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Word Games

Featured image is Lower-Austrian Peasant Wedding, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

J. L. Austin made a tremendous breakthrough in linguistics and the philosophy of language when he demonstrated the performative character of language—that is, by saying something we are always doing something. Extreme cases include “I now pronounce you man and wife,” which, when uttered in the right circumstances, changes the status of two people from being single to being married.

The problem with operationalizing this comes in with the notion of “in the right circumstances.” Can these be specified in advance? At what level of detail? How small do deviations need to be before the speech act is nullified (or “infelicitous” as Austin put it)? Are some infelicities more important or decisive than others, and does this vary for each sort of speech act?

Austin ultimately gave up on a completed system, though many speech act theorists since him have taken up the torch. Among these, his former student John Searle is the most notable.

But I stand with critics like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish in thinking that a high degree of uncertainty is required by the subject matter. Derrida has pointed out that if the successful performance of a speech act is determined by context, and context is boundless, then we can never know with the certainty of mathematical or logical necessity that we have avoided infelicity. There may be aspects of the speech situation that we did not notice at the time which invalidate it retroactively, and the uncertainty around this is ineradicable.

It is akin to digital security—we may use top of the line cryptography, we may use stricter than best practice implementations, but we cannot know about security holes that haven’t been discovered yet. If we could, then we would have discovered them already. There is no reducing, much less eradicating, uncertainty of this sort—in security or in speech acts.

The point is not that no speech act ever succeeds, but that it isn’t something we can really measure externally from the situation and the people involved. Moreover, even to participants it is not known with the certainty of the solution to mathematical problems.

Without pretending to such certainty, I’d like to build off of our previous discussion of Aristotle’s notions of actuality and potentiality, as well as efficient and finals causes, in order to continue the discussion of when speech acts go right or wrong. Continue reading “Word Games”

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Where Do Beliefs Come From?

Featured image is Sunset, by Caspar David Friedrich.

This post is dedicated to Drew Summitt, who has relentlessly pushed Aristotelian metaphysics upon me. It is also a technical followup to this piece.

To have beliefs, one must have a lot of other beliefs. This is John Searle’s summary of the point that, in analytic philosophy anyway, goes back at least as far as W. V. Quine. No lone belief is coherent in isolation, but only as part of a web of beliefs that provide it with context.

Rather than a web, Searle spoke of a Network. At first he believed the Network was a set of unconscious beliefs that provide context for conscious beliefs. But in time he came to see that the notion of an “unconscious belief” is dubious. Instead, we ought to speak of having the capacity to generate some specific belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.

(…)

Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

The Network is the specific set of capacities for generating the relevant beliefs. It is a subset of the Background, which are all of the non-mental capabilities that generate mental states.

I find this taxonomy compelling. I would summarize the basic insight as follows: consciousness, knowledge, beliefs, and all mental states are performed, not stored. As Richard Moodey put it, “I imagine ‘knowledge’ as inseparable from acts of knowing, as something performed, rather than possessed.”

So we have performed mental states, and we have capacities for generating them. What is the ontology of these capacities? Continue reading “Where Do Beliefs Come From?”

Malum in Volente

Indecisive wind moped through the savage trees of Anacortes. Dave and I begged the pitiable sloop to pass unmolested through Deception Pass. Land, as they say, was quite nearly ho. Audra’s icy blue eyes peered out of the cabin at the crags drifting past overhead.

“You ever wonder about the nature of evil, Sam?”

Dave had startled me. I was lost in reverie, pondering the inky boundaries between fantasy, dream, prophesy, and madness. Even when the ocean wasn’t whispering terror into my ears, I often found the lure of introspection difficult to resist when the wind moaned and the waves lapped. “I don’t know. Maybe. I always just sort of reckoned it was a term of approbation.” I shook my head. “No, wait. That means approval, right? The opposite of that. Opprobation.” Continue reading “Malum in Volente”

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Frayed Edges of a Web of Belief

Featured image is a painted backdrop of a palace, by Edgar S. Paxson

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk.

– Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

A farm boy enters a barn with an empty pail. He has been in this barn, and barns like it, so many times before, that he does not even register most of his surroundings. He milks the cows almost without thought; the motions come to him as effortlessly as walking or scratching an itch.

