jimoeba mentioned that he enjoyed an interview with Vervake and Fridman in a comment, so I thought I’d give it a listen. It turns out there are several including a 3-plus-hour version. Arbitrarily, I chose this one. Even if it’s not the particular interview on the meaning crisis, it gives me a sense of the two and their dynamics. I’m glad I listened to it. I like Vervaeke. I can’t say I’m much of a Fridman fan on first listen.
This interview content provides an orientation of where Vervaeke is coming from. It helps to clarify his position. His claim seems to be that many people today identify as having no religion but being spiritual. By extension, he posits that this cohort is searching for meaning. I can’t disagree. What it tells me is that I am not in his target demographic. I have no religion, as I am an atheist. I have no spiritual void to fill. This is Vervaeke’s goal—to find something to perform the function of the religion without the, perhaps, baggage and dogma.
I sympathise with his goal. He brings up Nietzsche’s “God is dead” quote, famous or infamous depending on your worldview. Essentially, he wants to answer Nietzsche’s query of what to do now that it’s been revealed that humans created God, not the other way around. His aim is to replace the font of wisdom for this generation.
For me, wisdom is a heuristic, part of the Gestalt McGilchrist mentions. McGilchrist’s work is even referenced here. Of course, I interpret McGilchrist’s references in this space to be metaphorical. It seems that he views it as ‘real’. I’m not sure where Vervaeke places it. Somehow, I feel that if there is a spectrum, Vervaeke leans closer to McGilchrist than me, and that’s OK. They just happen to be wrong.
I still don’t get the need for meaning. I don’t feel despondent that there is no inherent meaning in anything, but we are free to invite or adopt one or many. I remember a Christian mate of mine who explained that people have a God-sized hole that can only be filled by God. Essentially, Vervaeke is making a similar claim, but his void is filled by wisdom. I suppose that I don’t feel I have a void doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
I’ve finally returned to the second author of Four Views on Free Will. The first author was Robert Kane. Here, I was introduced to John Martin Fischer, who wrote a section on Compatibilism. I’ve never read anything by Fischer. Indeed, I have no familiarity with him or his work. Allow me to start by saying that I was not impressed. Before diving into the content, let’s just say that he was extremely repetitive and circumlocutive. I found myself questioning whether the book was assembled with duplicate pages. Hadn’t I just read that? I’ll spare the reader the examples.
I repeat myself when under stress
I repeat myself when under stress
I repeat myself when under stress
I repeat myself when under stress
— King Crimson, Indiscipline
The topic was 44 pages on compatibilism. The first 30 pages were compatibilism before he changed to his brainchild, semi-compatibilism. Full disclosure: I am not a compatibilist. My recollection is that the majority of contemporary philosophers are compatibilists. Joining Fischer are Dan Dennett, Frithjof Bergmann, Gary Watson, Susan R. Wolf, P. F. Strawson, and R. Jay Wallace. Historically, this cadre are joined by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Mill. This motley crew has been opposed by Peter van Inwagen and historical figures, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, and Immanuel Kant.
At a meta-level, Fischer repeatedly—I’ll discontinue using this term as, like Fischer, it will become very, very repetitive—invoked law and common sense. Law is not a moral structure in search of truth. It’s a power structure employed to retain the status quo. And, as Voltaire quipped, ‘common sense is not so common.’ This is an argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) fallacy. It also relies on belief and perception. I suppose he’s not familiar with Descartes’ Meditations. It seems he is trying to forge Compatibilism into a cast of soft determinism with hopes that no one notices the switcheroo.
Fischer targets some quotes buy Kant, James, Wallace Matson, and Nietzsche with the general critique that they are expecting too much of an agent by expecting it to be the cause of its own actions. Nevermind, that he is guilty of just this in attempting to parse passive and active agents—passive being insentient dominos and active being conscious entities.
I’m not convinced that maths is a strong point. He sets up a hypothetical scenario where physics has proven that causal determinism is true, so 100 per cent of everything in the universe can be known with certainty. But then he does two things.
