Monday, June 06, 2016

The problem of Anti-Intellectualism and the Problem with Mainstream Intellectualism

It is quite clear that anti-intellectualism is widespread in America. Some argue that America has always been rather anti-intellectual, but I am not sure that is true. Americans, I think, have always disliked arrogance and being talked down to. They hate being told what to think and how to think. But that isn’t necessarily anti-intellectualism. I think the current rise in anti-intellectualism has more to do with the change in what it means to be an intellectual in America, especially in main stream culture.

What does it mean in America today to be an intellectual? This is not a silly question because that is not a clearly defined or understood term. (Like so many other words, we throw it around as if there is one clear meaning that we all know.) It used to mean simply someone who was intelligent and often implied that they were well educated and well read. Today the meaning seems much narrower, especially when we talk about anti-intellectualism.

To be an intellectual today often means to be scientific. Let's face it, everything today tries or claims to be a science or scientific. When we judge how true, important or reliable something is, we want to know how scientific it is. Science is the measure of truth and reliability. When someone is an intellectual, they should be truthful, have important information and that information needs to be reliable, so they need to be scientific. Economics strives to be scientific and is based more and more on data and math, less and less on theory and ideas. Psychology relies more and more on data and clinical trials, less on the individual and the practitioner. (I think that a result of this is the greater and greater reliance on medication as opposed to the work done between the patient and practitioner.) Even some branches of art and literary criticism/ studies are trying to become more scientific: data driven and objective.

Here it is necessary for me to clarify what I mean by science. This will necessitate me contrasting science with scientism. Science is a method of inquiry used to understand the physical world. It is primarily descriptive and aims to tell us what is there and how it works. It relies on repeatable events, and thus more and more on numerical data, and uses data to formulate and support theories that account for the majority of the events and factors. It has its own set of assumptions and rules: the understandability (or even logical nature) of the physical world, it limits itself to the physical world, etc. It also relies on a tradition and authority of its own that needs to be respected. This is a very valid and useful human pursuit. This is what I will refer to as legitimate science, or simply science.

Science turns to scientism when it does any or several of the following: goes beyond talking about the physical world (usually to categorically deny that anything out side of the physical exists), tries to be prescriptive, thinks that it can answer questions of meaning and significance (or insists that they be ignored because they are not scientific and therefore not important), denies its own assumptions, thinks its own rules ought to apply to every human pursuit (or any pursuit of truth or knowledge), or denies that it has its own tradition and hierarchy of authority and as a result claims that tradition and hierarchy of all types need to be dismantled or disrespected. In short, scientism is when the very legitimate discipline of science over steps its bounds or misrepresents itself. Often it is a case of non-scientists misunderstanding what science actually is.

Science is therefore about how things are, and what is happening, all of this in the physical world. In contrast, theology (and its practice in the everyday world, which we call religion), philosophy and the arts are about why and what for: meaning and value. For lack of a better blanket term, I will simply call these the humanities. These are not at all limited to the physical world and not limited to questions of what and how. In fact, they are more focused on the world of ideas and questions of meaning, significance and value.

Another distinction between science and the humanities is the difference between descriptive pursuits and prescriptive ones. Science is by and large limited to being descriptive; its aim is to accurately describe the world and how it works. Though the humanities often start with description of what is as a foundation, they primarily are prescriptive. They talk about what things could be or should be, or how they should be understood or valued.

Science is descriptive like a photograph or diagram in an instruction manual. It gives a detailed account of what is and what is happening. Sometimes, based on that, it talks about how we can manipulate or use these things, but really that is more technology than pure science.

The humanities are prescriptive in that they tell us about meaning and value: how we should see and act towards things and people. The word mythology fits well here, but I hesitate to use it because of its negative connotations. Myths are stories that are not literally true but that contain truth. (In a world where science is seen as the measure of truth, a world where scientism pervades, something not being literally true is taken to mean that it is false and therefore unimportant.) Meaning and values are not things that are in the world itself. They are things we create or things that are revealed to us, if you believe in a higher power or something transcendent. Myths tell us about those things in a way that resonates with us.

