Factual Correctness — Jonah Goldberg's NRO piece on PoMo and the PC WTC firefighter sculpture is pretty funny. One can do a lot with words, but Jonah's right, literary intellectuals do seem to resent the fact that you can't power airplanes with adverbs.
The Far Left in A Nutshell — The antiglobalization postmodernist left is easy to understand if you see the position as a way to bring the following unstable convictions into equilibrium.
(1) Logic, reason and evidence (science) is good.
(2) Progress is good.
(3) Socialism is supported by logic, reason and evidence (it's scientific!).
(4) Socialism is good.
(5) Capitalism is evil.
Together with Unavoidable Data:
— Socialism is undermined by logic, reason and evidence (see Mises, Hayek, history).
— Capitalism leads to progress, while socialism hinders it.
Leaves these options for the leftist:
(a) Reject (3), (4), and (5).
(b) Reject (1), (2) and (3).
The PoMo left takes option (b), rejecting logic, reason and evidence (it's an oppressive, patriarchal, capitalistic construct, etc.) and rejecting the desirability of progress (let's have “sustainable” stasis instead.) Further, they must abandon the claim that socialism has rational support. Thus you get:
(1') Logic, reason and evidence (science) is a myth.
(2') Progress is destructive.
(3') Socialism is supported by ????.
(4') Socialism is good.
(5') Capitalism is evil.
But clearly, (b) is the much more desperate option. What about (3')? Having dispensed with rational grounds for support, how can one argue that this bundle of convictions isn't just arbitrary? Well, you can't. And, strangely, it seems that original impetus to support socialism came from a more or less earnest belief in the desirability of material progress. Giving up on the desirability of progress is like setting one's heart on driving to Miami, discovering that one has gotten on the wrong road, and therefore deciding that Miami's a lousy place to go. You'd think you'd just switch roads. Why did people do this?
The earnest, progress-loving left came to identify support for socialism and rancor against capitalism as the criterion for personal virtue. So people in this coalition built their identity around this attitude, took pride in themselves as moral, and identified as immoral outsiders people who supported capitalism. When the case for socialism collapsed, coalition members were faced with a crisis. First, their sense of identity and virtue was threatened. It is hard enough to admit that you were wrong when you thought you were right. It's really, really hard to admit that you were in fact bad when you thought you were good. Second, if one were to change one's mind about socialism, then one would lose one's network of social support, and that's frightening. So, anything that allowed the maintenance of one's sense of virtue, and one's belonging in the virtuous community, was welcomed — although from the outside, it appears ridiculous and desperate.
This suggests that the views of the PoMo left won't really stick to generations that came up after the theoretical and historical collapse of socialism — even though the PoMo left is largely in charge of educating the young. A vague feeling that leftishness has something to do with goodness does hang in the air, but the kids don't really grasp the animus against reason, progress and the market, and so they are relatively easily swayed by experience and argument.
Well, it's a big nutshell. What can I say?
Snap, Crackle, Popper — It's bizarre that glass-eating mercenary independent scholar, Rafe Champion, suggests that I am a “true believer” for not developing a critical preference for Popperianism. I'm tempted to say, “Right back at ya, buddy.” I grew up philsophically among Ayn Rand devotees, and I sense a similarity in conviction among the Randians and Popperians like Rafe. I'm sure Rafe can appreciate that Popper's epistemology just makes very little sense to me, and that I don't consider his counterarguments “effective”.
Indeed, I am at a loss to understand how a “critical preference” for some proposition P over some proposition Q, is anything but the belief that P is more probable relative to one's evidence than Q. What other basis for a rational preference is there? If P is more “corroborated”, then I need to have it explained how one can assign ordinal rankings of corroboration that do not correspond even roughly to degrees of probability. Corroboration is supposed to be a historical measure of experimental survival. Popper claims that it is rational to prefer the hypothesis that is more corroborated. But why should this preference be rational unless it is in fact the case that theories that have survived a lot of experimental tests are more likely to be true than theories that haven't.
