Saturday, March 3, 2012

Counterfactuals: Thoughtful Thoughts on Thinking

“It’s impossible to think different [sic] in a country where you can’t speak freely. It’s impossible to think different [sic] when you have to worry what you put on the Internet will either be confiscated or you will be arrested. It’s impossible to think different [sic] where orthodoxy reigns. That’s why we remain the most innovative country in the world.”
-Vice President Joe Biden
The New York Review of Books has a fascinating interview with Chinese public intellectual Ran Yunfei this weekend. Mr. Ran says that the way to combat a society where everything they teach you is fake is, "to learn how to argue. Too few public intellectuals in China have learned to argue logically. They don’t know how and end up cursing each other all the time." Ironically, he makes a condescending, ad hominem observation about dissident artist Ai Weiwei in the next sentence. If you can overlook this irony, which is difficult, then you might accept his simple statement that logic is a powerful tool for combating mythology. I think Mr. Ran's own logic is faulty. He seems to be saying that if you use logic, you can effectively combat mythology. In fact, in the example that Mr. Ran uses of Ai Weiwei, it is truth and moral consistency, not logic, that are really the powerful weapons. "To defend freedom you can’t use methods that destroy freedom."

As an aside, it is worth noting that public intellectuals in the United States are really no better than in China, except that many of them are not intellectuals at all--Rush Limbaugh, Larry Summers, Newt Gingrich, Tom Friedman, etc. They savage their ideological opponents and participate in internecine skirmishes, too. They frequently throw logic to the wind and invent their own Lei Feng-Wang Jie-Liu Wenxue-Lai Ning tales, too. Think Christopher Columbus-George Washington-Horatio Alger, Jr. Howard Zinn did a good job at pointing out some of the pervasive mythologies of our own education system.

Before I precede, it is necessary to define what a counterfactual conditional is. In short, it is a conditional (or "if-then") statement indicating what would be the case if its antecedent were true (although it is not true). An example, provided in the Wikipedia article on counterfactual conditionals is, "If Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else did."

Joe Biden's counterfactual proposition is that, "If China did not suppress certain kinds of speech, then it would be the greatest innovator in the world. Since the United States is the most permissive with speech, we lead the world in innovation." Besides the total lack of logic here and the Vice-President's differently [sic] use of grammar, this statement (in the epigraph above) betrays a dangerous simplification of thought that rather exaggerates the impact of impairing freedom of the press/assembly/speech/religion on the freedom of thought.

As I am about to begin teaching a skills development class that seeks to prepare Chinese students for college and deft engagement in the world of ideas, I am intensely interested in the question of whether Chinese people actually think differently than Americans. Linguists have made such claims for decades and foreign experts here in Changchun frequently parrot some version of what Biden purports. I must say, I do not feel constrained. This is a topic that must be discussed publicly, not just in Sichuanese tea houses.

It is already being discussed by many talking heads. The insufferable, smug Tom Friedman, who is foreign affairs' columnist for the New York Times, recently interviewed Bill Gates on exactly this topic. After Mr. Friedman got done self-plugging his six year-old book, I was no longer really listening, but I did play through the whole interview.  Mr. Friedman has long believed that, “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears-and that is our problem.” (Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat. 2006) The recent passing of Apple's chief innovator showed that in China, Steve Jobs was Justin Bieber and that Britney Spears like Bill Gates is just not that important. Or, as Heather Chandler put it, "Grow up Heather, bulimia's so '87."

Clyde Prestowitz offers a good analysis of this big interview--"big" mostly for the egos involved. He observes that Steve Jobs was the innovator and that Gates "knows about negotiation and standard setting and business strategy, but he's never been an innovator." In other words, Gates is more like Harvard's Larry Summers, a privileged opportunist who aptly sits on the board of a company called Square, than Albert Einstein, who was, unarguably, one of the most innovative modern minds despite being a product of one of the most repressive regimes in human history (aka Nazi Germany). What do you say about that, Joe Biden? Is Einstein the exception that makes the rule or does, as I might posit, repression of expression breed innovation? Do China's policies, in fact, have the unwanted effect of creating people like Ai Weiwei, Zhang Ping, Ran Yufei, and Gao Xingjian? That is an inquiry Li Changchun might want to fund.

It seems to me that Prestowitz's greatest service is pointing out that, "If America is suffering from declining competitiveness and rising trade deficits, innovation, according to the elite, is the philosopher's stone that will turn everything around." Poppycock though it may be, I do not want to be distracted by this more serious discussion about whether America's culture of innovation, if it exists, is likely to lead to further national success. As I mentioned, I am concerned mostly with the question of how most Chinese people think differently than most Americans, if they do think differently at all and if such generalizing is even a worthwhile exercise.

Before I go further, though, let me ask you, my reader: What do you think about how we think different [sic] than one another?