Monday, February 28, 2011

The World's Largest Cat. . . .

World's Largest Cat. Well . . .  the dumbest cat anyway. Unfortunately for the memory of the great Percy Shelley this cat is named after him. But Cario loves him.

Fat Cat Shelley

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dear doconnor, the process continues. . . .

Dear doconnor,
I still haven't had a lot of time but I dashed this out as quick as I could - 

While I respect what you have said in many ways, and we have found certain common ground (politically if not conceptually), I continue to believe that you have missed the central point of this entire discourse. And I think one of the red flags that gives this away is in your posting where you claim that you are a socialist because it is the “best” system, but if someone could prove to you that libertarianism was the “ideal” then you would go with that. It seems that, as many scientists or rationalists do, you are basing your statement on an assumption of an ‘objective optimal,’ when in fact no such optimal obtains. All notions of “best” or ‘ideal’ (at least at the social level) are not in any manner objective but rather based entirely upon ethical lifeworld assumptions. Socialism could only be seen as the “best” system if we share certain ethical assumptions about how the world ‘ought’ to be. In other words the word (like all words ultimately) are just labels of convenience predicated upon what we hope can be social agreements. But again, such social agreements often do not obtain.

This brings us to the real crux of the problem and the real point of Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. Anyone, at any time, can simply reject your assumptions no matter how ‘right’ or ‘factual’ or ‘rational’ (or anything else) you believe them to be. If a religious person says to me ‘you must act in this way because God says you must,’ I can of course simply say I don’t believe in God so I am free to act in a different manner. He can reply, for example, that I risk going to hell, and he may be right or he may be wrong. Similarly, an ecologist might say to me ‘if you don’t act this way then the ‘laws of nature dictate that you will end up with an environmental catastrophe. The ecologist may be correct or he may be incorrect, but either way I can reject his claim based upon the claim that the reasoning is faulty, but much more importantly based upon my own ethical judgments. I can simply say, ‘I don’t care if there is an ecological disaster so I can act whatever way I choose.' Ironically, in both cases the religious person and the scientists will probably reply the same way, viz., “It is irrelevant what you think because this is what will happen regardless of how you feel.” Both parties may claim to be correct but I can still choose to reject both because neither claim is binding to my behavior unless I agree with the background assumptions and choose to act in a manner consistent with those assumptions. As long as I am alive, I can reject either. This is what was so important about Montaigne’s skepticism. Montaigne essentially said that trust in ‘reason’ is a pre-rational assumption because anyone is free at anytime to reject reason itself. You might say that they won’t get very far or that their rejection is ‘irrelevant’ to the facts but this is not the point, they can still stand by their rejection and there is no conceptual way around this. Thus proscriptions for actions are only meaningful if people share ethical assumptions. Someone might say that fascism is the ‘best’ system of social organization because it will result in the greatest number of people working at any one time, or they may say that free-for-all anarchy is the best system because it will result in the strongest being victorious. But someone else might say that the best system of social organization would be the one that resulted in the greatest number of beach towels being produced because beach towels are sacred objects and that is what all of society should be designed to produce. But you could have very little meaningful discourse with that person about social organization if you didn’t share their assumptions about beach towels. And herein lies the rub.

Now, this discussion is, for the moment centered on social or political (i.e. normative) questions. But I make these points because this is where it all started. I think the wider questions are really too big for this forum. (The wider questions being the epistemological ones – but the same basic formula applies, people can reject any claims you make about reality based upon their rejection of your assumptions. You may say they are wrong but this won’t necessarily change what they say or do) In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre struggled with the whole problem of proscriptive action and he comes to the same conclusion I do, that nothing is proscriptive unless it falls within certain parameters that conform to what Sartre calls one’s “project.” And for years I have tried to see a way out of this problem but I have never found one. Our actions are only contingent if we make them contingent, that is to say if we are making certain assumptions about the desired outcomes or the best ethical behavior. Again one might claim that people are using, say, science or even ‘facts,’ to ‘inform’ their choices and you might be correct. But the problems still follow you conceptually. Someone might look at the so-called facts differently from you (as happens all the time), they might decide to use a different set of facts, they may decide for whatever reason to reject said facts, or (and this is the biggest problem of all) we have no real way of knowing whether they are adopting certain facts to support a pre-rational or a priori set of goals or desires, or whether the facts have actually informed those desires. For my part I think people generally see what they want to see to support their basic beliefs.