Anyway, I think I'm done beating on Popper, at least on the pages of The Fly Bottle. I understand that this kind of topic drives off a lot of readers. However, I do think this kind of issue is important, both for its own sake and for its implications. I am convinced that post-modern epistemologies are driven by politics. When it was shown by reason and evidence that communism is both ineffective and deadly, the folks on the far left had a choice: either give up communism or give up reason and evidence. The PoMos chose the latter. Of course, PoMo epistemology supports libertarianism just as easily as it supports Marxism, yet notice the overwhelming absence of libertarian postmodernists. When you've got reason and evidence on your side, like libertarians, you've got very little motivation to throw them away. Anyway, my point is that it is not only important to argue for libertarianism against the anti-reason PoMo left and the anti-reason Mystic right, but it is also important to make the case for reason itself as the proper basis for the political argument. If you can get folks to accept the proper standards of reason and evidence, you're already way ahead in the argument with postmodernists and mystics. My practical problem with Popperianism is that I don't think it really sets up intelligible standards of reason and evidence from which to argue against the dark forces of the left and right.
Inter-Blog Popper Wars: The Impotence of Falsificationism — (Note: If this bores the shit out of you, I'm really, really sorry about that.) The replies to my Popper criticisms, and the slow return of my philosophy of science courses from murky recesses of my brain, are deepening my sense that Popperianism is at bottom a skeptical philosophy of darkness, which, despite the enthusiastic rationalist rhetoric of Popperian advocates, shares more with Rorty-like post-modern pragmatism than pro-reason philosophies of light.
Popper is very much one with the positivists in his fixation on formal logic (which I think, of course, is justified like everything else by a kind of induction from experience). In any case, Popper notes that a universally quantified statement is equivalent to the negation of an existentially quantified statement, e.g., 'All swans are white' is equivalent to 'There does not exist something that is both a swan and not white.' So the discovery of something that is both a swan and white directly contradicts the theory. (If I were writing a song about Popper, I'd call it “Mad for Modus Tollens”.)
Now, a proposition, so it is said, isn't scientific unless it is falsifiable. 'All swans are white' is scientific because 'Here is a swan that is not white' would falsify it. However, in order for a proposition to be decisively falsified, the falsifying proposition must itself be decisively true. That is, if 'Here is a swan that is not white' has a probability of less than one, then 'All swans are white' is defeated only partially.
However, according to Popper, there is no way to assign any positive probability to any proposition. And falsifying propositions must themselves be scientific, and therefore falsifiable. The probability of a basic observation statement like 'Here is a swan that is not white' is no greater than the probability of the theoretical statement, 'All swans are white'. And a critical inquirer, it would seem, is under just as much an obligation to seek falsification of the observation statement (after all, the alleged non-white swan might be a white swan painted black, an animatronic swan, etc.) as of the original hypothesis, because the observation statement turns out to be just another hypothesis. And one can keep going at this forever, trying to falsify any statement that purports to falsify another. So one wonders how we ever get to falsification.
Well, according to Popper, while propositions cannot acquire any degree of confirmation, they can acquire some degree of “corroboration” by passing experimental tests (by not being falsified). The more and severe the tests, the more corroborated the proposition. Popper insists that this isn't confirmation. You can't assign a numerical degree of corroboration. You can just very roughly speak of positive and negative degrees of corroboration. (“This hypothesis is really, really corroborated!”) And of course, well corroborated propositions are, strictly speaking, still no more likely to be true than contradictions, but they have (unaccountably) some positive logical standing. So, if 'Here is a swan that is not white' is corroborated, then it can falsify 'All swans are white'.
But how do you know a proposition is corroborated, or corroborated enough to have falsifying power? Well, there is no way. According to Popper, we (or the relevant scientists) just decide. This is what it comes down to. At some point, we just decide that we're going to accept a statement as corroborated. But there is nothing to instruct the inquirer whether to reject a theory by deciding that a potentially falsifying lower level hypothesis is corroborated or to defend it by trying to falsify the hypothesis.
This seems far from the clear, deductive logic of science that Popper promises us. Indeed, it smells ripe for relativist appropriation. I can just imagine: “Your ethnic group (social class, sex, whatever) may have decided that hypothesis y is corroborated, and refutes hypothesis x. But our ethnic group (social class, sex, whatever) has decided that hypothesis z is corroborated, and refutes hypothesis y, and thus x is secure.” If there is disagreement about corroboration, I guess we can always resort to…. what? War?
