Archives for category: Philosophy

Paradigm Maintenance in Institutional Settings

The difference between truth and usefulness is basic in philosophy, though some pragmatists (not all) obscured this. And it is because of the orthogonal nature of these two standards that false ideas circulate, and can even become a dominant paradigm.

The advantage a dominant group has regarding ideas is clear: it can reward people for their bad ideas, and then show the results of the rewards as evidence for the aptness of those ideas.

Insider cultists of a dominant ideology reward each other, and thus reinforce their sense of certainty. And to outsiders? They can malign, ridicule, and heap on other disincentives for belief espousal that have nothing to do with truth-value.

THIS, ah yes, THIS! It’s the oldest trick in the book.

It is positively ancient. Which is why free speech and the scientific method were developed: to protect elites from self-corruption.

You can always tell whether someone practices the virtue of truthfulness: they never rely on social controls to defend their paradigms. Anyone who says they “follow the science,” for instance, but encourages de-platforming of competing ideas is a fraud — not a philosopher; not a scientist. That person is, at base, a Child of the Lie. And the most effective lies are the ones we not merely tell ourselves, but get our peers to tell us. The social reinforcement solidifies false beliefs as effectively as true ones, so that one ceases to be able to tell them apart — in part because one has stopped tallying whether the reason one believes something is its truth-value persuasiveness or its social-advantage persuasiveness.

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According to current lore, there are “right-wing facts” and “left-wing facts.” Common sense would immediately tell you that there are “right-wing fantasies” and “left-wing fantasies” and also the same binary split on lies, evasions, suspicions, errors, misinformation, disinformation, bigotry, and all the rest.

Left-wingers often mention that great formulation, “alternative facts.” The usual harrumph and chortle is that “there are no ’alternative facts,’” just lies and error, etc. But in the current context, “alternative fact” is spot on: an alternative fact is a fact that fits the “other side’s” ideology, not yours.

It is not as if facts only line up on one side.

That being said, much of what we are all really arguing about is myth, theory, and values. We do have different values. And with those values come different visions of a better world. At first blush, right-wingers hate basic left-wing values, and vice versa, but many others just think that the values and visions of their opponents yield consequences — because of the nature of reality — at variance with the ideologues’ expectations.

The biggest values/visions differences regard sex and the family. Yesterday’s sexual conservatism mirrors — reflects in reverse — on the values level, with today’s “genderism” (for want of a better word). But despite one’s initial or acculturated preferences and tolerances, one can still take a step back and say that one sort of domestic institution is generally superior to another in terms of, say, producing happy children who go on to be independent, sociable beings and a general boon to society (noting that criminals are a huge drain, and that criminality is a good thing to suppress). But a knee-jerk sexual conservative is no more interested in seeing the social benefits of un-persecuted homosexuals than a knee-jerk sexual “gender progressive” is of heteronormativity.

Thankfully, most of us need not fall into the knee-jerk values/visions camps. We should be able to argue.

But right now our culture incapacitates us for this. And we are left with people arguing over “alternative facts.”

For my part, I’ve used the word “anomalous” more often, and try to find data that might change minds. All it takes is one datum to disprove a theory. Well, if it is a significant enough datum.

And I note that almost no one uses that word today, datum.

This actually seems significant. People cannot conceive of a datum that would change their minds.

In my general defense, in the last five years I’ve found single bits of information here and there that very much have changed my mind. But I have also incorporated much, much data that has solidified other beliefs.

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What is meant by the phrase “there is no god but the unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is its prophet”?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

This is a taunt from the pages of Jack London’s great novel Martin Eden, 13th chapter:

Martin had heard Herbert Spencer quoted several times in the park, but one afternoon a disciple of Spencer’s appeared, a seedy tramp with a dirty coat buttoned tightly at the throat to conceal the absence of a shirt. Battle royal was waged, amid the smoking of many cigarettes and the expectoration of much tobacco-juice, wherein the tramp successfully held his own, even when a socialist workman sneered, “There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet.” Martin was puzzled as to what the discussion was about, but when he rode on to the library he carried with him a new-born interest in Herbert Spencer, and because of the frequency with which the tramp had mentioned “First Principles,” Martin drew out that volume.