Anyway, the gist of what I am getting at is not that you are wrong about the facts or even about the existence of facts, or that scientific claims play no part in social or normative processes. Instead, I am saying that they are not binding to action and I think that is clear in many people’s behavior because everyday people do all sorts of things that you may say are contra indicated. And at the bigger level, social systems are always about basic lifeworld assumptions because no capitalist, for example, could ever ‘prove’ to me that his is the best system because what a capitalist wants out of life and society are different from what I want, it is as simple as that.

And a last point, I still must take issue with your claim concerning the reduction of war since WWII. It was only after the War that Western capitalist nations began to mass produce arms for the international market and sell them en masse to Thrid World Countries. Furthermore, it was during the post-war period that the so-called super-powers ran hundreds of proxy wars throughout the globe. The post-war period has been the greatest period of mass warfare the world has ever seen and only a deeply Western-Centric viewpoint could fail to see this. A quick list of the countries involved in large scale armed conflict since the war should make this clear to say nothing of the fact that a number of these wars have involved, over the years, more tonnage of armory than the entire Second World War.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Weird Case of Bev Oda. . . . . .

There is something distinctly bizarre about this situation with Minister Bev Oda. Now we know that there was significant wrongdoing here because Minister Oda has essentially admitted that she misled the house (a nice euphemism for lying), and she did so for a considerable length of time. And this is clearly enough to not only sanction Minister Oda but there should be other, more sever consequences for someone lying to the House of Commons.

But despite the fact that Minister Oda has done wrong and refuses to admit the significance of this act as well as refuse to tell us who altered the document, there are very strange questions here. For example, why did the minister suddenly admit wrongdoing after all this time? Without her admission there would never have been any way of proving that she had done something wrong. And if she had a sudden attack of conscience, why stop at simply admitting that she had the document altered? Why not explain who altered it and where the orders came from?

Another question that is very strange is how do we know the document was altered after it was signed? The media keeps reporting the events this way, but I have never heard an explanation as to why we know this. Could Minister Oda not have simply inserted the now famous "Not" and then signed the document? I don't know, but something is weird about this.

Despite these questions, what seems clear to me is that the decision to stop funding for KAIROS came directly from the Prime Minister and he has known for a long time that the document was altered and he is clearly culpable in this rather grand, though apparently unnecessary, deception. And herein lies the rub. When a Prime Minister has made it clear from the beginning that all the decisions of his government come from him, then it follows that this decision must also have come from him. And thus it also follows that if the alteration was illegal or unethical, then Harper is directly implicated.  And if there was an ongoing deception concerning the alteration, then Harper is guilty of being involved in a genuine cover-up.

This is what is weird about the whole thing; no one needed to alter documents or cover anything up. As people have correctly pointed out, right or wrong the government had the right to cut funding to KAIROS regardless of what recommendations they received. So why cover up the real issues?  I suppose this is much like the long-form census situation in which the government wanted to create the illusion that their decision conformed to the  recommendations of various levels of civil servants, thus keeping them at arm's length from decisions that are actually made because the Prime Minister is eaten up by ideology. Everyone knows that the Prime Minister cut the long-form census because he wants to avoid pesky facts that might contradict his ideologically driven policies. Presumably the same thing is at issue here. Harper wanted to take away funding from a group which is (rightly) critical of Israeli policies but he wanted that decision to appear NOT to be driven by his dispensationalism. Thus an altered document and a cover-up ensued. But presumably everyone knew that this document would become public and therefore people would know that the Government had once again ignored the recommendations of civil servants, so why not just admit it from the very beginning? Is it just like the long-form census, in that this government is just so arrogant that they no one will ever call them on anything? After all, they really believed that Munir Sheikh, a man who had committed himself to the importance and relevance of statistics, would just go along with the lie that he had recommended the abolition of the long-form census. It just seems that, like so many narcissists, Harper and Baird think that they can do anything that they want and no one will ever contradict them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We are Weak and Stupid and deserve to Die . . . .

It is remarkable isn't it?!!?

So I used to think that the Harper strategy was to simply ignore scandals and ethical corruption, having learned from Prime Minister Martin that if you actually attempt to deal with such things openly and ethically, you just get vilified for it. And we have seen that, given the ignorance and apathy of many Canadians, the strategy of simply ignoring things is pretty effective.