For my part, I have not been made to see what is wrong with being certain in seeing mugs on desks, nor in the problem of a proposition becoming more likely true in light of new evidence. Americans tend to be a little perplexed by the enthusiasm for Popper in the Commonwealth. What is it with you guys?
Popper's Champion — It is daunting indeed to debate a man named “Rafe Champion“, a name that evokes race car-driving secret agents, or a dangerous, seething, family-wrecking hunks from a “daytime drama”. Shows what you get when you disagree with the redoubtable Perry de Havilland: set upon by mercenary indedependent scholars named “Rafe Champion”.
Anyway, Champion believes that Popper's epistemology solves some puzzle that needs solving. Popper's work makes most sense understood as a response to the deficient epistemologies of the Vienna Circle positivists, such as Carnap, Hempel and company, but I shall not bore anyone with a rehearsal of that history. In any case, Champion argues that it is incorrect to understand scientific knowledge as a species of belief, and that Popper provides a way forward after the alleged failure of the “justified true belief” account of knowledge. According to Champion, in the classical epistemologies “there is no way to decisively (certainly) justify the beliefs that are supposed to be true.”
First, I am keen to know what knowledge is, if not a kind of belief. If I know that water is H2O (a scientific proposition), don't I also believe it? Next, I find that I'm able to decisively justify all sorts of beliefs on the basis of experience. For instance, that there is a mug on my desk. I see the mug on my desk, and I thereby know that it is there. Science is rather more complex than looking at mugs on desks, but one surely can derive certain beliefs from the evidence of the senses. It's not clear to me what bind Popper is getting us out of.
Everything Champion says about the imaginative, critical, entrepeneurial nature of science is consistent with just about every account of scientific discovery. Now, although a few scientists with dated educations are avowed Popperians, Popper's theory fails to describe the actual successful practices of the scientific community. Scientists do in fact count positive experimental evidence, and other indications of theoretical success, such as simplicity, comprehensiveness and so forth, as confirmatory, and they are not wrong to do so. Scientific practice is more Bayesian than Popperian, and because scientific practice is so successful, I am inclined to think the scientists are doing something right. (I will resist the temptation to discuss the problem of prior probabilities.)
Last, I said nothing about limiting science to collecting confirming instances. All I was saying is that Popper is wrong that positive instances don't raise the probability of a hypothesis. According to Popper and Champion, the probability of Newton's theory being true, even after all its success, was the same as the probability of cats giving birth to elephants. And that's absurd. Champion says that my arguments against Popper are “weary and worn out”. This isn't quite to say that they are false, is it? Rather, it says that they are often used. And one might well wonder why that is.
Bush as Boromir & The Shire as Anarchist Paradise — Debate has raged over at Andrew Sullivan about Bush's counterpart in The Fellowship of the Rings. Having just completed the novel (I saw the movie, but in German, which I don't speak), I am ready to make sagacious pronouncements!
Perry de Haviland has intelligently suggested that the ring represents the awful and corrupting power of the state. I agree. (And I cite some of the same passages as Perry.) Now, Sullivan sees Frodo in Bush, and it's true: plainspoken, wide-eyed George does fairly emanate Hobbitude (have you seen his feet?) However, given that the ring is the state, Bush cannot be a Hobbit, for he has won his glory as a leader by marshalling of the awesome power of state force against dark enemies. Frodo seeks to destroy the ring. Bush seeks to use it for noble ends, heedless of its dangers. Thus spake Boromir, imploring Frodo to give him the ring, so as to overcome the Enemy with might:
True-hearted men, they will not be corrupted. . . We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only the strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. . . It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. . . And they tell us to throw it away! I do not say destroy it. That may be well, if reason could show any hope of doing so. It does not.
I've condensed the speech, but there's the essence of it. The state may be dangerous, but not if my tribe, true-hearted folk, hold the reigns. We don't wish to be dictators, only to defend what is good and true. A just cause. If it was possible to get along without the state, that would be great, but it's not possible. So best that I run it. That's a Bush in a nutshell. A Frodo is one who has chanced upon power, but attempts to use it only to destroy it.
