Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A massive reaction formation

I know Levi Bryant has his die-hard detractors and his many fans. I've never belonged squarely in one camp or the other. Bryant has written a lot of posts and I don't read his blog regularly, but from time to time I look in, occasionally I venture to comment, and usually I've learned something. I have also read a good bit of The Democracy of Objects, an undertaking I embarked upon with no agenda at all except, at first, to get a better handle on how Bryant uses the term "translation." From what I read, I genuinely think Bryant's book is a perfectly respectable presentation of an interesting metaphysical (yes, metaphysical) position. I have no axe to grind with his general approach. I am far from being a knee-jerk opponent (or champion) of Object-Oriented philosophy (you know who you are), and am indeed on record not just as admiring Graham Harman, but as seeing him as one of the most interesting and significant contemporary re-interpreters of the phenomenological tradition. Harman's philosophy has obvious affinities with (to say nothing of having inspired) Bryant's work; a fact I mention in hope of dispelling any suspicions of what follows as coming from some kind of unspoken partisan motive.

These caveats really ought to be totally unnecessary. If I feel the need to add them nonetheless, it's because blood gets pretty hot out there sometimes, and Bryant's latest is clearly meant to push those temperatures higher. Credit where it's due: Bryant calls it "Fighting Words," so he clearly knows he's being provocative. Just a little.
The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution.... It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation on the part of the humanities. ...We do everything to evade the truth of our age, to preserve our privilege. The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here –is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today. If you find yourself explaining being in terms of the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history, or lived experience, then your thought deserves to be committed to flame.....This does not entail that what you’ve said is entirely useless. Nothing entirely misses the truth, including your secularized theological conception of being. There’s even a bit of truth in Christ, Paul, and Buddha. All you need to do is abandon the notion that humans aren’t an animal, that somehow being is dependent on humans and culture, and that somehow we have ends like knowledge and transcendence. All you have to do is re-interpret the entirety of your claims about lived experience, the signifier, culture, power, etc., in naturalistic terms. Then you might make a real contribution.
That "I won't even bother to make arguments here" is a nice touch, but I especially like the way he concedes generously that everyone -- even the Buddha, even Christ! -- has, you know, "a bit of truth." And so can you!, as Stephen Colbert might put it. Well, then, what must you do? Glad you asked! "All" you need to do is "re-interpret the entirety of your claims" in "naturalistic terms."

This is obviously polemic, and polemic hath its place. The question is, what place?

Myself, I always go back to Socrates. Socrates is no stranger to polemic, but it usually found him, not the other way around, and the Socratic motives for polemic are almost entirely negative, by which I mean, Socrates offers no position of his own. These days if you try that tack, you are liable to get scolded: "Dude, you're so negative! Do you have any actual proposal to put forward?" Well, pace those interpreters who insist that Socrates' professions of ignorance are all sarcastic, I believe he really does mean it when he claims not to know (though this is not all he means), and that this Socratic stance is far from having outlived its pertinence. To tell someone, in the name of honest inquiry, that you don't understand how their theory can work, is plainly different from telling them that your theory works, is, in fact the only realistic contender. Let alone that you also have a theory of why they are presenting such obfuscation and nonsense and daring to call it a theory.

By "It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation", one means -- difficult for whom? Because I don't find it difficult at all. Yes, it's an admissible hypothesis which, on a very, very prima facie basis, "saves the appearances," but there's about a dozen others that can do that too, and that do so without the high cost of pathologizing your interlocutor. Hmmm, say, maybe, you really don't buy the dismissal of "irreducible complexity" to the chance collision of molecules. Could you actually have reasons for this? Well, we'll never know, because you aren't even invited to the table. Or let's see, perhaps like Chalmers or Nagel you just think that the "hard problem" of consciousness is aptly named, that no account "from the outside" is likely to ever render a plausible transition to questions about "what it is like to be... [insert sentient being of choice]," and that this yields insuperable difficulties for naturalism. Or again, perhaps you have concluded that normativity points to a real and irreducible dimension of experience -- that, in short, Is cannot render us an Ought. All of these might be made the matter of interesting debates. But again, we don't really need to find out what those reasons are because we've already explained them in terms of your hurt feelings from being told you weren't the center of the universe anymore.