Today Harper took it one step further. Instead of ignoring ethical offences, Harper now turns them into acts of principle and altruism. Nixon should have tried that. Instead of coving his acts up he should have just said they were, after all, morally correct actions.

But what makes the whole thing truly sickening is that on the very day that Harper has turned ethical violations into correct actions we read that Harper's party is at a new high in the polls. Given this pattern, we surely won't be surprised if Harper and his cadre don't just start breaking laws all over the place, arresting opposition leaders and suspending the constitution, by the looks of it they would just benefit politically from such moves.

Never ask again how it is that third-world dictators have people that come out into the streets to support them in times of trouble. Apparently legal and ethical violations are not mistakes but a political strategy.

My advice, give up on Canadian politics. Any country that would put this man in office deserves to be ruled by another tinpot dictator who has no respect for law or life. And when Canada has a third-world economy, no universal medical care, no universal education, no charter of rights and freedoms, and no legal principle of habeas corpus, just remember the Canadian people threw these away willingly and as a country we deserve nothing less than to mire in the filth of our own making.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Oops they did it again. . . forgot their own history. . . .

One should never underestimate the potential irony of historical events. After all, Henry Kissenger once won the Nobel Peace Price. Today another such irony paraded across our television screens, an irony that no one in the main stream media will even bother to notice.

So Barak Obama gives a little speech about the great power of democracy and the people in over-throwing tyranny demonstrated in Egypt. No mention of course, of the billions of dollars that the US has given to Hosni Murbark over the past 30 years to keep him power and the active roll that the CIA has played in helping his security forces suppress democracy and actively kill and torture democratic activists. If you don't laugh you will have to cry. The gall of it is astonishing! For more than a generation the US has done everything possible to keep this man in power and to undermine any opposition in Egypt. Now in a matter of hours they just pretend that it all never happened and that the US has stood on the side of democracy all along. And if you ever had any doubt that the Media (which right-wingers never tire of saying are a bunch of liberal communists) toes the line of Western interests, just watch the coverage over the next few days and see how many mentions there are of the US's roll in maintaining Mubarak and the active roll that the CIA has had in Egypt over the past thirty years. I am guessing you be lucky to find even one mention of this shameful history. Instead, for the media each day is new and the memory is short. Shame on all of them.

Why We Are Not Lazy. . . . .

Listening to talk radio again and I was struck by what one of the commentators said when he essentially made reference to the all too common claim that people are essentially lazy nowadays. While I don't believe what he was saying constituted meaningful political discourse, I was struck by how common this complaint has become, not just among the 'right' but among people in general.

The discussion was related to this whole arena issue in Quebec which, though it plays big in the news, seems like a storm in a teacup to me. The commentator was complaining that people just don't want to do anything for themselves nowadays and instead they sit around waiting for the government to do things for them. He then made a classic, albeit ridiculous, comparison with the past, suggesting that "this country was built on hard work and in the days of the sodbusters people didn't wait around for the government to do things for them...etc. People find this kind of argument appealing because it plays on their nostalgia and it reinforces this silly, though widely prevalent, idea that the past was somehow better than today.

This comparison is specious for a number of reasons. For one thing it is simply not true that people don't work hard today. I think most people work just as hard today as  they ever did, though most do so in better and less dangerous circumstances than in the past. Furthermore, many studies suggest that people work harder and longer today than they did, say, fifty years ago. For another thing, people are just as active in their community as they ever were, and probably more so. Most people I have known have, throughout their adult lives, actively supported charities in various ways and this ideas that they are just sitting around lazily or selfishly worrying only about themselves is just false.

However, this comparison is specious for a much more important reason. If one goes back, say, a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago people had no significant relationship  of reciprocity with the government. They did very little for the government and the government did very little for them. People didn't pay income taxes and the taxes that they did pay, which were largely consumption taxes or various kinds of trade taxes, were significantly lower than they are today. In more modern times, on the other hand, there is a very important relationship of reciprocity between citizens and their government. Not only do we vote and and have an active role in how government works, we pay taxes and these taxes contribute to the growth of our communities and help people in many and various ways. People in our society actively work and they pass some of the that labour on to the government in the form of taxes. The revenue of the government is, put simply, a portion of our collective labour. Thus when taxes pay for services this does not represent a bunch of lazy people expecting the government to do things for them, rather it represents the transfer of a certain amount of collective labour for the building of community etc. It is thus simply untrue that at one time people did things for themselves and now people sit around waiting for the government to do things for them. When we send our kids to public schools or our parents to the hospital, or we put our garbage out to be picked up or we call a suicide hot-line that accepts government funding, we ARE doing things for ourselves. We are the teachers who teach in the schools, we are the nurses that work in the hospitals, we are the librarians and the street-sweepers, we are all the people who take a portion of the collective labour and return it to the community in countless ways. It is wrong-headed to talk as though government services represent laziness. On the contrary, such services represent a community hard at work. Ironically, right-wingers and people of business should understand this as well as anyone because it is a very basic principle of business that collective or mass purchases of goods and services is always less expensive than per unit purchasing. By running large social services we save a great deal of our collective labour.

