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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XI: Disinformation

I’m posting this Brief Blog Review on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so it seems appropriate to go way out on a paranoid limb. This month’s review is of the prolific and imperfect Disinformation, a witch’s brew of all sorts of minority and fringe positions. You name it, you’ll find it here: mind-control, surveillance, anti-vaccination, 9/11, hyper-elite secret cabals, alien invaders, and scads more. Most of the blogs reviewed in this series have one or two posts a week. Disinfo has sometimes ten or twenty in a day. Way too many. Too many to read, too many to take in. Nonetheless, I’m putting Disinfo up here as the best single-source digest of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style”, and not just because we need a bunch of cautionary tales. I admit that I am probably more open to raising my eyebrows at the received version of the daily news, no matter which appointed gatekeeper has passed it on stamped “Approved for General Distribution.” Truth be told, with corporate offices in NYC and several glossy publications (and a television series) to its credit, Disinfo is already itself dangerously close to becoming an alternative gatekeeper for the self-styled cynical hip -- skepticism (of a sort) commodified. But my commending the paranoid style isn’t so much about content. I cut my teeth on Robert Anton Wilson, that zetetic apostle, and while I obviously think that one must problematize doubt as well as certainty, there is much to commend a serious and recurrent engagement with Not Buying What You Are Told.

I once was at a spiritual retreat with a number of other people, including a gracious and articulate woman who suddenly surprised me by expressing dismay over the many “chemtrails” she observed in the otherwise blue sky. Whoo-boy, I thought, and tried to gently redirect the conversation. It was considerably later that I reflected: I don’t know what “warrant” she thinks she has for “believing” in chemtrails, but what warrant do I have for disbelieving in them? I went around in circles a few times like this: “Well, if that were true, then... then, the experts... then somebody would have... I mean, somebody other than those people...” Sigh. Honesty finally compelled me (not without a fight) to confess that it mostly boiled down to “chemtrails” seeming, well, just outlandish. Crazy. Paranoid. In short, I wasn’t really thinking. I had already decided, on purely extra-intellectual considerations, that I need not think. This idea was beyond the pale.

Now, is this a bad reason to not consider any given hypothesis? No, not really; or not always. No one has the time, energy, and competence to decide the merits of every last claim “on the evidence.” Sometimes parsimony has to suffice, and doubtless it is often right that it suffices. But one may concede this finitude of personal resource, without resigning oneself to the conveniently available default positions of one’s demographic. It is very easy to act as if one has rejected the “obviously” false, nutty, weirdo claims on some kind of evidence, and forget that one is shooting from the hip of prejudice. Remembering this is one part of what it means to remember that one is awash in a sea of ideology.

There are indeed ideas that are beyond the pale. Some ideas I cannot entertain even if I try. They are not, as William James put it, “living options” for me. But ideas don’t just start out that way by definition, nor do they inevitably remain that way. It is worth asking why certain hypotheses with a general family-resemblance to each other tend to recur in the paranoid fringe, but it’s also worth noting that ninety percent of the time, the term “paranoid fringe” is already a way of chiming in with your superego’s not-so-subtle “Nothing to see here. Move along.” On most days, chemtrails still seem beyond the pale to me. But I don't pretend that I have, or understand, any evidence that makes them plausible or not. And I am less cozy living within the pale; it no longer seems so self-evidently solid to me.

Disinfo’s posts, all presented in a well-designed format whose readability is several cuts above the average paranoid site, are cumulatively a virtual smorgasbord of Things They Don’t Want You To Know. It'll point you to reports that vaccine companies falsify evidence; that incandescent light bulbs are more efficient than fluorescent lights, and safer as well; that fluoride in the water is lulling you into a sleepy conformism, and the evidence is precisely that you find the claim outlandish! These are just a few of the more boring examples. Plenty of the Usual Suspects (Bilderbergers, Trilateralists, Bohemian Grove, Skull’n’Bones, and so on), plenty of surprising eye-openers, lots of conflicting points of view (as I write there is a post on the “selectively doubting” psychology of conspiracy theorists). Most importantly, there is a certain sense of humor about the whole thing, a levity which nonetheless usually resists the temptation to treat the whole thing as a joke (and although it does tend towards the typical standard-issue suspicion of organized religion, there are exceptions even here). Disinfo won’t leave you knowing what to believe or what not to, but it might get the question, “Why don’t I believe that?” to be a little more explicit... and the answer, a little less automatic.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Argument Against Naturalism, and intellectual fashion

Jim S at the blogs Quodlibet and Agent Intellect has been publishing a series on the so-called “Argument from Reason,” an argument purporting to show that naturalism is flawed at best and self-contradictory at worst precisely insofar as naturalism is a set of conclusions arrived at by rational means. This argument was formulated in a succinct form by C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles, and it was the object of an attack by Elizabeth Anscombe in a famous exchange between the two thinkers at the Socratic Club, an exchange which, philosophical folklore has it, Anscombe was generally perceived to have “won” and which certainly issued in Lewis’ revision of the relevant portion of his book for the second edition. The series just reached its seventh and possibly last installation, and is well worth reading.

