Just the “Basic Facts,” Mam

by Gene Callahan

I was recently in a conversation with a very bright economist who declared “We are in agreement about the basic historical facts here; we are just interpreting them differently.”

This is a common but very damaging misunderstanding of historical knowledge: that there are a set of “basic facts” that historians are “given” to start with, and what historians then do is apply a “theory” to fit an interpretive scheme over those facts. That this view cannot be correct becomes obvious once one realizes that no such thing as the “basic facts” this views relies upon can exist in history.

Why is this so? Let us set aside the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and simply point out that no historian was standing on the bank of the Rubicon to watch Caesar cross it, nor sitting on a crate in the room with Lee Harvey Oswald to see whether or not he shot Kennedy. What the historian begins with are not “basic facts” of history but bits of evidence that exist in the present, but purport or can be made to say something about the past. (“Bits” such as transcribed eyewitness reports, bone fragments, potsherds, bullet casings, tomb inscriptions, memorial statues, building foundations, and so on.) But what they say must be interpreted by the historian, and each piece of evidence must be set in the context of all other available evidence. None of them are, ab initio, more basic than any of the others — the question of how “basic” they are, if it makes any sense at all, can only be answered in the at the end of an inquiry that relates all the evidence to create a coherent “story”.

Let us consider, for example, the assassination of John Kennedy. I happen to know the economist in question is skeptical of the Warren Commission Report, and would protest strongly if someone referred to the “basic fact” that Oswald, acting alone, shot Kennedy. If the person endorsing this “basic fact” pointed to the Warren Commission Report, my economist would doubtless reply that commissioners can be biased, can be bribed, can be threatened, and so on, and we must look at all the evidence before deciding this issue. Just so!

Now, if you are inclined to dismiss his worries as mere “conspiracy mongering,” imagine this scenario: a revolutionary government comes to power in America, and their justifications for revolution is the corruption of the previous regime — as evidenced, for instance, by the fact it had Kennedy shot and engaged in a massive cover-up to hide the fact. The new regime destroys all evidence for the lone shooter interpretation, including every copy of the Warren Commission Report they can find. In that case, many people would be inclined to say that it was a “basic fact” that the US government conspired to kill Kennedy.

Now, it is true that no historian can possibly question everything at once, and, starting out with a particular question, say, “Did Oswald shoot Kennedy?” she is likely to take for granted certain other “facts,” such as “John Kennedy was president.” But, if in the course of her research, she turns up a hitherto concealed letter from Joe Kennedy to Bobby saying, “Although John died, I have found a perfect double of his to run for office in his stead,” well, that “basic fact” is likely to go right out the window!

34 thoughts on “Just the “Basic Facts,” Mam

  1. Troy, I’ll agree, but with a caveat from Oakeshott: The facts of history are what the evidence obliges us to believe, i.e., our historical interpretations are grounded in the evidence we possess.

  2. Gene,

    Although I agree, more or less, it seems like a rather uncharitable interpretation of the “bright economist”. Perhaps he commits the error you describe, but the quote you provide lacks such context.

    For me, the “basic facts” of history are a collection of propositions that most, if not all, historians believe to correspond to the facts, i.e. to be true. These usually are descriptions of very specific events(e.g. “Ceasar crossed the Rubicon”) or long term developments (e.g. “the roman empire fell”). Since the truth of these propositions are rarely contested, most disagreements between historians depend on how they are interpreted in the context of other theories.

    If one interprets the basic “basic facts” of history as “ultimate givens” i.e. the irreducible and incorrigible material from which historical theories are built and cemented together, then I agree with your criticism. However, if one takes “basic facts” in a more conventionalist sense, then the criticism is misplaced.

    You probably know better than me the context of the original quote. Perhaps the “bright economist” meant it as you suggest. I just didn’t read it that way when I first opened this post, and was somewhat suprised and confused by your reaction.