When the government does something for us, it is actually us doing something for ourselves as a community, and this is incredibly important for people to understand. We cannot let people propagate this idea that government services perpetuate a culture of laziness and entitlement. Instead we have to make people realize that such services are the most efficient way to use a portion of our collective labour to build society and community. When people forget this lesson you should just point them to the indispensable roll that public education has played in building Western society and the health and prosperity that we have enjoyed. If the right-wing had had their way, children would still be working in mines for 12 hours a day and we would have no relationship of reciprocity with our governments. Build our communities, invest our collective labour into our society and remember that without cooperation you have no society at all.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Christiane Ouimet. . . . a nail in the Coffin. . . . .

Christiane Ouimet is another in a long line of Conservative appointees who is hopelessly corrupt, arrogant, and guilty of behaviour verging on criminal. Just like the LPC that Harper was so fond of criticizing as a corrupt party of patronage, Harper appoints friends to lucrative positions in government but makes sure that they don't do their job and are in no way accountable.

However, lest anyone get cocky about their party, you can be sure that no one on the Hill will do anything about it. You can be sure that if a Liberal appointed government official were refusing to testify in front of a Commons Committee Harper's SS would do absolutely everything in their power to bring her in and even push to have her put in prison. But the present opposition is now trapped in a victim syndrome in which they are only an opposition in a de jure sense. They will never do anything to stop this government no matter how criminal, how unjust, or how anti-democratic their actions become.

The message from opposition has become "don't bother with democracy, accountability, or legality any more, Harper and his cabal are in for life, as long as we get our pensions." And the Harper regime gets away with this as a minority, imagine what they would get away with as a majority! Christiane Ouimet has proven that we have lost any semblance of a real democracy. Officials can get appointed to positions, the intention of which is to protect our system, and they can bully their staff and fail utterly to do their job, then retire with a huge severance package and pension while utterly flouting the laws of the country and neither the government (which pretends to be 'tough on crime') nor the opposition will do a single thing to stop her. And if they do decide to do something we can be sure that it will be pure show just as the more or less secret committee to expose the redacted documents re. Afghanistan has become. No one is out their protecting your democracy, least of all the Government or the opposition.

Christiane Ouimet; another nail in the coffin of a system that used to be heading toward real democracy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

When the Earth was Flat. . . . .

