When The Road Forks, You Can Only Choose One Path

In reading Paul Crider’s recent response to me on feminism, he leaves us with the impression that his kind of feminism is a highly pluralistic dialogue that represents many different kinds of beliefs, often opposed to each other. Indeed, this forms the basis for Paul’s oblique defense of feminism:

These are open conversations, with little to no control (by whom?) over who participates. Essentially anyone can jump into the conversation with commentary that might touch a contemporary nerve and be adopted into the conversation. Any such new entrant may find a hearing by some faction while other factions are hostile. There’s no central control board to authoritatively deem a new voice legitimate or not.

So, you can understand my surprise when, in the context of that very reply to me, Paul rejects this very kind of pluralism. Twice.

Regarding abortion, Paul states:

To suggest, as Ryan appears to, that abortion rights are beside the point of gender equality is to entirely misunderstand the issue.

Further down in his post, he writes:

Libertarians have good reasons to raise the hue and cry about the inherent coercion of using the government to change society. Libertarians (who may or may not be feminists) can and should have this debate with “statists” (who may or may not be feminists). But this is simply a different debate than that of feminism itself.

When it comes to Title IX or subsidized day care, Paul tells us that feminism isn’t really the issue; but when it comes to abortion, Paul tells us that there is no other way to understand the matter.

How, then, might Paul reply to a feminist who claimed that to treat the question of subsidized day care as an economic issue, rather than a feminist one, is to entirely misunderstand the issue?

This Is Not A Post About Feminism

Okay, I admit it: I’m not really surprised. In undertaking a more specific defense of certain feminist principles, Paul is engaging in one of the most derided – but healthiest – aspects of human morality: Being judgmental. Ultimately, Paul must choose between a truly pluralistic feminism and a moral truth; he chooses the latter. He made the right choice.

Let’s set aside feminsm in favor of another point. The jargon version is: Human ethics require an explicit rejection of polylogism, even when that makes you look “judgmental.” We simply cannot have it both ways. The moment we take a moral stance is the moment we reject all others. We “judge” other people by determining right and wrong for ourselves. Not only is that not bad, it’s fantastic. It’s the sign of a correctly functioning moral compass.

At issue isn’t whether and how we should be feminists, but whether it is worth it to accept a significantly biased paradigm in exchange for what that paradigm has to offer. Our answer regarding feminism will guide us with regard to any other ideologically motivated lens.

Ideally, we wouldn’t need any lens at all, we’d just objectively collect data, analyze it correctly, and sally forth. But Paul correctly notes that this isn’t possible:

There is no lens-free option; without some kind of lens (theory), the world is a hopeless blur of disordered sensory data. Pretending to go sans-lens is simply to fail to acknowledge or even be aware of the lenses through which one does in fact peer.

 

Still, not all lenses are created equal. For example, mystic oral history is no replacement for the modern scientific method. When two competing lenses are at odds, one must be discarded. To embrace modern science’s explanation of the formation of the solar system, we must necessarily reject the notion that it was constructed out of a lotus flower.

I don’t doubt that Crider agrees with me on that much, nor would I ever suggest that he is a proponent of polylogism. Still, his view of feminism as a lens or pluralistic dialogue, combined with feminism’s historical love affair with Marxism, reminds me of something Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action:

In the eyes of the Marxians the Ricardian theory of comparative cost is spurious because Ricardo was a bourgeois. The German racists condemn the same theory because Ricardo was a Jew, and the German nationalists because he was an Englishman. Some German professors advanced all these three arguments together against the validity of Ricardo’s teachings. However, it is not enough to reject a theory wholesale by unmasking the background of its author. What is wanted is first to expound a system of logic different from that applied by the criticized author. Then it would be necessary to examine the contested theory point by point and to show where in its reasoning inferences are made which–although correct from the point of view of its author’s logic–are invalid from the point of view of the proletarian, Aryan, or German logic. And finally, it should be explained what kind of conclusions the replacement of the author’s vicious inferences by the correct inferences of the critic’s own logic must [p. 76] lead to. As everybody knows, this never has been and never can be attempted by anybody.