First, he exempts human agency—cuz reasons. Second, he creates a parallel scenario where 100 per cent might be 99 or 99.9 per cent.
Second, he claims that because he feels free, he must be free.
Similarly, it is natural and extraordinarily “basic” for human beings to think of ourselves as (sometimes at least) morally accountable for our choices and behavior. Typically, we think of ourselves as morally responsible precisely in virtue of exercising a distinctive kind of freedom or control; this freedom is traditionally thought to involve exactly the sort of “selection” from among genuinely available alternative possibilities alluded to above. When an agent is morally responsible for his behavior, we typically suppose that he could have (at least at some relevant time) done otherwise.
— Fischer, p. 46
Nothing is such that thinking doesn’t make it so.
It seems that when watching a movie for the third time, the victim who gets killed in the cellar won’t descend the stairs this time. Fisher must get perplexed when she does every time. Of course, he’d argue without evidence that an active agent would be able to make a different decision—even under identical circumstances. He insists that the agent possesses this free will.
Whilst sidestepping physicalism and materialism, he simply posits that consciousness is just different and not subject to other causal chain relationships—and that these cannot be deterministic even if everything else is.
I’m going to digress on his next point—that the person who knows not to cheat on taxes, and who does so anyway, is responsible as any normal person would be. Perhaps the person feels that the taxes are being used for illegal or immoral purposes and is taking the moral high ground by depriving the institution of these proceeds.
Around 2007 or so, I paid my taxes due minus about $5,000, which was the calculated amount of the per capita cost of the illegal and immoral Iraq invasion by the United States and its cadre of war criminals in charge. I attached a note outlining my opposition and rationale.
Some months later, the Internal Revenue department sent a legal request to my employer for the withheld sum. Payroll summoned me and conveyed that they were required to comply with the request. I told them my perspective and said if they could sleep with that on their conscience, then they were in their power. And so no nights of sleep were lost.
The point of this anecdote is to say that morals are social constructs. Clearly, Fischer is just an old-fashioned conformist. I suspect he thinks of Valjean as a bad person.
Like many if not most people, he employs a compos mentis approach, exempting persons of reduced cognitive capacity and those under duress or coercion, but he is not a proponent of the causa sui defence.
He has an entire subsection devoted to the libertarian notion of freedom. To recapitulate, he simply regurgitated all of the standard arguments and exempts the aforementioned agents and adds people under hypnosis, the brainwashed, and so on. Nothing to write home about—not here either.
In the next subsection, his focus is on consequences. He calls out Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument.
Similarly, the skeptical argument about our freedom employs ordinary ideas about the fixity of the past and the fi xity of the natural laws (putatively) to generate the intuitively jarring result that we are not ever free, if causal determinism turns out to be true (something we can’t rule out apriori). If this skeptical argument is sound, it calls into question any compatibilist analysis of freedom (that is, freedom of the sort under consideration – involving the capacity for selection among open alternatives). If the argument is sound, then not only both the simple and refined conditional analysis, but any compatibilist analysis (of the relevant sort of freedom) must be rejected.
Fischer p. 53
He leans on Borges’ garden of forking paths and claims (without support) that although the past might be fixed, freedom is the ability to add to the future, citing Carl Ginet as the source of this notion. He misses the point that that’s what the future is, tautologically. It adds now to the past and generates a future. Choice is not necessary for this function to operate, but he continues to insist on invoking it.
Standard Frankfort examples are referenced as well as Locke. Here he wants to point out regulative control—but he skirts the question of where the volition comes from by saying ‘for his own reasons‘, as if these reasons are somehow meaningful. In the end, he recites the scenarios, performs some hand-waving, and summons his accord with Robert Kane’s “dual voluntariness” constraint on moral responsibility.
He leaves us with the thought that if the Consequence Argument were true, it would be compatibilism’s death knell, but it’s not true (in his mind), so all is well in Whoville. Crisis averted.
Source incompatibilism is next. His focus here is on the “elbow room” necessary to exercise free will.
