Disharmonious Baskets

There is a fine line to be walked between democracy and tradition. They appear distinct from one another from a bird’s eye view of the West’s last half millennium, as it was the death of tradition which brought about Democracy’s ascendency. However, the epistemological roots of the two are entangled, with those of Democracy short in comparison.

What we want is a politic which can separate truth from falsity, good ideas from bad; something which interacts with the sieve of history, through which the sands of poor ideas fall through. Think of it as (somewhat) Darwinian. The culture which stumbles into a range not conducive to survival will fail, while those which avoid those ranges will survive. If they avoid those ranges for long enough, the spaces in which those cultural traits persist become traditions.


Above are about 26 random walks with 460 data points. To illustrate the point about non-conducive ranges, say these random walks are cultures which sprung from the same parent culture, where some basket of cultural traits is represented by the vertical axis. Above the value of 3, whatever basket of traits that number represents, is not viable for the culture’s survival, and it dies out. Here we stick to a one dimensional plot of culture, but you can easily imagine it on the planes drawn up in part 2. Naturally, the average value of this basket of cultural traits will move downwards over time as the variance of the traits is allowed to increase downwards, but not up.

Now imagine these cultures splitting up, spawning new cultures which separate and spread apart over time:


Of the sub-cultures spawned, you still see some culture death, but not as frequently as before. More importantly, there is a new mean for these cultures which spawned, a new constant in their cultural equation. Here I merely ended all the series on graph except for the new one which spawned the new generation of cultures, but the same pattern would occur if I had subcultures spawn from all of the surviving ones.

(What I should do is give each surviving culture a percentage chance of spawning a sub-culture in each period, but that is more complicated an Excel task than I want to take on here.)

Traditions log these constants. Cultures persisted in a particular way, and they survived because of it. Because they survived, they spawned child cultures, which persisted similarly. This long standing persistence around a constant is what we call upholding traditions.

Note that the people do not need to be aware of the origin of these traditions for the traditions to be useful. Animals are not aware of why they exists as they do, why they evolved as they did; yet they survive and reproduce (or don’t, as environments change) because of their nature, because it was and, perhaps is, viable. Similarly, cultures persist as they do because they have persisted as they have.

From whence comes these unviable ranges for baskets of cultural traits? As with the evolution of species, we will say the environment. But there is a caveat, in that there is an endogeneity issue with respect to culture and environment. Culture affects, indeed it may intersect/subset, the environment. The environment affects, intersects and/or supersets the culture. Further, culture can build upon itself, and become dependent upon parts of itself which are a result of the environment.

The further clause above is the case with Catholic morality. Take the sexual ethics of the Catholic Church: supremely practical in an age where most are poor and food is scarce, a bastard child can give you an impossible extra mouth to feed, along with leaving your daughter unweddable due to her loose morals being widely known. This practicality breaks down when birth control is cheap, and there is an abundance of wealth provided by the state for single mothers. But structures built upon sexual prudence, such as marriage, deteriorate once practicality of their underpinnings become less immediate. So say in the above graphs that the vertical axis is some bundle of sexual vice tolerances by a culture; if historically the cultures which had too much an abundance of sexual vice died off (too many bastard children, perhaps?), the cultures which gravitated downwards, more prudish, are less likely to face that unviable zone, more persist. Then the constants of cultures (point 1 of new culture walks as they spawn off of their parent cultures) around this attribute will migrate downwards. But if the cap on sexual ethic viability is removed, and a culture walks upwards towards it, many people will chafe at the traditional sexuality of the past, which feels to them restrictive once their culture stumbles into that previously unviable zone. This is just a brief example, I am sure you can raise objections to this case in particular, but you should be able to see the point being illustrated.

Again, we want a politic which can separate good ideas from bad ideas. Good directions for baskets of cultural traits to trend, from bad directions. Even in economics, which we do not distinguish from culture, how can we tell what economic directions are healthy, which are not? We should not expect a politic which guides great stretches of history, though it may happen from time to time. What we want is one with the social memory to stick to what works, and shun what does not.

