The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
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Riots and Racism
Last modified on Fri Jun 5 22:52:55 2020

I am writing this as parts of the US are engulfed in riots in response to a brutal murder committed by a policeman while trying to restrain a suspect. The wikipedia article has the relevant details, and will presumably be updated after I write this. I will just say that right now, there are few details available, so if anyone reads this post in a few months time, when more has emerged, it might be that many areas of uncertainty I allude to will then no longer be uncertain. That's the peril of writing about unfolding events. But the purpose of this post is to use this example make a general point, which I hope will remain valid whatever the true details in this particular case.

A second caveat I should make is that I am writing this as an outsider. I am not a US citizen; I have only ever visited the US for short periods to attend academic conferences, which are usually about as far as you can get from experiencing real US life and culture. I recognise that there have been legal or strong cultural restrictions based on race in the US in living memory. Although those laws are no longer on the books, there is still a culture and context there which is alien to me. Again, I am looking to make a general point which is not culture specific, but if it seems to anyone that I an indifferent to local circumstance, that might be because I am indifferent to local circumstances. And context is important. We are in the middle of a virus induced lockdown. People have lost their jobs. And in general the people who lost their jobs are the ones who could least afford to: office workers and government officials, generally in well paid roles, can continue to work, from home or otherwise, and are slightly inconvenienced but secure. Poorly paid factory workers and security guards, barely making ends meet even at the best of times, are stripped of even the little they had. This lockdown and the consequent economic collapse is hurting most the people who could least afford to be hurt. I can imagine that there is a wave of underlying anger building up waiting for any excuse to burst. But context is not so significant when thinking of general principles. Indeed, lack of context is an advantage because I am not emotionally involved, one way or the other.

Racism is defined as when somebody treats someone else differently on account of their race, with all other relevant circumstances being equal, except in those few exceptions where race is actually relevant. Racism is one form of injustice, and as such it is an evil. Not the only evil; not the worst evil, but unquestionably evil. For example, suppose that someone put me in charge of a theatre production of Shakespeare's Othello. It would not be racist of me to cast an actor of African (preferably North African) ancestry as Othello, and Europeans (preferably Southern Europeans) in all the other roles, even though it would involve discriminating in favour of people on account of their race. This is because the origins of Othello are an integral part of the story. He was a foreigner, who converted to Christianity, defected to the Venetians where he was eminently successful, but where he suffered prejudice on account of his background. Having an entirely mixed race cast would lessen the impact of the story. But that is just about the only example I can think of where race is relevant to a decision someone might make. Even if a certain race of people are on average more X (which might be good or bad) than others, my decision is based on whether or not the individual in front of me has or lacks that quality. There is no reason why that individual should be average. It would be unjust to treat him as though he were.

If I were hiring a computer programmer, the only two things that matter are a) how good is he or she at programming; and b) will his or her character fit in my team culture. His or her race is irrelevant. If I were hiring a scientific researcher, the only things that matter are a) is he or she good at what he or she does; and b) does his or her character fit in with the team ethos. If I were profiling a potential suspect for a crime, the only things that matter are a) did he have the opportunity and means to do the crime; b) what is his character like? Race ultimately doesn't matter. There are villainous black people who happened to be in the vicinity of a crime, and there are villainous white people who happened to be in the vicinity of a crime. There are saintly black people and saintly white people. If you picked out some random black person, he could be a villain, or he could be a saint. His race is irrelevant.

Anyway, the facts of the matter are these: a restaurant owner called the police after complaining that somebody had paid for a meal with a counterfeit note. Four police officers, two of whom had prior disciplinary records, were summoned, and they intercepted one George Floyd, a tall, well built, black man, who had been living in the area for a number of years, and had, in his previous town, helped establish Church ministries in deprived and crime-ridden areas. Floyd briefly struggled against the arrest, but was quickly subdued, handcuffed, and then forced to the floor where three of the police offers kept him down by kneeling on him. One of them knelt on Floyd's neck. Floyd gasped that he couldn't breathe, but the policeman didn't move, even after Floyd stopped responding. Eventually an ambulance was called, and Floyd was subsequently declared dead. This was all filmed by members of the public, and the video released. The police officers were fired and charged with murder and manslaughter. There were subsequent protests, targetting particularly against the racial nature of the crime, which turned into riots. Those riots led to additional people being killed, and the burning down of various buildings, including a police station and various shops.