What is often referred to as science in the main stream is too often scientism. One of the results of this is that the humanities are either colonized by scientific ideas and methods, or they are discredited and mocked. This is especially true in the case of religion. Of course religion and theology should yield to science when it comes to understanding the what and how of the physical world, but at the same time science should not insists that the religious approach and religious conceptions be totally abandoned. Religion and science deal with two different things that are closely connected but different. The humanities should not be trying to explain the what and how in a descriptive way; they should and usually do look at it in a way that is prescriptive and looks for meaning and value. At the same time science should not be trying to explain or dismiss questions of meaning and value because the pursuit of them is not scientific.

The humanities should yield to science in areas where science is the more appropriate method of inquiry and scientific research is more developed. This is seen as common sense for many. What is less common is the opposite: that science needs to yield to the humanities in certain spheres. Yet, that is just as true.

The borders between science and humanities will never be totally clear and there will always be some tension and even conflict. This is natural. Legitimate science ought to acknowledge this and respect the purpose and methods of the humanities, even religion and theology. A failure to do this is a slip into scientism which is really a form of scientific fundamentalism. The opposite needs to be the case as well: the humanities need to respect legitimate science. To not do so is a slip into any number of forms of fundamentalism which we see all too often today and rightly condemn. However, it is important to condemn them as that discipline overstepping its boundaries, not of the discipline as a whole. But the latter is often what happens.

When intellectualism is really scientism, then it is perfectly understandable that anti-intellectualism increases. Some people are more scientific minded, they want descriptive truths that deal with what and how. Others are more humanities minded and want truths that are mostly prescriptive and that deal more with meaning and significance. Both are necessary for a sustainable civilization or culture.

Yes, anti-intellectualism is a problem, especially in a democracy. However, when intellectualism becomes scientism there does need to be resistance and a fight against it. That is why I do sympathize with anti-intellectualism as a response to an intellectualism that is largely anti-humanities and anti-religious, a hostile form of scientism. The problem is that that response is merely reactionary and just as myopic as the scientism it is trying to counter. Science is not going to be put in check and scientism rooted out by a movement that is anti-scientific and anti-authority. That just feeds the animosity and makes the situation worse.

The Root of All Evil

Being at one is godlike and good, 
but human, too human, the mania
Which insists there is only the One, 
one country, one truth and one way.
-- Friedrich Holderlin

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Great US Bathroom Debate

This whole bathroom debate in the US has strengthened my suspicion that liberals in the US want to use the exception as a basis for the rule, while the conservatives want to ignore the fact that there are exceptions to the rule at all.

On the left, they want to use anecdotes or outliers that show how a small number of people are being oppressed or disadvantaged to re-write the rules and norms.  This is what the far left is doing when they talk about the idea that gender is just a social construct and that we should really just get rid of the gender question on forms and gendered bathrooms.  This extremely is silly if you ask me.  It fails to understand what a rule is and what normal means.

On the right, they want to keep the old rules and norms, not change them and refuse to admit that there are any exceptions, outliers.  This is just as silly.  For a person to have a gender is the norm, that is true.  But, not all people are normal and those that aren’t shouldn’t be treated as if they are horrible or evil, or whatever.  They are different and we need to understand that and accept it.

In the end, I think it is about being realistic about what is normal and useful: the rules and norms.  At the same time we have to have tolerance and realize that there are exceptions and deal with them in a constructive way.

The rules and norms are useful for society in general, and I don’t think we can give that up, nor should we.  But those norms and rules shouldn’t be used to vilify or attack people.  Rules like this are rules based on what is normal, in other words most prevalent.  That is what this kind of rule should be, not something based on the unusual or anecdotal.  But, rules always have exceptions because what is normal is never 100%.  So the idea that there should be no exceptions is ridiculous.