Elbow Room is the title of a book by Daniel Dennett originally published in 1984 and republished in 2015. I’ve recently read this on holiday, but I haven’t had time to review it. Please stand by.
His approach in this subsection is to attack opposing perspectives as reductionist. Of course, he’s right, but they are no more reductionist than anything he’s suggested thus far. Besides, simply injecting favoured concepts to add to a model to make it compatible with one’s hypothesis doesn’t make it less reductionist. It just makes the model more convoluted.
Here he attempts to elevate consciousness into a special category in order to shield it from the physics of the universe. We can’t say for sure what consciousness is, but you can bet it’s a magical place where practically anything can happen. OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.
He uses the metaphor of trying to assess how a television works by only studying the components. Of course, if that is all one did, one would be left with questions. But that is not where one stops. To be fair, neuroscience has come a long way since this was published in 2007. Neuroscientists are asking questions beyond the hardware.
He sets up a strawman by labelling total control as a chimaera as if anyone is arguing that if a theory doesn’t allow for total control, it will not be accepted. He does allow that…
We do not exist in a protective bubble of control. Rather, we are thoroughly and pervasively subject to luck: actual causal factors entirely out of our control are such that, if they were not to occur, things at least might be very different.
— Fischer, p. 68
We agree on this point, but I feel that he underestimates the remaining degrees of freedom after all of this is accounted for.
He attempts to create a mental model with vertical and horizontal lines. At least he admits that he does “not suppose [to] have offered a knockdown argument” because he doesn’t.
Finally, he wraps up this subsection by invoking Nietzsche’s famous Munchausen Causa Sui statement in Twilight of the Idols. He attacks this rationale as being “both ludicrous and part of commonsense.” He loves his commonsense.
Next, he wants to convince us, Why Be a Semicompatibilist? Semicompatibilism just needs enough elbow room to assert freedom. I suppose that’s the ‘semi‘ part. It feels to me an exercise in self-delusion.
The main idea behind semicompatibilism is to shrink the target size of compatibility and focus centrally on moral responsibility and agent control rather than the larger realm of free will.
Fischer makes what might be considered to be a religious argument. We should adopt this perspective because it feels better and is in our best interest. He cites Gary Watson’s view of using indeterminism to undermine determinism, but he feels that rather etiolates control rather than strengthening it because it “becomes unclear that our choices and actions are really ours.”
In the next subsection, he leads with the argument “that moral responsibility does not require regulative control, but only guidance control, and further that it is plausible that guidance control is compatible with causal determinism.” At least, this is the story he’s sticking to.
In Fischer’s “approach to guidance control, there are two chief elements: the mechanism that issues in action must be the “agent’s own,” and it must be appropriately “reasons-responsive.””
As for the “agent’s own” constraint, he simply notes that counterclaims exist, but he asserts that he doesn’t accept them.
In the final subsection, he writes about the Lure of Semicompatibilism. I do feel he is lured by the concept and makes light of the label. He advances the notion that “Kant believed that compatibility and incompatibilism are consistent“. Say what? But he takes a weaker position on this claim, using the Kant name-drop for cover.
As I said at the start, I don’t know anything about Fischer, but he is obsessed with legal theory as if it has any bearing on philosophical standing. Perhaps I’ll include a summary from a quick internet perusal. After I’ve wrapped this up. He mentions moral desert, which is a concept employed in matters of restorative and retributive justice.
The section concludes with a list of publications by him and others. Perhaps I’ll list them here in future as an addendum. For now, I’ll pop outside of this edit window and see what I can find on John Martin Fischer.
John Martin Fischer (born December 26, 1952) is an American philosopher. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.
