Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘modernity’

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.

Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

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