How we deal with exceptions is what makes us human and not machines or computers that just follow rules unthinkingly and without compassion.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The "Rigged" System

To Trump, Trump's supporters and Sander's supporters who are complaining about 'the system:'

The system has been this way for a while, it is only now that you have realized that? Or are you only complaining now because you are at a disadvantage because of the system?

But the accusation that the system is rigged brings up another issue: How Democratic is America, really?  

America has never been a true direct democracy. It wasn't in the beginning, but it has gotten closer to that over the years. This, in my opinion, is perfectly understandable. You need at least three things to have a functioning democracy:

1) A population that is willing to compromise and has an understanding of the common good.

2) An electorate that is informed AND knowledgeable. (They need to have background knowledge and a familiarity with context in order to make use of information they are given.)

3) An electorate that is educated to think critically about goals and solutions (not just criticize and complain). To put it simply: properly educated.

The founding fathers of the US knew that they didn't have a population that fit the second and third criteria. That is (at least in part) why they limited the right to vote to landowners. Landowners would be more likely have the means to be informed, knowledgeable and educated. Remember, there were no public schools and very few people could afford the time or money to be educated back then. Also, the only way to spread information was via print distributed by foot or on horseback. The Electoral Collage and a Senate that was not directly elected also helped mitigate the dangers of having an uneducated and uninformed population.

As education and information became more common, the electorate was expanded. (As prejudice against blacks and women became weaker, it expanded along those lines as well.)

The candidates for the general election used to be chosen by the party leaders; it was not a very democratic process at all. That has changed over time as well.

There is still a way to go of course, but I wonder if the environment it right for making those changes. One contrary example is the affect that the internet is having on the electorate.

The internet is really not the World Wide Web that connects people anymore. The algorithms that curate our News Feeds and searches work with the data from our clicking history to give us more of what they think we want to see. The information we get from the internet is selected in a way so as to give us more of what we have already seen, more of what 'we want.'

To see this in action, do a search on a controversial or ambiguous topic on your own computer or device. Then logout, clear history/cookies, go incognito, etc. and do the same search. (Or make it easier on yourself and just find a public computer that you are not logged into.) The results will be different. The same sort of thing is true of your FB Feed. The things you click on and like change what ends up in your top stories feed.

In this way the internet has become more of a divider than a uniter. It puts each of us in our own little echo-chamber. We become less likely to want to compromise and less aware of what a compromise would actually look like because we know so little about those we disagree with. Our body of background knowledge and our understanding of the context of knowledge and information becomes skewed. We think and analyze less of what we take in because there is so much information coming at us so fast and so little of it actually challenges us or call us to think.

I am personally not concerned that the Republican Party may deny Trump the nomination. His popularity has a lot to do with the growing shortcomings of the electorate. He is not reputable, reliable or responsible candidate, and the party should step in to slow (if not stop) him if they have the means to do so. I am also not concerned that the Democratic Party is putting up roadblocks for Sanders. His ideas are not very practical, and beyond that, they will have little support in Washington. That means they will not get implemented, and that will only increase the frustration and divisiveness of American politics.

Those are short term solutions though. In the long run, something needs to be done about the state of the electorate—the mindset and resources of the voters. If the electorate does not have those three things listed above, a democracy (or any government chosen by it) won’t function properly. These things that make people complain about the process being ‘rigged’ are actually ways devised to protect the population from an electorate that is not functional. Of course they can be abused by those in power, but they were designed to keep the general public from abusing itself. They should not be taken lightly and should be allowed to serve their purpose when needed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"The slaughter of the innocent in Brussels:

These attacks are identical to acts of murderous violence targeting identically-innocent people in different cities."

By Hamid Dabashi 

I exchanged emails with this author, once upon a time.  He is interesting and very intelligent, but I think here he has bitten too hard on the “everything is one harmonious whole” thinking that I find very annoying because it is so naive.  I see this as the meta-logic of quite a few Western intellectuals these days.