The CAUSA SUI is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this CAUSA SUI, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness. If anyone should find out in this manner the crass stupidity of the celebrated conception of “free will” and put it out of his head altogether, I beg of him to carry his “enlightenment” a step further, and also put out of his head the contrary of this monstrous conception of “free will”: I mean “non-free will,” which is tantamount to a misuse of cause and effect. One should not wrongly MATERIALISE “cause” and “effect,” as the natural philosophers do (and whoever like them naturalise in thinking at present), according to the prevailing mechanical doltishness which makes the cause press and push until it “effects” its end; one should use “cause” and “effect” only as pure CONCEPTIONS, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and mutual understanding,—NOT for explanation. In “being-in-itself” there is nothing of “casual- connection,” of “necessity,” or of “psychological non-freedom”; there the effect does NOT follow the cause, there “law” does not obtain. It is WE alone who have devised cause, sequence, reciprocity, relativity, constraint, number, law, freedom, motive, and purpose; and when we interpret and intermix this symbol-world, as “being-in-itself,” with things, we act once more as we have always acted—MYTHOLOGICALLY. The “non-free will” is mythology; in real life, it is only a question of STRONG and WEAK wills.—It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself, when a thinker, in every “causal-connection” and “psychological necessity,” manifests something of compulsion, indigence, obsequiousness, oppression, and non-freedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings–the person betrays himself. And in general, if I have observed correctly, the “non-freedom of the will” is regarded as a problem from two entirely opposite standpoints, but always in a profoundly PERSONAL manner: some will not give up their “responsibility,” their belief in THEMSELVES, the personal right to THEIR merits, at any price (the vain races belong to this class); others on the contrary, do not wish to be answerable for anything, or blamed for anything, and owing to an inward self-contempt, seek to GET OUT OF THE BUSINESS, no matter how. The latter, when they write books, are in the habit at present of taking the side of criminals; a sort of socialistic sympathy is their favourite disguise. And as a matter of fact, the fatalism of the weak-willed embellishes itself surprisingly when it can pose as “la religion de la souffrance humaine“; that is ITS “good taste.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Just a quote and an image germane to that absurdity of causa sui.
Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.
My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.
In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.
At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.
After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.
I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.
In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.
Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.
For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.
And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.
Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.
But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.
That’s what I think
That’s what I think
That’s what I think
That’s what I think
Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:
Something that expands rather than confirms
Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored
As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.
Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.
For years—decades even—I identified as an Existentialist, and I still have an affinity for some of the works of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus. I had read some Richard Wright. I never read Kierkegaard directly, and I may never. And of course, there’s proto-Existentialist Nietzsche. I’ve encountered to various degrees Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Jaspers but not deeply.
The draw for me is that we create our own existences, but I came to feel this was at odds with Structuralism. Per my previous post, I don’t have much faith in the Agency seemingly required by Existentialism.
In Statistical analysis of variance (ANOVA), there is a notion known as degrees of freedom. This is how I view Agency. Per my Testudineous Agency post, after we account for genetics and environment, how much agency effectively remains? This is the degree of freedom. Under hard determinism, degrees of freedom are zero.
What else can we strip away after genetics, epigenetics, indoctrination, environment, and other mimetic and learned behaviours? And what remains after we do?
I happened upon a video where three philosophers engage in friendly debate over the nature of absolute goodness. The three each in turn give their positions, and then they debate three themes. This post captures their positions—until about 12.5 minutes—, and I’ll reserve the themes for future posts.
The swapping an evaluative good over a moral goodness is a slight of hand or a head fake. As Naomi Goulder states, citing Nietzsche,
I won’t call Nietzsche on his facile belief in ‘self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men‘.
The problem is as much one of mathematics as well as of language. Good is a weasel word, so it is easy to equivocate over its meaning. I’ve commented on this before, so I’ll leave it here at the moment and focus on the maths. No matter what bogey we are attempting to maximise, we are left optimising across to dimensions: individual versus some group, such as society; and present verses future.
I’ll start there. Without regard to which normative function to optimise, we should recognise that what provides the most what I’d deem benefit now not also be optimised in the future.
If I have enough money for either an ice cream cone or bus fare home on a hot day—so even on a relatively short time scale—,and I choose an ice cream, my near-term satisfaction quickly fades when I realise I now have to find alternative means to get home.
