Posts Tagged ‘Truth’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 3)

June 11, 2019

We may seek to anticipate the likely conclusions of Pompeo’s human rights panel by looking at the experts who will be on it. One prominent name that has been mentioned is Robert George. As mentioned above, he has in the past used Kantian logic to explain himself; however, he is a conservative Catholic who has used the term “natural law” in a more Thomistic way to attack homosexuality and abortion, for examples.[i] But I think it is likely misleading to look to the commission itself for predictions as to how our nation’s international policies will develop. In general, President Trump and his supporters, including Administration and Republican leadership, have expressed contempt for “experts” and have pointed to their policy of bringing in people “who were not ‘qualified’ in the conventional sense.”[ii] And when their own experts, hired by them to determine the truth of some matter, have presented facts that were distasteful to them, they simply reject those findings.[iii] The real question therefore does not seem to be what “natural law” means or how it is defined, but how the term is used in an environment where facts, words and values are not fixed realities.

The true philosophy of the Trump Administration, and functionally of the Republican Party as a whole, is not “natural law” of any sort; it is empirical relativism leading to moral nihilism (or perhaps they would prefer the term “realism”). Even this may be too imprecise. In the last two years, the “leader of the free world” has denied mocking a disabled reporter, when literally thousands witnessed the act and millions saw the recording; he has claimed that more people attended his inauguration than attended Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary; he has denied calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple” when in a room full of people who heard him do it and wondered why on Earth anyone would lie about something so obvious and so petty; he has asserted that protesters were in fact cheering for him while they gathered around a giant statue of him sitting on a golden toilet; and so on. He has called for the death penalty for five black kids even after they were proven innocent of the crime of which he accused them, and another person was proven guilty. The birtherism, conspiracy theories and so on aren’t just ignorance or racism; they are proven real-time denials of common reality. The Republican party has become the party of “alternative facts:” the denial of objective reality and its replacement with truth-claims that are more convenient. As Harry Frankfurt has argued, this isn’t really even lying. The liar is concerned about truth; he or she wants to avoid a particular truth, to deceive for some purpose. The liar depends on other people accepting that what they see and hear is generally true, just as the counterfeiter depends on the existence of real money in order to pass the fake money he’s made as real. Republicans today operate without any regard for the concept of “truth.” The standard form of verbal communication for this administration is neither honesty nor lying; it is “bullshit.”[iv]  The bullshitter is not engaged in conveying information or communication; it is some other sort of verbal activity, oblivious to the existence of truth. That seems to be the most accurate description of what we see today coming from the highest levels of government and those of the press who serve as its promoters: verbal activity that does not bother to worry whether or not what is said is true, because the point is not to speak truth but to promote the president, to belittle some person, or to attain some other goal. As Frankfurt says, bullshit is more dangerous to truth than lying, because bullshit attacks the entire concept of communication. The liar is still committed to the notion that we communicate with one another to convey information; it’s just that the liar hopes to slip some false information into the mix. The bullshitter denies the relevance or significance of communication, and asserts instead that we talk or shout or tweet or write for other purposes: to emote, to self-promote, to roar, to whine, whatever will best forward the bullshitter’s will-to-power.

In this view, there simply is no such thing as “objective truth” or “reality.” Literally everything you think you know is up for debate, and what will count as “fact” is resolved as nothing more than a contest of wills. From an epistemological perspective, you could call this “relativism;” as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, of that which is that it is, and of that which is not that it is not. If I say the Mueller report totally exonerates Donald Trump, and refuse to read it or listen to you tell me what it says, I can hold onto my belief like a Japanese soldier guarding his jungle hideout even as the Americans raise their flag over the island; and as long as I do this, I haven’t surrendered. For many people, it is more important to “stand up for what I believe,” i.e. to assert his or her own version of reality, than to be “lose the argument,” to be defeated and forced to accept objective reality. This view, which is increasingly common among self-proclaimed conservatives, seems to resemble Nietzschean pragmatism more than any other epistemological stance I can think of. What will count as “real” is what promotes my goals, serves my ends, or makes me feel more powerful and more comfortable.

