about the fugue
In Homo Hypocritus Signals, Robin Hanson shows how the usual “X is about Y” folk theories poorly explain human behavior. I entirely agree. There are also clever folks who try to apply this principle to itself: “X is not about Y” is not about “about” – Hobin Ranson. But that’s not what I’m trying to do here.
There is a sense to ‘about’ greater than what is captured by thinking of it merely as explanation. For example, take School isn’t about Learning. At present, our schools do a horrible job of helping students learn, but that doesn’t mean having students learn isn’t what we hope to try to do. That’s the positive-normative distinction, but there is more. Take Talk isn’t about Info. Now talk is about many things, but let’s assume it’s about social signaling. My proposal is this: Why can’t we do both: info + social signaling?
You know, like a fugue? What is a fugue ‘about’? Each voice is doing its own thing. The fugue can’t be said to be about any of its voices alone. Yet the voices can’t also be arbitrary, because there is harmony to consider. A fugue needs each of its voices, played as they are in their appropriate places and paces, but each seemingly oblivious to the others. The fugue has a subject, what we might consider its identity. But this is best thought a luxury. The initial exposition of a fugue introduces each voice gradually, and throughout the fugue voices might rise and fall in prominence. But all throughout, the laws of harmony cannot be violated, and this places great constraints on the individual voices. The interdependent-existence of each voice is an inextricable feature of a fugue.
The same goes for life. For human behavior. We have motives on multiple levels. Love is about sex is about marriage is about caring is about sharing, etc. Of course, it would not be too hard for one do it all. After all you don’t have to think about children while having sex, and you don’t have to think about caring during infatuation. But juggling is a bad analogy, because you only have to keep some of the balls in the air at any given time. We humans have stories. There is a story to romance, there is a story to marriage. But as far as I can tell, our novels don’t do a good job of telling both stories at once. Rather it’s like a badly written fugue where, even as the voices do each get their turn, when they do, the other voices get sacrificed to the point of a non-existent incoherence. Still, very often we don’t have to tell all these stories simultaneously. Even a fugue allows itself various tradeoffs between melodic and harmonic coherence.
But evolutionary and cognitive psychology has shown us not only that there are more voices that we were familiar with, but also that the many voices to our fugue must obey a far greater number and far stringent harmonic rules than we have previously realized. It is absolute folly for example to think two lovers can continue to stay with one another without them also managing their social status and self-esteem such that they would not be tempted to cheat. But how can social status be relevant? Musn’t they simply try as hard as they possibly can to always love one another? But our indignation is futile. Where does that love come from? Your subconscious has assessed your potential mate and decreed that you love them, and when the circumstances are appropriate it can revoke that mandate and issue another. You can’t just sing a tune to your romance. This tune must also harmonize with the tune of your socioeconomic status in society. If you become unemployed for example, your socioeconomic tune becomes harmonically inconsistent with your romantic tune, and she will leave you. That’s the price you pay for violating the laws of counterpoint.
As our science progresses and our understanding of our world improves, we may discover more and more tunes we might want to add to our fugue. In fact, in many cases we will simply be forced to. Take Godel’s incompleteness theorem, we might wish that our axioms for the natural numbers just specify the laws of arithmetic and to just leave us alone otherwise. But even if Kurt Godel had not come up with his theorem, the Godel sentence would still be there encoded in a natural number, implying the incompleteness of arithmetic. While singing a voice praising the consistency of our axiom system for arithmetic, we failed to notice our feet tapping to the rhythm of the Godel sentence-tune. And if we stop tapping our feet so, the laws of incompleteness-counterpoint will be violated, and the system-fugue will unravel into an inconsistent-incoherence. As a real world example, a civilization dependent on slavery for its prosperity and luxury will be confronted with the suffering of their slaves. It will realize that it cares for its slaves and that it has to rearrange its societal voice to harmonize with its slave-wellbeing voice.
Composing a fugue is of course tremendously difficult. But try we must. Because value is complex. We must sing many tunes, and they must all harmonize.