In fact, I am not simply optimising across now and a few minutes from now. I am optimising across all possible future times across my lifespan. Plus, taking some choices are necessarily going to eliminate the possibility of others. Rational choice theory be damned.
Beyond the time dimension, we’ve got the individual versus group dimension. This is just as silly. Not only is the group undefined, we are likely to constrain it to our perceived in-group. As a citizen of the UK, I may not consider the effects of my choice on, say, Germany or Myanmar.
In effect, this becomes a system boundary definition problem. Just because I adopt a nationalistic boundary does not mean that I’ve chosen this correctly. The Germans who made this calculaus circa World War II learnt that being on the losing side of a conflict yields outcoems divergent from original expectations. Had Germany and the Axis prevailed, who knows how this might have changed?
My point is that, even divorced from the language problem, the bulk of this topic is mental masturbation. It is unresolvable because it’s not much more than academic sophistry.
Paul Boghossian conveys three possible interpretations.
In the first he posits a strawman statement, ‘It is morally good to educate girls and young women’, a topic sure to get an emotional reaction from Western-indoctrinated people, assuming a moral high ground over fundamentalist Muslim beliefs. Proponents of this view claim that this can be assessed as simply true or false.
More fundamentally, he defends this approach in proxy by asserting that, ‘ultimately, there will be some normative claim at the bottom of that chain of reasoning which will either be true or false‘. It hinges on the expected role of the human, in particular the female of the species. Again, this is only true or false within some context, a context which is neither objective nor universal.
In the second, which he labels as relativistic, acknowledges the social contextual interpretation.
His last interpretation is nihilistic, wherein, ‘normative vocabulary is fundamentally confused; there is nothing in the world it answers to; if you really want to do things ‘right’, you just have to drop this vocabulary and find some other vocabulary—not itself normative; not itself evaluative—in which to describe these things that we call moral convictions or moral beliefs‘.
I subscribe to this last school, though I do not feel that language is fundamentally capable of this level of precision and even more fundamentally is not truth-apt.
He adds a fourth category, where preferences rule, which is weaker still, as preferences are not only normative but emotional and, I might argue, are somewhat arbitrary and capricious and subject to all of the weaknesses inherhent in preference theory.
Michael Ruse begins by downplaying the absolute notion of the good but then backtracks and defending something close to absolute by ‘taking it very seriously’.
He defends the believers in the quasi-absolute morality of good gods, ignoring the relative nature of that belief (and not to mention how to validate the objectivity). He goes on the defend Platonism but comes up short trying to assert the positive analytic notion of maths and a normative vantage where morality is objective.
I was pleasantly amused with his case where he highlights the inherent problem with a sexual morality formulated around a binary sex world if we imagine intergalactically a world with a ternary sex arrangement. We can observe this locally, as not all species are restricted by human sexual dimorphism.
For reference, the three themes discussed are as follows:
Theme One: Is there an absolute good?
Theme Two: Does morality apply to the act or the consequences
To a comment on Death of the Metanarrative, I responded about the notion of truth relative to the map and the terrain. Although my rambling response was lengthy, I thought I’d share Richard Rorty’s view on this from his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. According to Rorty, rationalists and empiricists turn claims about the world into the world—convincing others that a map of the world is the world.
“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.
“Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world in its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot…
“The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak…
“It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. But in abandoning the traditional notion of truth, Nietzsche did not abandon the idea of discovering the causes of our being what we are … In his view, in achieving this sort of self-knowledge we are not coming to know a truth which was out there (or in here) all the time. Rather, he saw self-knowledge as self-creation. The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language … So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language…
“[O]ne can—fruitlessly, in my view—come at [the question of knowledge] by way of anthropology and the question of whether there are ‘cultural universals’, or by way of psychology and the question of whether there are psychological universals. [There is an] indefinite plurality of standpoints, [a] vast number of ways of coming at the issue sideways … It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open counter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.”
I’ve been having a side debate with a Christian friend of mine who made these claims:
‘[Non-religious people may] not define themselves as particularly “religious”, but…everyone is’, as he references lyrics from a Rush song, ‘even if you choose NOT to decide, you still have made a choice’.