Is the Shire indeed an anarchy? Yes! In the Prologue, Tolkein goes to pains to make clear that the Hobbits, while not egalitarians with regard to material goods, are egalitarians with regard to political power. They recognize no inequalities in coercive authority. Tolkein writes:
The Shire at this time had hardly any 'government'. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. . . There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the High King of Fornost. . . But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years.
Tolkein goes on to concede that the Hobbits do have a Thain, which office falls to the head of the Took family, but “the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity.” The one genuine official of the Shire is the Mayor, who oversees the post and the watch. And the police are little to speak of, being “in practice rather haywards rather than police, more concerned with the strayings of beasts than people.” Tolkein almost belabors the point that there is no coercive authority in the shire. Only when Bilbo returns with the ring is the stateless well-being of the Shire threatened.
We are made to admire the Shire and its bucolic anarchy. However, those libertarians who might take heart in the example of the Shire should heed the conditions Tolkein seems to find necessary for the sustenance of this happy situation.
Hobbits are incurious, deeply conservative and stasist: “Growing food and eating occupied most of their time. In other matters, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.” Not exactly the ambitious, creative, dynamic commercial society we tend to celebrate. Like frontier Americans, stateless Hobbits do well without legislation, but only a time-tested body of law. “They attributed to the kind of old all their essential laws; and usually the kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.” In addition, Hobbits are fascinated with family, and the Shire is small enough that almost everyone is related to everyone some way or another, and thus bound to each other with a sense of family obligation.
Generous dispositions, together with a rather unthinking respect for rules, and a recognition of others as part of an extended family, might well suffice to guarantee peace without force. But given the somewhat more individualist, ambitious and grasping nature of Men, our conditional attitude toward rules, and our society full of change and strangers, the Hobbit way to anarchist bliss holds little promise for us. For now, we can only hope that our own undisappointed Boromir, wielding his great yet essentially evil ring, can stave off corruption with Hobbit-like fortitude, so that we all may for some time remain Free Men.
Popper? I Don't Even Know Her! — Perry de Havilland of Samizdata quips in an aside that Karl Popper's conjectural objective epistemology “makes more sense” to him than Ayn Rand's epistemology. Well, Ayn Rand didn't really develop much of an epistemology (theory of knowledge). She developed the outline of a theory of concepts, and little else. In any case, the little bit of theory that she did produce has the virtue of coherence, while Popper's epistemology is grievously flawed.
According to Popper, prior to inquiry, the probability that all swans are white is zero. If I go out and observe a billion white swans, and no swans of other hues, then the probability that all swans are white is… still zero! The same as a contradiction!!! Popper claims that positive instances can do nothing to confirm a universal statement, which is just bizarre. Most large samples of a population match the population in composition. So of course finding something out about a large sample provides some evidence about the entire class.
Popper argues that one can only disconfirm a theory–prove that it is false. But then what do you say of a theory that has been subjected to huge numbers of potentially falsifying tests, but has passed with flying colors? Isn't not being falsified by many tests a lot like being confirmed? According to Popper, No! Then what's the difference between a theory that has passed a lot of tests, and a theory that hasn't been falsified because it's never been tested? Here, Popper just punts and makes up a different word for 'confirmation' and pretends to mean something different by it, similar to the way that Chomsky says we don't exactly “know” innate Universal Grammar, but we are “cognizant” of it.
Pace Popper, induction works just fine, and it works pretty much the way people intuitively think it does (i.e., The more horses you encounter, the surer your knowledge about horses in general.)
Anyway, for one of the most entertaining take downs in recent philosophy, try David Stove's Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, which is conveniently online. The trashing of Popper starts right at the start of chapter one. Stove was a misogynist, racist, reactionary… but a good philosopher of science, and a damn fine writer. It's just blistering good fun.
Yes. I really care about this sort of thing.