I know plenty of people, including Christians and theologians, who do not take Lewis seriously as a thinker. I think this is a mistake. He is not a major philosopher or theologian like, say, Lonergan, or even like his friend Austin Farrer; it would have appalled him to be considered one. But he is one of the preeminent minds of the 20th century when it comes to what used to be called "men of letters," a category which in the long run may be the more significant. (It is not the same as "intellectuals.")

The "Argument From Reason," is not, of course, Lewis’ alone; a number of other thinkers, notably Plantinga, adapted it. It seems to me to be one of those convenient litmus tests for “kinds of thinkers;” nobody tends to be neutral about it. You either find it compelling (at least in a strange sort of way, maybe like the ontological proof of God), or you find it makes you squirm with impatience -- how could anyone ever find such an “argument” persuasive?! This makes it a either a conversation-stopper or an ideal conversation-starter, depending.

The argument, in very rough, indeed caricaturish, outline, is as follows: naturalism is the claim that nothing but natural processes exist and occur. These processes are all cause-and-effect processes; indeed, according to naturalism, there is no other kind of process. Such processes, being exhaustive of everything, obviously per hypothesis include the human mind and its conclusions, whether false or true. But this entails, then, that any true conclusions must have been occasioned by cause-&-effect, and in fact by “causes” that are not strictly what we recognize as “reasons” at all. We can, in fact, not have reasons for believing anything at all, including naturalism, if every “reason” reduces to a cause in the ordinary sense.

Anscombe’s case against Lewis has a decidedly “analytic” flavor to it (unsurprisingly), even an “ordinary-language” flavor, as, e.g., her argument that a reason is not what produces a belief but is rather “what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.” This reads like everyday common-sense to someone who has been steeped in Wittgenstein, and the first several times I encountered it I breezed right past, but in fact it is starkly implausible and surely gets the phenomenology of insight very skew. Nonetheless, the story of Anscombe’s “defeat” of Lewis became a kind of bit of received wisdom, an anecdote substituting for an argument, and has played a role both in the general dismissal of the “Argument from Reason,” and its adoption by special interests, like Plantinga’s -- widely perceived as rear-guard actions in a losing defense of Christianity against the inevitable progress of science. I have some sympathy for the underdog in that scenario, but framed in those terms, it will never do.

I have come to regard the Lewis-Anscombe debate as a late and minor skirmish in a war that was already over, had in fact been over for some time. Lewis’ intellect was shaped, as he said himself, out of the confluence of a number of factors: leaving aside aesthetic and what we would (but he would not) have called existential concerns, these were Scottish common-sensism (derived from Reid) and the Idealism of Bradley, Green, Bosanquet, and so on. Neither of these were the atmosphere of the Socratic Club at Cambridge. The atmosphere that made Anscombe’s arguments so persuasive, so that the verdict of the audience was that Lewis needed to make his argument “more rigorously analytical,” was one that had been made by Russell and Moore, and by Wittgenstein. This does not mean that those audience members simply concluded that Anscombe was right “because they were analytical philosophers” -- as though the weight of the arguments themselves were so much sizzle. To say this would be to commit the fallacy Lewis memorably described as Bulverism. But one may avoid Bulverism and still acknowledge that fashions matter in the history of thinking; that conclusion which look altogether inevitable in one context look starkly implausible in another; and that adjudicating between these contexts is no simple matter of “merely thinking honestly.” We think in contexts, not outside of them.

In fact, a second or third look at the famous disputes -- mainly between Russell and Bradley -- which re-shaped the philosophical landscape in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century, leaves little room for doubt that the change was not decided on the merits of the arguments alone. This re-evaluation has been undertaken by Stewart Candlish in a really valuable work of scholarship (and not just scholarship), The Russell/Bradley Dispute. From a hundred years’ distance, it is obvious that Bradley was not “defeated” by Russell’s arguments, and that in many cases Russell seriously misconceived what Bradley had said or meant. What really happened, it seems to me, is that philosophers got tired of talking in one way, and were excited and intrigued by the possibilities of talking in another way. This sociological slant does not mean that there is no such thing as genuine philosophical insight to be had. It does not consign us to a maze of relativism. But it does mean we must be more cautious in rejecting out of hand positions to which we are unsympathetic, or at least, assuming that we have the weight of argument on our side when we do so.

Of course, if Lewis is correct, claiming that “the weight of argument” has any bearing on the case at all, may commit us to certain other ramifications -- not just epistemological, but ontological. For a deeper consideration of those claims, I refer you to the Quodlibet series, and its numerous references.