Without exploring the issues of present day, Western, liberal democracy: the competing interests of groups in heterogeneous societies, the lack of an incentive structure for conveying truth in the media, and that the best interest of elected officials rarely coincides with the best interest of those they represent; why at its essence does democracy, la volonté générale, fail? Maybe there is no better way to read the tide gauge of tradition than by taking a poll of the population. Sure, individual voters may be unlikely to have an explicit understanding of social/economic healthy policies, and could have an effectively non-existent connection to the traditions of their culture; but if you can’t get the full panel data, a cross section is better than nothing, right?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Consider some basket of cultural traits which relate to the ability of members of a culture to communicate and cooperate with one another; call this the Basket of Harmony. Imagine what cultural traits may exist in this basket: things like the nature of the legal code around social interactions, or the level of trust between those within that culture. There is going to be some cut off point on our plot of culture walks at which a culture can no longer function, where the members of the society are so disharmonious that the essential social relationships which are required for that society to survive are impossible to maintain; call this a Disharmonious Basket. What traits would be in a disharmonious basket?

The members of a country/culture type entity need to be able to communicate clearly; it is not controversial to say a group which communicates within itself well is more harmonious than one which communicates poorly. The members of said entity need to have established rules of conduct; a group with ambiguous or underdeveloped laws, or even laws which are harmful to parts of the population within that entity, is less harmonious than one with more developed, more just laws. The polity which lacks trust between its members, due to things like high crime or social/religious antagonisms, will be less harmonious than one without.

Going back to our epistemological/political/cultural-etcetera cross section, how is it that we try and take this sample? We have a measurement problem, where the act of trying to get our cross section of cultural sentiments across the population actually changes the population itself. Recall the huge swings in voter polls in the 2016 election; I linked to this in part one, but here is a snip of it from RCP:


Here is the one from 2012:


There are many criticisms about polling methodologies; however, independent of the accuracy of the polls, the huge swings in public opinion exist. On what basis are voters deciding who the most powerful man in the world should be? I cannot concoct an argument linking public opinion and the underlying ideals a candidate represents. These are not polls on how closely a candidate aligns with a voter’s understanding of the world. What drives these swings? The propaganda, obviously. This isn’t a bold claim. Political parties spend hundreds of millions (billions) of dollars to elect their candidates, pundits shill for their candidates on news networks, politicians give speeches, and so on.

This is the measurement problem: the possible epistemological value of democracy is lost when the sentiments of the masses are perturbed by the democratic process itself.

Putting together an empirical argument to piece together how the measurement problem necessarily exists in a democratic society, and how this ultimately results in a Disharmonious Basket of cultural traits, is a job for another day.


A Drunken Stumble

The reader of Tide Gauges is likely to have a long list of objections to the thrust of the argument. Say he agrees to work with the tide gauge analogy, but he does not so easily let go of the fact that the sea levels have risen over the past century. This seems to him to play quite easily into the progressive narrative, at least in a sense, that there is a discernible direction to history. While he doesn’t fancy himself akin to the stumbling modern man, less modern man does not suit him much either.

Firstly, let us build on our understanding of random walks. There are two people I should introduce you to when opening this topic again. The first is Andrey Markov, the Ruskie, and the latter is Karl Pearson, the Limey. The former is the namesake of a mathematical concept called the Markov Process, which is a generalization of a random walk. Essentially, if the current state of a phenomenon is the only useful piece of information in predicting its future state, then it is a Markov Process. But Pearson is going to win out in the competition to be showcased, as his now greater than a century old question in Nature was the genesis of using the phrase random walk to illustrate this concept. There is a rich line on the last page of the link provided, which I’ve snipped bellow:


