Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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.

12 comments:

doconnor said...

This goes back to what I originally said. People haven't been debating whether we ought to stop global warming, but debating if it exists or if we are causing it.

People are debating the 'is' not the 'ought'. People don't debate the 'ought' very often because it is obvious a lot more often then the 'is'.

kirbycairo said...

I agree with you that in this case there is a bunch of blatantly ideologically motivated discussion of the "is." But I don't think I agree that the 'ought' is often more 'obvious' than the 'is." People bypass the questions of "ought" not because these are obvious but because they are actually much more complicated in many cases and in other cases such discourse would lay bare ideological assumptions that people want to hide or obfuscate. The Right-wing in particular avoids many of the normative issues because they don't actually share the same assumptions that most people generally have. And if they were really honest about their normative desires they would be hopelessly marginalized. Thus they use obfuscation techniques in order to avoid the discussions (one of which has been technocratic inevitability), or they just pay lip-service to such abstract ideas such as 'equality,' 'justice,' 'alleviation of poverty,' etc.

Normative questions are not, I think, generally more obvious. However, many people have lost the ability to engage in normative discourse or just haven't investigated their own ethical outlines.Furthermore, and more sadly, many people will use elaborate (and I think specious) arguments about "human nature" simply to justify their own moral bankruptcy.

I think we need to renew, in a big way, the tradition of normative debate and realize that in many cases so-called 'scientific' debates (those 'is" questions) are actually getting in the way of real change. Global Warming is a perfect example. There are many reasons to reject modern capitalist enterprise, as well as many reasons to eliminate fossil-fuel usage, but the Right effectively diverts attention away from these by trying to make it all a simple 'scientific' debate.

LMA said...

Both the "is" and "ought" need to be debated. Climate scientists will continue to provide us with much-needed data about the climate change we are facing. As the impacts of climate change become more obvious, questions of "ought" will become more unavoidable, even for the Right-wing. The inequity that exists in the world between the developed and developing world will have to be addressed, because people are going to have to migrate or die. Then we will have to decide just how much we are willing to sacrifice to save our fellow human beings, other species, and the natural environment on which we depend for survival. This is, for me, where we will face our ultimate test as a species, whether or not we will be able to act in an ethical manner in order to survive.

BTW KC, I don't think sociobiology is either outdated or laughable in that it has much to tell us about the evolution of our social and moral behaviour, and the adaptive value of altruism.

kirbycairo said...

I didn't mean to suggest the entire field was laughable but these notions of survival of the species etc, come right out of the 19th century and are some of the most ridiculous notions in the whole field of thought and are a perfect example of a concept that 'deconstruction' can tear apart. I believe such ideas are internally inconsistent, inherently unstable, and so plagued by the need to constantly account for counter-examples that they just are not viable by any discursive standard.

LMA said...

I was thinking of the work of E.O. Wilson into evolutionary links between human and primate social behaviours, as well as the work of neuroscientists demonstrating the role of the frontal lobes in controlling negative emotions and the role of the temporal and parietal lobes in influencing moral judgements.

Natural selection explains the evolution of brain/biological structures, e.g., Broca's area for speech, which enhance the survival of the species. These biological mechanisms no doubt shape human cognitive, emotional, and social behaviours in ways that we do not as yet understand.

By appreciating the biological differences among humans, we may become more tolerant of extreme behaviour, such as violence and aggression. Perhaps, we sometimes do not do what we "ought" because we see the world in a different way, cannot control our negative emotions, or lack empathy. These differences are not within our control, and hence they limit our "free will".

kirbycairo said...

Yes, I knew what you were talking about. In fact I had a good friend, now passed away who did a bunch of work on Wilson and the whole field. And I have no doubt that there must exist relations between, for example, primate behaviour in the so-called "wild" and certain aspects of human experience. Furthermore, I have no doubt that their there are physiological effects on behaviours. However, conceptually these issues can never, in my mind, be reconciled adequately with real human experience and behaviours. This would, of course, take far too long to go into here but suffice to say that there are just too many over-determinations, complexities, and counter-examples to create the clarity and so-called objectivity that the very system of thought demands for legitimacy. I just don't think these kinds of things work in relation to human behaviour and I have never seen a conceptual argument that even comes vaguely close to being satisfactory.

One might claim that physiology restricts my behaviour but I know by my own experience that I can choose to jump off the CN Tower or choose not to. In other words, no amount of study will overcome a very simple level of existential experience. Furthermore, I have also seen first hand the tremendous dangers of using such study to justify every kind of human behaviour and oppression.

Unfortunately, of the many scientists I have met, almost none of them seem to have the ability to understand the wider philosophical problems or social implications of what they do.

This is why the debate between Chomsky and Foucault went nowhere. For all his brilliance, Chomsky seems to be simply incapable of understanding what Foucault is talking about. And I know this first hand from my own personal interactions with Chomsky in the 90s.

LMA said...

Free will to me is an illusion. We may think we understand our motivations and reasons for our judgements, but unconscious processes are always at work. We have much to learn about how the mind works.

