done something one way, they may well continue to do it that way; but they may also decide to change. Collecting numbers may somehow help you to predict this decision; but you have got to know people as such, if you are going to know which numbers to look at.

Except for a count of the electoral votes in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it was not on the basis of numbers that Michael Moore predicted a Trump win. He used his sense of people. I am reluctant to say that his prediction was correct, as opposed being merely a lucky guess. It was an unlucky guess, for most of us. No prediction of human behavior can be absolutely correct, because humans as such are not robots. I am aware of theories that in fact humans are effectively robots, serving in an elaborate simulation. It seems to me that such a theory can only be a theory that everybody else is a robot: oneself must remain an exception. To assert any theory as being true is to assert one’s own autonomy, one’s freedom to decide what is true.

Most people do nothing so dignified as theorizing about the way of the world; but they have impressions, and Michael Moore seems to have understood them: (1) Rust belt residents are sick of empty promises from politicians—though apparently they will listen to empty promises from a real-estate developer whose job is to do more lying than a politician. (2) White men have lost charge. (3) However unjustly, people don’t like Hillary Clinton. (4) Sanders voters in particular may vote for Clinton, but will not work to get others to vote for her. (5) People are willing to vote for the absurd, like a Jesse Ventura governorship. None of this means Clinton was bound to lose. She won the popular vote, and a few votes the other way in the right states might have given her the Electoral College. But Moore’s ideas seem right, as a suggestion of a better theme for Clinton’s campaigning than the mere badness of Donald Trump.

Michael Moore is like the oracle predicting that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus sought to defy the oracle by superficial means. He moved away from his hometown of Corinth, to avoid Polybus and Merope, the parents who had raised him. He could not recognize the oracle’s allusion to his passions. Or he recognized the allusion just enough to see that the oracle could not be laughed off as an absurdity. He had no notion of tempering his passions. On the road to Thebes, he killed a man who got in his way. Having answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he became sovereign of Thebes, and he took the late king’s widow as his own wife. This was the tragedy.

Michael Moore predicted a Trump win; and instead of trying to understand people as he did, to see why he might be right, perhaps many of us were content to accept the polls, which belied Moore’s prediction. This has now led to tragedy.

Just calling up people and asking them who they will vote for: why do you expect to get the truth this way? Why should they tell you the truth, especially if they are planning to vote for a horrible person? I was thinking about this; but it didn’t seem to bother anybody else, so I let it go. The Brexit vote was held up as an example of how polling could go wrong; but a political scientist whom I knew would point out that some polls had predicted a Brexit win.

A series of books about ancient Turkey suggest what needs to be done. If you want people to tell you what they really think or know, you must show yourself trustworthy. This is how George Bean could make discoveries that other archeologists had missed. The earlier archeologists would expect villagers to reveal local ruins immediately. Bean knew that this expectation was presumptuous.

I first met George Bean in Izmir in 1948 soon after he settled in Istanbul as the teacher of ancient Greek in the University there; and in the next ten or twelve years I was lucky enough to make half a dozen journeys with him in Western Asia Minor. These were archaeological reconnaissances, in which he in particular took over the study of the ancient inscriptions that we found. By this time the younger generation of archaeologists were starting to go round the countryside in jeeps, pausing in the villages only for long enough to enquire whether there were any ancient remains. George was quite different. He was of course enormous—broad in the shoulder and almost six foot six inches tall; and to that imposing exterior he added a perfect command of educated Turkish. Arrived in a village we would take our seat at the coffee-house and for half an hour he would converse in his deep voice with the local dignitaries about crops and topics of the day before mentioning what had brought us there. At first I used to get impatient; but I came to see that by his unhurried procedure he was winning the confidence of villagers and officials and so ensuring that they would do all they could to help us in our search. More than once we came to a village where previous travellers had found nothing and in the end had to stay a couple of days before we exhausted all that came to light.

Thus J. M. Cook in George E. Bean—a memoir, printed at the head of the second editions of Aegean Turkey, Turkey’s Southern Shore, and Turkey Beyond the Maeander, all by George E. Bean.

Ancient plane tree of Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 10, 2010

Ancient plane tree of Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 10, 2010

Bean also wrote Lycian Turkey, but I have not obtained it. There used to be a bookshop in Ankara selling all of the Bean books. I bought one or two; but when I went back for more, I could not find the shop again. The owner had died without an heir. Bean’s Turkey Beyond the Maeander served Ayşe and me during our 2010 holiday in Cnidus and the Rhodean Peraea.

Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 10, 2010

Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 10, 2010

We visited a village where a local man recalled a tall Englishman who had taken a lot of photos, forty years earlier. Outside the mosque was a slab with Greek inscription, which Bean had dated to around 200 B.C.E. The plane tree nearby was supposed to be about 300 years younger. I wrote about this in a Facebook note called Loryma day 2.

Mosque and Greek inscription, Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 10, 2010

Mosque and Greek inscription, Bayır, Marmaris Peninsula, September 10, 2010

Like Bean, R. G. Collingwood knew how to learn from people, at least in theory. From his earliest book, he was critical of modern psychology for not trying to understand people as such. I am going to let him explain himself; but I turn to him today by chance.

