Friday, 31 March 2006

Fewtril #84

It is all very well to cite freedom of action as a crucial cause of crime, though one might very well cite the bath-water as a crucial cause of one’s decision to wee in it.

Conspiracy Piffle

It takes only the suspicion that someone somewhere is making a fool of him for the conspiracy theorist to make an utter fool of himself, and this is no different in the case of the suspicions surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001.
One suspicion currently doing the rounds is that the buildings which collapsed at the World Trade Center were in fact demolished by agents of the US government. Adduced in favour of this view are the putative words of former MI5 agent David Shayler, quoted on many conspiracy-theory websites:
I’ve seen the results of terroristic explosions and so on and no terrorist explosion has ever brought down a building. When the IRA put something like a thousands [sic] tonnes of home-made explosives in front of the Baltic Exchange building in Bishopsgate and let off the bomb, all the glass came out, the building shook a bit but there was no question about the building falling down and it doesn’t obey the laws of physics for buildings to fall down in the way the World Trade Center came down. [1]
Now, I do not know whether Mr Shayler really did say these words, or whether they have been attributed to him by some imaginative crackpot, but whoever said them is not well versed in the black art of humbug. For if one is to make a good job at persuading others that one is an authority on a matter—and thus that one’s words adduced in favour of a certain view are to be taken seriously—it helps if one gets at least the basic facts right and that one makes claims that are not ludicrous. This has not happened in this case, however.
The Baltic Exchange building was severely damaged on the 10th April 1992 by a bomb in St Mary Axe, not in Bishopsgate. The Bishopsgate bombing took place over a year later on the 24th April 1993. If the confusing of these two bombings were not enough to cause doubt about the author’s authority on such matters, we have also to contend with the claim that the IRA made a bomb weighing about a thousand tonnes. Did this claim not strike the author as ludicrous? Who would be so credulous as to believe that the IRA possessed a super-lorry that could transport such a weight? (The bomb that exploded in Bishopsgate was in fact made from about a ton of fertiliser.) But then perhaps the author’s understanding of weights and measures is as shaky as his grasp of physics.

[1] E.g., see http://www.propagandamatrix.com/

Thursday, 30 March 2006

Fewtril #83

So often the phrase let’s explore the issues surrounding this is a fair-sounding substitute for let’s miss the point.

Fewtril #82

Towards those things about which we couldn’t care one way or another, we may take the opportunity to display a most magnanimous tolerance, the ease and convenience of which marks it out as belonging to the highest order of modern virtues.

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

Fewtril #81

The writer of arcane and impenetrable prose may flatter the pretensions of his readers by letting it be known that he who discerns therein a trove of profound insights is an enlightened man amongst the few; and he does this in the knowledge that those so flattered to make the effort are loath to discern anything else.

Monday, 27 March 2006

Lichtenberg

“It is possible to stroke someone’s cheek in such a way that a third party feels as though he has had his face slapped.”
[“Es ist möglich jemanden die Backen so zu streicheln, daß es einem Dritten läßt, als hätte man ihm eine Ohrfeige gegeben.”]
G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), L.500 from Sudelbuch L (1796-1799), p. 506.

Thursday, 23 March 2006

An Old Charge

The shrewder of our politicians know that they can get away with almost anything, because they know only too well what they make it a point to deny—indeed what it is their democratic obligation to deny: that on the whole the electorate has little conception of good governance.
Against the old charge that democracy – if not already a tyranny – would become a tyranny because the broad mass of people would be either unable to understand or unwilling to bother themselves with the hard choices and ideas necessary for the preservation of good governance, the democrats held out the prospect of an educated electorate by whose enlightenment this charge would be impugned; and so the dream of universal education was born—in part as a rebuttal.
We do not hear this charge much nowadays, for, as befits a triumphant ideology, democracy is simply assumed to be right; and yet the dream of universal education is still as unrealistic as ever; for the education that the broad electorate receives is largely a parody of such — an arrogation of rectitude and learnedness alongside an incuriosity and broad ignorance of such matters that might bring them some genuine cultivation; and thus the meaning of education — where everyone is “educated” — has fallen to a level below that of its former days, and is at such a level that it does not answer the old charge against democracy. To say such a thing in a democracy, however, where one ought to keep the faith despite all the signs, is a breach of etiquette bordering on the criminal.

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Fewtril #80

On the question of external realities, whether a man will profess to find more persuasion in an argument for universal scepticism than in a falling rock depends to some extent upon the cogency of the argument, to some extent upon how much of his reputation he has already invested in support of that argument, but mostly upon where he stands in relation to the rock, whereto in proximity he will profess more strongly with the feet than the mouth.

