The Rhetoric of Truth

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

“Truth is simply a culmination of the rhetorical power to persuade the ignorant masses.”

Plato

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.

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Movement Is Not Progress

Before creating this, I searched online for instances of ‘movement is not progress‘ and ‘motion is not progress‘. I got results, but these results were generally either motivational or spiritual, which may amount to a different side of the same coin. To this contingent, movement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. The dictionary defines progress as:

1. Forward or onward movement towards a destination

— or —

2. Development towards an improved or more advanced condition

Progress appears to be related to a specific type of movement: forward, but this still doesn’t seem to capture the essence of what we mean by the word progress. This is captured by the second definition by the inclusion of improved or advanced, but on what dimension are we assessing this improvement? Except in the minds of the adherents, this appears coincidentally to be arbitrary; anything in line with their wishes appears to be an advancement.

Unfortunately, progress is more than this still. Take the expanding universe model as an analogy—let’s not even discuss how a multiverse would further exacerbate things. Imagine that I can travel from Earth to Mars, and if I define Mars as the destination, then I have satisfied definition Nº 1, as I have made progress towards Mars (my stated destination), but I haven’t actually made any improvement. All I’ve done is changed position. I’ve gone from here to there, but now there is here, and here is there. If I retrace my route from Mars to Earth, again I’ve made progress under the first definition, but, in fact, I’ve just completed a circuit. Sure, I can argue that I may have done something on Mars that I can label progress: perhaps I’ve planted a flag or started a colony, but how is this progress? Following the same logic, is a cancer in your pancreas colonising your, well, colon progress? A disinterested observer taking the perspective of the cancer might say that the cancer has progressed or spread, but the patient may disagree with the assessment of progress.

In the sense that history is (anecdotally) written by the victors, we may have the illusion of progress, but as notables from Rousseau to Thoreau have quipped, progress is no progress. Even so, this progress presumes a wholesale concept of worse and better, yet there is no objective measure. This can only be claimed within some context. So, if I accept, within in the human domain, that Capitalism is better than Feudalism, then I can claim to have progressed. If I build a house on a plot of land, I can claim progress. Of course, to the previously standing wood, this is no progress. To the creatures who had occupied the wood, again, no progress. So, is progress a zero-sum game that I can qualify as a positive sum game by narrowly defining the system boundaries? Probably so, but let’s leave that for another day.

“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” ― Alfred A. Montapert

So what’s my point? My point is that there is only the illusion of progress, and that only in the realm of jingoistic specieism can we accept this illusion. In reality, there is no progress; there just is. We just are.

God is Dead. God is Necessary.

I stumbled upon Professor Jordan Peterson and his defenders of virtue morality, like Dr Stephen Hicks, and I decided to watch some vids.

Full Disclaimer: Not a fan

I ended up on his lecture about Carl Jung.

I’d been interested in archetypal and depth psychology for ages, and I’ve read most of Jung’s work. I still own all of the volumes of his complete works. The difference between me and Professor Peterson is that I take it as metaphor and, by his words, I presume that he doesn’t.

The video clip is cued to the location where Jordan says, speaking of Nietzsche,

“…‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ led Nietzsche to pose another question, which was: What are we going to do to replace him? Because Nietzsche believed—and I think he was absolutely right about this. I can’t see how it could be otherwise—, he believed that the morality that had structured Western society was predicated on the fundamental axiom of divinity, and so, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, the whole purpose of morality was dependent on that axiom being true—or at least being accepted as true. And when that axiom was knocked out by, say, the conflict between science and religion—because in some sense that’s what did it—, then the whole system no longer had anything to stand on and could become entirely questionable…”

The whole purpose of morality was dependent on [the existence of divinity] being true.

As I’ve said time and again, this is the primary reason people—especially those defending or seeking some sense of status quo, conservative vanguards, and morality warriors—insist on the existence of a real, objective moral centre or a good-enough version of it—one that coincidentally conforms to their worldview.

I’m afraid that I am going to need to hear something well more convincing than that because I’m not buying what these guys are selling.

3 Laws of Behaviour Genetics

Genetics

[EDIT: Researching immediately after I wrote this article, I skimmed—I’ll have to find time to read it later—Turkheimer’s paper Still Missing (PDF, 2011), where he walks back his original assertion.]

The question, “why are children in the same family so different?” is answered, “Because measurable differences in their environment make them that way.”

I finished Pinker’s The Blank Slate the other day, but I didn’t have much time to capture my reflections. I’m already onto my next book, Mill’s Utilitarianism, so I figured I record some thoughts before they become too distant.

In chapter 19, Pinker summarises Eric Turkheimer’s paper Three Laws of Genetic Behaviour Genetics and What They Mean (PDF, 2000):

  1. The First Law: All human behavioural traits are heritable.
  2. The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
  3. The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Elaborating on this, he summarises Turkheimer’s assessment on the variance in personality contributable to three factors: genetics, society, and family. According to this theory, variations in personality due accounted for by environment, are composed as

3 Laws of Behaviour Genetics

50 percent accounted for by society (non-shared environment); 40 – 50 percent accounted for by genetics (biology) and 0 to 10 percent attributable to family (shared environment). In his assessment, he was able to eliminate usual-suspect factors like birth order and siblings.

“Genotype is in fact a more systematic
source
of variability than environment.”

According to Pinker, the 0 to 10 percent is generous, and it could just as well be 50% society and the rest is genetics. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for psychoanalysis, a discipline who strongly pushes back on this concept—just with emotional appeal in lieu of science.