The meta-logic is that we are all the same, we are all human, and as such we should all be able to get along.  This gets extended to rights and freedoms as well, and it follows that as long as we are fighting for more freedom and more rights, we are working towards unity and stability.  Yes, the belief seems to be that things will just work out fine for everyone as long as we don’t let anyone divide or oppress us because unity and freedom are the natural state.  As a result of this kind of thinking, ISIS and the islamophobes are one and the same because they divide us when we are really united.

I find the premise that we are all the same and can all just get along very naive, and so the analysis that follows from it is ridiculous.  This meta-logic also allows for him to say that terrorism is not a response to Western actions but a logical extension of it.  It is logical, but it is a logical response to it, not an extension.  It is logical to return violence with violence. To get beyond this, first we need to get over the meta-logic of oneness.   Then we need to analyze the idea that violence is a logical response to violence.  I think we will find the answer to this beyond logic.  We need to do this by going back to the assumptions and foundations of the logic we are using and the civilization that gave raise to and sustains it.

Saying that answering violence with violence is logical is very true, but it leaves out things like context, intention and values.  Yes, dare I say it: sometimes you have to go against your values to defend them.  Sometimes your intentions and goals are good though your actions are questionable, at best.  Sometimes the context that you see things in and make decisions from is very different from that of others.  It is a very dangerous place to be, but because no values are actually controlling the way the world works, sometimes you need to step outside of your value system to defend them against others who don’t share them.

A sort of example can be seen in one interpretation of Machiavelli.  Machiavelli did not say that there are no morals and that power is always right and can do what it wants.  His point was that a good leader provides stability for the people, which in times when there was rarely a peaceful transition of power from one party or faction to another meant that the leader had to first of all stay in power.  To do that it was acceptable to be a-moral because the stability of the kingdom was more important.

This can very easily become abuse and lead to atrocities that end up effacing those very values. It is a thin line and slippery slope, but unless you attribute some sort of divine power or divine providence to the values you hold, it is the cold, hard and ugly reality of it.

So, we need to step outside of the logic of saying that when violence is responded to with violence, this is only to be expected and is natural…  not only that but the logic goes further and says that as a result, the counter-violence is just as legitimate as the initial violence.  This logical trap needs to be recognized and passed over.  (And logical traps are always to be found in any system because if post-modern philosophy taught us anything it is that all systems are essentially circular.)

We need to realize that we may need to use violence and that if we are vigilant in our judgment, with intentions that support our values—even if they go against them—violence is not an acceptable response because we believe our values to be superior to the other’s values.

But here again I come up against the naive assumption that we are all the same and that really our values are all the same…  But that is simply not the case.  Sometimes they are very different and that difference requires stepping outside of normal logic and realizing that no matter how dangerous it is to take that step out, sometimes it is necessary to defend and sustain the values that we have and that we truly believe are better.  Because even if we haven’t yet, and maybe never can, fully implement the values of democracy, liberty, etc. they are worth keeping and pursuing even in the face of the paradox of having to violate them (while insisting that others don’t) to safeguard them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In Defense of Capitalism and Small Government

It is becoming more and more difficult to defend being a supporter of capitalism and small government.  This is justified in part because of the rise in economic inequality and the abuses of power and influence by the super-rich.  However, that does not mean that capitalism is, in a strict sense, to blame and that the government must take a greater and greater role in the economy.

First of all, capitalism requires a certain social and moral environment to function properly. Adam Smith was by training a moral philosopher and The Wealth of Nations should always be read with that in mind.  He assumed that the majority of people in an economy, even--and maybe even especially--the rich, would be reasonable moral and ethical people with ties to their community if not also their nation.  Without these things, the 'invisible hand' will not work, and inequality will be out of control.  But that is another topic for another post.  But here is a quote to help support this point:
In The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Smith emphasized that trust, responsibility and accountability exist only in a society that respects them, and only where the spontaneous fruit of human sympathy is allowed to ripen. It is where sympathy, duty and virtue achieve their proper place that self-interest leads, by an invisible hand, to a result that benefits everyone."
-- Roger Scruton

What I want to focus on here is government involvement in the economy.  This, to put it simply, is the difference between capitalism and socialism, or communism when it is most extreme.  It could also be referred to as the difference between a free market economy and a command economy.  Or catchier yet, a demand (and supply) economy versus a command economy. 