‘One can choose to believe in nothing but themselves, but if they’re honest, “self” IS their religion. Everyone is religious.
We all yearn for some meaning and we end up pursuing something or someone to fill that inward desire. Whether we organise that something and call it “religion” is beside the point, as he references Bob Dylan’s lyric, “Ya gotta serve somebody; it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.”
This had been the fluid exchange of ideas, but I’ll reply in turn.
I’ve won’t repeat my position on free will, but one can choose to be religious or not. To choose not to be religious is not also a choice to be religious. I can agree that some people substitute superstitious, metaphysical believe for, say, scientism, and this is just as ridiculous, but some people remain unconvinced in these metanarratives.
Again, not everyone even ascribes to the notion of self, and there is little reason to believe that there is some element of religious worship involved.
Again, this is fundamental attribution error, the assumption that because he believes there is some underlying meaning and yearns to find it that everyone else does. I understand that he surrounds himself with people who share this belief system, and they convince themselves that someone who says otherwise is mistaken.
This is clearly dualistic thinking incarnate; a false ‘you’re either with me or against me’ dichotomy.
I remember self-assessing myself when I was in high school. Nietzsche notwithstanding, I could never agree with the frame or the assertion that there are leaders and there are followers. I did not identify with either. I do feel that within the society I was born, that I need to comply just enough to not be subjected to the violence inherent in the system for non-conformance, but that’s not exactly following. I also don’t care to lead.
It turns out that this (perhaps not coincidentally) manifested in my career, as I am a consultant—an adviser.
I’ve shared a new video on YouTube discussing the rhetorical nature of truth.
Before the Classical Hellenes, Mesopotamians recognised the power of rhetoric as the art of using language to convince or persuade. The term itself derives from the Greek ῥητορικός, rhētorikós.
As with any human construct such as language, truth and rhetoric are confined by limitations of the system and its logical structure.
In “Gorgias”, one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato defines rhetoric as the persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies.
Rhetoric, in Plato’s opinion, is merely a form of flattery and functions similarly to cookery, which masks the undesirability of unhealthy food by making it taste good.
Rhetoric typically provides heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle’s three persuasive audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos.
But it’s more insidious than all of this. The notion of truth—or whatever we believe to be true—is nothing more than rhetoric.
If one is aptly convinced that something is true, it is. The physical world—the world of objects—contains facts—attributes of these objects, but these facts are tautological descriptors: a red car, une voiture rouge, ou quelque chose. In the conceptual domain of abstractions such as truth, justice, gods, and love, all bets are off.
As Geuss aptly suggests, most of society and civilisation don’t care about philosophical thought at this level. This is privileged activity. It’s not about level of intellect, per se; rather, it’s the privilege of free time to devote to abstract thinking.
Most people are more concerned with getting to the next day to earn a paycheque, and they accept sloganeering for any deeper meaning.
Humans are said to be rational beings. In fact, this predicates entire disciplines such as economics…
…and jurisprudence. Legal systems are founded on the concept that humans are at least rational enough to make fundamental decisions about right and wrong—and this, of course, presumes that the notions of right and wrong in and of themselves are meaningful.
For the sake of argument, let’s presume that humans are at least rational enough for our purposes, and whilst right and wrong may not be objectively validated, that within the context of a society—presuming that not to be mired in its own identity problem—, it can be defined in the manner of a social compact envisaged by the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et alii. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s good enough for the government… well.
Language is a human construct, yet it’s an apparition. Like a physical object, it appears solid, but there’s more space than not. What’s there is exiguous. Echoing Heisenberg’s observations at the atomic level, one cannot be fully certain of a particular meaning. This is what Derrida (via Barthes) meant by ‘the death of the author’, though there is nothing to guarantee that the author could fully articulate the meaning or intent even if they were present to defend it.
