Horrors of a Vacuum

 Horrors of a Vacuum

Hume observed that only humans are inclined to extend sympathy towards inanimate entities:

He was right. I recently asked Google Bard’s AI to give me the most common completions of the phrase “assault on…” from US media. It responded “democracy, truth, facts, expertise, and reason”:

One may be inclined to shrug this off as bad journalism, but such invocations also come from the highest office in the land. Our president, Joe Biden, has lately published several tweets about assaults on democracy:

The last one, concerning the post-election riots in Brazil, was echoed by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and a number of congressmen.

One might observe that these are liberal democratic politicians, yet the inclination is not one-sided. Recently, Ted Cruz and some right-wing media outlets also decried the indictment of former president Trump as an assault on democracy:

Nor is this inclination only to be found in party politics: instead of helping the needy, we donate to charitable organizations who promise to help the needy on our behalf; instead of trying to improve our communities, we try improving “the system” in hopes that we might benefit more people; instead of living more simple lives, we try to get the government to clean up pollution. In short, "everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help mom do the dishes."


If such inclinations had been so common in Hume’s time, I don’t think he would have limited his observations to children, poets and a certain school of ancient philosophers. Needless to say, it no longer seems apt to view such fictions of sympathy as merely manifestations of puerile inexperience or poetic fancy, "to be suppressed by a little reflection", though Hume may have been right to link this inclination to Peripatetic thought.

There was no more widely influential scientific movement in the 20th century than structuralism, which did more to revive Aristotelian forms than perhaps any other intellectual movement in history, and by the turn of the millennium came to pervade every field of modern science.


The structuralist movement first took root in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, who conceived language as a system of signs used to convey meaning. Though Saussure’s system was quickly replaced with othersnotably, those of Leonard Bloomfield, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinkerhis approach stuck, and linguists ever since have turned their attention to determining the underlying structures upon which language is built. Structuralism quickly infused the social sciencesnotably, psychology (with the birth of cognitive science) and anthropology (with Claude Levi-Strauss’ work on kinship and myth)biology (with Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work on Systems Theory, in which all living organisms were conceived as systems), mathematics (with Norbert Wiener’s development of Cybernetics, in which not only living but also artificial entities were conceived as systems), and other fields.


The impact of structuralism on modern scientific thought could be starkly observed in the hard and soft sciences alike. Both probabilists and psychiatrists, for example, use empirical observations (in probability, data, and in psychiatry, behavior) to infer the underlying structure (in probability, the distribution, and in psychiatry, the disorder) that produces such output, on which basis they go on to describe and make further inferences about the subject (broadly construed, or his psyche). “I have observed his behavior. He is a narcissist. It is a statistical fact of absolute metaphysical certitude. QED.”

Now back to Hume’s point about the Peripatetic inclination to sympathize with inanimate entities, which in our times tends to concern abstractions. Recall Hume's observation that it was not just sympathy that we extend to such entities, but “every trivial propensity of the imagination”, including antipathy.

No longer confined to academia, this inclination has entered popular thought. We hear it, for example, in some of the more common accusations that are voiced these days, which, while true in some instances, cannot be as common as they are invoked: "You are a conspiracy theorist" (translation: "I have determined from your statement that conspiratorial thinking is the latent structure in your mind that generates views such as the one you’ve just expressed"), "you are a racist" (translation: "you harbor a dangerous antagonism towards races not your own, which is the engine that drives you to express such views"), "sexist", "anti-democratic", "nationalistic", &c. For a structural-empiricist, it is not enough to point out the apparent error in another’s statement (i.e., why what he said may be factually wrong or immoral), for he believes that there is a latent structure in the other’s mind that drives him to express such views, and that he (the structural-empiricist) has more or less determined the nature of this structure based on the one or few datapoints he has observed. Much more, the structures of the structural-empiricist are treated with more certitude than the empirical data on which they are inferred, which is perhaps what Hume meant when he said of Peripatetics, that “any phenomenon which puzzles them arises from a faculty or an occult quality, and there is an end of all dispute and enquiry upon the matter.” It is one thing to say that the world appears to be flat, and quite another to say that flatness is the form that gives the world structure. Furthermore, some structures operate over multiple scales: for example, racism is taken to be not only an individual trait, but also a systemic onewhich means that it is rooted not only in a Faculty of racism in an individual’s mind, but also in a Faculty of racism in the Societal Mind, and therefore it is not enough to uproot this Faculty from the mind of one personno, it must be purged from the Societal Mind. A Herculean task, to be sure.


But there is a deeper problem. Since there is no limit to the structures one can invoke (as virtually any statement can be taken to be antagonistic in one form or another), there will always be another structure to antipathize with. The structural-empiricist is ever trying to determine the Faculty underlying whatever phenomenon happens to be kindling his interest. At the same time, his scientific outlook makes him more a spectator of reality than a participant, as though he were in the world but apart from it, like a perfect angel, who alone has the right to pry into nature without ever being rightfully suspected of a thing. But now I am starting to sound a bit Peripatetic…


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