Some Thoughts On My Silence

February is almost gone and I have yet to write my first post this year. I have been wondering why. Looking back, starting October, this blog has seen 15 posts in 2008, 77 in 2009, 44 in 2010, and 14 in 2011. What happened between 2008 and 2012? Am I running out of topics to write about?

Something changed: In 2009 I moved back to Europe, from the US. And I moved to Finland. In Finland, silence is said to be part of speech, so I have been told. Walter Bauer (1904-1976) wrote “[A]us der Arktis kommt die Endsumme aller Weisheit: Schweigen” [1], typically translated into “[T]he Arctic expresses the sum of all wisdom: Silence”. Silence is golden.

Compared to Washington, DC — where silence must be hunted — Finland is a different universe, sort of. While in transition, I used to argue that the great thing about the chatty American (US) is that, while 80% of what is said can be trashed, the remaining 20% is brilliant, and getting that makes being exposed to smart-ass crap worth it. In Europe, the further north the more silent, one may be less likely to be exposed to nonsense but, unfortunately, also to the brilliant — with people, politics, journalism, blogs, even advertisement. In 2009 I was in share-much mode, 77 posts. In 2011 I was in share-little mode, 14 posts.

However, more than my transitioning, I find it increasingly difficult to draft text or thought that is correct and comprehensive, and this is what has been keeping me from writing. When do you know something is correct? Even if you argue that what is said is correct, how do you know the arguments in support of what is said cover much that is relevant?

Let’s assume I state that “plants have no mental complexity, hence, no interests”, an argument that leads to the conclusion that plants are not objects of moral concern. Now, I suppose most agree that plants have no mental complexity. In fact, mental complexity relates to the mind and plants do not have one. Further, let’s agree that having interests is a valid proxy for being an object of moral concern. At this point, you may argue that the conclusion is correct, plants are not objects of moral concern. After all what else other than mental complexity could create interest? You may be correct, at least with respect to a specific school of thought, but there may be more here that is relevant and should be considered.

Some plant species have developed rather sophisticated defense mechanisms, not least because they cannot escape. One such mechanism is the recruitment of the predator that is a natural enemy of the herbivore a plant is under attack from. In essence, upon attack from a specific herbivore species, such plants produce and emit a certain mixture of volatile organic compounds to which the corresponding predator, natural enemy of the herbivore, reacts. The plant is, thus, recruiting the predator by signaling the presence of food. In doing so the plant is more likely to be relieved from the attacker. Is the plant expressing an interest, namely to avoid to be harmed? Can interest arise from complexity other than mental complexity? Are, thus, plant species with such behaviour objects of moral concern?

I’m not going to answer, or even attempt to address, these questions. My point here is that one is more likely to question the statement that plants have no interests if one knows about such plant behaviour. For this, however, one needs to be somewhat literate in plant biology. Of course this is obvious, right? The more you know, the more you can relate things, the more likely you are to make correct statements and suggest a comprehensive set of supportive arguments. However, being literate in fields one may draw from in daily discussions is, well, no piece of cake.

Discussing offshore banking, rather complex in details, Nicholas Shaxson recently said in an interview with Tages Anzeiger[W]er redet, weiss nichts. Und wer etwas weiss, redet nicht. Sondern schweigt in seiner Villa.” which translates into “[W]ho speaks, knows nothing. And who knows something, does not speak. Rather keeps silent in his mansion.” In this case folks may keep silent for altogether different reasons, yet I also see the point that if one knows something about a complex system one also knows how difficult it can be to make accurate statements about such a system. The one who, on the contrary, speaks much about a complex system may well know nothing about it.

[1] Angelika Arend. Documents of Protest and Compassion: The Poetry of Walter Bauer. McGill-Queen’s University Press 1999.

February 21st, 2012