Those are the facts as far as I can determine them at the time of writing. I will assume the guilt of the police officers, and especially that of the one who knelt on Floyd's neck, even though he has not yet been tried. From where I sit, the evidence looks damning. If I am wrong, and there is evidence I am not aware of, that this example is false doesn't mitigate against my general point.

This was an utterly horrific and barbaric act. On that, everybody agrees. The police officers involved deserve everything they are going to get, and probably a whole lot more. But what I want to focus on is the response.

Immediately, the narrative was generated that the significant thing about this crime was that the victim was of African descent, and the perpetrators white or of South East Asian descent. It was assumed that the motive for this attack was racism. This was not just an assault against one man, but a symbol of institutionalised prejudice against an entire community.

I am not aware that the motive of the leading police officer has been published. Maybe he was racist. Maybe he was prejudiced against tall, well built, people. Maybe he was prejudiced against Christians. Maybe he was particularly prejudiced against people who dealt in counterfeit currency. Maybe he was just a jerk, who often went too far and overestimated his authority, and on this occasion just happened to go even further than usual. Maybe he had a personal vendetta against this particular man, and seized this opportunity to exercise it. Maybe he was having a bad day, which was enough to turned a customary ill-discipline into something lethal. And maybe he had one of a host of other possible motives which I can't think of. At the moment, we don't know (or at least I don't know) what his motive was. But as far as judging him is concerned, I am not sure that it matters. Whatever reason he had for the crime,

And if he was in fact racist, why does that make his crime worse, and worthy of a riot? Sure, killing someone because you are a racist is inexpressibly depraved. But is killing someone because you are a non-racist jerk any less depraved? By singling out racism, all you are doing is unconscionably diminishing the severity of committing a murder motivated by a prejudice against tall, well built people. But surely the crime is just as serious, no matter what the motive was.

And again, if it is wrong to target all black people because one black person committed a crime, why is it justified to blame all white police officers and officials just because one of them turned out to be a scoundrel? If they were trying to cover up or excuse the crime, I could understand that that makes them de facto accomplices, but they acted swiftly. I am sure that there are other scoundrels in the Minnesota Police Department, but the protestors are blaming all of them for the crimes of one man. They are condemning a whole class of people simply because one of them was a villain. They are labelling a whole class of people as victims, solely because one individual was a victim. The issue at hand is police brutality. That means our condemnation should be targetted at brutal police officers, regardless of their race. Our sympathy should be reserved for victims of police brutality, regardless of race. Not all victims of police brutality are black, and not all black people are victims of police brutality, and even there I would suspect that in almost all cases it is not because of their colour that they are brutalised, but because of some failing in their character or actions, or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In other words, to turn this into a racial issue is to commit the very crime you are accusing the police officer as having. It shows that you have the general same mindset as the racists: you are still under the illusion that race is important. The crime is no more and no less heinous because the victim happened to be black. The pertinent fact is that he was human.

Or let me put it another way. If the roles had been reversed, and it had been a black police officer killing a white man, would there still have been protests and riots on such a scale? I suspect that the answer is "No." If so, then doesn't that mean that the protestors based their actions solely on the race of the people involved? And doesn't that make them racist?

Are there any bigger racists in society today than those who identify themselves as anti-racist activists? And are there any bigger scoundrels than those who foster an illusion that an individual should blame all their ills on external racism, rather than encourage them to find and try to correct the genuine problems in their lives? There is certainly racism still around in society, but not enough of it that people (of whatever race) can't make a good life for themselves by identifying their own character falls short and their skills are lacking, and seek to improve themselves as much as they are able, and to trust in God to do the rest. Encouraging a victim mentality just leaves people forever fuming at the specks in other people's eyes, while ignoring the log in their own. No matter who we are, what race we are, we all have our own vices and manifold failings. The secret of success is to identify them and repent. You get nowhere in life by getting angry at and blaming others.