The fact that this sort of aggressive pragmatic relativism, this construal of reality as a battleground for wills, has become the operating epistemology of the Republican party has profound ethical implications. If I can simply declare that I never said someone was “nasty” despite eyewitnesses and recorded evidence, if I can simply create new realities, then I can also create new moral realities. What is “true” is what I want to be true, and my saying it is my attempt to create a new truth; therefore, what is “good” is what I like, and my moral claims are merely my own will-to-power, my attempt to bend others to accept me as the moral center of the universe. If there is no truth, there is no moral truth, and all morality collapses into nihilism.

 

To be continued….

[i] Conor Finnegan, “State Department to Redefine Human Rights Based on ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’”; ABC News 5/31/2019 (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/state-dept-panel-redefine-human-rights-based-natural/story?id=63400485)

[ii] Chris Cilizza, “The 29 Most Eyebrow-Raising Lines from Jared Kushner’s Axios Interview;” CNN 6/3/2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/03/politics/jared-kushner-axios/index.html)

[iii] Coral Davenport, “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report;” New York Times 11/25/2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/25/climate/trump-climate-report.html) As another example, the Republican response to the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in U.S. elections has been to reject, bury and ignore the conclusions of all the legal and forensic experts hired to uncover the facts.

[iv] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp. 19-24, 29-34

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Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility

 

St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.

Why Epistemology Matters

November 6, 2017

These days, it seems everyone should study philosophy.  Consider this article.  It discusses the social and political implications of the victory of relativism.  Humans run this planet because we are better able to organize ourselves than can any other species; and we are losing that ability.  Our ability to lie so effectively that even the liars are suckered is outrunning not only our ability to sift out the truth, but even our interest in doing so.

Sixteen years ago, I began to reevaluate my own appraisal of my chosen profession.  I have a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology, which was an interdisciplinary program combining Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Before that I earned a M.Div. with a concentration in Philosophy, and before that a B.A. in Philosophy with enough Religion courses to qualify for a double major if I’d wanted to.  I’ve been working the seam between Philosophy and Religion for longer than many of my students have been alive.  Arguably, I’ve been doing it since I read Walden when I was fourteen years old.  I always thought it was important for someone to do it.  I could see that most of the people around me were unhappy with the lives they were living, or were living lives that others had lived already and found unsatisfying, so the rest maybe just weren’t unhappy yet.  But I also thought, as almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people, so it would be up to the few of us to sort this out and then teach it to others.  Just as hardly anyone really understands calculus, but our modern world couldn’t exist without it, I thought some small subgroup of academics were all that were necessary to philosophize for the rest.  And furthermore, I figured that if most people ignored us, that would be okay too; they’d muddle along, we’d try to influence things around the edges by teaching a few future politicians and legal scholars a little morality before they set out shaping the world.

In 2001, I realized how dangerous that had become.  Everyone thought the “important” things to study in school were the things that could make you rich:  business, accounting, engineering, law and medicine, maybe sports and a few others.  Philosophy, religion, humanities, history—- who needs them?  But no one is flying planes into buildings because of a disagreement over the Pythagorean Theorem or the relative merits of whole-life vs. term-life insurance or even over how to fight cancer.  They are committing acts of mass murder because they have given up on the possibility of rationally defending their own world-view.  They have given up on logic and observation leading us to a shared sense of reality, within which we could solve problems that affect us all.  They have given up on trying to understand people who disagree with them or who have different values, who love and fear different things.  The religious fundamentalist isn’t dangerous because he is religious, any more than the atheist is dangerous because she isn’t.  What is dangerous is the person who resorts to force to impose his or her standards on another, or on a group, without understanding their views.  Such a person generally hasn’t even understood his or her own views.   “Those who know only one religion know none,”  said Max Müller, and it is true:  to understand anything, you have to have some sort of comparison.  To understand your own beliefs, you have to briefly step outside them and look at them from another angle; that’s what analysis and reflection are.  So the fundamentalist usually, probably always has a truncated view of his or her own faith, whether it’s the religious fanatic or the Communist fanatic or the racist or some other ideology.  They don’t understand others or even themselves, but they’ll fight and maybe kill to defend their mistakes from any real and imagined threats.