In short, those who are having difficulty "escap[ing] the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation" are those for whom "naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today." I have to say, this betokens a disappointing failure of imagination, to say nothing of being, well, tautological. You know what else are the only credible positions? I'll mention only a few:

Liberal democracy is the only viable political system, and free market capitalism is its economic counterpart.
Liberal democracy is the ever-thinner mask of a rapacious capitalism whose bankruptcy is apparent for all who have eyes to see.
The crisis of our day is a spiritual crisis that can only be met by re-tapping into the spiritual values of our heritage.
The crisis of our day arises from the mindless repetition of memes that were once functional and have outlived their use.
The gravest threat the West faces is radical Islam, which is waiting, waiting, waiting for us to show a moment of weakness.
The gravest threat the West faces is its own arrogant sense of manifest destiny which renders it incapable of even hearing the grievances of other cultures.

My point is not that these, too, are widely shared tunnel-vision versions of the inescapable horizon of thought in our day, and that Bryant's account leaves them out of consideration. It is that the very notion of an inescapable horizon of thought just leads to this sort of back-and-forth. If there is an inescapable horizon of thought, guess what? You don't need to worry, 'cause it's inescapable.

If we read Bryant's piece of polemic as a kind of manifesto, then I can acknowledge that it does a good job of not pulling punches and of laying out his position in an uncompromising way. He's told us who has a right to be heard and who has a warm and crackly destiny awaiting them in the auto-da-fé; who is going to be listened to and who is not. You stand advised.

There is, as I say, a place for this, and not every blog post needs to (or can) be argued in every detail. In his follow-up post, Bryant does provide some spelling-out of what he does and does not mean by the "naturalism" he endorses. But I'm not concerned with what he wants to defend. I am concerned with the jaw-dropping smugness with which he declares by fiat that his bottom line is the bottom line.

As mentioned, I do not speak here as an opponent of Object-Oriented philosophy -- a camp by whose vehemence I am occasionally taken aback. I also have no need to defend speaking in terms of "the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history," though of course all of these are relevant for certain purposes. I am ready to defend talking about "lived experience," another category Bryant says ought to be "consigned to the flames," but even this one I wouldn't say trumps everything. There is a discourse in which first-person, lived experience talk is inescapable, and it is folly (to say nothing of self-contradictory) to suggest we could do without it, but there are also discourses in which the role of the first person is vestigal and idealized away. What is interesting are the borders between these arenas. I've talked a bit about this here.

But if I call Bryant's post -- let's say, questionable -- it isn't because he's trashed my special discursive toy. I am not an academic and have no vested interest in any discipline's standard operating procedures. What I object to, and what anyone who is a philosopher ought to object to, is his two-easy-steps-procedure by which he stipulates which accounts of the universe will and will not be deemed "credible," and then explains away any dissenters with some hand-waving about trauma -- hand waving which, by the rules he's set up, cannot be disputed without confirming his conclusions. All anyone has to do, once they've bought in to this sort of double-bind, is to nod knowingly and exchange meaningful looks when someone looks flabbergasted at this dismissal, or tries to present a case against it. In this game, a smug Mmm-hmm counts as a knock-down argument.

This is a very pragmatist, almost Rortyan, stance on Bryant's part (and the one observation I will make about OOO in this context is that it is often more pragmatist than it lets on. Please remember that in my estimation this is not a slur). Rorty was quite clear that argument served other purposes, political, social, and so on, and made no apologies for including among his rhetorical moves mockery, derision, and (feigned, as I see it) incomprehension. He was perfectly happy to say things like "no one can argue this way any more," simply defining those who we were "inclined to listen to" as those who had recourse to certain premises and arguments and not others. As a description, this seems to me to be incontestable -- there are in fact always certain moves that are excluded by the norms of any community. But to stipulate in advance what norms pertain to "today" -- to try to legislate these by fiat -- this is the kind of overreaching it is just hard to imagine Socrates attempting.