Or let me put it another way. Racism, as an ideology, can be thought of as depending on three premises. Obviously the precise form in which these three premises might take will vary from one individual to another, but I think some variation of the below will apply in most cases. 1) That there is an essential difference between the different races. 2) The different races are naturally or ought to be in a state of conflict. 3) An individual ought to support race X in this conflict, and oppose race Y. Possible arguments to support point 3) are a) I ought to stand up for my own kind; b) Race X has proved its superiority, perhaps by spawning some scientific or industrial revolution, or for some other reason; c) Race X has historically been subject to injustice, so we now need to discriminate in favour of it to redress the balance. There are, of course, many others reasons to support this third premise, but these will suffice for the purposes of this discussion.

Premises 2) and 3) presuppose premise 1). But it is premise 1) where the most important error lies. That error is applying attributes to subsets of the species (attributes which imply superiority or inferiority by some measure) which properly only ought to be applied to either to individuals or the species as a whole. For example, basic moral principles are derived from the definition of humanity as rational, social and living animals. That definition applies equally to all races; therefore the same moral principles apply. It is not one rule for me and another for him. Or we might think about intelligence, and say that some people are superior in intelligence to others. But intelligence is an attribute that applies to an individual man or woman. It makes little sense to talk about the intelligence of a group. Because they depend on it, then defeat premise 1) and you will also bring down 2) and 3). Of course 2) and 3) might be also flawed for different reasons. Precisely how flawed depends on the precise form of these arguments. For example, if premise 2) is expressed as saying that the different races historically have been in conflict, then one can make a case for that. Albeit not a perfect case: there have been times and places where people of different races have been in conflict solely because they are of different races, but also times where people of different races have been indifferent to the concept of race, and also times where they have actively cooperated with each other. But premise 1) is where the problem truly lies. And I think that historical anti-racist campaigners recognised this. Martin Luther King, for example, to my knowledge of him (which admittedly doesn't extend that far) campaigned for a society without any racial divisions.

But the modern anti-racist strikes me as being obsessed about race. Take the slogan "Black lives matter." Can't that be read as implicitly implying that there is a distinction between black people and all others, simply because it only mentions one race? The slogan only makes sense if you presuppose that there is a distinction between black people and all others. Many of the loudest voices base their protest around favouring black people in order to right historical injustices. But if you say this, you are arguing in favour of 3c, and in opposition to 3a and 3b. But such an approach is not going to defeat racism. Firstly, because their opponents will not accept 3c. Those opponents might argue (with some justification) that there is no moral requirement to right past wrongs by committing another wrong targetted mainly against innocent people (the offenders being mainly already in their graves). Or they might argue (with considerably less justification) that there was no historical injustice, because, by their own depraved standards, the acts perpetuated in the past were not unjust but a natural consequence of the presumed superiority of one race over another. But not only does arguing for 3c not do any good, it will also do much harm. 3c presupposes premises 1) and 2). To argue for 3c encourages the notion that there is an essential difference between the races. They do this by claiming that the injustices of the past are crimes against black people as a whole, rather than (as they should be regarded) crimes against humanity as a whole, or, more pertinently, crimes against particular human individuals. This is then reinforced by their failure to condemn similar atrocities committed against Caucasians, or to highlight white poverty or deprivation. Wanton acts of violence and destruction as part of the anti-racist protests then just reinforce the racist's feelings of superiority and moral indignation.

Racism is utterly evil. We should be doing all we can to overcome it. But that is precisely why many of these anti-racist protestors are misguided: they just make the situation worse. They are trapped in the same world-view as their oppressors, only looking at it from the opposite side. So everything they say only perpetuates the myths that racism is built upon. They preach the same key mistaken premise that is the basis of racism; and as such they unconsciously work to support rather than undermine the evil they claim to oppose.

On Existential Intertia and Divine Conservation

Reader Comments:

1. Scott Lynch
Posted at 02:34:25 Monday June 22 2020

Individual Species per Individual

Dr. Cundy,

I think I recall you claiming in “What Is Physics?” that you believe that each and every human is its own species insofar as you interpret form to be the set of all potentials of a given substance, and these sets differ from person to person. So insofar as there is no real potency in me to be a five foot tall black woman (being currently a six foot tall white man), I have a different form than such a woman. Although the set of all of these forms would fall under the same genus of humanity.