The next day he returns, but something is not right. He is sure that he came the same way that he always does, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing this barn before. Thinking as hard as he can, he supposes that the barn he usually goes to looks something like this one. Trying to move beyond the strange sensation of unfamiliarity, he goes in. But it is no good—even inside, something feels very off. He looks around for some sign that this is the correct barn. He stares at a cow for several minutes before realizing he ought to get started. Once he is in position, he finds that he cannot make his hands work correctly. He does not tug hard enough to produce any milk, or he misses the pail. He simply cannot perform the task the way he knows he should be able to.

How many times must we send a farm boy in with an empty pail to get milk before we are satisfied that he knows how to milk a cow? Can we call no one a farm boy until he is dead?

W. V. Quine argued that any of our beliefs are only coherent within a larger web of belief, most of which we are not conscious of in a given moment. Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks, in like fashion, of a horizon of meaning which form the conditions of intelligibility for every one of us. But where are these horizons? Where do the visible threads in this web lead?

John Searle once thought that the beliefs we are not conscious of right at this moment are kept in a sort of inventory of unconscious mental states. In attempting to flesh this out, however, he found unresolvable problems. The only workable model of the unconscious he could come up with was one of the potentially conscious—so to say that someone believes the world is round even when he is asleep is really to say that if he woke up he would be capable of consciously holding that very belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.

(…)

Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

This is more in line with (to my knowledge) the neuroscience of memory. Memories are not stored and retrieved, but constructed in the moment of remembering.

I am also reminded of Gadamer’s discussion of moral knowledge:

But we do not learn moral knowledge, nor can we forget it. We do not stand over against it, as if it were something that we can acquire or not(…). Rather, we are always already in a situation of having to act (disregarding the special position of children, for whom obedience to the person educating them replaces their own decision), and hence we must already possess and be able to apply moral knowledge. That is why the concept of application is highly problematical. For we can only apply something that we already have; but we do not possess moral knowledge in such a way that we already have it and then apply it to specific situations.

A stage actor or a stand-up comedian, or a baseball player for that matter, has good days and bad days. Do they ever know why? Can they do anything about it even if they do?

When we walk up to the plate, what else can we do but hope? Hope that the scant threads we can see before us still connect back to the larger web. That, just out of view, they haven’t become frayed ends, unconnected and blowing in the wind.

Related Posts:

The Organizational Economics of Time Travel

Why haven’t time travelers prevented the 100% likely depredations of [pending event]? Why hasn’t anyone come back in time to kill Hitler or save the dodo or smother the members of Nickelback in the cradle? Why in a universe of fermion asymmetry and higher-than-three-dimensional branes have we not seen the real-life equivalent of Booster Gold, Ripley Hunter, Max Mercury, Nate Summers, or the crew of the retrofitted RMS Bounty (after replacing the Klingon meal packs)? Continue reading “The Organizational Economics of Time Travel”

Christianity and the Ordinary Life on TV

Is The Simpsons the most Christian show in the history of TV?

This question came after I asked fellow Sweet Talker Dave a related one: is The Simpsons the last show to feature a regularly churchgoing family?

To which he responded: can you think of any other popular TV show in the entire history of the medium which did so?

I put the question to Twitter and received a handful of replies. Most, however, involved families or characters that were nominally churchgoing, but the church was kept firmly offstage. In The Cosby Show, for instance, church is a place the Huxtables are occasionally coming home from, and that is it.The more we discussed it, the more bizarre this seemed. Certainly our culture is more secular than ever now, but that was hardly the case from the start of the history of TV. People offered several theories, but I’m going to run with the one I found most interesting:

Stephen is referring to the following:

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I think “reverent portrayals” sums this up nicely.

The bread and butter of TV from the beginning have been portrayals of ordinary American life. By making church purely an object of reverence, it became something bigger than ordinary life. So the center of gravity for shows became work and the home, almost exclusively. The role of church was relegated to special story arcs that required reverence or moral dilemmas or crises of faith, something that would grow tiresome if it were a regular feature of The Andy Griffith Show or Mary Tyler Moore.

The Simpsons, in its irreverence, actually normalized churchgoing—a strange turn of phrase, given how normal churchgoing still is in America! But relative to TV before and since its inception, “normalizing” seems the appropriate word.

Church is a feature of ordinary life in Springfield. People go there every week. Children find it boring. Adults often do, too. Reverend Lovejoy often displays a frustration with his flock expressed with dry and sarcastic wit. The church and even Lovejoy play important roles in episodes specifically about faith or moral dilemmas, but for the most part, it all just fills in the unassuming background for the Simpson family’s ordinary life.