Stanley Rosen once remarked, about Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, that it was a polemic work and invited a polemic response -- an invitation, Rosen said, one would do well to resist, lest one find oneself playing on its terms. Obviously, in this case, I haven't done so. (Jon Cogburn makes a more measured -- and shorter! response in the comments to the post in question.) Perhaps I couldn't help it. I leave it to you to diagnose the underlying neurosis.

But I'll add one more thing on a non-polemic note. As complex and multilateral philosophical positions, naturalism and materialism obviously must be wrestled with, even (or rather, especially) by someone like myself who finds (some forms of) them so unsatisfactory. A thinker like Brassier, who obviously is as materialist as the universe is cold, knows enough to not take such views for granted but to establish them with a tremendous armature of justification. Brassier indicates the dimensions (and proportions) of this justificatory work in the interview I cited a while ago. But once one has done this justification (and it will likely always leave some of us -- me for instance, if I know me -- unsatisfied), one can also follow through with building upon these premises in interesting and novel ways. I actually do like a good deal of what Bryant does with naturalism in his own work, and even if I do not buy into his entire project, I find many of his illustrations thought-provoking, and doubtless I will keep reading and occasionally commenting on his blog. But the good news is, he doesn't have to reinterpret the entirety of what he says in non-naturalistic and non-materialist terms in order to salvage the bit of truth. He should just keep doing what he's doing. I just think he's not thinking very clearly when he's throwing fighting words around.

(UPDATE: Fairness compels me to note that in a comment) on his post, Bryant characterizes his psychoanalyzing stance about "narcissistic wounds" as a throwaway remark. This makes a big difference and my reaction is softened by it. I can't retract everything because I simply disagree that what Bryant (I think) means by saying naturalism and materialism are in fact the only admissible positions today (or ever!), but I am glad to see him back off from what I could only see as an unfair tactic.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

A moderately important post

My friend Amod Lele writes posts that engage me far more often than I comment. I want to record here a response to his criticism of this remark of C.S. Lewis':
Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.
Unlike a lot of philosophers (and theologians!) I know, I am a fan of CSL, but (like Lele) I've never thought much of his "trilemma" (Jesus: either liar, lunatic, or Lord). And like that argument, this one clearly aims at pressing a mild sympathy into a decision. What Lewis means to do is to rule out the middle-of-the-road, noncommittal view that sees Jesus as "a good man, a great moral teacher," and nothing else. A "great moral teacher" would not say "the sorts of things Jesus says" in the Gospels, Lewis contends. The trilemma does not work very well partly because it leaves out of account a host of vexed questions about the reliability of the Gospels themselves, but mostly because it presumes we are in a position to know what Jesus meant, when even the Gospels go out of their way to insist that we don't know what he meant. It may still be that the trilemma is meaningful under some circumstances (for instance, once you identify as a Christian and are satisfied that the tradition does reliably communicate an identifiable meaning, you may find it so), but as a compelling argument for persuading the sympathetic (to say nothing of the unsympathetic), it fails badly.

The argument of Lewis that Lele has in his sights this time seems, however, a little bit (even if just a little) more defensible. Lele's critique is straightforward:
Christians ... can put you in jail for your choice of sexual partners. They can make it impossible for you to access abortion or even contraception. And [on the other hand] they can fight for – and achieve – the equality of people of all races amid a society that denies it. In the past century, Christians of various sorts have done all these things many times, and done them because they were Christians: because they believed in, identified with and/or practised Christian tradition.
This leads to the obvious conclusion, for Lele: when it comes to Christianity (and I assume that it goes without saying that one could insert the name of any other religious or non-religious tradition here), its ultimate truth or falsity is one of many things that might be "important" about it, but its real this-world consequences show that, true or false, there are plenty of other important things about it as well.

