Posts Tagged ‘Science’

A modern philosopher in a postmodern world.

February 17, 2012

Well, I do intend to get back to my series on the philosophy of work.  However, I have been grading tests and so on, and thus have not had time to write.  Not, at least, here.  I did, however, have plenty of time to write a chat with my daughter.  Here’s part of it:

[2/14/12 11:21:57 AM] teh.parents: Two weeks is the midterm, then we move into the moderns.  I’m more of a modern philosopher.[2/14/12 11:22:05 AM] teh.parents: Using the term academically, of course.

[2/14/12 11:22:15 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i was about to say, but you were too fast for me…

[2/14/12 11:22:17 AM] teh.parents: Since “modern” actually means 100 years old.

[2/14/12 11:22:39 AM] JEUNE FILLE: ok then

[2/14/12 11:22:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: half modern.

[2/14/12 11:23:15 AM] teh.parents: I’m still inclined to think postmodernism was a mistake.

[2/14/12 11:23:35 AM] JEUNE FILLE: tu insultes mon pays actuel!

[2/14/12 11:23:52 AM] teh.parents: It’s one thing to say there are perspectives, another to jump to the conclusion that therefore there is no truth at all.

[2/14/12 11:25:06 AM] teh.parents: As Harry Frankfurt says, you can’t survive very long without truth.  Not Truth, but simple recognition of objective reality.

[2/14/12 11:26:07 AM] teh.parents: I think Stephen Colbert may have diagnosed the perils of postmodernism most succintly when he coined “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

[2/14/12 11:27:01 AM] teh.parents: The first says that truth is democratized, so “true” is whatever we all agree that it is; the second says that truth is a commodity to be produced and sold.

[2/14/12 11:27:44 AM] JEUNE FILLE: oui.

[2/14/12 11:27:45 AM] teh.parents: So in the first, the population of elephants is growing, and in the second, Microsoft is a caring company because they pay people to write articles about how caring they are.

[2/14/12 11:27:55 AM] JEUNE FILLE: haha

[2/14/12 11:28:25 AM] teh.parents: And the idea of checking reality to see if these are true seems almost quaint.

[2/14/12 11:28:42 AM] JEUNE FILLE: lol

[2/14/12 11:28:56 AM] teh.parents: wol

[2/14/12 11:29:03 AM] teh.parents: Weeping out loud

[2/14/12 11:29:07 AM] JEUNE FILLE: what has the philosophical response been to it all though?

[2/14/12 11:30:14 AM] teh.parents: Well, I’m not really a 21st century philosopher.  But I’m not sure anyone else is, either, since there hasn’t been a new job created in ten years.  So all the work is being done by 20th century philosophers.

[2/14/12 11:30:59 AM] teh.parents: The Wittgensteinians would say that we all play our separate language games, with some debate over how permeable the borders of different language games are.

[2/14/12 11:31:08 AM] teh.parents: So that’s one for postmodernism.

[2/14/12 11:31:37 AM] JEUNE FILLE: hm.

[2/14/12 11:32:02 AM] teh.parents: The Marxists would say our intellectual categories are created by our material substructure, so the very world we live in is an intellectual construct of our economic situation.

[2/14/12 11:32:07 AM] teh.parents: That’s two.

[2/14/12 11:32:28 AM] teh.parents: Sartre— well, you know.  That’s three.

[2/14/12 11:33:22 AM] teh.parents: Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and the other new Platonists—-against.

[2/14/12 11:33:38 AM] teh.parents: But they’re hardly discussed, really.

[2/14/12 11:33:52 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i know of people in france and europe thinking beyond etc, but mainly they just take what has been given and analyze according to that, which in turn creates new things, but isn’t necessarily as groundbreaking i think.

[2/14/12 11:34:04 AM] JEUNE FILLE: i see

[2/14/12 11:34:30 AM] teh.parents: Weil is really interesting to me, but I haven’t had time to work on her in years.

[2/14/12 11:35:43 AM] teh.parents: The Objectivists try to stay rooted in objective reality, and to maintain an epistemology of receptivity instead of assuming that we actively manufacture our world (with the further idea that since it’s manufactured, there is no shared reality).

From here on, the conversation wanders to the relative merits of Rand; so I’ll end the discussion.