  3. So what´s the point? OK, there are no “basic facts” given and you cannot fit an interpretative theory to them. But there are “bits of evidence” – to be interpreted by a theory. Is there any difference at all?
    Because also “bits of evidence” can be viewed as interpretations – even the results of an excavation in Mesopotamia contain quite a lot of interpretation. What do you gain from such a discussion except an infinite regression?
    And the evidence does not tell us a story – we have to ask questions. For example, we should ask whether there were trade networks even in ancient times. If we find, let´s say, pottery which (due to results from isotope analyses) must be from a single source, but specimens can be found over a vast region, then the answer is: maybe. Cannot be ruled out at the moment. Does not seem to be a wrong hypothesis, but that does not mean that it is the truth either. With this method you might get some answers (and even more new questions) and maybe scientific progress (but not THE TRUTH).
    But this thread reminds me of the Name of the Rose with its discussion of words as symbols referring to symbols referring to symbols referring to…

  4. It depends on your definition of truth. If by truth you mean a one-to-one correlation with reality, then you are talking about facts, which are in short supply in history. If by truth you mean a strange attractor within a system of knowledge (theory) that one comes more or less close to, but can never achieve (truth then as an absent center), then one can approximate, if not know in an absolute sense, the truth. Thus, I agree with Gene’s caveat — as those points are on the trajectory of truth in the strange attractor sense of truth.

  5. No. That would be saying what a thing is simply by observing what it isn’t. What I am suggesting is more a reconciliation of Plato’s theory of the forms with strange attractor theory. In the early Socratic dialogues in particular what you see is Socrates and his audience talking about the thing they are trying to define. They never come upon THE answer — which is the actual point. There is no actual Form of, say, Beauty or Justice. Rather, all we can do is discuss various things which we think of as beautiful or just, and then ask what is the thing they have in common. That commonality is in fact unreachable. What matters is the process. Thus, it is a process theory of truth. One cannot achieve Truth, but one can come closer to it or get farther away from it. Thus, it acts exactly like a strange attractor in a complex system (and is, I argue), as an absent center we see emerging amidst the process at work. A little something I’ve been working out since I first formulated the idea for my dissertation.

  6. Well, now you just need to define some differential equations for the movements within n-dimensional knowledge space, throw in some computer simulations and your model is ready.
    Don´t you think you are overstretching the analogy?
    And you will not receive the Nobel Prize for it – Prigogine was faster.

  7. I am not overstretching the analogy. It is the nature of all complex systems, including cognitive systems, knowledge systems, and economic systems.

    Let me give a concrete example. Imagine a rhinoceros. Does it look like any actual, particular one? Of course not. There are two things to note here. One, our brains create a strange attractor “rhinoceros” that allows us to remember what one looks like and to thus recognize one immediately. Two, the genetic code of any given rhinoceros species generates a wide variety of forms which nevertheless have a family resemblance recognizable as being a single species. No two rhinos are the same, yet they are the same species. Each particular rhino approximates an ideal rhino that can never be achieved in the real world. This ideal rhino is the absent center of the strange attractor of the process of real rhinos being born.

    Things such as beauty and justice are much more abstract — erasing the differences among all things beautiful leaves one with little else other than an absent center. There are, nevertheless, structures that are common to all things we identify as being the same. It is the job of the scientist/historian/scholar to discover those structures. And to discover the attractors in the complex system.

    Yeah, Prigogine got his Nobel Prize. But he was dealing with simple things, like chemical processes. I have much more complex issues to deal with — mental and social processes, 2-3 times more complex systems. One has to be thankful to him and others who laid the groundwork, though, for the kinds of ideas that can actually help us understand complex processes like knowledge creation, economies, etc.

  8. So, if I got this right, you want to use strange attractors to simulate/calculate something like “pattern creation” and these patterns are related to or are the same as the forms in Platonic philosophy?
    But if you manage to do so, you should get results about the process of thinking about the truth, about beauty, about justice, not about truth, beauty and justice themselves.
    Well, if you consider Prigogine´s work as simple, I have to admit that this is far too high for me. Long time ago I learned about the differential equations describing autocatalysis but did not get any further.

  9. At the level of cognition, you would of course only get results about the process of thinking about truth, beauty, justice, etc. But what is the thing that is common among a peacock, a Cattleya orchid flower, Beethoven’s 5th, Shakepeare’s Hamlet, an image of a spiral galaxy, a sea shell, Angelina Jolie, the Parthenon, and the Mona Lisa that make them all beautiful? These are points in the beauty phase space creating the strange attractor beauty. That is another thing entirely, I would argue. It may also be cognitive — but it’s not thinking about these things that make them beautiful.