Pearson was an interesting fellow. Certainly a progressive of his time, he checked the boxes of women’s suffrage, eugenics, and socialism. Of those three ideas, I’ll let slip that the author considers one of them to be mere silliness, another dangerous, and the other misguided altruism. To get a good feel for Pearson’s thought, I recommend a piece from the 50s in The British Journal of Sociology called Karl Pearson: Socialist and Darwinist. For now, to give the a whiff of his thinking during his prime, here’s a quote from the end of his address at Newcastle during the time of the Boer War:

as a whole.PNG

I really like analogies. The more you read this blog, the more you’ll pick up on that. Fundamentally, analogies are just isomorphisms. Or maybe, isomorphisms are just analogies, take your pick. When Karl Pearson was trying to come up with a model for random migration, he called his problem the random walk problem in Nature. One of his answerers, Lord Rayleigh, indicated that the model he was looking for was “identical with a problem in the combination of sound amplitudes in the case of notes in the same period.” So there is a seeming analogy between a problem in acoustics and one in migrations. Pearson joked about the stumblings of a drunken man, indicating an analogy between the drunken man’s gait and the prior two phenomena.

Admittedly, I skimmed the Mathematical Theory of Random Migration paper cited above. I am skeptical of the viability of mathematical proofs in explaining anything but the most controlled of phenomena. I am a simple man, so we’ll make simple adjustments to our random walk model of culture in order to illustrate concepts. We are simply making analogies between mathematical objects and phenomena.

So our first modification to the random walk will be to give it some momentum. When we observe political-social history, trying to argue that it’s completely a Markov Process is tough. No one knows what the future will bring; no one knew what the future would bring. But there are directions which once set upon, more often than not that direction continues to be followed. We do not need to remove the essential randomness to our model, we just need to wonder what happens if the current random process is affected by a prior one as well. There are two ways that I’ll try to illustrate this. The first is with a Moving Average model:


The above lines are generated with a very simple formula. The current term in time t, x(t), is equal to the prior term, x(t-1), plus a random term, e(t), and half of the random term generated in the previous period, e(t-1). So: x(t) = x(t-1) + e(t) + .5(e(t-1)). Easy enough, right? This captures somewhat the idea that if the current term is greater than the prior, or more precisely: the current random element generated a positive number in this period; then the next term is likelier than random chance to be greater than the current. You see this come through in the swoops of the lines above.

The second way to do this may be a bit easier to grasp:


This one generates momentum in a much more literal sense. If the prior term is greater than its prior, then the current is a random number between -.4 and .6; else it is a random number between -.6 and .4. So if the slope is tending up, it will continue to tend up; if it is tending down, it will continue to tend down. Again, you can see this in the swoops of the above graph.

Generalize this concept of time to whatever works for you, I think it works on most any scale. Read a history of the French Revolution, until the Thermidorian Reaction, France’s revolutionary tendencies produced more revolutionary tendencies. The larger time frame version of this is well put by my favorite Son of Abraham:

“If there is any constant phenomenon in the last few hundred years of Western history, it’s that – with occasional reversals – reactionaries tend to lose and progressives tend to win. Whether you call them progressives, liberals, Radicals, Jacobins, republicans, or even revolutionaries, socialists or communists, the left is your winning team.”

There’s been a very large swoop, at least in a certain sense. Moldbug continues on to say what I plan to drive at in much of this blog:

“However, if these changes are indeed arbitrary, a random walk could reverse them. Professor Dawkins’ great-great-grandchildren could then explain to us, just as sincerely, the great moral advance of society, which early in the 21st century still turned a blind eye to rampant sodomy and had no conception of the proper relationship between man and servant.”

He does say in the next sentence:

While this theory is amusing, it is pretty clearly wrong.

I disagree.

The next step I want to take on our journey into random walks is to open up our concept of them into another dimension. There have only been two dimensions thus far, a time and a magnitude. But we need a second magnitude, another axis, so that we can visualize this spatially.