However, I certainly agree with you that scientists in pursuit of the next research grant sometimes disregard the social and ethical implications of their work. Research into geo-engineering is particularly a concern for me.

If you have a handy reference for the Chomsky-Foucault debate, I would appreciate it, or can search it out on the web. Great discussion, thanks.

kirbycairo said...

There are, of course, many people who think that free-will is an illusion. The problem is of course that a) it is an issue one could never settle, b) even if there were a way to prove that it is an illusion, the actual lived illusion would still exist in exactly the same way, c) since one's own empirical experience tells you have free will (it certainly appears that I can choose to go to the bathroom to pee or just sit here and pee in my bed, to use a silly example) it seems very odd to simply deny something that we probably can't settle one way or another and seems so real.

Though Anglo-American philosophy probably is for the most part going in your direction. I still think that it is problematic at many levels.

By the way here is a youtube link to Chomsky - Foucault. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WveI_vgmPz8

There is also a book of the whole thing. http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=3068856689&searchurl=kn%3Dchomsky%2Bfoucault%26sts%3Dt%26x%3D0%26y%3D0

But because you are probably already fairly familiar with what Chomsky would have to say, then to get a real sense of the whole thing it would be a lot better to read some of Foucault's best work.

In the early nineties I had an epistolary exchange with Chomsky and it was very unsatisfying. I was reminded of the great Woody Allen line "The great thing about intellectuals is that they show you that someone can be absolutely brilliant have have no idea what is going on."

Anyway, they have been interesting discussions!

LMA said...

Just wanted to add that after listening to the Chomsky-Foucault debate, I support Chomsky's belief that our institutions embody our search for absolute justice and compassion and should be preserved even as we search for a better way.

Would also like to suggest that the concept of Free Will implies that everyone is ultimately responsible for their decisions and actions, and in my view, this belief leads to a society that is less compassionate and more punitive.

kirbycairo said...

Hi Lma

I wont' comment on the Chomsky-Foucault issue just because there is too much to say.

On the free will and social justice - there is a philosophical double-bind in what you say. Because without some concept of free-will then justice and compassion mean absolutely nothing. The argument would go something like this - if you don't believe in any freedom of will then freedom of speech, for example also means nothing. In fact if people have no free will then putting them all in prison and telling what to do would make absolutely no difference and morality itself is an illusion. This is a very very truncated of what I believe is a consistent and cogent argument that I remember working through in a graduate philosophy seminar.

However, having said that, I understand what you are trying to say. If one doesn't take some consideration of context then we run a terrible risk of overburdening the individual. But one can still hold a position of free will while making contextual considerations. The argument would go something like this - People make choices that make sense to them, and context makes a significant contribution to which choices would make sense. Raised in a certain environment criminal activity would make sense to people because they cannot necessarily understand all their possible choices etc.Thus one can still imagine that people are making free choices, just that they are not in control of the parameters of their perceived possibilities. Marx famously said "People make their own history, just not in a context of their own choosing." Thus, taking both these points into consideration, I believe exactly the opposite of what you are claiming. In fact the greatest hope, over all, for a society of real compassion is one in which people are perceived to have a free will.

Again, these are ridiculously truncated arguments and to really work through them could take a very long discourse. I just wanted to let you know that there is a solid argument for both free will and a compassionate society. But just as the extremely strong free will arguments run the risk of falling into right-wing agendas, I believe a strong anti-free will argument runs the same risks.

LMA said...

Thanks for that explanation. I understand your position more clearly now, and am able to accept a limited concept of free will in that people are free to make choices while not being free to control environmental factors (nurture) and biological factors (nature) influencing their choices. Cheers!

kirbycairo said...

Yes, and I was trying to point out that contextual factors that limit people's decisions are much clearer and conceptually easier to outline. If one is born, for example, in a poverty ridden, East L.A. neighbuorhood to a single mother who works two jobs, has very little social or political knowledge etc., then it is pretty easy to understand how the kind of decisions one makes will most likely tightly filtered unless one is a particularly strong-willed, independently minded person for some reasons.

This kind of contextual filter to what choices will make sense to people have fairly straightforward policy correlates concerning greater opportunities, better education, etc.

On the other hand, physiological constraints on behaviours are more difficult to pin down at a conceptual level and it is much more difficult to develop social policy correlates for such things. Obviously if you were born without legs there is little chance that you will try to decide to become an olympic runner. But other, more vague physiological filters are much much more difficult to grapple with conceptually, and after many years of consideration (using examples like the question of whether homosexuality has a major biological factor) I believe that there are too many dangers regarding biological determinism and social policies, thus while I always try to stay informed as possible on the various issues, I essential take a political position that tries to be as sympathetic as possible (particularly sensitive to contextual constraints) while saying "keep biological determinism off my body."

Wow, that was a long sentence! Sorry. But I am sure you get what I am trying to say.

This has been a good discussion, these help to clarify things and find ways to say them in this constrained format. Thanks.