    In order, from most simple to most complex:

    math, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology/cognitive science, the social sciences (economics, sociology, culture, etc.) and the humanities (art, literature, philosophy, history, etc.)

    If done correctly, any of the social sciences or humanities is far more complex and therefore difficult than physics or chemistry. An order of magnitude more complex per level than the one preceding. A good way to know is to look at the math. The math for physics is fairly simple. As you said, the math for autocatalysis is harder. The math for biology is practically nonexistent, except as statistics. And even the statistics for the social sciences is not up to par for what is really needed. And what is the mathematics to explain Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” — indeed, what could it be?

  10. Troy,

    how much work have you already done on attractors? If you rank something like the maths for autocatalytic chemical reactions (take for example the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction) as comparatively easy you should already be very near to a Nobel Prize.

  11. Troy,

    I confess to some doubts and perplexity, but I also see that you’ve been thinking hard about the idea. I wonder if you might not want to google Tito Arecchi and see what he says about cognition and complexity. My apologies if that should be orthogonal to your ideas.

  12. Impairment,

    Ridicule all you want, but it doesn’t affect the facts as I’ve laid them out. Chemistry and biology bored me because they were too simple — that’s why I dropped out of a Master’s program in molecular biology and ended up going into the humanities.


    Thanks for the name. From a quick search I think he’ll be extremely useful in the work I’m doing on Hayek’s “The Sensory Order”.

  13. Troy,

    did not want to offend you, did not want to ridicule anything. During my whole life I haven´t met anyone who was bored of chemistry because it was too simple.

  14. Complexity and emergence of meaning: toward a semiophysics

    It connects rather neatly with Husserl and Bergson, so it’s this crazy mix of complexity theory, neuroscience, lebensphilosophie, and phenomenology. I tend to think he’s right, but I have never, like, done anything with it. If he is basically right, then it gives you another path from “science” to “verstehen.”

  15. Roger,

    Thanks. Looks like some good stuff. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Personally, that doesn’t sound like all that crazy a mix. 🙂

    I personally use the theory of time developed by J.T. Fraser, but there’s strong Bergsonianism in his ideas. I have also found Hector Sabelli’s ideas on bios theory — which is a theory of creative processes (vs. systems, which aren’t in fact creative) — to be very interesting and potentially fruitful. Austrian economists should be particularly interested in his ideas, I think.

  16. Troy,

    How is bios “creative”? It is “creative” only in the sense that the recurrence plot is thinner than the randomized version. How is that creativity?

  17. With chaos, you have a random walk filling the phase space. WIth bios, you not only fill the phase space it begins in, but you get the spontaneous creation of a new phase space. This is how biotic processes are creative. You will note that with equilibrium, cycles, and chaos, the system remiains within a single phase space. With equilibrium, you end up with a point attractor, with cycles you end up with a pair of attractors, and with chaos you end up with strange attractors. But with bios, you get the creation of a new system. The difference too is that chaos, cycles and equilibria describe systems, while bios describes processes. I recommend Sabelli’s book “Bios,” which brings together his work to that date on creation/process theory. The general theory fits beautifully with Austrian economic theory (he has a chapter in his book on economics that demonstrates that he 1) doesn’t know anything about economics, and 2) that the developer of a general theory doesn’t necessarily understand how his theory can best be applied outside his area of expertise).

  18. Troy,

    What is the meaning of the phrase “spontaneous creation of a new phase space”? I guess it means that if gain in time dependent and growing, then Sabelli’s A_sub_t eventually exceeds |w| for any real w? Is that it? Again, how is that “creative”? I admit I”ve only briefly scanned his 2002 article with L. Kauffman in Kybernetics, so I may be missing the boat. OTOH, it just seems like he’s sticking high-sounding words such as “creativity” to relatively straightforward behaviors of a rather ho-hum equation system.