Monday, 20 March 2006

Fewtril #79

I often get the feeling that many of those laymen who profess to be Darwinists have hardly the foggiest understanding of the theory of evolution through natural selection. It is as if the belief in it comes to them not through its scientific role in helping them to understand the natural world, but rather through its social role in helping them to appear no-nonsense and hard-headed at dinner parties.

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Woolly Hopes

Universal harmony, the perfection of man, and the eradication of evil from the world;—such were the woolly hopes of that first great outbreak of insane optimism, which boldly goes by the name of the Enlightenment. A man may fairly wonder whether it is a mere coincidence that since then—since when these insanely optimistic hopes, and the doctrines that have been devised to fulfil them, have entered the heads of the multitude—there has been seen so great an increase in social discord, so deep a corrosion of man’s character, and so terrifying a growth of evil on a scale thitherto unimaginable. As Jacob Burckhardt tells us,
The great harm was instigated in the [eighteenth] century, chiefly through Rousseau with his doctrine of the goodness of human nature. Plebs and educated alike distilled out of this the doctrine of a golden age, which was to come quite infallibly, if only noble humanity were let alone. The result, as every child knows, was the utter dissolution of the idea of authority in the heads of mortals, whereupon, sure enough, we periodically fall prey to sheer force. . . . The only conceivable solution would be for this insane optimism, in great and small, to disappear from people’s brains. [1]
Although the nouveau régime, instituted at the close of the eighteenth century, and triumphant by the twentieth, has seen a degree of slaughter and slavery, conformity and crassness, for which the ancien régime would have been damned a thousand times, its essential goodness is proclaimed in almost every quarter; for its essence is of the masses, whose power might be harnessed by anyone with an appeal thererto. It was an understanding of this which led Søren Kierkegaard to maintain that “in the future every effort at reformation, if the man concerned is a true reformer, will be directed against the ‘masses’, not against the government” [2], but that “it will be a long time before the man who opposes the masses can win sympathy over to his side, i.e. before anyone will understand the reality of the struggle.” [3]

[1] Jacob Burckhardt, Brief an Friedrich von Preen, 2. Juli 1871, Briefe (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929), pp. 354-355. [“Das große Unheil ist im vorigen Jahrhundert angezettelt worden, hauptsächlich durch Rousseau mit seiner Lehre von der Güte der menschlichen Natur. Plebs und Gebildete destillierten hieraus die Doktrin eines goldenen Zeitalters, welches ganz unfehlbar kommen müßte, wenn man das edle Menschentum nur gewähren ließe. Die Folge war, wie jedes Kind weiß, die völlige Auflösung des Begriffes Autorität in den Köpfen der Sterblichen, worauf man freilich periodisch der bloßen Gewalt anheimfiel. . . . Die einzige denkbare Heilung ware: daß endlich der verrückte Optimismus bei groß und klein wieder aus den Gehirnen verschwände.”] Vide, Jacob Burckhardt, Letter to von Preen, 2nd July 1871, The Letters of Jacob Burckhardt, tr. Alexander Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), pp. 143-4.
[2] Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. A. Dru, (London: Fontana Books, 1958), p. 121.
[3] Ibid., p. 124.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Fewtril #78

“Make hay while the sun shines”—or, as our contemporaries would have it, defame the excellence of your rivals while the spirit of equality rules.

