Something Complex this way comes: Harry Potter and the synthetic a priori

The Power Point Presentation 

My notes: (some of this made its way into the discussion and presentation, some did not. The links are to the resources I used and some require a login to Google Print Beta for them to work. It also seems that they are of limited duration even when they do work).

I would like to say thank you first of all to all of you who have made the Complex Systems Group such an interesting part of our community. The presentations and discussions have been inspiring and the invited speakers that have come in the spring have been especially wonderful even if some of their books have been very expensive! I have often wished to participate not only by attending but by presenting, so this is a wonderful opportunity for me to try to pay back some of the thrill of attending with a chance to suggest something complex to fill a gap I have noticed in the topics so far discussed. That gap is the one roughly between culture and brain. Certainly society is complex and networks of social interaction are fascinating.

(I did not mention all of these but these are from the Complex Systems Web page: James Kennedy was one example of a study of this with his presentation on Swarm Intelligence. Dr. James Kennedy, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington DC
Topics: "Selective imitation: social interaction as information processing" and "The particle swarm algorithm: discoveries, investigations, and new frontiers"  Dr. Kamal Narang discussed Category Theory. Dr. John Beebee has done several fascinating presentations on logic and memes and Gödel's Theory, Self-reference and Complexity. Dr. Barbara Stafford, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL Topics: "Artificial Intensity (AI): images, instruments, and the technology of amplification" and "Polyoptical Technologies and the Construction of the Complex Subject". I think it was Dr. Len Troncale, CalPoly Pomona and The Systems Institute
Topics: "Imminent Integration of the Natural & Systems Sciences: Potential Benefits & Promise for Unification of Ancient & Modern Wisdom," "Systems Integrated Science General Education at Every University: Practical Working Tools for Our Children & Thinking Tools for A Space Faring Species," and "A Century of Systems Science: Obstacles Inhibiting Progress & Needed New Approaches, Tools, & Techniques" that I saw a gap when it came to narratives. But Dr. Richard Cameron, UAA Department of Philosophy Contemporary
Philosophical Analyses of Teleology in the Life Sciences and Technology dealt with purpose and Dr. James Liszka, UAA Department of Philosophy Semiotics, or theory of meaning.)

  We have also looked at the complexity of the brain. The gap I have noticed is that between culture and memes and logic and that is the gap I would like to try to bridge today. That is where narrative comes in. Harry Potter needs no introduction. The concept of the synthetic a priori probably does. Would we say that there is “a world view imbedded (Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger, ix editor’s preface) in any piece of literature”?

I intend to describe the concept of the synthetic a priori which I consider to be the main connections in narratives, tie that in with the concept of narrative, and then apply this to Harry Potter as an example of how these concepts may be useful. The concept of narrative I am using is metaphorically like the “operating system” a person uses to act. Different narratives, just as different operating systems, have different resulting behaviors in that different programs will run. Taking sides on the issue of the synthetic a priori would be taking sides on which narrative you use. Harry Potter as an example of a narrative would support the synthetic a priori since Harry as the hero would agree that there is a synthetic a priori while Voldemort would not.

Synthetic a priori

The concept of a priori is linked with that of a posteriori. Medieval Scholastics used these to differentiate inferences proceeding from cause to effect (a priori) and inferences proceeding from effect to cause (a posteriori). (note 1)

bulletthe a priori, which, assuming certain self-evident postulates, maxims, and definitions to be true, proceeds deductively to draw conclusions implicated in those assumptions;
bulletThe subjective a posteriori method, which, from an examination of the phenomena of consciousness builds up empirically, that is, inductively, conclusions based on those phenomena;
bulletthe objective a posteriori method, which builds on the facts of experience in general in the same way as the subjective method builds on the facts of introspection. (note 2)

Analytic and Synthetic

Descartes paired the a priori with analytic and the a posteriori with synthetic. For some this was a confusion. (Note 3)

The relationship of the Analytic and Synthetic to Universal statements and Particular statements.

(These comments did not make their way into the presentation but fit in here:

A, E, I, and O.

Symbolic expressions for A, E, I, and O statements.

Quantifier Exchange:

A universal statement is the expression of “It is not the case that for anything you pick it either is not the case x or not the case x’, or not the case x’’, or not the case x’’’, etc.” that is “All S is P.”

An existential statement is the expression of “It is the case that for anything you pick it is either x, or x’, or x’’, or x’’’, etc.” that is “Some S is P.”

But then the universal statement “No S is P” would be?

All analytic statements are universal statements.)

Quine: Two Dogmas of Empiricism

“But for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and synthetic statement simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith.”

Definition of narrative: Operating system for a human computer. Not a story according to a specific person’s beliefs but an abstract coherent complex system that a person or persons may believe.

Top down – bottom up

Blended spaces (Mark Turner)

I did not mention:

C.S. Peirce’s sign, signified, significans.


Naturalistic fallacy (Hume): we cannot deduce “ought” from “is”.

It has always amused me that the core injunction of the logical positivists, “only those statements that are empirically verifiable are meaningful,” is itself not empirically verifiable.”

But I did mention Turner. 