Capitalism depends on markets that are made up of people and groups acting of their own initiative and according to their own judgment about what is in their own self-interest.  These are organic and complex relationships between different and differing entities.  Through these networks, people and institutions make the decisions about what to produce, how much and how.  They are never totally efficient, but nothing ever is.  This system distributes the planning and decision making among many people and relationships; it is like cloud computing or crowd sourcing economic decisions.  When these organic networks fail to be efficient or effective in a major way, the government is there to step in—hopefully temporarily—to correct the problem.  That is how I understand capitalism and a free market economy, and that is what I am in favor of.

Communism and socialism are different forms of a command economy.  The government, and its experts, plan and control the decisions: almost completely in the case of communism and to varying degrees in the case of socialism.  It decides what to produce, how much and how. The smooth functioning of the economy depends on the data, intelligence, etc. of the officials in charge.  Of course the experts can never make perfect predictions and plans.  When things go wrong the kind of organic relationships that a market economy depends on need to take hold and fix the problems in an impromptu way. 

The most extreme form of command economy, communism, usually has the government actively dismantling and suppressing those relationships because they often interfere with the calculations and actions they have to make and take to get the economy to function smoothly. As a result, when needed those networks are usually not up to the task of stepping in and fixing problems that arise from miscalculations.  In the case of a socialist economy, the more the government is in involved, the less people feel the necessity or obligation to get involved.  But this takes bit more explanation I think, so let me use an example.

When something or someone else takes over doing something for people, people tend to lose a sense of responsibility for that activity and later the ability to do it.  If that continues the can even lose the ability to sense that it needs to be done or that it is important.  Take typing on a smart phone for example.  Smart phones (much more so than MS Word on the computer) corrects all sorts of errors that people make when writing.  They also add things like spaces so that we don’t have to. 

How many people don’t pay attention to spelling or punctuation/spacing anymore because of that?  I admit that I have never been a good at spelling on my own, but when I use auto-complete I notice that I get even worse.  I am not even trying to spell the word or pay attention to what I am typing, I simply plunk in a few letters and then let the program sort it out.  That is part of why I have not used auto-correct for a long time.  I let it suggest words, but I choose them and make myself at least try to spell them right.  If I don’t pay attention to spelling, my ability to spell gets worse.

What about spaces and punctuation?  Very often I see commas and periods with spaces before then or no space after.  (I am after all a teacher and look at all Word documents with “Show/Hide” on.)  I have students that claim to have never been taught that there should never be a space before a comma or period, there should be two after a period (or one, depending on the style manual you follow) and only one after a comma.  But even in people that I am sure know better, they still are sloppy with these conventions when using auto-correct. 

These are very simple things to do and to know how to do.  For so many people they became habit to do right, and we don’t even think about them.  But if the program takes over doing them, we lose the habit, sometimes lose the knowledge, and we also don’t make a point of explicitly teaching younger generations how to do it on their own—and as a result some never know what is right or wrong and just let the program do what it will and assume that is right. 

A lot of people (if any bother to get this far) will say that I am taking too large of a leap here when I compare government programs and involvement to auto-correct, but I really don’t think that I am.  If someone or something else takes a responsibility away from you, you can lose skills, forget knowledge and even forget how things ought to be.  Those that never knew will never learn and may never know. 

Now, I am not against government intervention, just the same as I am not against auto-correct.  It would take me much longer to write anything on my phone if it weren’t for some of those neat automated functions… and it would take me much longer to write this without the little red and blue lines that MS Word puts under so many things that I type when I am on a roll.  But they need to help us to implement what we know faster and more effectively.  They need to help us, not replace our knowledge and skills.  The same is true of government involvement in the economy and society; it needs to step in and help when necessary, not replace the actions of individuals and the functioning of communities, etc.  It is these responsible individuals and functional communities that are the foundation of society and of a functional capitalistic economy. They are also the safety net, the correcting factor, when a command economy's planning fails or fall short.