If something is true, it is true by all logic, not just feminist logic or non-feminist logic. This applies equally to the issue of abortion and the issue of subsidized day care. An open conversation evaluates all claims on their individual strengths, rather than separating matters as feminist or not feminist. Such a conversation also judges claims on the same criteria. Tolerating multiple viewpoints sounds good, but it’s ultimately impracticable.

While it may be valuable to see something through a particular lens momentarily, that view must be evaluated against the view taken through other lenses, too. But it wouldn’t be right to call oneself an “everything-ist” simply because one is willing to consider all theories before discarding them. So I can’t call myself a feminist after having identified its inherent biases and discarded them in favor of better accuracy through alternative paradigms.

It is for this reason that I originally wrote that “I don’t see feminism as a viable path toward achieving [gender equality].” If something only seems true when viewed through the feminist lens, but not through our other lenses, then how true can it really be? Any sufficiently complicated moral dilemma requires analysis through multiple paradigms and considerations. Finally and crucially, we should then arrive at a conclusion that reconciles with (or improves) our comprehensive moral framework. At that point, the lenses should be discarded and replaced with something better: our individual ethical philosophy – what I refer to at Stationary Waves as a personal creed.

The construction of this kind of highly personal and individualized – but logically consistent – sense of right and wrong, has been the defining journey of my life thus far, and one that I actively encourage others to undertake themselves. “We can make the world a better place by being better people,” and developing a personal creed is how I propose that we do it.

But that also means that I can’t willingly accept biased lenses that violate the logical underpinnings of my moral framework – especially when I haven’t been given a good value proposition for doing so.

Paul might call this an “idiosyncratic reason for disaffection for feminism,” but for me, it’s Step Three in the process of building a creed. I have to recognize that I must choose between competing claims because contradictory paradoxes are nonsense. I might make better sense of something with more information, but in absence of that information, my position is disbelief.

So it is for feminism, and any other idea.

One Final Note

I hasten to add that none of the above is meant to imply that Paul hasn’t analyzed matters, discarded biases, and incorporated his analysis into an updated moral framework. If you’ve read his posts, then you know he obviously has. Constructing a personal creed doesn’t mean that we all end up with the same creed and think exactly the same things. All it means is that we’re all doing what we can to be better people. This is probably even true of feminists. Like I said, though, this isn’t really a post about feminism. If any paradigm can be shown to be too heavily biased, it ought to be discarded, and discovering that bias is a personal process that happens at different times to different people and for different reasons.

So it’s possible that, should Paul write another post on this topic, his explanation will fully reconcile his ideas and mine. It’s also possible that it would require many more posts to reach that kind of reconciliation. It’s possible that he may convince me yet that I am wrong. All any of us can really speak to is our perspective based on our current set of information. Knowledge and truth might exist, and it might make perfect sense, but that doesn’t mean we’ve collected all the relevant information yet.

 

Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

In a way, my previous post was about the existence of existence. This post might be about the existence of truth. Or, perhaps it is about the illusion of its absence.

Atonal Music

Unlike most music fans, I love serial compositions. They’re not for everyone, but the reason I like them is because they use our implicit knowledge of traditional Western harmony against us. Even if you don’t think you know anything about music, you do. Your mere cultural exposure to music has ingrained you with the understanding of certain rudimentary concepts, certain expectations of harmonic and melodic sequences, even if you aren’t expressly aware of them.

What makes atonal music like Schoenberg’s so much fun for me is that, because they lack the same kind of musical structure traditional music has, my mind races in to fill the void. I’ll hear two notes played at random, and my mind subconsciously creates a harmonic link between them. Then a third “random” note appears, and my mind stretches to create a harmonic link that reconciles all three notes. On and on it goes until my mind can no longer link all the notes together, and I have to start again.

This very process is what makes other people hate serial compositions. Rather than compelling, they find the process stressful. Well, different strokes for different folks – but what’s interesting here is that even if you hate serial music, you can’t stop your brain from attempting to form patterns in the music. Love it or hate it, the music switches on a particular attribute of human thinking: pattern recognition.

If I play all the notes corresponding to, “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” and suddenly stop, then your brain will automatically think, “…star.” To people who spend a lot of time listening to music, like me, all you’d have to do is play, “Twinkle, twink…” – just three notes – and our musical brains would automatically think, “..kle little star.”