Elgiz Museum terrace, November 12, 2016

Elgiz Museum terrace, November 12, 2016

Today is the Saturday after the election. I took my spouse to see the Elgiz Museum, a private museum of contemporary art that I had visited in January before heading to the Nesin Mathematics Village. The Elgiz rooftop sculpture garden was closed for the winter then; today it was open, though some of the sculptures seemed to have been blown over by the wind.

Sculpture by Caner Şengünalp

Sculpture by Caner Şengünalp

One sculpture that had not been blown over was a block of red travertine called Tanrı Merkezi Her Yerde, Yüzeyi Hiçbir Yerde Olan Bir Dairedir, that is, God Is a Circle Whose Center Is Everywhere and Circumference Nowhere. I knew the phrase from Collingwood’s Religion and Philosophy (London: MacMillan, 1916):

To take an example, a certain mystic says, God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The psychologist, instead of answering, Of course, or, Really? or, I don’t quite see what you mean, replies, That is an example of what I call the Religious Paradox.

Collingwood says in a footnote, This instance is not imaginary. I do not know whether he means to allude to Josiah Royce (1855–1916); but I doubt it. According to the Maverick Philosopher blog, Joyce wrote about a religious paradox: that a divine revelation can be recognized as authentic only by somebody who has already seen God.

The definition of God as a circle of a certain description seems to have its origin in the Liber XXIV philosophorum, the Book of the Twenty-four Philosophers: not really a book, but a list of 24 definitions of God, the second being,

Deus est sphaera infinita cuius centrum est ubique, circumferentia nusquam.

I do not know how the Latin sphaera got translated into circle, though a version of the definition that uses the circle is attributed to Nicholas of Cusa. The definition is treated in A circle with the center everywhere, a 2008 article in the now-quiescent Dialogue on Infinity blog, where I have been a contributor. According to the French Wikipédia, Alain de l’Lille sermonized that

Dieu est la sphère intelligible dont le centre est partout, la circonférence nulle part.

Alain attributed this definition to Aristotle via Cicero, but the attribution has not been confirmed.

If the psychologist detects a paradox in a Medieval definition of God as a certain sphere or circle, I suppose it is that a real circle has a definite unique center and a definite circumference encompassing many points. But the psychologist does not try to understand why the paradox might actually be true. Collingwood uses the example to illustrate his understanding of psychology.

The method peculiar to psychology may perhaps be described as follows. The psychology of knowing differs from logic or the philosophical theory of knowledge in that it treats a judgment—the act of knowing something—as an event in the mind, a historical fact. It does not go on to determine the relation of this mental event to the something known, the reality beyond the act which the mind, in that act, apprehends. Such a further investigation would be metaphysical in character and is therefore avoided by psychology. Now this formula can be universalised, and thus gives us the definition of psychological method. Take the mental activity as a self-contained fact; refuse, so far as that is possible, to treat of its metaphysical aspect, its relations with real things other than itself; and you have psychology.

The physicist today does well not to treat gravitational attraction as a mental event whereby heavy things strive to reach the center of the earth. Gravity has no such metaphysical aspect. But our thoughts do have this aspect; and if we are not solipsists, we shall recognize that other persons are thinkers like ourselves. By Collingwood’s account, psychologists as such do not do this, though they may do it accidentally:

The psychology of religion, therefore, unlike the philosophy of religion, is not itself a religion; that is, it has no answer of its own to the question What is God? It has, in fact, deliberately renounced the investigation of that question and substituted the other question, What do different people say about him?

Of course a religious psychologist may be willing to offer an answer of his own to the first question. But in so far as he does that he is abandoning the psychology of religion and falling back on religion itself; changing his attitude towards religion from an external to an internal one. When I describe the attitude of psychology as external my meaning is this. There is an air of great concreteness and reality about psychology which makes it very attractive. But this concreteness is really a delusion and on closer inspection vanishes. When a man makes a statement about the nature of God (or anything else) he is interested, not in the fact that he is making that statement, but in the belief, or hope, or fancy that it is true. If then the psychologist merely makes a note of the statement and declines to join in the question whether it is true, he is cutting himself off from any kind of real sympathy or participation in the very thing he is studying—this man’s mental life and experiences.

There was an air of great concreteness and reality about recent poll results, at least to superficial observers, namely most of us. In a tweet responding to one by Nate Silver, Zeynep Tüfekçi wrote,

Through a tweet retweeted by Tüfekçi, I learned of one Nathan Jurgenson’s critique of what he called factiness:

On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth. The facts of Obama’s birthplace mattered less for them than their own racist “truth” of white superiority. Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science [sic] updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim [sic] of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

Factiness would seem to be a new word for what Collingwood was railing against.

Hiring people to make phone calls may cut you off from sympathy with those being called. All I can say about this personally is that in the 1990s, when I lived in the US, I was polled by an outfit whose caller did not know the difference between Serbian and Siberian. The poll must have been commissioned by somebody who wondered if his Serbian heritage would help him in a race for a local office.

(Note added November 14, 2016: When I prepared this article, I took the photographs from Facebook, but they were small. Now I have used the originals, added two more, removed a complaint that Facebook had not stored larger versions, and did done some other copy-editing.)

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  1. By One & Many « Polytropy on April 25, 2017 at 8:53 am

    […] is studying—this man’s mental life and experiences. To take an example, a certain mystic says, God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The psychologist, instead of […]

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