When I was a kid I knew a boy named Duncan. I don’t remember his last name but I remember a great deal about him. He was a spindly, red haired kid with more freckles on his face than you could count. In fact sometimes it looked as though his face was just one big freckle with the features of a ten-year-old boy desperately trying to break through. Duncan was hopeless at sports and continually suffered the schoolyard indignation of being the last boy chosen for the team. Unfortunately, what Duncan lacked in physical prowess he was unable to make up for in scholarly aptitude. His voice was squeaky, his teeth were bad, and he lacked almost any ability to be what one might call ‘socially smooth.’ He told jokes that either weren’t funny or he would screw up the punch-line in one way or another. And to make matters worse Duncan almost never knew where he went wrong and so he was completely incredulous when people failed to laugh.
But for all his apparent faults I liked Duncan. He was an amiable companion and generous to a fault. If Duncan was your friend you could be sure that he would take a genuine interest in your interests. When I made several hapless attempts at building models Duncan ran out and bought a model of a 1963 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud and brought it to my house so he could build a model right there beside me. When I got interested in Comic Books he would spend his own allowance on Silver Surfer comics and give them to me as gifts. And when I started to take guitar lessons Duncan decided to become an expert at the penny whistle because he thought it would compliment my musical interests.
“We can play together,” he told me excitedly when he showed me the penny whistle that he bought at an Irish-themed store on Santa Monica Boulevard. And though whenever he played it he sounded like a banshee on drugs, I never had the heart to tell him that he wasn’t getting any better. For much of forth grade I strummed away at the guitar while Duncan’s whistle jumped from one register to another seemingly at random.
I sat next to Duncan at school and I distinctly recall the day when the Mrs. Rosenbaum started talking about Christopher Columbus. She went on about how remarkable Columbus was and how he was one of the first people to realize that the earth was round. I later found out that many people prior to Columbus believed the earth was round, including the Greek mathematician Eartosthenes who estimated the Earth’s circumference in the 2nd century BCE with remarkable accuracy. But the story of Columbus is always interesting and the class was enthralled. 
             But after school as Duncan and I were walking home he surprised me with some startling news.
            “Columbus was wrong you know,” Duncan said.
            “About what?”
            “About the earth being round,” Duncan told me confidently, “its flat really.”
            “Do you really think so?”
            “I am sure of it because my grandfather told me so, and he knows a lot about a lot of things.”
            “No doubt,” I told my friend.
            I was pretty sure that the earth was in fact round but I didn’t want to argue with Duncan or contradict his grandfather. I later found out that Duncan’s grandfather lived in Lancaster, a town in the Mojave desert where my grandfather also lived. And it seems that Duncan’s grandfather was the next-door neighbor of a man named Charles K. Johnson who was, for many years, the president of the Flat Earth Society.
            My dad used to say that you don’t choose what football team you support; you are born into it. I realized early that people believe all sorts of things depending on how they were raised and whose opinions they admired. Some beliefs are intolerable, such as racist or sexist ideas, some inspire only indifference, while others are downright attractive. Some people seem to be naturally skeptical or inquisitive and they end up rejecting many things that they have been taught. Other people just seem to be comfortable accepting what they’ve been told and going on their merry way. That’s how it goes I guess.
            I realized that I really didn’t mind whether Duncan thought the earth was flat or whether he thought it was shaped like a Leatherback Sea Turtle with a glandular problem. What mattered was that Duncan was one of the nicest kids I knew; he had a natural empathy for others and that is a rare quality in a ten year old.
            Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that what someone believes can be very important to how you feel about them. I have yet to meet someone I have liked who expresses blatantly racist opinions, and every committed capitalist I have gotten to know has turned out to be a selfish creep at heart. But people can believe all sorts of things that I think are strange or a little wacky but still be remarkably nice people.
            I have thought about Duncan a lot over the years. He is my shining ten-year-old example of what’s important and I hope that wherever he is he still believes the earth is flat. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

CRTC, the Right-Wing and the so-called "Free-Market" . . . .

CBC's News Network business correspondent Jeannie Lee told us this morning that consumers were angry because they don't like to lose a service or pay for a service that they are now getting for free, as though the only real concern over the terrible CRTC decision was that consumers are a bunch of cheapskates. Another one of the CBC News Network reporters (I don't remember her name) was taking about Tony Clement's decision to  review the CRTC ruling as being ostensibly motivated by the fact that the opposition would use it as an election issue. Now this might be true but the way she worded her report further implied that the only real issue was consumers' demand for cheap bandwidth.

The fact is that Canadian consumers pay more for tele-communications, cable television, and internet services than most other developed countries. The reasons for this are pretty simple. While I am obviously not a big supporter of the so-called 'free-market,' it is ridiculous to have a sector of the economy in which one or two private, for profit, institutions control the entire market share. I am all for having certain parts of the economy being provided for by non-profit, or public companies. But a private company or an oligopoly of private companies controlling one sector is ridiculous simply because they will have such a powerful incentive to gouge the consumers for larger and large profits. In other words, if you are going to have a private market, it makes sense to have a real market in which consumers have a choice and the choices that they make will drive prices down to a reasonable point.

But in cases like this, the pro-marketeers and right-wing are in a sort of double bind. They want to appear to be in favor of the 'market forces' but at the same time they have to regulate the market extremely tightly in order to stop private enterprise from profiteering so broadly that there will be an extreme consumer backlash against the companies in question and potentially against the whole idea of the 'free market.' Meanwhile the companies involved in an oligopoly such as that being effectively run by Rogers and Bell here in Canada are immensely powerful and integral to the business community that supports the right-wing Harper government. The Haper government, which claims to be all in favor of "free markets" is going to do little to actually open the market in this sector because their friends at Rogers and Bell want to keep control of most of the market and the last thing that they want is any real competition. The Harper Government has to appear to be protecting the consumer in this case because if they didn't, it would become clear very quickly that consumers are suffering under the weight of a de facto monopoly which the government and their friends are eager to maintain. Once again, if you are paying attention, it should be clear that so-called "free-marketeers" are by no means actually in favor of the free market. Instead they are in favor of regulating the economy in such a way that large corporations can continue to dominate and engage in extreme profiteering, while at the same time they are at pains to ensure that they can maintain the illusion of the market so that the majority of voters and consumers do not wake up to the almost complete farce that has become modern capitalism.