If you really want to confuse someone, then try whistling the notes that correspond to: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / Fa la la la la, La la la la!” But if you really want to make them made, make sure the first part is in a different key signature than the second part.

Many great composers have utilized similar tricks to play the listener’s ear against itself, but the serial composers took this fact of human psychology to a whole new level, in the pursuit of new “outside sounds.” The genius of atonal music is that it makes us see patterns even where none exist, i.e. even when the notes arranged, essentially, nonsensically.

Atonal Logic

A few years back, in a post entitled “The Paradox Paradox,” I wrote:

The interesting thing about paradoxes is that they are both a problem of definition and of perception. The definition can never be true, and their existence is in fact only a matter of perception.

A paradox is defined to be a statement that is “seemingly” or “apparently” self-contradictory. But their main problem is that they don’t really exist. No statement can be both true and false at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.

Paradoxes capitalize on the fact that language is more flexible than logic. The “trick” is that self-contradictory sentences can be constructed whose logical or physical properties are impossible, in the same sense that imaginary creatures can be described in books even though their physical existence is otherwise impossible. I can construct the sentence “This statement is false,” but I cannot make it mean anything. While such statements dazzled the ancient Greeks for a time, in the end they are simply nonsense.

Like atonal music, paradoxes adhere to a consistent internal logic, namely, valid linguistic syntax. Also like atonal music, the value of paradoxes is that they are simply entertaining. And, like atonal music, paradoxes contain no outward meaning beyond their internal structure; the composition is the statement, but there is no meaning to be extracted beyond its structure.

Paradoxes aren’t the only statements that work this way. I can also construct a sentence like, “My fertile eyeglasses eat nimble compassion,” which has all its parts of speech in the correct locations, but which conveys no real information. Eyeglasses aren’t fertile and they cannot eat anything; compassion isn’t nimble and it cannot be eaten.

Here, though, our sense of pattern-recognition might kick in and wonder whether there might be a sense in which that statement might be true. Can eyeglasses be fertile in a manner of speaking? Can compassion be allegorically nimble?

It sounds interesting for a moment, but we soon realize that the sentence really is nonsense, and then we move on.

Atonal Knowledge

I thought about my old post on the nonsense of paradoxes when Adam posed his questions the other day.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

If my statement is true, then in what sense does Germany border China?

I think it’s possible to listen to that Schoenberg piece I embedded above and to genuinely believe that it has a tonal center, even though it was deliberately written not to have one. I also think it’s possible to genuinely believe that compassion can be nimble. The problem with beliefs is that they can be – and quite often are – simply wrong.

This fact is unpleasant. We don’t like to judge others, and in particular we don’t feel good about judging others’ beliefs. But atonal music is genuinely atonal, and skepticism of consciousness is genuinely impossible. We don’t have to be jerks about it, but when someone claims to reject the existence of consciousness, we can safely discard their statement as a wrong thing, a logical and physical impossibility, that they only think they believe.

This shouldn’t stop us from analyzing the matter. For one thing, just because a particular truth exists doesn’t mean we already possess that knowledge. For another thing, we might only realize our mistaken beliefs after close consideration of the matter.

And, thirdly, thinking about such things is entertaining, just like paradoxes and atonal music.

A Little Manifest Truth Goes A Long Way

In his recent post, Adam Gurri asserts that there is no ultimate difference between persuasion and rational evaluation. Although Gurri defends his position well, reading that post elicited an almost visceral reaction against what he was saying. In what sense could, for example, the collection of field data verifying that the radioactive half-life of strontium-90 is 28.8 years be essentially no different than powerful rhetoric arguing that it is so?

The point of Gurri’s post, of course, is to point out that persuasion, done right, is not unethical. He uses his observation that rational analysis “is first and foremost attempting to discover what conclusion we find persuasive” in order to buttress that case.

I agree with Gurri in the main. I agree that persuasion is not unethical, and that a substantial amount of rational analysis is an attempt to find the most persuasive theory. Still, I think a substantial portion of human knowledge is manifest. This offers us a potential remedy for the politicization of knowledge in general.

Three Kinds Of Knowledge

Before I really get going, I’d like to make a potentially controversial claim: With regard to the present topic at least, there are essentially three kinds of knowledge, which I will (loosely) call “innate knowledge,” “direct observation,” and “retention.” (Bear with me.)