Herbert Hoover was afraid of the changes in American society that Roosevelt’s New Deal was going to bring.  Yes, Hoover should have done more to deal with the Great Depression, but I think he was right in warning that Roosevelt may have been doing too much.  Hoover cautioned that an increase in permanent government agencies would take responsibility (and liberty) away from the average American and society in general.  This would harm the determined, communal and independent spirit and make people more and more dependent on the government.  I think he was right. 

Yes, Franklin Roosevelt did a lot to bring about recovery from the Great Depression, and that should not be denied.  But that doesn’t mean that the permanence of those things and the effects of them can’t and shouldn’t be examined and questioned.  FDR’s cousin Teddy Roosevelt did a lot to help the American economy and the average worker during his presidency, and he did it by making tough decisions and convincing (sometimes forcing) people to act in ways that benefited society as a whole.  He didn’t do so by creating permanent institutions to deal with problems in bureaucratic and impersonal ways.  Personally, I don’t think the difference between the two Roosevelts can be over stated.  The right actions and decisions at the right time can often help the economy (and the average worker) just as much as the creation of a new government program or agency.  But the former doesn't run the risk of eroding the culture of responsibility and awareness that is so important for societies, communities and an economy to function well.

This is why I am in favor of capitalism and small government.  I have little faith or trust in any organization and body of experts (and the data necessary) to effectively control the economy without the corrective force of those organic relationships that those very organizations tend to erode.  I have much more faith in the ‘organic’ networks that capitalism relies on.  But for those networks to be well developed there needs to be a sense of community and common good, moral and ethics. There also needs to be a flexible and responsive, but small, government to step in when necessary to deal with any serious crisis that may arise. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Examining Life

     Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This is a theme that runs through all of Western philosophy, and in fact can be seen as the point of philosophy to a certain extent. The philosopher that has probably been most influential on my thinking is Martin Heidegger. In the following, I want to explain one of his examinations of life, and how it can help us make more of life and the world.
     In his book “Ontology—The Hermeneutics of Facticity” Heidegger talks about how care is a fundamental aspect of our experience of the world, of our being human.

“To-be-‘in’-the-world does not mean occurring among other things, but rather: all the while being concerned about it and attending to it, tarrying awhile ‘at home in’ the round-about of the world being encountered. The authentic mode of “being” in the world is caring in the sense of producing, putting in place.”

     First, this shows Heidegger’s rejection of strict objectivity. Our interactions with the world are never strictly objective because we always arrange the things we encounter. This is not always a physical arrangement. In fact it is primarily something that takes place though our arranging ideas and words in our minds, and those words and ideas are connected with physical things in the world. They shape how we experience physical things.
     (This of course does not mean that we can arrange things in any way we wish. Our arrangement has to allow us to interact successfully with the physical world as it is in terms of basic qualities that the physical things have. But Heidegger would argue that those basic physical qualities are far more limited and bare than what we often assume them to be. Most of what we encounter when we encounter everyday objects is a result of the way that we arrange them –mostly via the way that we arrange the ideas and words that we attach to them—and not because of the basic physical qualities of the objects themselves. What we think of things is far more influential in how we deal with them then their basic physical characteristics: size, weight, shape, etc. Purpose, usefulness and meaning are limited by those physical characteristics, but they are determined far more by what we think and how we act.)
     But if care is such a foundational part of how we experience the world, why are we not always aware of it. Why would it take a philosopher or careful examination to realize that care is so important? This is because care is often hidden.

“Care disappears in the habits, customs and publicness of everydayness—and this does not mean it comes to an end, but rather that it does not show itself any longer, it is covered up…. The world being encountered appears as simply there in a straightforward manner.” 