So the great discovery began. Once before he had tried Spencer, and choosing the “Principles of Psychology” to begin with, he had failed as abjectly as he had failed with Madam Blavatsky. There had been no understanding the book, and he had returned it unread. But this night, after algebra and physics, and an attempt at a sonnet, he got into bed and opened “First Principles.” Morning found him still reading. It was impossible for him to sleep. Nor did he write that day. He lay on the bed till his body grew tired, when he tried the hard floor, reading on his back, the book held in the air above him, or changing from side to side. He slept that night, and did his writing next morning, and then the book tempted him and he fell, reading all afternoon, oblivious to everything and oblivious to the fact that that was the afternoon Ruth gave to him. His first consciousness of the immediate world about him was when Bernard Higginbotham jerked open the door and demanded to know if he thought they were running a restaurant.

Martin Eden had been mastered by curiosity all his days. He wanted to know, and it was this desire that had sent him adventuring over the world. But he was now learning from Spencer that he never had known, and that he never could have known had he continued his sailing and wandering forever. He had merely skimmed over the surface of things, observing detached phenomena, accumulating fragments of facts, making superficial little generalizations—and all and everything quite unrelated in a capricious and disorderly world of whim and chance. The mechanism of the flight of birds he had watched and reasoned about with understanding; but it had never entered his head to try to explain the process whereby birds, as organic flying mechanisms, had been developed. He had never dreamed there was such a process. That birds should have come to be, was unguessed. They always had been. They just happened.

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was a Victorian Era polymath, remembered for

  • his early development of evolutionary theory — “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), “A Theory of Population, deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility” (1852), Principles of Psychology (first edition, 1855) and “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857);
  • his political liberalism — in Social Statics (1851), Justice (1891, Part IV of Principles of Ethics) and The Man versus the State (1884), all celebrated only by libertarians, today;
  • his pioneering of sociology — Study of Sociology (1878), Descriptive Sociology(19 vols., 1873–1934), and Principles of Sociology (1876–1896 );
  • coining the term “survival of the fittest” after hearing Charles Darwin’s initial presentation of “natural selection,” and as introduced formally in Principles of Biology (1864).

But Spencer first made his name as a metaphysician and religious philosopher. His main concept was “the Unknowable,” as indicated in the quip in above. It received its main exposition in the first half of First Principles (1860). Spencer was trying to show the limits of human knowledge, but also address an understanding of what he regarded as the underlying foundation to all existence, which, he argued, we know of but cannot actually know. Spencer believed that awe and reverence for this “Unknowable” is the remaining — “ultimate” — religious idea, after science had done its work.

The best treatment of this peculiar element to his philosophy is by George Santayana, in his Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford in 1923, “The Unknowable.” I highly recommend this beautiful and profound essay, to every thinking person — see Obiter Scripta (1936), but I first came across it in Clifton Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked (1945).

Spencer’s agnostic concept of “The Unknowable” was once all the rage. Victorian scientists such as John Tyndall, rapidly losing their faith, grabbed at it as if a lifeline in deep ocean. Since then, however, it has dropped out of circulation. I did once hear it discussed in the 1990s’ TV dramedy Northern Exposure, though.

So why the sneering remark? It apes the famous Islamic credo, sure. But it was from a socialist character. Herbert Spencer was deeply anti-socialist. No more need be said.

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Herbert Spencer
From Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008), streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Case of Caitlín R. Kiernan

My problem with ‘trans’ is not primarily political, and it is not personal either — I’ve known a many people who have tried to look and act as if they were of the opposite sex, and I’ve certainly not been “offended” — as so many people are these days, by so many things.

My main concern is lying.

Here is a case in point, an author whom I’ve not read but whose work looks really interesting: Kenneth R Wright.