I know that this is a rather superficial description of “postmodernism.”  And to an extent, I intend it as such, since I’m more interested in its manifestations in popular culture than in the more nuanced formulations that may be put forth by philosophers and literary critics.  I see the abandonment of truth as a widespread social-political movement.  Once it was Marxists who would say that our minds construct our world, and our truths are only the ideologies of oppressors.  Now, one is even more likely to hear this argued by a radio shock-jock with a high school education (and a drug habit and about 400 extra pounds).  In the USSR, people starved by the millions because agricultural policy was set by political and ideological agendas, and damn the science.  Only those scientists who were willing to abandon the essence of scientific method, and conform their “scientific” pronouncements to suit the party’s politics, were listened to at all.  Eventually, the denial of truth virtually destroyed Soviet agriculture, and they were forced to import food from people who did not deny the effects of selective breeding on crops.  In the U.S. today, economic, climate, energy and other policies is largely set by people who deny climate science for political and ideological reasons.  Even a reasonable and harmless gesture towards acknowledging the science, like Chu’s suggestion that we could significantly reduce global warming by lightening the color of roofs and highways, is met with violent resistance, ridicule, contempt and even rage.  Those who use science and observation to reach conclusions are met with the same hatred that the Soviets turned towards those scientists who spoke a scientific theory that seemed to conflict with the economic-political structure of the power elite, and for the same reason.  Just as the Left used to deny objective truth to defend ideological convictions, so now the Right demands the same privilege today.  Just as a Soviet scientist could be branded a traitor for speaking a scientific truth that offended against political orthodoxy, so now the Right brands any scientist whose theories are “bad for business” as a traitor.

The “modern” mindset insisted that there was such a thing as “truth” and that we could find it.  It erred, often, in mistaking some narrow vision of the truth (European, imperial, etc.) for all truth.  For this, postmodernism was and is a valuable corrective.  But what has replaced modern hubris is postmodern chaos.  As the postmodern conception has played out in the wider culture, it has come to mean that there is no truth, not even objective truths about reality going on under one’s nose.  And as Frankfurt has said, a society that doesn’t know what the truth is can’t really function.  It doesn’t know what to do, how to respond to events or even what those events are.  Our politics today seem like the spasms of an amoeba shocked by an electric spark.  Blind and deaf, it can only twitch and try flowing first this way, then that, until the assault either stops or kills it.  We don’t know what to do about climate change, or the recession, or most of the other important challenges facing us, because we refuse to listen to any truth we don’t like.  And in the Disinformation Age, you can find any truth you want, somewhere on the internet, to save you from the inconvenience of objective reality.   You can live in your own world, with the “truths” of your own race or class or party or religion, until actual, objective truth kills you.  Or as Frankfurt might put it, you can choose bullshit and hope for the best, or you can choose truth, simple reality about the world around you, and try to guide your life accordingly.

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP Today? (pt. 1: The Mystics)

December 29, 2011

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.


“Mysticism is the claim to the perception of some other reality—other than the one in which we live—whose definition is only that it is not natural, it is supernatural, and is to be perceived by some form of unnatural or supernatural means.”  Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force:  The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy:  Who Needs It

            Ayn Rand was a vigorous opponent of religious belief, and an ardent advocate for scientific reason.  To Rand, reason is the use of logic and experience to understand the world of fact.  Religion is “mysticism.”  While the rational person pursues knowledge of the world as it really is, using the essential human quality of reason, the religious person (or “mystic”) relies on supernatural awareness, revelation, and on the word of spiritual authorities.  The rational person believes that this life is or can be good, if we use reason as it was meant to be used:  to understand and control the world for the good of human beings.  The river floods, Rand writes, and animals die; the river floods, and humans build dykes and levees.  The rains stop, and animals die; the rain stops, and humans build canals and cisterns.  To be a human (man qua man) is to use one’s reason for one’s survival.  To choose any other way to survive, whether hedonism or religious revelation and obedience, is to be subhuman, to fall back to the level of the irrational animal.

The rational person values this world; the mystic hates life and this world.  The religious person proclaims that the most important thing is to please and obey God.  What our “natural” self loves —– self-reliance, enjoyment of life and its pleasures, ambition and striving and achievement, pride in one’s own ability and success —- this is sin, this is arrogance.  What is good is to admit one is weak, stupid, impotent, corrupt, unable to know anything except what one is told, unable to enjoy what is truly good while taking pleasure in what is evil, unable to do anything meaningful for oneself.  While the rational person values what leads towards survival and flourishing, the mystic values the afterlife, Heaven or Nirvana or Paradise, and those virtues that one can live out in this world that will lead one away from this world and towards the afterlife—in other words, away from life and towards death.