An aside to this whole story is that in the US where there is a great deal more competition in the fields of tele-communications and internet, many people can get three or four times as much bandwidth as we can at half the price. That is why an internet movie service like Netflicks makes sense in the US and not here.  Any active use of Netflicks on your Rogers account will quickly cause you to go over your monthly allotment of bandwidth and you will find yourself paying huge usage fees. And none of this will change in the near future because companies like Rogers are desperate to hold on to the cable model and the internet threatens that model. More or less unlimited internet service coupled with the development of things like AppleTV would allow me to eliminate my cable TV altogether and that would be a game-changer.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Goethe's thoughts on the Matter. . . .

“For my part, I cannot be satisfied with a  single mode of thought. As a poet and artist, I am a polytheist; on the other hand, as a student of nature, I am a pantheist, - and both with equal positiveness. When I need a God for my personal nature, as a moral and spiritual man, He also exists for me. The heavenly and the earthy things are such an immense realm that they can only be grasped by the collective intelligence of all beings.” 

                                      Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Our Debate Continues. . . . .

Looking back on these recent posts and my discusion with a couple of people, I realize that we have drifted fairly far afield from where we really began. I find these to be interesting issues and I get wrapped up in discussions of them. Philosophers like Derrida and Foucault are remarkably brillant and I think that anyone who has a deep interest in contemporary thought will surely find them compelling even if they don't agree with them. However, one of the things that can be aggravating about them is that if you look at their work carefully it mostly consists of deconstructing or exposing the ideological nature of other ideas and other philosophic constructs. They are usually very careful to avoid the kind of discussion in which I have been engaged. They don't make grand, positive claims. Rather, they talk about how ideology works, the problems of epistemology, and the inherent inconsistencies of systems. I think in the end every system of thought will be subject to the problems raised by Godel's incompleteness theorem, the implications of which (in this context) is that any theory will be either consistent and incomplete or complete and inconsistent. Men like Derrida avoid this problem to a degree by never really developing theories or systems of thought.

In my discussions I have not avoided this problem simply because I have made positive claims and not just demonstrated the problems with, say, rationalism or scientism etc. But I think that there is an honesty in this process. Many modern philosophers have very effectively demonstrated the problems with meta-theories, and with rationalism and its corollary systems of thought. But I think, to a degree, it is beholden upon us to be more explicit with he implications of these deconstruction processes even if it will result in the exposure of certain problems and inconsistencies. You see, unlike rationalism or scientific thought, a more post-modern outlook does not make claims to objectivism, complete internal consistency, or any such rigours completeness (which is impossible for any process of thought anyway).

But where all this started on this blog was at a very simple spot that is connected to the work of David Hume. Hume demonstrated a very simple tenet that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is.' And since Hume, no philosopher has been successful in demonstrating that he is wrong. In simple terms I was just saying that no matter what you say about how the universe 'is,' that cannot tell us how we 'ought' to act. It is a very simple issue that I believe many people don't understand. How we think we 'ought' to act is based upon a whole set of ethical and normative assumptions and judgements. Even if we assume that science can demonstrate that if we don't change our behaviour, global warming will kill us all,  that doesn't tell us how we 'ought' act. One can only say that we 'ought' to act to save the environment or ourselves if one assumes that this is normatively or ethically desirable. One can fairly easily demonstrate that if you take a large dose of cyanide you will die. But that doesn't tell you how you 'ought' to act. After all, your intention may be suicide, in which case the cyanide is a pretty good, if momentarily painful, idea. It all comes down to this fairly simple forumla, no matter what you discover about the world, this information will not tell you how you should act. Rather, it is your a priori assumptions that will tell you how to act. You may adjust your assumptions based on newly discovered information, but you can still reject any course of action based entirely on what you think is 'right.' (Now, one may be a determinist and claim that this freedom to 'choose' is all a delusion and that all it is all pre-determined. However, since one cannot, in the final analysis, prove this case either way (and I don't think you could ever really 'prove' such a claim), and since we appear to have a free-will, and the proof of determinism would not change our lived experience, then one might as well assume that free-will is real. If you assume determinism is real and fee-will a delusion, this information will not change your behaviour anyway.)