Oops. That was his name as a lad. According to Wikipedia . . . well, according to the online encyclopedia, author Caitlín R. Kiernan’s early life as a boy is not worth mentioning. Now he is all woman, and his past as a boy and his ontic status as a natural-born male is just not worth acknowledging:

In an encyclopedia entry, this seems deceptive; it is obviously intentional, and driven by the recent and dominant form that leftist ideology has taken.

The current position in etiquette is that a person gets to define his or her own sex: it is no one else’s business. You can see where this comes from, and I’m all for individuality, etc., etc. But etiquette isn’t about truthfulness, and a truthful people have to maintain places and contexts wherein full truths are acknowledged.

And the “trans” issue is certainly not the only domain of contest where this comes up.

Consider another tricky matter in manners: intelligence. While it would be bad manners to call attention to either the greatest excellences or greatest failures of a person in everyday encounters — it is rude to call a genius one of the genii or a mentally challenged person a “retard” — there are many contexts in which either truth must be acknowledged. One of them would be in an encyclopedia article. We can argue about where else the truth must be allowed, or required.

Same for those who try — with wildly varying degrees of success — to appear as if they be members of the sex they are not. I would likely call Ms. Kiernan by the name she wants in most everyday contexts, but I am not obliged to think of ‘her’ as a woman.

This is an extremely interesting situation, though, because it gets to the heart of our philosophical culture. It is a matter of truth. Do we live in a truthful culture, or one in which fantasy plays the dominant role?

Far be it from me to oppose fantasy. But my philosophy valorizes truth. I regard the people who fear (or for whatever other reason refrain) to state in an encyclopedia article the truth about Caitlín R. Kiernan as liars.

And where lying is culturally enforced, great crimes will be committed.

A pluralistic society would accept disagreement on the extent to which manners would protect the weak from the truth. But we do not live in a pluralistic society.

The liars I look upon with deep suspicion. Sure, they will call me names like ”trans-phobe,” and cast aspersions upon those like me who will not cave to their fairly recent innovation in manners. In a free society, both sides would accept each others’ rights to think and act differently. But the contest now is that one side (the “trans-accepting” side) demands that the other speak exactly as they wish, while the other — my side — is willing to let them make fools of themselves as they so urgently wish, but we are not willing to grant them the justice of their effrontery, to imperially enforce their etiquette of fantasy on us.

They balk at being called liars, though. You see, they have re-defined the terms, and have theories that back up their re-definitions. So call them “trans-honest.”

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Where do human rights come from?

as . . . answered on Quora. . . .

Rights are human instruments, in law and ethics.

Where do they come from?

Well, they come from human beings’ need to control themselves and others, and from our expressions, judgments, claims, counter-claims, etc. But that isn’t the whole of the story, for just “being an instrument” of purpose and need does not mean that the instrument in question cannot be abandoned, or that all instruments are created equal.

There is something about the inherent concept of a right that disallows many common conceptions. Philosophers and jurists and politicians have been working on the ideas for centuries or longer, but I am going to skip most of that. Suffice it to say that the rightness of a right, so to speak, is not its instrumentality alone.

But let us not forget what a right is, sans its utility, goodness, or justification — let us remember what even an unacceptable right would be.

right is a claim to obligatory treatment. For every right there is at least one obligation — so understanding a right requires understanding obligation, or duty.

Rights are a way of articulating duties.

In law, the obligation marshaled by a right amounts to a legally enforceable — by coercion, compulsion — performance. Or, outside of law but in ethics, legitimately required, with sanctions for non-compliance. If I have a right to liberty, you have a duty not to initiate force upon me. If you have a right to health care, then I must supply you medical aid. When someone fails or refuses to perform the specified duty, at law a case will be somehow made, in criminal or civil court, or merchant law, or the like, to compel the performance of the duty, with penalties.

Now, I wrote above that it is coercion or compulsion that is threatened in the articulation of the right. Well, the threat can be something less than force, but in political philosophy we are usually talking about force, so let’s restrict ourselves to that.