Could you clarify this position if I am misinterpreting or misremembering you? Obviously this position would be very relevant to premise one in your post. I believe your post is spot on, so I think it is important to flesh out this metaphysical detail. Obviously nominalism and mechanism (which are widely embraced today) would pave the way for premise one.

The position that I attribute to you above is a little more like a Duns Scotus rejection of the Unicity of Form. But of course, there have been loose connections between Duns Scotus and nominalism by historians of philosophy (I am thinking Fr. Copleston).

Aquinas believed all humans have exactly the same form and are merely individuate by matter (and not by unique additional forms or haeccities or anything like that). I tend to agree with his position. I like the analogy of form being like a differential equation and matter being the initial conditions. With different initial conditions, the set of potentials of a given differential equation if a certain form can be vastly different, although there will be some similarities and some overlap. That is why a man and a woman (for example) can have the exact same form and yet never be able to (truly) change their sex.

But I agree with the general thrust of your whole post (and as an American who has lived in California, Texas, and Florida).

Actually what I find to be the new racism of our times is to (whether consciously or subconsciously) seek out blacks people to be your friend so that you can virtue signal to your friends on Facebook. I currently have no black friends (I am busy with my wife and kids and have very few friends haha), and I do not have a problem with that. I have had black friends in the past and would happily hang out with them again. But I think this general view many white people have towards blacks is if anything condescending and thus as racist as those who actively hate blacks. It still regards them as having a differing essence.

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 21:24:55 Monday June 22 2020


My view isn't quite as you represented it, but you are close to the mark. I think more in terms of a sequence of layers. I do think that you can discuss a form of an individual, representing (in part) all the possible states that individual could naturally develop into from conception until death. Above that you have the form of the human species, which encompasses the states of every possible human. The difference is one is more general and the other more specific. For example, there are many attributes which are accidental to humanity as a whole but essential to an individual person. More specifically, I would classify things according to their natural tendencies. All human beings are rational animals, with the natural tendencies associated with rationality and animality. Some human beings however have the natural tendency to absorb more light than others. The colour of one's skin (as an example) is accidental to the nature of humanity, but essential to each individual. Above humanity we can generalise further to primates, then mammals, then animals, then living beings, then beings in general. For example, animals share all the essential tendencies of living beings; but there are also some tendencies which are accidental to the genera of living beings but which are essential to animals. That's how we would move from one layer to the next.

Is there a layer between the individual and humanity? Aside from male and female (which is biological, and defined primarily by the different roles the two sexes have in procreation and raising children) I would say no, or at least nothing important. For example, we could distinguish people by race -- but the only meaningful essential difference between the races is how much light their skins absorb, which is of little consequence to anything. And it is thus something of an arbitrary distinction. Or we could distinguish people by how tall or short they are (which cuts across racial groups), or how intelligent they are (which cuts across racial groups and height), or how much Virgil they recall from their schooldays. All such distinctions (aside from male and female) add nothing relevant to what is common to all humanity, and are pretty much irrelevant in almost all circumstances.

The tendencies obviously define goodness for that type of being. But the primary moral principles are derived from the natural tendencies that define humanity rather than the individual. The things that

distinguish between individuals are generally more trivial and don't add new natural tendencies. Obviously, someone with the occupation of a plumber should additionally aim at the virtues that define plumbing. But even being a plumber is accidental to their nature as an individual human being; they could have become an electrician or motor racing driver instead.

So my view is to regard both the individual and the species as important. I wouldn't accept the nominalist or Scotist rejection of the metaphyisical importance of the species (e.g. the species of rational animals). But neither would I say that the differences between individual human beings is merely that they have different matter. Instead, I think there is a reasonable compromise between the two extremes, where we can acknowledge both a human nature common to all humans, and an individual nature that describes (among other things) the different stages of an individual human life.

But, as I keep stressing, I'm no expert on biology or the philosophy of biology, so I am open to correction.

3. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 22:33:38 Monday June 22 2020

More madness

Apparently, acknowledging that "white lives matter" is now offensive.

When will this madness end?

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