The rational person values knowledge, logic, self-reliance; the mystic values ignorance, reliance on the authority of others, and supernatural inspiration and revelation.  If our reason and science contradict our religious dogma, we must reject reason and embrace faith.  Rand says that reason is the key to survival.  This is true in two ways.  First, pragmatically, we live by following reason.  Reason tells us about the world; to ignore reason is to ignore reality.  This will surely lead to destruction.  Second, the essence of humanity (man qua man) is rationality.  To refuse to be rational is to refuse to be human.  You cannot survive as a human while rejecting what it is to be human.  Even if you continue to physically exist, it is an animal’s life, not a person’s; as man qua man you’re already dead.  But the mystic is precisely one who relies on irrational impulses and feelings and whims.  The mystic may begin by relying on his or her own “religious inspiration,” but in the end the mystic surrenders his or her individual thought completely to the authority of another, either a single authority like a pope or swami or, particularly in Protestantism, surrendering to the standards of the community of faith, what “they” say is true and good.

The Republican Party today is dominated by mystics, known as “the Evangelical movement.”  It is hard to find a Republican politician today who will admit to believing in evolution, or climate change, to name just two truths proven by the most rigorous scientific methods and endorsed by all scientists who have not embraced revelation over experimentation and remain scientists in name only.  And these are two truths that are vital to our survival.  To deny evolution is to deny, for example, that germs really evolve due to our abuse of antibiotics; the emergence of untreatable diseases is simply the mysterious wrath of a vengeful god.   To deny global warming is to choose policies that may make the planet unlivable, while insisting that the dying oceans, the droughts, the hurricanes, blizzards, and scorching heat which climatologists predicted decades ago are simply the signs that the End of Days is upon us and soon all the good people will be raptured away to a beautiful garden to live forever.

The rampant distrust of science is truly mystifying.  The U.S.A. became the greatest nation on Earth by embracing science.  Our scientific know-how gave us the technology to bomb, invade and conquer Nazi Germany.  That same scientific genius, and government backing for scientific research gave us the means to defeat Imperial Japan without needing to invade its home islands.  We went to the moon, something no other nation has done for forty years (and counting).  We won the Cold War because we won the science race, both in economic technology and in weapons of war such as Stealth bombers and the SDI.  It simply became too expensive for the USSR to try to keep up with our ability to invent and produce new technologies.  Rand would be the first to say that the U.S.A. won because it embraced reason, while the Soviets embraced irrationality; and now that we have the victory politicians dreamt of for so many years, the Republican Party seems hell-bent on throwing it all away and embracing irrationalism.

The distrust of science is built on the fear of the peer review process.  When one scientist makes a claim, others test that claim experimentally and publish articles supporting or refuting that claim.  Since only scientists can do this (that’s why it’s called “peer” review), politicians who lack the scientific background to understand the claim in the first place simply brand the whole thing a conspiracy by the brainiacs to dupe all of us good, moral, religious, righteously ignorant people.  The same Republican Party that says we don’t need to regulate businesses because competition will keep abuses in check, rejects the scientific process of peer review because it relies on scientists to prevent the abuses of other scientists.  Competition between businesses will cure all ills; but competition between scientists is something Republicans deny even exists.  But in fact, we don’t even need to wait for peer review to make at least preliminary judgments. Anyone who is willing to learn and willing to accept reality, and who is capable of graduating high school, is able to choose to learn enough science to grasp the main points of evolution or climate change, or many other big, important scientific arguments.  We may not know for sure which side is right, but we can at least evaluate whether an argument is plausible and logical.  Or, as Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour does, you can simply reject science and scientists if you have a “gut feeling” that scientists are lying, with no attempt to prove anything.  That, says Rand, is the way of the mystic, the way of the animal, the way that leads away from Life and towards Death.

If Rand were alive today, she would not be acceptable to the Republican party.  It is dominated by the mystics, by the willfully ignorant, who reject reason and the values of life in favor of obscurantism, authoritarianism, irrationality and death—-both death of the believer, who wants only to leave this world and be with God, and death of this world which is “passing away” and awaits the Second Coming to end all troubles.  At the very least, Rand writes, the rational person in such an irrational situation must state, clearly and directly, “I do not agree with you about this.”  But the Republican Party today is the party of ideological purity.  The Tea Party, FOX model/spokepersons masquerading as news anchors, radio stars and bloggers may love to mine Ayn Rand for sound bites and to echo her denunciations of “moochers and leeches,” but not one of them will denounce the mysticism that rules the GOP and has for more than forty years.  No doubt she would approve of Republican policies such as ending Social Security and Medicare and taxes on the wealthy.  However, even if she made common cause with them on these and similar issues, she would have to denounce them for the religious superstition (in her estimation) that dominates them and undermines everything good they might stand for.  And if she were alive today, the best she would receive would be occasional appearances on FOX News as some sort of fringe character.  Her support for free-market principles would make her a Republican the way his support for the war in Afghanistan made Christopher Hitchens a Republican.