For this one I needed to switch over to R, there’s no good way to graph this as nicely in Excel. So above we have two random walks (with momentum of the second kind discussed (though it would work just as fine with pure random walks)), and they are plotted against each other, one for the x axis and the other for the y. We now have the drunken man’s stumble. One could easily draw a map behind the plot above, showing the drunken man’s path from bar to bar, sometimes revisiting one for a second or third time. He’s definitely moved far from his starting point, but assuming he is indeed drunk (aka the process generating the numbers (the error term) has a mean of 0), he will find his way home eventually. Here are a few more:


Above are 42 momentum random walks in 2 dimensions, each with 1000 data points. I promise I didn’t just make that in Microsoft Paint.  They are a bit hard to look at, but see how they blob around the middle? Try and abstract here with me a bit, say we throw different cultural traits/tendencies around the graph. Similar ones are closer together. Now let’s define a culture on our graph as some subset of these points, for now we’ll stick to circles to define our culture subsets. The following illustrates this idea:


Now put these two graphs together. Say cultures migrate over time, in a random walk-ish fashion. We’ll start them all at the point above, centered around (0,0). Now let’s see where they have gone after 100 random movements:


After 500:


After 1000:


You see the variation of these cultures increasing with time, but you can still pick out a center, even after 1000 points in. Imagine not only the same 42 circles spanning in, out, and around; but also circles spawning off other circles, as cultures have split and drifted apart. You will always have some outliers, but you will also be able to pick out that center.


Tide Gauges

A following is quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, it floats around blogs and intellectual circles that I follow. It has been a while since I’ve read the book, and the context of the quote isn’t fresh on my mind, however it is a great starting place for this post, so here it is:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

Reactions to this quote depend heavily upon your politics. It is likely to rub you the wrong way unless you share a peculiarly Anglo and Catholic world view. It’s a rough world view, full of cognitive dissonance over 19th century encyclicals. Though to be fair they can’t have nearly as difficult a time as a well-read American Catholic, who has to worry about accusations of treason over owning anything written before the Second Vatican Council.

The reaction to Chesterton of the contemporary man is discomfort. He likes democracy, the more the better. His room is full of Democracy Now posters, he volunteered at the polls on Election Day, and now he is troubled by denied suffrage to anyone. Yet the world progresses, meaning those of the past were ignorant of future affairs. Not only do they know as little about him as he does of them, it seems unfair that the dead should influence his world while his world does not influence them. Reflecting, but only briefly, contemporary man shuts down incoming thoughts of how today’s voters lack skin in the game. How regressive it would be of him to question the validity of their participation in the democratic process.

Fortunately for the reader, the author of this blog is a regressive. He will not only question the validity of certain voters’ participation in the democratic process, he will question the validity of all voters. The path will be very round about, and the skimming reader may even take the arguments as being pro-democracy if he is not careful. But we will get there.

Before the political realm, take a trip down epistemology lane. Asking yourself ‘can I know I am not crazy?’ is the first step towards a solid epistemology. You could do the Descartes, and come out realizing you are crazy. Another route is to construct a web of coherent ideas, you will feel less mentally fragile, but like the greatest minds of the field which is coherency itself, you will succumb to the lunacy in the end. Advocated here is the route which asks: ‘how many people would have to be crazy for me to believe such a thing?’ This is not an argument seeking certainty, but confidence. When an idea fosters a competition between you and the rest of the world, and only one can be sane, lean towards your own insanity. The alternative is to prefer to think of most, the living and those who lived in the past, as detached from reality; at which point you despair at your lonely sanity, or submit.

Marquis de Condorcet is the brain behind every political science freshman’s favorite proof, the Jury Theorem. The idea is that people tend to be correct, at least more often than they are wrong. A very low bar, any fraction above 50% will do. If true, then as you increase the number of people involved in deliberation, you will increase the likelihood that the group will reach a correct conclusion democratically. You can find this theorem in various forms in justifications of democracy. There are obvious limitations, making Condorcet is less like the epistemological messiah, and more like the guard who provided the wine. Most obviously, it should be doubted that a typical individual is more often than not correct. Beyond basic knowledge of the world, collective opinion varies drastically in short periods of time, making it difficult to argue these opinions correspond to any underlying truth.

Rapidly varying opinions are an especially damning blow to democracy. The waves of public opinion crash violently against the shorelines of the political realm, making it difficult for those interested to get an accurate read on the levels of public sentiments. Even worse, every four years we kick up a hurricane in the ocean of the people, wherein at the most dangerous moment, the height of the highest wave is measured, and it is called the sea level. There is a sea level, but there are better ways to measure it.