Friday, 10 March 2006

The Levity of Social Construction

One might take it as a cause for worry that our society has found more ways of saying nothing is true than it has of saying honesty is the best policy. But then by the nature of the first saying, it is useful that it be said under many guises, otherwise its absurdity would be obvious.
As to why nihilism should be embraced, one may suppose that in many cases when it becomes clear to a man that he can no longer maintain his dearly held beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence, and furthermore that the evidence supports beliefs to which he has been bitterly opposed or which will cause him hurt, then he may in bad faith admit neither the falsity of his own beliefs nor the truth of those in opposition thereto, but instead adopt the pyrrhonic stance of denying that any belief can be known to be true or false, a strategic move that to his mind assures a mutual destruction.
One may suspect that it is a defect of character rather than the merit of pyrrhonism itself that leads a man thereto, and that to treat it as an intellectual problem to be tackled with rigorous argumentation would be less effective than to treat it as a breach of etiquette to be frowned upon, alongside blowing one’s nose on a tablecloth or breaking wind at a christening.
The problem of denying the possibility of truth becomes especially acute, however, in reference to those natural phenomena, the denial of whose existence would excite widespread ridicule; for the nihilist will have to contend with these phenomena in a manner consistent with his pretence that nothing is true, lest he invite opprobrium for his inconsistency. One such phenomenon is gravity, and I present the reader with an example of how one might attempt to deny the existence of gravity as a natural phenomenon, whilst attempting to escape ridicule for its denial:
For me (and others like me), gravity exists as a truth because that truth has been constructed, in part through a process of scientific experimentation and in part through a process of social construction that includes experiential ways of knowing.
Mary C. Breunig, “Radical Pedagogy as Praxis”, Radical Pedagogy, Vol. 8:1, Spring 2006.
Now, strictly speaking, as a natural phenomenon, gravity is neither true nor false, it just is. It is our description of the phenomenon of gravity that can be true or false in correspondence to the nature of that phenomenon. I take it, then, that Ms Breunig claims to believe that our description of gravity exists as a truth, but here is the scandalous thing: for by the word “truth”, she does not mean what we would take it to mean, namely, that the description corresponds to what is the nature of that phenomenon, but rather that the description is solely a scientific artefact and a social construct, or in other words, she claims to believe that the description of gravity exists as a truth because it is man-made.
What a seemingly strange thing to say! But since she has redefined for her purpose the word “truth” to mean, not a correspondence to reality, but rather a man-made artefact, the import of her words is that she believes the description of gravity is a man-made artefact because it is man-made. This does not say much at all, and we may agree that it is trivially true, and assume this is not what she means to say.
It is notable that she does not claim to believe that our description of gravity is true as regards the natural phenomenon thereof. Furthermore, should it not strike us as odd that someone would claim to believe in the existence of gravity, not because of the impress of the phenomenon itself, but because its description is a construct? This is tantamount to saying that one believes in gravity because one doesn’t know it exists as an objective phenomenon!
In effect, what she suggests is something wholly absurd, in keeping with her description of herself as a radical: to wit, that gravity itself is man-made. But if she had just said, gravity does not exist as a natural phenomenon, she would have left herself open to ridicule. It was important, therefore, that she recast it in a positive light, saying, gravity exists, but it is a man-made construct. This latter is no less contrary to sense than the former, indeed the latter implies the former, but this may not be obvious to the average undergraduate, and thus she might thereby enjoy the appearance of saying something radical, as well as maintaining consistency in her nihlism, without appearing to say something obviously absurd.
Spare a thought for the plight of the nihilist, therefore; for not only has the world destroyed the grounds for his dearly held beliefs, but he must thereafter labour to fashion some semblance of sense out of the absurdity of his newly acquired pretence that nothing is true!

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

Professorial Blather

No fair-minded man could damn me for suspecting that Professor Baudrillard finds it impossible to say something banal when he has the narrowest opportunity to say something absurd. The temptation is too much for him, and besides, he has a career to consider and a reputation to uphold. He could not simply describe, for example, the feeling that we might experience when faced with the occurrence of something that we had thought was impossible. He is compelled rather to describe “the feeling that seizes us when faced with the occurrence of something that happens without having been possible.” [1]
Ah, the occurrence of the impossible—how Baudrillardian! But really, if he wishes to startle us out of our expectations, he would do well to say something sensible for once. As it is, one expects nothing but such pseudo-paradoxical proclamations and mindless blather, as the following also illustrates:

Before the event it is too early for the possible. After the event it is too late for the possible. It is too late also for representation, and nothing will really be able to account for it. September 11th, for example, is there first—only then do its possibility and its causes catch up with it, through all the discourses that will attempt to explain it. [2]

What he seems to be telling us is that prior to an event there are no possibilities or causes, that the possibilities and causes of an event come to be only through the discourse that places them prior to that event, and thus that discourse is prior to the possibilities and causes of the event that it describes or explains. Consistent with this account, then, is the view that Jean Baudrillard is there first—and only then do all the possibilities and causes of his being catch up with him, from the primordial soup, through the traditions of European intellectual charlatanry, to that unfortunate confluence of genetic material that occurred the night his parents got squiffy on cheap champagne. That said, if I believed for a moment that discourse were indeed prior to the possibilities and causes of the event it describes or explains, I should wish, as regards the proximate cause of Professor Baudrillard’s conception, to possess sufficient literary talent to describe a quiet night of hot milky drinks and improving books.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, “Virtuality and Events: The Hell of Power”, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Vol 3:2, July 2006, original emphasis.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, 6 March 2006

Fewtril #77

Upon a glimpse of his true nature, the ideologue may begin to feel a pang of shame, and no sooner has he felt it than he seeks to allay it with the palliative salve of believing that all people are ideologues.