Thus, it all started here. People shouldn't get me wrong; even if I believe that rationalism and science are largely ideologically filtered, I still think such processes are an inevitable and necessary part of our lives. Many sciences work very effectively in our daily lives and though they are limited, they operate the way they are supposed to. And even if there is a huge ideological element, science will help to inform our decisions. But in the end, we will, and we must, act according to what we think is 'right' not according to what we think is simply rational or even inevitable. We dont' have to save the world if we don't want to. We can keep polluting like crazy and destroy everything if we want. Destruction is easy. You can tell people all you want that if they don't adjust their behaviour, disaster will be the result. So what? Unless they share your ethical assumptions they might just reject your pleas and continue to act the way they want. This was the whole point of Kierkegaard's critic of Hegel - you can develop any system of thought you want but you still have to deal with your lived experience. And this has been central to my critique of much contemporary thought. In many areas of society (and politics in particular) people have attempted to create the illusion that we are compelled to act in certain ways because a bunch of technocrates tell us that we must. Nonsense. We need a vigorous public sphere to debate the questions of what is right or wrong, what is desirable or undesirable. Without a doubt, even if there are huge flaws in various mechanisms of 'fact-finding,' we need to hold on to them to a degree. I think we should keep the census for example. But only because I think we should use the inform that it provides to attempt to create a more just economy and to give a voice to people who lack a voice. But the Conservative don't really care about a just economy or the voices of the marginalized, so no matter what I say to them about the facts, it will matter little. In other words, even if the census tells us how the economy 'is,' it cannot tell us that we "ought" to have a more equitable one.

Anyway, once again I have rambled on. I just thought it was important to go back to where we started and clarify a bit.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dear doconnor. . . .

Dear doconnor –

Thank you for your return comments. Interesting stuff indeed! What challenges we face! It is good that we struggle with such things together is it not?

First let me say that these are big issues and you and I will not solve them here but what we bring to the table is part of a long discourse about human truth. In 1971 Noam Chomsky and Michael Foucault had a famous public meeting. Everyone was very excited because here was one of the world’s most famous scientists meeting with one of the world’s great philosophers, and everyone expected the theoretical sparks to fly. And why shouldn’t they? Both these men have held some pretty controversial views. However, by all accounts the meeting was a disappointing one because the two were essentially talking past each other. Well, if these two cannot really get to the heart of the matter then it certainly will be difficult for us. But the struggle must continue.

Second I should say that I had no intention of simply name-dropping. I was simply attempting to make the most condensed argument that I could with the limited scope of the format in which we are operating. I think it is important in this debate that it is clear that, despite what some may think, these are not simplistic, ill-considered, or flaky ideas but ideas with a long and, by most standards, fairly illustrious history. I simply make reference to certain thinkers in order to point to some of the places that these ideas come from.

Third, let me say that one of the places that one could point to, as a sort of starting point for these ideas is the German Philosopher Max Weber. Weber, though he operated within the standard paradigm, was one of the philosophers who really made clear the idea of systemic subjectivism in thought. But it is also important to remember Nietzsche in this process because he was the first philosopher that broke down the enlightenment notions of reason. The real purpose of the arguments that grew out of these thinkers was not to ‘disprove’ science or anything like that, rather it was to establish the ways in which certain parts of human endeavor were infringing on and colonizing other areas. These ideas were most famously taken up by Habermas in our time particularly in his monumental work The Theory of Communicative Action. The purpose of much of Habermas’ work was to demonstrate the ways in which technical/rational thought was colonizing normative thought, areas which must to a degree stay separate. We see this all the time today in the way that public policy becomes dominated by technocrats. However, the point of many of these issues is that normative judgments, though they exist in a physical world, must not be the handmaidens of technical/rational action. Again, this is just one area that such ideas which began in the 19th century evolved. The ideas of, say, Foucault and Derrida are another area but Derrida in particular is part of a French tradition that comes in part from the Surrealists.