     We act out of habit most of the time. This means that we act not paying attention to the physical things around us in any more detail than is needed to use them for whatever limited purpose we have for them at that specific moment. Even more so, we act without paying attention to the arrangement we have made: the words, ideas and thoughts that determine how we understand, see and use things.
     I would add that we often pick up habits from other or society without knowing what arrangement they rely on. We pick up habits while being unaware of the care that is behind them. We act in the world as if it is always and essentially the way we see it. When we act out of habit; we take for granted the care, the arrangement, that has made the world the comprehensible, and sometimes meaningful, place it is. In other words, in habit we stop noticing the significant part that the human mind has played in making the world in which we live. This is what allows us to think and talk of objectivity, as if the things are there to be encountered in and of themselves without contamination from the subject.
     Though he doesn’t talk about authenticity much in this book, he does in Being and Time. I think authenticity fits in here in a very important way. When we are aware and conscious of the arrangements and the care that shape our world, we are aware of the inherent subjectivity. Then we are also able to play a role in shaping the world we live in. This can’t happen when we unthinkingly take up habits from others (which we always do, especially when we are young—that is how we become social creatures) and never stop to inquire about the arrangements and care that they are base on. If we do not pay attention to these things we are being inauthentic, and we are living under the control of those arrangements and cares. Those things shape the world that we live in, and we take them as being part of the world, not part of what we bring to the world. In not being aware of them, they exert a huge amount of influence on us that we are bind to. When we do that we are slaves of others cares and arrangements and we are inauthentic.
     Because we so often act out of habit—not seeing the importance of the arrangement and the way that the things themselves are different from what we make of them—we can sometimes be surprised when the physical world does not conform to our arrangements.
“On account of this, the possibility ever remains that distress will suddenly break forth in the world. The world can be encountered as something distressing only insofar as it is a world which is of significance to us.”
     It is always possible that the world of physical objects will act in a way that defies our habits. Or on a deeper level that defies our ideas and words, our arrangement. This is upsetting, or should be if we care to notice it. We won’t notice it if these things—and the arrangement we have made and become used to, our habitual state—are not important to us. Even if they are important to us, we will feel ourselves powerless to do anything about it if we are not aware of the fact that care and arrangement have shaped that world. It is when this happens that we should take a special interest in examining the world, life, and becoming aware of the care and arrangements that have shaped them. If we are already aware of the care and arrangement that have shaped the world we are already one step ahead.
     It is this being aware of how care shapes the world we live in, and how habits are both an expression of that care and a way of hiding it, that makes examining life in a philosophical way fruitful.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