Oh, and I just wrote that word “threat.” Human social systems are dominated by two types of interaction, threats and enticements. Rights are civilized threats. Since we do not like to be threatened, there is a reason that rights that are promoted universally, that all may have, are commonly favored, and, indeed, narrow the field and winnow out many forms of posited duties. Rights that only some may have at the obligation of all are suspect.

So, we can expand our definition somewhat: a right is the positive, beneficiary focus of the articulation of a threat that has as its targeted focus an obligation.

Now we have to make some distinctions. For there are dimensions to rights and obligations: who has the right? who is obligated? what is obligated? To be brief and hastily move through an ideascape that Jeremy Bentham should have covered but did not quite, we have specific rights when the number of rights-bearers are few and the numbers of the duty-bound are few, or singular (I have a right to $1000 from a client; the phone company has a right to $200 from me) and we have rights that all have and to which all are obliged. We have several names for these kinds of rights:

  • natural rights
  • universal rights
  • basic rights
  • human rights

There is something to be said for and against each of these. If one were of a certain type of mind (as I am, on Tuesdays) we could treat each as a distinct term of art. But suffice it, here, to say that these very elementary and foundational rights are what we are most interested in political philosophy, and which deserve most of our attention.

I believe that because of the very construction of this tool, “a right,” most propounded universal rights fail to pass muster.

A human right should make sense in most human societies, and should be performable without causing social chaos and conflict rather than social stability. I have argued, and will argue again, that many of the “rights” some people most desire are mere imposition farded up with the lipstick of effrontery. A right to “healthcare” for example. Folks who talk about these types of rights demand too much of others, literally. For every obligation there is coercion, and it is not reasonable to promote universal servitude. The more rights you propound, the more coercion you thrust into our social reality.

Which is why the right to liberty strikes me as the best contender for a universal, basic, fundamental right: all of us having it at baseline personhood means that all of us have a very simple obligation set, a sort of “do no harm” duty: to not initiate force. This is an easy burden, as obligations go. It requires mainly defensive force for their maintenance in society. Not offensive. It is not imperialistic. It rests upon a tolerant, undemanding, liberal stance.

So you can see where the “imperativeness” comes from, what makes this right a right indeed: universalizability, and a reasonable enticement to all not to promote violence. To reduce the degree of threats in society.

A right to liberty works better than all other contenders because the threat element in the substance of the right is reduced to a minimum for the benefit of all.

Yes. There you have it. Rights are threats, sure, but they must also offer an enticement to reasonable, peaceful people.


I avoid a number of issues of extreme interest to me, but they are not really germane to the question at hand — though they are not utterly tangential, either. These include, especially, what is so “natural” about a “natural right”? and how do we “have” rights?

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Related on this blog:

When philosophically-minded people say the world is “meaningless,” as they sometimes do, I usually balk. They have misdiagnosed the problem. The world — like their heads — is over-full of meaning.

But our own mindscapes encounter an even greater welter of meanings. The cup of meaning runneth over.

Indeed, that realm of meaning has always struck me as self-evident. As a lover of the fantastic in literature, I understand that our imaginations extend far beyond the realm of the actual, the factual, into fiction.

Which is why Anselm’s ontological argument has always struck me as bizarre.

And I am not alone in such thoughts. My bent of mind was preceded by a great philosopher, George Santayana. And in my possession I have a paperback study of his thought that I highly recommend, by Willard E. Arnett.

Late in the book Arnett confronts Santayana’s approach to God. Which is tricky in the Santayana oeuvre, since the Spanish-American philosopher wrote much about religion as fiction, as “poetry.” But not much about the facticity of theological claims.

Arnett hones right in on the core issue, meaning, or “essence.”

And it is a fascinating and elegant doctrine, best stated in The Realm of Essence: Book First of Realms of Being (1927). But Arnett’s discussion is helpful:

If thought has no existential implications as such, then an imagined perfect Being can be just that, imagined. There is no warrant that the imagined must be existent.