If you read this blog’s prior post, you may have good reason to be suspicious of the following graph:

What do you think? How confident are you that the above graph is/is not a computer generated random walk? In this case the graph is from a blog which looks to be about climate change skepticism. I snipped out the edges to remove the labels. This particular graph comes from a post about Long Term Tide Gauge Data, it is the average of the mean of sea levels for a couple hundred years’ worth of data from different tide gauge sources. I am not trying to sell you on climate change or climate change denial, I have a different motive. Take a look at the graph below:


These are the raw data of which the prior graph is the mean of. At any particular time, even if you believe you see an underlying trend in the data, the difference between the low measures and the high ones is very large.

Imagine if I requested you to find me today’s sea level, and dutifully you collected the average of a few of the day’s tide gauge levels and reported them back to me. Then the blog post using the collected data goes viral. Now there are info graphics about the rising sea level, textbooks cite my blog, and during the next four years the sea level is assumed by everyone to be the one you reported on that fateful day. See the parallels yet? Tide gauges, when their data are understood properly, help to solve our temporal problems for measuring the sea level. They beat bringing rulers to the beach.

The epistemological/political analogue to tide gauges is tradition.

Up perks the ears of the less modern man. He enjoyed the spirit of Chesterton’s quote, even if he cringed at the use of oligarchy as a negative descriptor, and democracy as an ideal. He can look at the data from the tide gauge and know that while the tide is high, and waves crash against it, this momentary uptick in the gauge’s measure will fall, and oscillate around a mean. He can think of some ideas which not only have been accepted in the West, until recently, but also by the bulk of the rest of the contemporary world. He does not give an endorsement of all ideas accepted over periods of time by large groups; many of them are lunacy. But as the number of years and people claimed by an idea increases, he thinks it may be wise (even epistemologically savvy) to pay that idea more heed.

Let’s do some tidying up: what is the analogue to sea level? We need a term which is the Jeopardy answer to “some sort of underlying truth.” Be it for practical purposes, the political, or the philosophical, there are ideas which have been thought true by most within a culture group(s), most of the time. Even when groups diverge, they still will be within walking distance of each other. Further, these ideas, especially on the practical/political level, tend to throw things into disarray when there is too much deviation. They also tend to reset themselves once the conditions which caused the deviation cease. Traditions log these things, in their various manifestations. Since it is too hard to invent new words, and we can’t just mash a bunch of words together like the Germans, we’ll stick to the mathy theme of this blog and call these ‘underlying truths’ constants. So tide gauges are to the sea level as traditions are to these constants.

Culture Walk

There’s a tendency for man to see patterns in the world, why shouldn’t he? Each morning of his life, the Sun has risen, why should it not rise the next? Each time he drops a stone, it falls to the ground, why ought it to be different next time? Each time he blinks, the world is as it was a moment prior to closing his eyes. Patterns are not only noticeable, they are useful. Man sees the fresh tracks of deer overlaying older tracks, he concludes that his game traverses here often, and it would be a good place to hunt. Man notices brave men do not flee in battle, are revered by fellow tribesmen, and that cowardly men turn their backs and are cut down; man resolves to be brave. Men who are revered also have more access to the women, he notes.

There are other, more abstract patterns that the contemporary man is aware of. He has seen the march of technology to greater and greater heights, why should it stop? Each group which has fought for more rights has gained them, why should he doubt the progress of society will continue? He is more liberal than his father, who is more liberal than his father; this is true for all his friends, and so he is sure he is on the correct side of the history.


Our contemporary man comes across the above graph while reading a blog, and it lacks labels or context. He sees that it is about flat, with some bumps here and there, until around the halfway point when it starts to trend up. Being a pattern recognizing man, he recalls that this is sort of like how he thinks of American history, largely uneventful until about halfway through when we start to make social progress. Perhaps it’s a graph of human rights, with the beginning of the upward trend being the end of the civil war, the slight down slope for a moment having to do with Jim Crow, or something, which he vaguely remembers from history class. Then MLK gets progress back on track, until Bush ruins it as rights seem to slide backwards a bit at the end. Maybe this graph only goes until around 2008.