Thursday, 2 March 2006

Fewtril #76

We sometimes hear the self-styled progressives argue that we ought to withdraw our support from and let perish those things whose existence is a mere historical accident. Why they should argue against such existence, I cannot rightly say, but let us hope they have prepared and are yet to reveal a better argument for the historical necessity of ours.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

The Great Philosophaster of Science

In the opinion of the late philosophaster of science Paul Feyerabend, “our entire universe . . . is an artifact constructed by generations of scientist-artisans from a partly yielding, partly resisting material of unknown properties” [1].
At first sight, and judging by these words alone, we might take Professor Feyerabend’s claim to be absurd, if we take it to mean that the universe itself was created by scientists. At second sight, however, we might take his claim to be radical, if we take it to mean that the scientific description of our universe is an arbitrary construct built by scientists in ignorance of the nature of the universe. At third sight, and in a charitable mood, we might take his claim to be merely banal, if we take it to mean that a scientific description of our universe is built by scientists. Which is it to be?
I must admit that I am not inclined to do charitable work for pseudo-philosophers who delight in making attention-seeking declarations that I suspect are designed to appear absurd at first sight; moreover I cannot see in the context in which these words appear, nor in the context of Professor Feyerabend’s career as a whole, why his claim should be interpreted as anything other than absurd or radical. As it happens, it appears that Professor Feyerabend wanted us to take it at second sight, after having tried to shock us at the first; for he also told us that “nature as described by our scientists is a work of art that is constantly being enlarged and rebuilt by them” [2] and, as such, “modern science uses artifacts, not nature-as-it-is” [3].
Duly, he maintained that “normal science is a fairy tale” and that “equal time should be given to competing avenues of knowledge such as astrology, acupuncture, and witchcraft” [4]. Nowhere does he record whether he believed that advances in witchcraft would one day provide cheap alternatives in air-travel, though doubtlessly the leaving-open of such a question by a man of Feyerabend’s standing has led not a few environmentalists to stockpile birch-twigs in anticipation.
Realism assumes [quoth our philosophaster] . . . that a particular phenomenon – the modern scientific universe and the evidence for it – can be cut from the development that led up to it and can be presented as the true and history-independent nature of Being. The assumption is very implausible, to say the least. For are we really to believe that people who were not guided by a scientific world view but who still managed to survive and to live moderately happy and fulfilling lives were the victim of an illusion? [5]
With the incredulity of his last question, Professor Feyerabend steers us towards a modus tollens that seems to be as follows:
If the scientific world view pertains to an understanding of reality, then those not guided by it are victims of an illusion.
Those not guided by it are not victims of an illusion.
Therefore, the scientific world view does not pertain to an understanding of reality.
Now, in its logical frame, this argument is valid, but upon its premises it is unsound; for in respect of the minor premise, it is surely true that at least some of those not guided by the scientific world view are indeed victims of an illusion of some kind; and in respect of the major premise, a false inference is made therein to stand as fact, namely, that those not guided by the scientific world view could not be guided by something else that, though perhaps less exacting, would nevertheless be productive of understanding.
When, for instance, a Kalahari bushman, unguided by the scientific world view, hunts an animal, does he not make inferences based on the empirical data of tracks and signs, a skill productive of understanding and thus in this respect free from illusion? He shares in this respect the same realist assumptions and inferences as those who subscribe to the scientific world view, even if he has illusory beliefs appended thereto. Indeed, in the case that he has mistaken the evidence and tracked the wrong animal, one is unlikely to find a more committed realist than the Kalahari bushman when he is chased by a lion, except perhaps for the lion itself. It is the professor of philosophy who has the motive and the luxury of pseudo-doubt, at least when he is writing a bold thesis at a safe distance from lions.
That science is a more exacting and systemized way of looking at the world than commonsense realism does not diminish the effectiveness of commonsense realism. Humanity has lived without science for most of its existence, and of course many humans have come to untimely ends because they have been under illusions, illusions that might have been dispelled by science, but humanity as a whole has survived into the scientific age because it has made the same realist assumptions that form the basis of the scientific world view.
But Professor Feyerabend, against all sense, feigned to believe that “[t]here is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: Anything goes” [6]. Thus, Professor Feyerabend’s recommendation for those who would seek enlightenment in this pretended world of anything-goes is one of stark flippancy:
In order to progress, we must step back from the evidence, reduce the degree of empirical adequacy (the empirical content) of our theories, abandon what we have already achieved, and start afresh. [7]
As far as I am aware, Professor Feyerabend had no children, which is just as well, for I should think fatherly advice in this vein would be unwise.—“Son, in order to fetch my medication from the pharmacist across the road, you must neglect the evidence of your senses, reduce the degree of your attention, abandon all experience of traffic, and step out”. That said, I suppose Professor Feyerabend could have hoped in such a case that there was a trained witch at hand to airlift his son to a nearby stone circle.

[1] P. Feyerabend, “Nature as a Work of Art”, Common Knowledge, 1:3. (1992), p.3.
[2] Ibid., emphasis added.
[3] Ibid., p.6.
[4] P. Feyerabend, quoted in W.J. Broad, (Feature) Science 206, (1979) p.534.
[5] P. Feyerabend, “Ethics as a Measure of Scientific Truth”, in From the Twilight of Probability: Ethics and Politics, ed., W.R. Shea & A. Spadafora, (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1992), p.109.
[6] P. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. (London: New Left Books, 1975), p.28.
[7] Ibid., p.113.