Through 2015, I mostly believed that greater understanding could lead, if not to consensus, at least to mutual tolerance and agreement on rules of engagement.  That was the motivation behind this book.  In 2002, the economy of the nation was sliding towards recession, and there was a debate how to respond.  One side said that the best way to stimulate and repair the economy after the 2008 crash was to increase aid to the poor, such as food stamps.  That would undoubtedly have worked, since poor people spend what they get right away—they have to, they’re poor, they have debts and bills and mouths to feed.  Rich people don’t need more money, by definition, so when they get more money they are less likely to immediately stimulate the economy by spending it.  They might invest it in new businesses, but more likely they’ll squirrel it away in tax havens—-they already have thriving businesses, remember: they’re rich.  Middle-class people will save a little, pay down debts, maybe finally open that small business they’ve always wanted to.  So, practically speaking, according to the vast majority of economists, Bush should have pushed for a one-time bonus to the food stamp program, together with a modest but noticeable rebate in taxes for the poor and middle classes, leaving the rich alone.  But this suggestion was met with seeming moral outrage.  How could you punish the hard-working middle class by rewarding poor people?  (The implication was that if they’re poor, they don’t work hard enough; anyone who thinks that has never done real manual labor.)  How could you punish the rich for working hard and being smart?  (The implication here is that everyone who is rich must have worked hard and be really smart; I’ve met too many rich people to believe that.)  So I set out, in this book, to examine how we came to have such different moral judgements about how we share the profits of our joint economic activities as a nation.  My hope was that if people could see that the other side was not evil or lazy, but just had different moral and practical assumptions, maybe some sort of conversation would be possible.

What I’ve seen since that book was published is nothing short of epistemological genocide, a wholesale annihilation of truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger once complained about a “dictatorship of relativism,” but today we have something perhaps even worse:  sheer anarchy.  We live in the epistemological version of a Hobbesian state of nature, with war of each truth against all others, and the life of every truth is nasty, brutish and short.  Perhaps once there was a dictatorship, imposing mutual tolerance and a cease-fire at the expense of rejecting the possibility that any truth could be real; but in these days there is no king and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25).  And like that Biblical story of anarchy, rape and murder, the epistemological breakdown leads to political chaos and moral collapse that starts to make a Hobbesian totalitarianism seem almost preferable, or at least acceptable.  Hence, in 2016, the yearning for a “strong man” who would impose his view of reality on everyone else and give us order.(1)    But historically, dictatorships never end well for the dictated to.  Hobbesian monarchism gave way to Lockean representative democracy, because politically speaking a participatory government that depends on mutual discussion and mutual agreement to at least fight according to non-lethal political means rather than guns is more stable than a totalitarianism that leaves dissenters no option but violence.

Democracy dies when the majority choose to opt out; the society becomes an oligarchy, a ruling elite of actual voters and those who serve them dominating the nonparticipants.  Something similar happens in the realm of epistemology.  When the majority decide it is too hard to figure out what is true or false, they allow others to dictate reality.  Once you’ve handed your eyes over to someone else who tells you where to look and what to see, and handed your brain over to others who tell you what to think and your heart over to others who tell you what to feel, you are a slave, no matter how badass you feel because your masters tell you you’re tough and strong and better than those others.  And that is why epistemology matters, for everyone, and why every single individual citizen needs to learn some philosophy.  We need to learn enough to not just accept, but understand this:

  1.  Truth exists.  Some things are real
  2. Truth matters.
  3. Truth is hard to find but it’s worth the effort.
  4. You will never have all the truth; it’s too big for one person to see all at once.  But you can at least see the side that’s facing you.
  5. Everyone can, with effort and discussion, figure out more truth, by hearing from people who have other perspectives.
  6. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s okay to withhold judgement.
  7. When you can’t wait for certainty, you may have to choose without being certain.  If you’ve headed out on the wrong direction, though, you can still realize this and turn around.
  8. It takes humility to admit when you might be wrong.  It takes courage to stand your ground when you might be right.  Therefore, you need to be both brave and humble to find any truth in this life.

I think everything else—-Aristotle vs. Plato, Locke vs. Descartes, and all the other epistemological and ethical debates of philosophers through the ages—-are less important than these few, simple principles.  And maybe this list is not complete (I’d be breaking my own list if I insisted it was).  If you have some others, or think any of these is wrong, let’s discuss it like reasonable people.  But the important point, which I will not yield, is this:  You may not know much about Plato or Aristotle or Kant, and get by just fine; but you need to know something like these principles here to function as a citizen, or even as a rational being.  Otherwise, you’re liable to end up cowering in your basement waiting for the mythical hordes of antifa marauders or Mexican rapists or zombies or whatever that someone has invented to keep you terrified—-and submissive. (more…)

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.