About the same time, Saussure was finding promise in the structure of language, Russell was creating a new language of logic to obviate its deficiencies. Structuralists and logical positivists were a natural extension of the scientism of the 20th Century, the prevailing wave since the Enlightenment, but as with the demise of gods, religious belief, and other things metaphysical, this faith in structure was also specious.
Historically speaking, there is progress (another illusion), and there are paradigm shifts. When a paradigm shifts, an old truth is replaced by a new one. This is typically credited to a progression of knowledge, but it’s actually just that, on balance, people have accepted a new frame, chalking it up to scientific method rather than some rhetorical sleight of hand.
Even so, scientific discovery is different to archetypal notions such as truth or justice. At least we can empirically test and verify a scientific notion, even if what we are observing is later revised because of some previously unknown factor or removed constraint. For example, until Einstein’s day, Newton would not have known that his theory of gravity would break down as it approached the speed of light. But truth is just an opinion—even if widely held. Enter the ‘appeal to tradition’ flavour of logical fallacy—I’ll not dwell on the fact that systems of government are based on this quaint notion of precedents. #JustSaying
I’ve arrived at my philosophical position as an autodidact. I am not a conventional scholar, and my exposure to philosophy derives from books, videos, and online sources including Wikipedia, blogs, Reddit, and the such.
I consider myself to be a non-cognitivist in the realm of Ayers’ Emotivism, and I fully realise that society as we know it relies on some notion of ascertainable truth. Of course, Nietzsche was vilified for observing that ‘God is dead’ and unceremoniously subjected to the ad hominem attacks afforded to the likes of Marx.
I’ve got a certain amount of respect for Existentialists (and Absurdists), but I find the teleological component a bit at odds with the central tenet. To that extent, I am more of a Nihilist.
I am more comfortable with what’s been called ‘Post-Modernism’, despite admiring the effort of some Structuralists and Logical Positivists. Where this love affair ends is where the permeation of science fetishists begin. Scientific Method and Logic are the gods of the New Age.
As a post-Enlightenment child, I’ve been steeped in all of its unfound glory, and it’s harder still for me to escape the pull of my Western indoctrination. So, to argue, one is forced to comply with the rules of logic within the limitations of human language—even the limitations of Russell’s language of Logic. And like arguing with a proponent of religion who points out that you can’t disprove his Ethereal Unicorn, one is forced into positions of arguing against Quixotic figments introduced as metaphysical elements.
If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything.
Somehow, I happened across a blog post, Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean? Of course, this is right up my street, I skimmed a couple other posts on the site and followed some links to establish some contextual frame.
My by-now standard (read: autonomic) reaction to this line of questioning is that this is a correct assessment of the conditional statement.
If everything is just X, Y, or Z, there is no real way to judge anything.
Before evaluating the entirety of the content, let’s look at the lexical choices, in particular:
everything: Realising that this is hyperbole. I am going to assume that the author did not mean that everything is X, Y, or Z. I believe he means everything within some imagined yet undefined domain. I’ll guess that this domain relates to some moral or social sphere. Anything employs the same hyperbole, so I’ll ignore it.
just: This rhetorically modifies X, Y, and Z, in order to diminish them for the reader, to make them appear petty.
real: I believe the term he was looking for is objective or perhaps ontological. Otherwise, we’ll need to discern what he considers to be real versus not real.
Also, notice the use of or as a conjunction. This seems odd, as the listed items do not have equal weight or effect. Rhetoric does not exist without language, and power really feels out of place, Michel Foucault’s law of the instrument complicity notwithstanding. To him, power was his litmus.
Firstly, all social perception is the result of the construct of human language. Of course, there is the physical world that exists independently of humans and perception—perhaps this is the real world where real judgments occur. Let’s label this real world the terrain. The earth and the larger universe would exist absent of humans. In fact, it had for aeons and will persist for many aeons beyond the last semblance of humanity. Humans are also real, if ephemeral, on a grander scale.
If this independent, objective, real world is the terrain, language is the map. We use language to communicate and make sense of the terrain, but it is only a representation based on our imperfect sense faculties.