Faith & Boyle-ing Nihilism — Dawson Jackson asserts that atheists have “faith that God absolutely does not exist.” This is a common claim, but it rests on an elementary confusion. Theists are ever making atheism into a strong positive conviction, like their own, but it is nothing of the sort. To believe that something exists is to rely on it in your explanation of the world. That x does not exist is an automatic and idle consequence of the absence of claims about x in your body of belief. If I believe that hydrogen plays a role in explaining the way the world works, then I believe in hydrogen. If kryptonite never enters into my theory of the world at any point, then, by implication, I don't believe in kryptonite. I don't go around exerting mental energy not believing in kryptonite, just as I don't walk around trying not to wear lipstick. Not wearing lipstick is not something I do. In addition to typing, breathing, sitting, etc., I am not also not wearing lipstick, not kicking a dog, and so forth. Obviously, things you are not doing are not among the things that you are doing. If you are an atheist, then one of the things you are not doing is believing in God, but not believing in God is not thereby an ongoing activity.
Also, faith is belief in the absence of evidence. Non-belief in the absence of evidence is the opposite of faith: reason. It doesn't take a logician to realize that opposites cannot be the same thing.
Dawson also gives us a nice quote (?) from T. C. Boyle about atheism and nihilism. I just wish to say that I find nihilism incoherent. If nihilism is the view that nothing matters, or nothing is valuable, then it's just obviously false, and it's hard to see how it's even possible for anyone who isn't suicidal to hold it. It's better to be healthy and well than sick and in pain. It's better to have love and friendship than loneliness. It's true! Just try to dispute it! But then being healthy is valuable, and having friends matters. Boyle is being a dramatic idiot. He clearly believes that good prose is better than bad prose, and that success is better than failure. Maybe Boyle means that he doesn't believe that anything matters from the perspective of the universe or that meaning is conferred on our lives by our role in some grand, pre-ordained story. Well, sure. It would be silly to believe that. But not believing in that is not what nihilism is.
Dawson accuses me of making the “ancient blunder” of conflating two things into an antithesis, but since I have no idea what that could mean, I can't really stick up for myself on that score. I do understand “conflating two things that are antithetical.” It's what Dawson does with reason and faith.
Interactivity Returns! — The comment feature has been reinstated at The Fly Bottle, thanks to Leo Dillon's new version of SnorComments. So talk to me, baby!
Objectify Me, Please! — A main objection to porn seems to be that it “objectifies” women (and, yes, men). The force of this objection has always eluded me. We are objects, big chunks of matter moving through space-time. How can looking at dirty pictures objectify what is already an object?
Maybe I'm being a little coy. 'Objectification' is just a bad word. The core of the objection, I think, is not that porn objectifies, but that it de-subjectifies. When we concentrate on bodies and the pleasures they afford, we are liable to lose track of the mind within the body — the hopes and dreams, loves and fears, of the person in the lens. But still, I don't get it. This needn't happen at all.
Troubles with porn strike me as, you guessed it, Cartesian! My sense is that some folks just don't feel comfortable with the fact that our minds, in some sense, just are our bodies. Nor do they understand that our subjectivity is not independent of our embodiment. We are essentially physical beings with aesthetic and sexual dimensions. And our sexual, aesthetic physicality is an essential part of our subjective experience of ourselves and our world. Thus, you can't begin to do justice to the inner world of the person without taking into account their embodiment as sexual beings who care about beauty. If you're not objectifying people, if you're treating them as disembodied souls, then you're doing violence to their lived experience.
Pictures, films, stories or whatever of people having sex strike me as entirely unobjectionable. It all depends on what you do with it. If certain kinds of bodies, or sexual acts, are arousing and pleasurable to behold, then what's the problem in taking pleasure from it? The real nature of the inner life of the folks involved is no more pertinent than the inner lives of folks in travel brochures, or the folks who make your sneakers. If one comes to reduce all a person's value to sexual value, then that would certainly be bad. But that's no worse than a coach reducing his players' value to athletic value, or a stock broker reducing his clients to their economic value. Thankfully, there is nothing in the nature of coaching or porn or financial counseling that keeps us from maintaining a realistic and compassionate conception of the whole person. Do strong objections to porn often flow from a constricted notion of what it is to be a person and a sexual being? Yeah, probably.
Personally, I like to be admired for my physical attributes, and I never feel diminished as a person when someone implies they might like sex with me. Maybe it's because I'm a rather abstracted intellectual sort, but I often feel more visible as a person when someone is paying attention to me as a physical and sexual thing. It's not all I am, but it's a fair part of it, and I lose touch with it without a little help. So go ahead, objectify me, please!