Innate Knowledge

What I call “innate knowledge” is the set of existential facts that are so self-evident that denying them constitutes literal nonsense.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

Innate knowledge might also include: knowledge of the existence of knowledge; the conception of concepts themselves; crude logical building blocks such as “difference” and “duality;” logical operands; and so on.

Direct Observation

What I call direct observation is any fact that a person directly observes. If a child burns her finger on a match, that experience is a direct observation. She might extrapolate from her experience that any lit match could potentially burn her finger, but this would not be a direct observation. The knowledge of the initial experience, however, would be.

Our memories and experiences make up our complete set of direct observations. To question this knowledge is to question one’s own sanity – certainly appropriate in some circumstances, but generally dubious. Direct observations constitute knowledge as sure as the existence of consciousness, provided that the observer is genuinely sane. Even so, when questioning our sanity, we question it, not the veracity of our observations. Only after determining the state of our sanity can we go back to questioning our direct observations.

While the observer may never be able to definitively persuade others that the observed was actually observed, the surety of that knowledge is no less unquestionable to the observer than the existence of her own consciousness.

Retention

Finally, there is what I’ll call “retention,” or all facts that are neither innate nor directly observed, but that would be virtually insane to question. For example, I have reason to believe that I possess a human heart. I have not directly observed my heart (although I can hear and feel evidence of my heart beat). I cannot prove the existence of my heart to other people. And yet, based on every verifiable fact of human anatomy and personal experience, it would be more or less insane to claim that I do not possess a heart.

I call this knowledge rather than theory because skepticism of things such as the existence of one’s own unobserved heart, or the fact that one’s spouse is a tangible person and not a complex delusion, or etc., constitutes a direct contradiction of every other piece of innate knowledge and direct observation a person has. It is not merelyas Paul Crider writes – “the willingness to put skepticism aside for the sake of rational thought” (although it is that, too). It is also the functional ability to keep all other knowledge in one’s head, and use it. One cannot constantly and perpetually observe that matches burn one’s finger. The ability to recall that a match burned one’s finger without having to verify the same observation all the time is the ability to retain knowledge. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m calling “retention.”

Conviction and Persuasion

Note that none of the knowledge I have discussed above requires that we be persuaded of its existence. We need only our sanity.

The existence of this knowledge is important because it establishes that there is at least some knowledge that is not subject to persuasion. That is, contra Gurri, some knowledge is apolitical. In fact, we can draw a straight line from sentience, to observation, to extrapolation. We only arrive at a politics of knowledge when confronted with the fact that no one person can directly observe or logically prove every piece of knowledge that he needs in life. He must be willing to accept that his fellows have made useful observations of their own.

Regarding knowledge shared with others, we face a new dynamic: the choice of what claims to accept rather than directly observe, the choice of whose claims to accept compared to others, the choice of which claims to deem credible and why, etc. Here we must confront the biases that color our thinking; here we must confront our human tendency toward motivated reasoning. In this realm, we find that Gurri is absolutely correct.

Then why would I be so pedantic as to differentiate between political and apolitical knowledge when, as must be clear enough by now, Gurri’s posts have been specifically about the trust we place on the knowledge we gain from others?

One reason is that doing so provides us with a potential remedy for the problems he has identified. Knowing that an honest truth-seeker can, in highly politicized moments, step back, out of the realm of political knowledge, and into the more reliable world of direct observation provides us with an important check on the undue influence of politics and motivated reasoning.

Taking too much for granted, placing too much trust in the work of those who came before us places us in an unacceptably vulnerable position. This is particularly true now that politicized knowledge is so ubiquitous in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, that math teachers force us to replicate proofs of mathematical phenomena. There is a reason why statisticians must first learn the foundations of their craft before applying themselves to real-world data science problems. And, yes, there is a reason students of economics are forced to begin with principles courses and construct logical proofs of economic phenomena. We need to be able to de-politicize knowledge and verify things for ourselves. We need to be able to fact-check.

Because of this, I stop short of calling all knowledge political. However impractical it is to personally verify every fact one comes across, it is ultimately most practical, most reliable, most sensible, and most apolitical to remember that some knowledge is, in fact, manifest. At least as manifest as our consciousness, anyway.