Now the other issues are infinitely complex and I sometimes don’t know where to start. Let me say that I believe that the external world probably has a basic and real existence outside of our experience, but I really don’t believe that we can ever access that reality in a straightforward and objective way. Let me take the issue of bias which prima facie appears to be one of the more straightforward issues at hand. When you talk about bias, you seem to be talking about something that I will call, for the sake of ease, evidentiary bias. Of course scientists are aware of such bias, it is part of the entire mechanism of  such thought. On the other hand, I am talking about fundamental or systemic bias; the kind of bias one cannot overcome because it is wrapped up not only in the process of investigation but in the very process of how we experience and learn. Take as a rather crude example, a species that was entirely colorblind. Even if, somehow, this species could become aware of color and their inability to see color, they could not compensate for it at an experiential level. As I say, this is a crude example but maybe it makes a little clearer what I am talking about. If a homicide detective were to investigate the murder of his wife and he thought he knew a priori who committed the crime, we could say that this was a form of evidentiary bias. He may or may not be able to overcome the bias depending on his emotional state and other various factors. But the kind of biases I am talking about (and even the word ‘bias’ is far too simplistic) are much different than this. Rather they operate in the very ways that we have organized society, and are part of the life-world assumptions with which we are raised. Entire books could be written about this subject and I obviously cannot do it justice here, I just want to make it clear that we are talking about two different things.

Now a correlate to this issue is the issue of ideology in science. I am always a little hesitant to talk about “science” in a general sense because there are many branches of science with many different methodologies which are sometime competing. I believe that not only are all our judgments wrapped up deep-seated lifeworld assumptions, but irretrievably intertwined with ideology. Science is almost always the handmaiden of the prevailing ideological structure. Capitalism gives us certain kinds of scientific ‘discoveries’ and socialism would give us entirely different kinds of science. At a prosaic level this is why research into antiperspirants receives a great deal more money than research into curing Malaria. Because, in this case, ‘scientists’ are bound to follow a money trail. Another interesting but sad example of this would be the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Derrida is an interesting philosopher, though at times very difficult to access. (If your French is good, he is much easier) And it is important to keep in mind the scope of a thinker like Derrida. He is never trying to “disprove” anything in particular, rather he is pointing to the vast web of interdependent knowledge that is human understanding. One of the central points of his work seems to be that all knowledge is, like language, referential. That is to say it always refers to something else. When, for example, we attempt to define a word, we must use other words, and these words also demand definition, and so do those etc – ad infinitum. And since language works this way, so does human understanding. The ‘truth’ or the ‘facts’ are always referential and can never be solidly grasped. It the same way that when we point to a table we are really pointing to an agreed upon set of parameters that constitute the table, because how we define ‘table’ and what actually constitutes a table are to a degree, all arbitrary processes of language. There is no “TABLE” just sets of definitional limits about “tableness” or a particular ‘table.’ This, in a crude sense, is what Nietzsche meant when he said “there are no facts, only interpretations.” (Incidentally, this whole philosophical structure was anticipated by the  ancient Buddhist philosopher named Nagarjuna who wrote a philosophical treatise called Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way – now that is interesting stuff!)

As for what you say about “faith,” that is a very large issue and I probably can’t address it here. But let me just say, and I say it not just to be provocative, ‘faith’ is fundamental to every aspect of our lives – science, philosophy, religion, social work, politics, aluminum siding, etc. I say this in part because of Montaigne’s skepticism. Montaigne demonstrated that a belief in Rationalism depends upon a pre-rational judgment. The philosopher of science Feyerabend also made a very good demonstration of this. But in a wider sense, humans function on faith. As socialists we act for a better, more cooperative society, not because it is rationally demonstrable but because we have a simple faith that it will be a meaningful struggle. As parents we have a faith that our struggle to raise our children will pay off and that they will go on to lead happy and productive lives. It may sound simplistic and even prosaic, but don’t kid yourself, just the act of getting up in the morning is an act of faith. Society operates on various sets of basic myths, like paper money for example, and without faith, society itself would simply cease to function, science as well as everything else. Just ask Robert Oppenheimer, whose faith in humans was very real but was arguably misplaced.

Anyway, interesting stuff. But I am going on a bit. One step forward two steps back?? I am not sure, but I enjoy it and hope none of comes off as condescending or self-righteous. I am always learning, always struggling, but the more I learn, the more I struggle, the less straightforward reality seems to me and the more bizarre it all becomes. Enjoy that Derrida documentary, I think most of it is on Youtube. And while you are there don’t forget to look up my page KirbyCairo which has funny videos of my daughter on it. Life’s a laugh, we have to laugh together.