So when one makes a claim that everything [sic] is, say, language, they are making a claim similar to that of Saussure. Saussure was a structuralist. In fact, post-structuralism (or its expanded form labelled post-modernism) was a reaction against structuralists. Within the context of this post, Saussure believed that if one could fully qualify the structure of language, one could achieve a one-to-one fidelity relationship of the map to the terrain.
Post-structuralists pointed out all of the reasons why this was a fool’s errand. Like a geographical map, it is only a representation of the underlying terrain. Language serves the purpose of communication including expression and phatic aspects. One form of communication is rhetoric, which is a form employed for the purpose of persuasion. One possibility of this persuasion is to gain and retain power—or to at least win the upper hand in your argument. I suppose this is where the original statement starts to coalesce: rhetoric, power, and language.
My point, then, is that our language map is always disconnected from the terrain. Moreover, it can be a pretty low fidelity map indeed. So when one says that everything is language, they are making a claim that we can not acquire this real knowledge. We can make sensory observations and construct narratives about it.
If you’ve ever taken a basic communications class, you’ve probably experienced the telephone game. Perception works in a similar manner. There are many things of which we have little or no experience save for conveyance through language. But as with the telephone game, fidelity can be lost. This is less likely to be a problem when interfacing with the so-called real world of rock and trees and of lions and tigers and bears.
It is more likely to become a problem when dealing with non-ontic concepts, these ‘things’ that would not exist without humans or, more critically, without language. These artificial (in contrast to real) concepts are things like goodness, justice, democracy, liberty, sovereignty, nations, and on and on, ad nauseum. Humans have constructed narratives about all of these, but if the last human were to die tomorrow, these concepts would die, too. Whether some new lifeform would eventually evolve to develop language and further develop these concepts is debatable.
All of this aside, let’s look at the perceived intent of this statement, which is the same sentiment behind Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ quip.
As has been discussed, the Enlightenment replaced God with Nature and Nietzsche realised that if this worldview were universally adopted, the tyrannic role that God and gods had played could not be leveraged to maintain control or power, much in the same way that the divine rights or kings had withered and died. God played a vital role in this narrative. Nature, particularly human nature, was a weak substitute. This said, moral and natural realists, quickly (and relatively successfully) filled the void with cognitive filler, a perfect pairing for budding Enlightenment thinkers.
Given that even if there were some objective morality (terrain), there is no reason to believe that a human could gain access to it. Previously, priests and pharaohs claimed to possess this ability, but this vector was no longer extant or accessible. Even if a person did have this power through some miracle of some sort or another (or another or another), what reason (other than convincing rhetoric) would one have to believe him (or her—but let’s be honest; it’s pretty much all hims).
Without access to this objective morality, we are left with creating some subjective morality. I fully admit that trying to gain consensus and compliance to a known-to-be constructed moral code would be akin to herding cats. It is no doubt that society would operate more efficiently if all constituents follow the same code.
If wouldn’t matter if this society adopted, say, monogamy over polygamy, so long as everyone accepted this as the rules of engagement. Cultural subjectivism would provide a moral framework for this situation, We have many examples of social arrangements where this is the mode of operation.
Sports are an example. There are rules. Players agree on the rules, protocols, and procedures, and they operate within this socially constructed framework. There is no objective sportsball deity on high that conveyed the commandments, and yet it works.
Locke and Rousseau each wrote about social contracts. Granted, they believed in a supernatural Nature with a capital N, but they still felt that people could operate as a society based on some sort compact or accord.
This missing element would be power because those in power could not use some higher power to justify their actions especially in regard to retributive justice and so on.
What I still don’t understand after all these years is how this logic works. It is eerily similar to Pascale’s Wager.
If notSOME CONDITION, then not DESIRED OUTCOME therefore FABRICATE SOME CONDITION
If not[belief in God], then not [eternity of bliss in Heaven; instead eternal suffering in Hell, so double down] therefore [convince yourself of or feign belief in God]
If not [objective means of judgment], then not [real judgment] therefore [delude yourself into the belief that an objective means of judgment exists]