So you can see why people tend to chafe at the vast realm of essences: the world doesn’t conform to the essences they prefer. Other essences map the world better. And that subset itself is vast, but not the “right Vastness,” so they imagine the world meaningless without God, their preferred essence. It is a non sequitur, it is an imposition upon the world of a standard that doesn’t fit, but which they think should.

This basic attitude I call the Ought/Is Hegemony. Or perhaps a different orthography is in order: Ought>Is Hegemony.

I find this alien to my thinking. I may contemplate some wild essence or another without having to assume that it matches the world of everyday existence.

I believe this puts me in Santayana’s camp.

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People not tempted by a weird belief express their incredulity. They dismiss the belief out of hand, with a kind of contempt that gives them a feeling of being special, set above the other. They think they are superior.

Pride goeth before the abyss.

I have been fascinated by QAnon, as I occasionally mention. Not fascinated enough to research it much. But contact with Q posts online gave me an extra window into a world I know exists, but which I experience chiefly through fiction: the world of myth, legend, mania. . . .

I have oft repeated two judgments about Q:

I have no evidence against much of the lore, and that the final months of Trump’s administration would put the theories to a falsifiability test.

This last idea seemed especially important. And I was as pleased as anyone to witness QAnon lore largely falsified.

You know, because, come what may, Truth is better than lies.

But those who see in QAnon only insanity and partisan madness, and in their rejection of it see evidence mainly of their own high moral standing? Well, they tend to look at the phenomenon with less open-ended interest. For example, this question-and-answer on Quora:

How can I convince Qanon supporters that Q is a hoax?

Let me summarize Qanon for you.

There is a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles who are running a sex-trafficking ring and are working against Donald Trump in order to ruin the world.

Think about that for a moment.

Let it sink in.

Do you really think that there is anything you can say to a person who believes in that which will change their mind? They must have armor built from the thickest, laminated slabs of fabricated lies welded together that is proof against the strongest facts or logic.

As a coworker once told me (and I’m sure it’s not an original from him):

“You cannot reason someone off of a cliff they didn’t reason themselves onto.”

Or, as another coworker put it (and I suspect this is an original):

If you don’t speak crazy, don’t talk to crazy.

In short, there is nothing you can tell them. They will just assume that you are part of the cabal.

This answer seems all very knowing and savvy. I am sure its author felt very satisfied with his answer. But all of his assumed “wisdom”? It is all as fake as QAnon proved to be.

The main assumption is false. And this is important. Yet it is a falsity sanctified by the very best authorities. It was pithily stated by Jonathan Swift long ago:

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion,
which by Reasoning he never acquired

Fisher Ames restated it:

Men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion
that they have not reasoned themselves into.

But this is more obviously untrue than the QAnon conspiracy accounts themselves. I rejected many ideas using “reason” that I had acquired in a much more careless way. In fact, most of my ideas that are of a controversial nature were so acquired. Writing before Swift, Dryden is more nearly right:

A Man is to be cheated into Passion, but to be reason’d into Truth.

Of course, “reasoning” can err; or, more precisely, reasoning man does not always find the truth. Using evidence and logic, one can conjure up a conjecture, knead it into a theory and proclaim it “verified” in proper positivist fashion and remain completely wrong. Indeed, in my experience, people who do this can be as obstinate (or more) than those who haphazardly accumulate convictions.

The Quoran’s answer was mere pride and prejudice. I would trust nothing about about that person’s epistemics. His core beliefs that he thinks define himself as a rational man bear, likely as not, all the weight of gossamer.

After all, we have seen many a QAnonster drop the more fanciful notions. You have probably even read a report or two about such a recantation: the “shaman” of January 6 has so confessed to having been fooled.

Of course many Q enthusiasts only reject select parts of the lore. And perhaps that is what is warranted. Break the Quoran’s litany into separate points:

  1. There is a cabal seeking to run (ruin?) the world.
  2. Its members worship Satan.
  3. They engage in strange anthopophagic rites.
  4. They are pedophiles.
  5. Many political insiders participate in or are blackmailed by sex-trafficking rings.
  6. One or more of these cabals worked mightily against Donald Trump.