Bearing in mind the caveat offered in the Lele's comments section by Michael Reidy (to wit, Lewis is writing a popular article and not a learned treatise or an academic paper), I'd venture to say that Lewis just means that if you are satisfied for yourself that Christianity's claim is false, you can simply leave it alone and go on your way. Yes, it matters in one sense -- often a far-reaching sense -- that people believe and act upon falsehoods or nonsense. But you don't need to concern yourself with Christianity -- just with people making "christian" arguments. You aren't engaging with it (not on an existential level) -- it is no longer, as William James would put it, a "living option" for you. If someone tells me the earth is flat, this claim content-wise makes no difference to me, even though the person claiming it may be in a position to impose the view on all the public schools, burn me at the stake for denying it, or build hospitals and orphanages in the name of flat-earthism.

I won't argue that there is a bright and obvious line in every case between such "existential" engagement and merely prudential negotiations with those who maintain something I don't. And if there isn't, perhaps Lewis' claim cannot be defended even on these grounds. But the distinction I take him to be making is not prima facie silly. For Lewis, there really is a bifurcation here, but not because of the claims of Christianity per se; rather, it's because of the arena in which the relevance is being assessed. This arena is existential. As Lessing said, and Kierkegaard riffed on, one can't generate a claim of eternal force from any historically contingent fact. Within that arena there are (per hypothesis) no "moderately important" claims. This argument may seem surprisingly Manichean, and I have some sympathy with such a counter-argument. (My usual default way of negotiating it is via Tillich's articulation of "ultimate concern," re. which see here.) But then, philosophy too (not just theology) has insisted that there are things of ultimate importance, in comparison with which everything else becomes trivial. Socrates chastened his fellow Athenians for precisely this, neglecting their souls. The fact that he likely didn't mean exactly what Lewis would have meant by "soul" shouldn't distract us overmuch here. Philosophy, also, requires decision.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Rawls' veil of ignorance. Bradley's Appearance and Reality. Philosophers love -- one might even say they depend upon -- the distinction between truth and semblance; all the more when truth turns out to be a surprising reversal of semblance. And what better than a reversal that involves an actual unveiling?

One of my favorite counter-intuitive assertions is the so-called Monty Hall paradox, named for the game show host who exploited it on Let's Make A Deal. Imagine a set of three closed doors. Two of them are known to conceal a worthless booby-prize (I think it was a goat on the TV show); one of them conceals a coveted prize of considerable worth. It is of course unknown to you which door hides the real prize. In the scenario we are considering, you are instructed to pick a door to open: A, B, or C. You do so (let us say you pick A). At this point, the host (who does know which door hides the prize you want) opens one of the unchosen doors (say, C) to reveal a booby-prize. The choice is then presented to you: Do you wish to stick with your original door pick, or would you like to switch your choice?

Usually, one's intuition says; what's the difference? You've shown me a goat, so I know that one of the doors hides the prize and the other one hides a goat. Fifty-fifty. It makes no difference if I switch or not.

The answer is: You would like to switch. If you switch, you in fact double your chances of winning the prize.

This solution can be very difficult for some people (myself included) to accept. If you are one of them, you are in good company. Besides my illustrious self, the famous and brilliant Paul Erdos refused to believe his own calculations (which showed that the above solution was correct) until a computer program ran many, many simulations and demonstrated the statistical reliability of the switching strategy.

Why is it so hard to believe? Well, you initially choose a door with a random 1-in-3 chance of being correct, and the opening of the other door obviously does not change that likelihood. And that being the case, why should you switch? You could have chosen the other closed door before, but that door too had a 1-in-3 chance of being right, and still does. Yes?

No. The door you chose before is just as likely as it was to hide the prize. But the other door now has a probability of 1-in-2.

But wait -- your own choice also has a probability of 1-in-2, surely?

Think of it this way. Initially you had a 2-in-3 chance of picking wrong. Now you have a 1-in-2 chance of picking wrong. You thus should re-pick, because now you chances of being wrong are less than they were before.

But -- but -- (my own mind sputters) -- why can't I re-pick the same door as I picked before?