Axioms based on the literary mind. That is, using the concept of narrative as operating system, what follows? Turner

Mixed narratives – blended space  narrative structure nesting – one narrative inside another narrative leads to language


Philosophical narratives top down versus bottom up. Argue that each is a coherent system but mixed systems are incoherent. Randall Collins. (Search not available. Excerpt describes IRs)


Synthetic a priori defined. Hume.

Kant synthetic a priori requires rational intuition (But there is no such thing as culture as in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.)


Relations of ideas (analytic) matters of fact (synthetic).


Gödel's comment to Noam Chomsky (from Goldstein):

“The linguist Noam Chomsky, too, reported being stopped dead in his linguistic tracks by the logician (Kurt Gödel). Chomsky asked him what he was currently working on and received and answer that probably nobody since the seventeenth-century’s Leibniz had given: “I am trying to prove that the laws of nature are a priori.”” (p. 32)


Synthetic a priori as coherent within the top down narrative but incoherent in the bottom up.


Harry Potter as an example of a literary narrative that is a mixed top down and bottom up. The two narratives are in competition. Harry is top down. Voldemort is bottom up. Harry (we presume) will be the victor, so Harry Potter (the books) depict the synthetic a priori as a winner.


The hippogriff and being polite


Rubeus Hagrid instructs the children to treat hippogriffs with respect. “Never insult a hippogriff. It may be the last thing you’ll ever do.” If you insult a hippogriff you will be attacked. Harry is not attacked (he takes the warning seriously) so Harry was not insulting. Malfoy insults the hippogriff and is attacked. This lesson learned by Harry is a lesson taught through the story. Never insult a hippogriff. (I am sure none of us will ever do that!) But it instructs further: insulting someone is bad. Being polite is how someone should always be. But prove this? It is known a priori.

How about with Professor Snape? He is a proud person. Malfoy never insults Professor Snape (I think it is the only professor he treats with respect?) Harry treats Professor Snape rudely and gets punished for it. Doesn’t this reinforce the lesson? Notice also that Professor Snape is presented in a very ambiguous way. In each book it starts off with Professor Snape appearing to be evil, or on the dark side of things, but by the end of books 1-5 it turns out that Professor Snape is one of the leading good characters. He is Dumbledoor’s right hand man. (Is it Dumbledoor’s right hand that is blackened and dead in book 6?)


Is the nature of

Other examples of respect and politeness either good or bad:


Love: Love conquers all. What does this mean? If for anything you pick it is a competitive situation, then the person who will win the competition will be the one who loves.

Examples of where love conquers:

Lilly’s love saves Harry Potter (Heir of the Pater) and lilies are associated with resurrection and Easter.

It is agony for something evil to touch something so good. So evil cannot touch Harry.

This has no effect on the Dursleys. Hagrid seems to love Harry. It makes no impact in school. (Everyone teases one another. There is friendship but this does not seem to be equivalent to love. The teachers do not seem to love one another but maintain professional and friendly relationships with one another except with regard to specific cases: Gilderoy Lockhart (selfish fraud)



Only true loyalty would have called Fawks (Dumbledoor’s phoenix) to you.


Hermione is reason (mind), Ron is body (desire), and Harry is spirit (heart) (the Platonic trinity).



Cause and effect

Value statements

Moore and the natural fallacy


Just because something is the case does not mean it should be the case. But in the evolutionary narrative isn’t that the case? It happens as it does because that is what was best adapted to happen, so what is, is therefore best.


The following is from the call for papers for a conference on "Language, Culture and Mind -- Integrating perspectives and methodologies in the study of language" which will meet on 18-20 July 2004 at University of Portsmouth, England

"Human natural languages are biologically based, cognitively motivated, affectively rich, socially shared, grammatically organized symbolic systems. They provide the principal semiotic means for the complexity and diversity of human cultural life. As has long been recognized, no single discipline or methodology is sufficient to capture all the dimensions of this complex and multifaceted phenomenon, which lies at the heart of what it is to be human."

Here is an Einstein quote from chapter

Geometry sets out form certain conceptions such as "plane," "point," and "straight line," with which we are able to associate more or less definite ideas, and from certain simple propositions (axioms) which, in virtue of these ideas, we are inclined to accept as "true." Then, on the basis of a logical process, the justification of which we feel ourselves compelled to admit, all remaining propositions are shown to follow from those axioms, i.e. they are proven. A proposition is then correct ("true") when it has been derived in the recognized manner from the axioms.


Rethinking Linguistic Relativity Joseph Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson

“Because they rely on cultural convention for their effectiveness, languages are essentially social rather than personal, objective rather than subjective. This allows language to be a medium for the socialization or objectification of individual activities – including thought – to the extent that the activities depend on that medium.”


Evaluating Harry Potter as literature:

Jack Zipes “Sticks and Stones” Chapter titled “The Phenomenon of Harry Potter


One major complication: when we approach narratives are we examining the narrative as a thing-in-itself (a think-in-itself?) or are we examining our subjective interpretation of the narrative? Imagine the same narrative read by two different groups of people with different values – how will the values of the narrative be interpreted? Can the narrative override a group’s interpretation?


Contrast the views of some groups that consider the Harry Potter books to be bad versus those that consider them good.



Epistemic holism




This page is maintained by William S. Jamison. It was last updated August 14, 2012. All links on these pages are either to open source or public domain materials or they are marked with the appropriate copyright information. I frequently check the links I have made to other web sites but each source is responsible for their own content.