  19. If we consider the trajectory of a pendulum in a phase diagram, we get a spiraling in toward a point attractor as the pendulum settles on its point attractor. Thus, the trajectory is limited to its phase space. More, it becomes an ever-decreasing phase space. In fact, all attractive processes — equiliubria, periodic cycles, and chaos — have phase space decreases over time, and decreased variation as well. Creative processes like bios increase their phase space volume, and variation. If there is anything new in the new phase space, bios will discover it; attractive systems simply cover ground already covered.

    Keep in mind that bios is a mathematical model for actual processes. He has discovered the pattern in heart beats, the distribution of galaxies over time, etc. The physical processes — he discovered it in heartbeat time series — preceeeded the models. Heart beats did not seem to generate any discernible pattern, until he did a sine-cosine transformation of the data, plotting sin(A sub t) on the y and cos (A sub t) on the x, and discovered that it resulted in a mandala pattern. From there he sought out the mathematics that would give the same kinds of patterns, and discovered the bios equations.

    The patterns result in novelty, which he defines as an empirical measure of creativity (1), “non-repetitive change” (Bios, 21) and “change beyond chance” (22), or “faster and larger variation than generated by random change” (1). He argues that one gets creativity when “self-reference is mediated by external interactions. Feedback can be creative because it invovles self-reference and itneraction with the environment. Through its repetitive interactions with others, a system can become both self-referential and co-creative” (82).

    Interestingly, he argues that the simplest recursion that produces bios “initially converges to pi and then bifurcates into two branhes, one of which reaches F [Feigenbaum’s “universality” = 4.6692…] as the other meets phi [the golden mean ratio = 1.618 …]. F plus phi is similar but equal to 2pi” (85). The golden mean ratio is of course a fundamental principle of growth.

  20. Yeah, that’s what I thought it meant to “create phase space,” although I put my absolute value sign on w, not A_sub_t. (D’oh!) That just doesn’t look like “creativity” to me, Troy. How is that “spontaneous creation”? It just ain’t!

    If you have a worked out model with Sabelli’s equations and you draw out some conclusion about, like, the need for diversity in the pool of entrepreneurs or something, then, sure, you get a hearing. You might be onto something. But it doesn’t seem like you’re really saying anything if you just point to those equations and cry “Ah hah, creativity!” I totally spot Sabelli the heartbeat thing. It seems like that’s for real and, actually, kind of a big deal as it must help in diagnosing heart problems. Cool, and props to him for that. But tagging all these high-sounds phrases onto his equations just seems kind of, well, arbitrary.

  21. The equations simply describe mathematically (remembering that math is a precise approximation of reality) certain actual processes. After discovering the pattern in heartbeat intervals, he also discovered the pattern in the temporal distribution of galaxies, economic processes, and distribution of words in literary texts.

    In regards to economics, he argues that “Statistical, frequency and dynamic analysis of financial time series show biotic features (broad spectrum, non-normal distribution, asymmetry, nonstationarity, diversity, diversification, complexes, novelty, non-random complexity, and low dimensional consecutive recurrence indicating nonrandom causation). The statistical distributions of financial data are often multimodal and characteristically have skewed statistical distributions, as observed with statistical noise and biotic and parabiotic series, in contrast to the symmetric distribution of random, periodic and chaotic series” (556).

    Further, he points out that “Economic series characteristically have high entropy and a high coefficient of variation, denoting diversity. Most economic series show global diversification. Many series show local diversification (DJIA, crude oil, 1 month Treasury Bills, gold, silver, Euodollar, yen, Dutch Mark, British pound, business accounts), but others, such as the S&P, show convergence” (556).

    When he “considered two measures of an economic process, the relation between the future prices (oil price index) and volumes of crude oil sold in the London International Exchange” he discovered that “Both series are parabiotic and increase together in a highly correlated manner. This correlation indicates that opposites such as supply, demand and price form circuits rather than equilibrium” (561-2).