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Sun Tzu and the Art of Narrative

Featured image is a statue of Sun Tzu. By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5.

One of the few nuggets I can recall from my high school reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is this: leave your enemy an escape route. If you surround your foe so thoroughly that they have no option but to fight (suppose surrender is not an option), then they will fight like hell. They will fight as nasty as they can, because there is nothing else left. But if they have a way out, then you can best them in the field with less bloodshed on both sides.

Virginia Postrel in her characteristic wisdom points out that Trump voters had many reasons to vote the way they did. Some of these were racist reasons, to be sure. At the very least, Trump voters displayed a stunning lack of giving a shit for the plight of women and minorities, who bore the brunt of both Trump’s narrative assault and his actual prescribed policies (e.g., building a wall and banning Muslim immigration).

Liberals want to turn Trump’s victory into an endorsement of racism and misogyny. That’s a dumb strategy if you’re against those things. The liberal belief that half the country is made up of horrible people is a big reason Trump got elected, and the more Democrats keep repeating it, the more likely their worst fears are to come true.

And so one popular narrative on the left is to portray all Trump voters as reaching deep inside themselves to find their true hearts of racist darkness. But even if this were true, this is a dangerous narrative for liberals and progressives to advance. Think of this as narrative combat. In the flesh and blood political field, of course, liberals and progressives are routed. But there is a narrative struggle as well. And in this narrative struggle, it’s still possible for liberals and progressives to “win”—that is, to weave history such that in electing Trump, Americans are understood to have succumbed fully to racism. Conservatives and other Trump voters are backed into a narrative corner. If no matter what they do, they will be seen as the worst kinds of racists, then they lose all incentive to believe otherwise of themselves. Worse, they will lose any incentive to rein in the genuine racists in their midst.

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Not a broad endorsement of any vision. Link.

And there are truly nasty elements among the Trump electorate. Nothing I have said above should be interpreted as denying that. The KKK and other white nationalists are jubilant at Trump’s victory. Trump’s campaign brought the Alt-Right out of the shadows, and they will be with us for a long, long time. To be clear, the Alt-Right is explicitly against Enlightenment values and liberalism broadly construed. And these elements will likely be emboldened with the apotheosis of their latest mascot.

But we must be careful to allow Trump voters with non-malicious reasons to keep those reasons, woefully misguided though they may be. Those reasons, those self-conceptions, may yet be compatible with the open society. At least, these self-conceptions may be clay that can be worked with toward liberal ends in a way that white nationalist and Alt-Right identities cannot be. Remember that this is the same citizenry that elected Barack Obama. Twice. And some Obama voters also voted for Trump.

Here is another narrative avoid, one of opposite valence. All over my social media feeds I see recriminations of liberals and progressives and “elitists” for doing nothing but calling Trump supporters racists, sexists, and bigots, and generally employing shame tactics against rural America. Now, just as there really do exist actual racists who loudly and proudly supported Trump for frankly racist reasons, there is a kernel of truth to this narrative as well. But it’s not the whole story. Perhaps because of the careful curation of my social media, here’s what I observed far more often than overzealous accusations of racism and angry demands for white men to “check their privilege”: discussion of institutional and other forms of unconscious effective racism that were met by white men who immediately interpreted these discussions as assaults on their character. Openings of discussions of the reality of social privilege were construed as denunciations of whiteness or masculinity as such.

Social justice rhetoric can be and sometimes is weaponized, but white male fragility is also a very real phenomenon. I was discouraged to hear John McWhorter—one of the “black guys of Bloggingheads”—express disapproval of the term “structural racism” as too incendiary. But the idea is all about how unintentional and unconscious actions can lead to racially disparate consequences. Implicit bias is real. Legacy effects of now-dismantled but historically bigoted policies are real. Spontaneous orders resulting from the unplanned actions and beliefs of diverse individuals can and do lead to perverse outcomes for people belonging to certain communities. While care must always be taken in crafting rhetoric, we must not give up on educating everyone about these realities for fear of offending those who most need to learn that these aren’t just silly ideas cooked up by ivory tower professors. As ever, the burden for this communication rests heavier on white folks like me.

The lesson from all this is that there is no singular true narrative for any electoral outcome, especially from an election as unique as this one with two historically unpopular candidates. We can’t make up our facts (leave that to Trump and the postmodern Alt-Right), but we can be strategic about our narratives and the possibilities they contain.