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. 

6 comments:

doconnor said...

You should link the conversion for people who aren't following along.

It started in The Progressive Economics Forum with Kirbycairo's comments in The End Of The World As We Know It (and I feel fine).

There where two previous blog posts here, Free to Make our Future. . . . . and Reply to a Comment. . ..

LMA said...

KC, I'm having trouble reconciling your rejection of biological determinism with your discussion of fundmental/sytemic bias. In your example, a colour blind species could not overcome limits to experience and learning imposed by its' biological limitations. Is this not biological determinism at a simple level?

Human experience and learning is most certainly determined by our perceptual and cognitive limitations, as well as our emotions which are also biological processes. It seems to me that it is biology, not ideology, that limits our ability to go beyond "interpretations" to "facts".

Further, sociobiology suggests that we function to survive and perpetuate our species, not because of faith, but because of biology.

kirbycairo said...

As I have stated before a number of times my rejection of bio-determinism is not the one you seem to think it is. I have no doubts that there are certain epistemological filters on how we know and what we know. I accept this and have already made this clear. There are obviously certain demands that our physical reality places upon us. But there is no doubt that what you are pointing to is a difficult and tricky distinction. And the distinction lies in the idea that as in the color blindness example, that what we know has a bunch of filters, some of which are physiological. However, within those epistemological filters, we are free 'moral' agents within a very wide set of huge background cultural containments. In other words, what I have rejected is that our normative decisions are biologically determined the way sociobiology contends. And I certainly reject the idea of an imperative to 'survive' or "perpetuate the species." I believe that this contention is simply laughable, and demonstrably fallacious. It is an antiquated 19th century notion that even simplistic deconstruction blows out of the water.

kirbycairo said...

I should add LMA that I am not blind to the problems here. At some level one could argue that we cannot
'know' whether we are free moral agents or not given the rest of what I have said. And this is a fair position. One might say that I am an inevitable victim of Godel's Incompleteness theorem here, as every 'theory' eventually is. But I think one has come to this kind of conclusion at a political, ethical, and aesthetic level once one has taken the rest of the positions that I have taken.

doconnor said...

I have posted my reply in my blog.

kirbycairo said...

Hi doconnor, I am disappointed because I spent an hour replying to your post and then it seems to have disappeared when I hit the 'post' button. And I am just too sick and busy to spend the hour to reply again right now. Suffice to say that I believe that you continue to misunderstand some of these issues at a very basic level, particularly the way in which language works. Ironically, the heart of this dispute is really about epistemology and the roll of language in the process of knowledge and understanding. But I obviously can't write a book on linguistic philosophy to clear up dispute.

I was also very disturbed by your talk of the decrease in war since WWII. It is not only factually INCREDIBLY wrong but is, unfortunately, indicative of a fundamental Euro-centrism that is at the very heart of your world view as well as your misunderstanding of the paradigm that I am talking about.