Here is where logic starts to stammer and mathematics (in the form of a table of probabilities) steps in to convince. Let us take the case where you picked door A. There are three possibilities. Door A could hide The Prize. Or it could hide booby-prize 1 or booby-prize 2 (we will call them both goats). You have a choice of staying with your choice or switching. Here is a table of outcomes:

Even with this clearly laid out, the rationale is (typically) not easy to accept. But the solution is usually referred to as a "veridical paradox," that is, an assertion demonstrably true despite its prima facie counter-intuitive nature. You can run a simulation over and over again, comparing switching to non-switching strategies, and see the former's success rate slowly but surely outdistance the latter's, and thus pile up empirical evidence of the unreliability of intuition. This sort of thing is frequently alleged to build up the case for the fallibility of our often-incorrigible prejudices; to show yet again that we have certain deep-seated fallacies built into our much-vaunted "rationality." There are schools of cognitive science and philosophy of mind which like this sort of thing because it (ostensibly) gives implicit sanction to other arguments that are less demonstrable but no less counter-intuitive.

I am not so sure. I don't dispute the mathematics. But there is a very simple variation that doubles-down on the counter-intuition and makes its resolution far less amenable to tablature. (I don't assume this variation is original to me, but I don't keep up with the literature.)

Rather than one contestant, imagine three: we will call them Xavier, Yorick, and Zane. These three decide, by whatever means they like, to each choose one door (A, B, or C), so that each one of them has selected a different door. Or alternately, Monty can assign them their doors without telling them which door is whose, until revealing their assignments all at once. Now the host reveals the unpleasant truth: Zane has chosen (or been assigned) poorly: He is matched with door C, but behind door C was only a goat. The question now is: should Xavier and Yorick switch doors? And here the paradox comes into full force. For of course both Xavier and Yorick, being no fools, have studied the Monty Hall problem, and they both know that it would be advantageous to switch.... but then, it would also be advantageous to the opponent to switch. But it can't be in both their interests to switch! And here, no series of simulations will avail, no matter how many quintillions or googolplexes you run, for in any case, either Xavier or Yorick will win, but not both. Which should mean that their proportion of winning will remain 50/50.

This does seem to be a paradox, because the veridicality works both ways. Both Xavier and Yorick "should" switch (and therefore, equally, should not). You can't resolve it by calling the problem a positive-sum deal, for the terms of the problem are that one will lose and one will win.

One option for trying to resolve it is by saying that the probability enters in when X, Y, and Z make their original choices, since one of them must have chosen first, leaving the other two with only two options. This could mean that the one who chose first (either X or Y) ought to switch, while the one who chose second ought not.

There is an objection to this attempted solution: the question is not whether you had three choices initially, but rather whether what your initial chances were, at the outset of the problem, of being right in your choice. That variable is not altered by the order in which the choices are made.

I'm not sure what I think of this objection, which may just show up my slow-learning curve when I try to think about probability. But the scenario in which the host arbitrarily assigns the doors to X, Y, and Z and only reveals the assignments after all assignments have been made. makes the issue irrelevant, because in that situation, the three contestants are not aware of the order of the assignments; but they are aware that the mathematics indicates that they should switch.

It is possible that I am missing something here, in which I will be grateful for a statistician to step in and offer some damned lies explanation.

What makes this more than just a logic puzzle is the fact that the intuitively "obvious" solution, which is shown to be wrong by patient application of probabilities, is the fact that it is a kind of re-instatement of intuition. What's involved here isn't just probability; it's the very essence of the experience of being right or wrong. Wittgenstein said that there were never surprises in logic (not in logic qua logic); but this is the sort of logical question in which the very premise involves a surprise. Yet the surprise is in having one's expectations momentarily suspended and then fulfilled. It reminds me of Nietzsche's remark on "Kant's joke," which was (he said) to demonstrate "in a way that would astound the common man," that the common man was right. Not so far from "bad reasons for what one believes on instinct," to come back to Bradley here at the end. But of course this "rightness" of intuition -- if one even grants it -- is itself puzzling. Which perhaps should highlight the puzzlingness of intuition per se.