Another graph? This one is mostly downward trending, with a couple of peaks here and there. What’s gone down over the years? Ignorance, perhaps? Or, similarly, religiosity and church attendance? It starts high, those in the past were pretty ignorant, he can forgive the people of those days for their churchiness. It spikes, wasn’t there a great awakening? Then it gradually falls until again it spikes, the First World War was probably around there, people like God more when it’s war time. Then it falls, the twenties were a prosperous time, who needs God when you’re well off? More church during the Great depression, then it spikes for World War Two. After that it gradually falls thanks to a secularizing public education, dispelling those old superstitions.

Reading further into the article, he is surprised to learn that the graphs do not represent anything at all. They are just the first two random walks the author generated on Excel while pondering writing his post. Not used to being tricked as such, modern man doesn’t believe the author, after all his explanations of the graphs fit so well. It couldn’t be that graphs, with such obvious trends and corresponding so well to real world events, could just be randomly generated.

For readers who aren’t familiar with random walks, the La Wik does little to alleviate your anguish unless you took a couple of statistics courses in college. The idea is simple: each point is only dependent upon the previous point, and some random process which is as likely to point up as it is down. In this case, for both graphs, point 1 (p1) is equal to 0, and point 2 (p2) is equal to p1 plus a random number between .5 and -.5 (e2). So p2 = p1 + e2. Each point follows this pattern, so p3 = p2 + e3, and so on. This produces a random pattern, but sometimes they veer off in one direction or the other, especially after enough points have passed. If you want to try it, open Excel, put 0 into the A1 cell, and into the A2 cell put: {A1+RAND() – 0.5}, don’t include the braces. Then drag the lower right hand corner down a bunch of cells until you have as many values as you want. You’ve now made a random walk, where each point is plus or minus .5 the prior.

You can make a bunch of them, and you can see how the same formula generates a bunch of different lines, many of which you might think have trends. However, you know they don’t. You know that the underlying process is random, the graph is no more likely to move up or down, yet your brain sees a pattern in the graph, and it’s natural to think that there ought to be a discoverable force pushing it up or down. But there’s not. Below is a graph of a hundred random walks, with 500 points each:


Each of these random walks start at the same point, 0, yet they fan out over time. In spite of the increasing variation of the lines as they move forward, the mean stays about the same, 0, the point where they started. Point 1 for all is 0, and the mean (average) of all ‘Points n’ are 0. Let’s play a bit less modern man than contemporary man for a moment.

Less modern man takes a look around and notices the variation of cultures and people around the world. Whereas contemporary man might think of these people as backwards, and he may be right, less modern man sees that many cultures have common traits. Some cultures have women at equal social stature to men, some treat them as slaves, but most are somewhere between the two. Some cultures are quite hostile to outsiders, others are suicidally friendly, but most are somewhere around cautious. There’s a mean, perhaps, to most cultural traits. Histories often trace the movements of these traits, calling the succession of a few positive random terms progress. Yet the mean, when cultures are examined together, remains fairly constant. With Western hegemony, perhaps it could be argued that the other cultures skew West. But in the long run, does the hegemony have significant enough pull to parse it out of the random (error) term?

Less modern man has an idea. The mean of the random walks is equal to their shared starting point. Humans, too, had a shared beginning, a last common ancestor. Might they have a last common culture? If there is a discernible mean of cultures and cultural traits now, might that be equal the last common culture, or p1 of the culture trait random walks? Rather unprogressively, Less modern man thinks this could be evidence of an underlying human nature. (Extremely unmodern man might argue that the nature of humans change, and that these culture walks could also be nature walks, but that’s for another post.)

The arc of the moral universe is random, sayeth Excel. There are patterns in society and nature which are useful to notice. But not every pattern, every trend, has a gleanable cause. Further, the simplest explanation, the most intuitive, is not always correct. Early man is easily convinced the Sun orbits the Earth, your grandmother is convinced that water won’t boil when you watch it, and the contemporary man is convinced that morals progress in a discernible direction.