    Thee equations only show that these apparently differing processes have an underlying pattern. That allows for an interdisciplinary program of study. It also suggests what features we should be looking for in creative processes. He lists: diversification, complexification, nonrandom complexity, novelty, episodic patterning (complexies), spontaneity, autogenesis, autodynamics, irreversibility, asymmetry, aperiodicity, 1/f patterns, non-stationarity, global sensitivity to initial conditions, and limited life tenure of elements in the process. Do these qualities contribute to a healthy economy? To the growth of wealth? If so, we need to understand these processes better. When I read his book “Bios: a Study of Creation,” the general theory sounds like it is highly compatible with Austrian economics. I think it could only benefit Austrians to at least look into it.

  22. Sigh. Troy, repeating your enthusiasm for Sabelli does not explain why it makes sense to apply a word like “creativity” to a phenomenon like a thin recurrence plot.

  23. This is precisely the big danger of math. We focus on the fact that there’s a line that creates more phase space as the process continues and forget that it’s a mere representation of something real. The plot represents a real process. The plot does something no other mathematical time series does: expand the phase space. The new phase space represents actual material processes.

  24. Okay, we’ll use the word “represent.” So how does a think recurrence plot “represent” creativity. I feel like you’re dodging my question, Troy.

    Oh, and “no other mathematical time series”? Really? How about this one?

    x(t) = 1 + x(t-1)
    x(0) = 0

    It, too, spontaneously creates a new phase space.

  25. This is one of the dangers of math. I’m not just repeating my enthusiasm. I am pointing out pratical uses. I can look at almost any graph and complain that all I see is a couple stupid lines that don’t mean anything. How does the supply-demand curve correspond to anything in economics? It doesn’t. They are just two lines created by a couple of mathematical formulae. The real questions are 1) how did we come up with this graph (data first), and 2) what then does it tell us? (My personal favorite use of it is to point out to people that companies want to drive down prices, while consumers want to drive up prices, thus undermining their anti-business, anti-market complaints.)

    The bottom line with bios theory is that it’s a theory that explains the common features of several wildly different kinds of time series. It is “creative” in a purely mathematical sense precisely because, unlike any other time series ever discovered, new phase space is created. But math is the least complex process possible. Above it are, in order of increasing complexity, physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and social processes. The way this gets played out at each of these levels is going to be quite different. What, then, is interesting about the math is what it can tell us about the basic conditions necessary to create such a process. This allows it to be applicable to all the other levels, that basic, general outline the math provides. But let’s not mistake the math for anything concrete. It is, after all, only a precise approximation of reality and nothing more. Thus, when I look at the work done on bios theory, I don’t just see a line shooting off — I see its realization at every other level of complexity.

    Let me give an example of a biotic process at work in biology: speciation. Let us say that we have a population of leopards. Each leopard produced by that population is a member of a fractal time series — similar in basic structure to every other identifiable leopard. (In the case of leopards, one could even argue that there is an underlying cyclic process at work too in the creation of spotted leopards and black panthers.) Each leopard born is an investigation of the leopard phase space — nothing new is created, no new phase space is investigated (Sabelli points out that creative processes are not always creating). However, if something changes in the environment — say, the expansion of grasslands — that can send the process into creative territory. Spots may not help as much as sandy coloration in yellow grasslands; larger musculature that makes tree climbing difficult is less an issue, and is in fact beneficial for protecting terrotiry and kills; the open space makes solitary life more dangerous than social life. Thus, lions evolve. In evolutionary theory, this is known as the theory of puncutated equilibrium. Bios theory suggests it to be true, providing both the model and the predicted conditions.

    My enthusiasm for bios theory is no different than my enthusiasm for chaos theory, self-organization theory, information theory, dissipative structure theory, catastrophe theory, and evolutionary theory — they are all basic structuralist ways of understanding various systems and processes, allowing me to understand as much as possible in as deep a fashion as possible. Without these structuralist theories, interdisciplinary understanding — or work — is impossible.

  26. Sabelli argues that the key here is diversification. It is diversification which creates the new phase space volume — and which thus represents creativity.

    Now, if “The counting of the number of states available to a particle amounts to determining the available volume in phase space” (http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/quantum/phase.html), then your series doesn’t really create new phase space volume, as to do that it would need to increase the number of states available to the element under investigation, as happens with bios.

    You might consider the following:



    The following contains the first 13 pgs of the book Bios:


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