First Thoughts and Hopes Regarding Cognitive Dissonance

Having been asked about Orwell’s doublethink in 1984 recently, I started thinking about contradicting thoughts and beliefs.  To me it seems that the most troubling (and maybe the only really troubling) part of doublethink is that the person that has two contradictory thoughts or beliefs in their head does not see a problem with that.  I am not at all against contradiction and think that it is essential to entertain and hold contradictory thoughts in your head in order to not become simple minded and dogmatic.  After all, what in the world is actually black and white, simple and clear, cut and dry?  Things are complex and contradictory, so entertaining contradicting thoughts helps us keep that reality in mind—keep it real for us—, and keeps us actively reviewing and evolving our ideas, opinions and beliefs. 
I had heard the term cognitive dissonance before but actually spent more than just couple minutes looking it up this time.  Cognitive dissonance is “the existence of nonfitting relations among… knowledge, opinion[s], or belief[s] about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior.”  It is a nonfitting that causes psychological discomfort. This definition comes from the first chapter of Leon Festinger’s book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.”  It is the first book on the subject (or at least the first to use the term cognitive dissonance), and I finally received it in the mail yesterday and started reading it today.  It will take me a while I bet, but it should be worth it.  It not only lays out the idea of what cognitive dissonance is; it also explores the ways in which people try to overcome it.  The latter is what I am really most interested in at this point.
The difference between doublethink and cognitive dissonance, to put it simply, is that there is anxiety or psychological discomfort about the conflict, the nonfitting, in the latter but not the former.  It is the anxiety and discomfort that is key.  I think that as a person tries to resolve that conflict they have a chance to expand their thinking and understanding.  It is in a way—thought I tend to dislike the dialectic because it is binary and as a result too simple—a sort of synthesis that can lead to new and better understandings.  A person experiencing cognitive dissonance is faced with a violation of the logical law of non-contradiction and they need to reconcile it.  Doing so is an opportunity to re-evaluate the ideas that are in conflict coming to a fresher perspective and possibly deeper understanding.  Or that is my hope.
In the first chapter, Festinger mentions some articles published prior to the book that talk about similar ideas thought using different terms.  In one article, according to Festinger, after experiencing a conflict between an opinion and a source of information “there is a marked tendency to change either the evaluation of the opinion involved or the evaluation of the source in a direction which would reduce the dissonance.”  To me this seems fairly obvious and it is something that I have observed in myself and in others often. 
Here I want to depart from the book (though I hope that as I go this issue or idea is addressed in it) and talk about the authority of opinions and sources, especially in contemporary culture.  It used to be that when things were printed they were fairly well vetted and checked, especially full length books.  It was not cheap to print a book, so there was a financial risk if the material was later shown to be clearly inaccurate, or at least more of a risk than when you simply post something on the internet.  There was also a greater emphasis on reputation: the reputation of a publishing house, newspaper or magazine.  If you read something in print from a reputable printer, you could be fairly certain that it was well vetted.  At least, more so than today when you simply click on a link from a Google search and take in what could have been composed and posted just as easily and simply as you found it and opened it.  This is an issue that is serious, but I want only to mention it here on my way to another topic in the subject of authority. 
Today mere opinions (thought the internet is flooded with these partially informed and half-thought opinions) are not supposed to be taken seriously by serious people.  In fact, opinion as a whole is given a very bad wrap.  The same is true of personal experience and even tradition.  These things hold little authority because what is supposed to hold authority are facts, data and the scientific discoveries based on facts and data. 
In common culture these days, when data, facts and science appear and there is a conflict, all else is supposed to be re-evaluated to accommodate the facts, the data, the scientific discovery.  To keep things simple, the ‘all else’ is often just discredited and discarded.  This seems very dangerous for at least a couple of reasons. 
The first is that this is not really a synthesis or sublation (to use terms from the dialect, though I cringe as I do so); it is a simple turning of the tables.  Tradition, personal experience, etc. were authoritative in the past and science was nothing.  In this new simple solution to dissonance, science rules (along with data and facts), and the ‘all else’ is nothing to be taken seriously.  It is a case of the slave becoming the master and the master becoming the slave.  This is not a real change in thinking or understanding, it is only a change in positons.  This reason is based on a concern over the structure of thinking or the methodology being used in common culture.  People want progress and improvement.  This method does not result in progress or improvement in the long run, it simply moves the problems around.
The second is that facts, data and scientific discoveries are never complete or irrefutable.  Any good scientist or statistician will acknowledge that there is never really an end to the process of collecting and analyzing data or conducting scientific experiments and formulating theories, laws, and explanations.  The problem with the simple ‘throw out all else’ approach here is that it is often done (and here I am speaking about in common culture among everyday people) based on the newest data, facts or scientific discovery, though it may be just one study among many conflicting or contrary ones.  Facts, data and science are about collecting and analyzing large amounts of input over a long period.  To take the most recent and use it to trump everything else is not wise and not really in the spirit of science itself.  When there is nothing there—no opinion, personal experience or tradition—to counter the newest authoritative information, there is no progress there is only a tyranny of the new.  
Festinger’s book is supposed to explore ways that people tend to resolve dissonance.  It is psychology, a science, so it will provide descriptive theories on how people in general deal with dissonance.  I hope those theories will give me an understanding and provide me with some bearings.  From there I hope to be able to better think out and explain my idea of how cognitive dissonance can be used as an opportunity to refine our understanding and deepen our opinions.  In other words, I hope to be able to write about a prescriptive philosophy that uses cognitive dissonance as a starting point for developing more refined and well informed opinions and more accurate and complex understandings.