With just the above, quite slight restatement, Q lore looks less nutty. Is there a cabal for global governance? Well, yes; more than likely more than one. Do some of these folks worship Satan? Well, have you heard of the Temple of Set and its status within the U.S. Government, courtesy of lobbying by a man who became a top NSA official? Set may or may not equal Satan. Cannibalism? Yes, it is now being openly defended as a sexual fantasy on lefty websites, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear of worse. Pedophile sex rings among the very powerful have been uncovered in Britain and Europe, and Jeffrey Epstein may not have killed himself. Finally, Donald Trump was indeed opposed by very connected members of the FBI and CIA etc., and this is not at all controversial.

The questions for Q enthusiasts are:

how organized are the groups they oppose?

how knowingly do how many of their enemies share the negative, lurid attributes Q assigned to them?

how explicit and how extreme are their aims, or are some or all driven by a sort of memetic blindness?

how much of Q lore was hope, how much of it was a prank, and how much was disinformation by masters of psychological operations?

I heard quite a few science fictional scenarios from Q folks. You know, about Trump directing the military to engage in secret operations against underground caverns of devilish pedophile cannibals. That kind of thing. It felt like open-source sci-fi. And while it would be easy to dismiss all this out of hand, I had no trouble just setting it onto my Epoché shelf, carefully filed.

Why not just dismiss it?

Well, were the government not officially disclosing UFO information in dribs and drabs, while ignoring eight decades’ worth of leaked memos about UFOs, I probably would. But we have a huge mystery here, the government has been all over the map concealing, denying, acknowledging and ignoring the UFO lore, making it a huge matzo ball looming over our culture and over our conception of the world. I know that most intellectuals prefer to ignore this. I cannot. In my philosophy, inconvenient evidence requires explanation, not damning. (I relish every Charles Fort reference.) And I recognize what C.G. Jung recognized, that government handling of the UFO issue is driving people nuts.

Nuts enough to believe Q? Yes. But also nuts to disbelieve everything even slightly Q-adjacent.

Oh, and the nuttiest thing in Q? That Donald Trump was going to save us from the bad guys. Turns out: nope. The globalists have taken control, shamelessly engage in a concerted suppression of dissent, and have used the excuse of a contagion to marshal unconstitutional powers to rob millions of the freedoms. And they insist on doing more.

Oh, and not only was Trump unable to stop them, in the key area of COVID insanity, Trump fed the beast.

Q was obviously way off. And I do hope Q enthusiasts can reason their way out of placing inordinate hope in mythic champions who — it just so happens — deliver them to their enemies. For sacrifice.

twv

From page 157 of the Penguin edition.

It is fairly easy to maintain a scientific paradigm if you rule out of consideration anomalous data, scorn, badger and shun disputants, subsidize with conscript funds only your position’s adherents, and treat your “findings” as dogma and the whole subject not as inquiry but as conclusions.

Easy, yet what you wind up with is not scientific, no matter how many lab coats.

What are some ways how to not be bothered by people’s ignorance?

  1. Develop the ability to enjoy explaining things, which would work against their ignorance. Then realize that were they not ignorant you would not have much occasion to educate.
  2. Realize that everyone is ignorant, as Will Rogers wisely explained, only on different subjects. Try a little humility!
  3. Impute responsibility for their ignorance correctly — on forces outside your control. As Hellenistic philosophers sagely advised, there is no point in getting worked up about things you cannot appreciably change.
  4. Develop a grand theory of knowledge and nescience, and take comfort in the fact that though people are largely ignorant, we can at least understand why. Once you have a grasp of the reason for something, it becomes easier to handle.
  5. Feel superior to the ignoramuses. If you are proud in your knowledge, you cannot really be bothered by their ignorance, since their ignorance performatively proves your superiority. Revel in their ignorance!

Hmmm. That fifth method seems a bit suspect, eh?

…as answered on Quora, June 10, 2018….