Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative

In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.

The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.

Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.

I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.

Time has not been kind to that vision.

Continue reading “Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative”

Certainly

Featured image is Lord Byron On His Death-Bed, by Joseph-Denis Odevaere.

I’m not looking forward to the process of dying. Whatever one’s beliefs about the afterlife, my thoughts will inevitably turn to the course of my life – my accomplishments and failures, regrets and reprisals, triumphs and shortcomings. It’s the final act of accounting for oneself – for every good deed and praiseworthy act I can think of, it’s guaranteed that there was an equal and opposite instance  of personal or moral failure. We all want to make peace, and allow ourselves to rest, in hope that our final thoughts will be positive, happy. The harder we think about life, though, the less sure we are that we are good people. No one wants to die a failure.

This line of thinking inspires a great deal of humility. No matter how right you think you are, how much good you think you’ve done, if you were twenty minutes from dying you might worry that you weren’t right enough, or good enough, to die at peace with yourself.

This kind of humility is, in my opinion, important and positive. Taken to the extreme, though, it is paralyzing, and the one thing worse than dying in a state of philosophical uncertainty is living in one. Continue reading “Certainly”

Religious Recursion

It does annoy me, on occasion, before I catch myself and remember that the whole Christian project is a project of open futility–

About that: the Second Sunday of Easter is always Doubting Thomas Sunday, so doubt is much on my mind, being a fervent believer, liturgically speaking, meditating on the elements of my faith, which is something else, at my age, having lived through the emergence of a culture which was mostly Christian into one which is mostly not, especially up here in Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Doubt, right? It’s essential to the Faith.

They were upstairs, behind locked doors, afraid, those Eleven who were with him from the very beginning, and they all saw him die. Thomas, called “The Twin,” puffs his chest out, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Well, Thomas, can’t you do that to a corpse?

Strange things.

I don’t understand the intellectual hostility to Christianity, especially when people I consider friends publicly wish there were fewer of me, less of my influence in life and culture. Why? Because there are bad Christians? And the half-baked dismissal of the fervent, you know, glib high school angry atheist stuff, always as an aside, never as a grown-up inquiry into this two thousand year old faith with a billion adherents, and growing (despite Europe and North America), which has roots in a strange Ancient Near Eastern blood cult another two thousand years hence.

The Christian project is a project of open futility, though, and I have to remind myself of that.

Nevertheless, I do take a little pleasure in some of the materialist investigations into the Faith, first transforming Christianity into a “religion,” which is a neat intellectual move, making the Faith, which dominates the life and culture of Western Civilization, indistinguishable from shamanistic druidic magicka, only distinguishing by time elapsed. When the materialists talk about ritual, ignoring my own call for distinctions within these hallowed halls

Remember, the Christian Faith is in defiance of ritual and religion. When Christianity develops rituals, it’s always a threat to itself.

This behavior of the materialists, all of them together, namely, wishing there were fewer of me, reducing my beliefs into a primordial pool of beliefs, and talking about my rites and rituals without making proper distinctions, creates in me a sense that a kind of recursion is going on:

The materialist sees the Christian, and comments. The Christian sees the materialist commenting, and comments. The materialist sees the Christian commenting on the comment, and so forth. To me, it’s like one of those wonderfully absurd Monty Python sketches:

Scene: Lower middle-class apartment, evening, husband sitting in comfortable chair reading The Times, wife making efforts at wifely cleaning. Two men appear in the window, dressed in safari clothing, writing in notebooks.

Wife: Herman, they’re watching us again!

Herman: Who are, Margret?

Margret: The Materialists.

Herman: Oh, that’s all right, dear, they’re just researching.

Margret: Researching?

Herman: That’s right, Margret; they’ve come from a long way away just to learn about our behavior in the wild instead of in captivity.

Laugh track

Margret: Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. (closes curtains. The materialist safari move to the other window)

Laugh track

Margret: They won’t go away, Herman!

Herman: Of course not, dear, they’re Materialists.

Laugh track

Herman: Ask them what they want, and maybe they’ll go away.

Margret: What do you want?

Materialists don’t answer. Whisper to each other, writing in notebooks.

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Laugh track

Herman: Do what?

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Herman: Well, what are they talking about?

Margret: Normativity.

Herman: Normativity? Did you hand them a copy of Proverbs?

Margret: I told you, they don’t think we can see them.

And so forth. The laugh track is to my advantage, but you, O Materialist, have the last laugh, the true laugh.

The whole project of the Christian Faith is a project of open futility, and it is actually encoded in the Faith. Saint Paul–excuse me–the Apostle Paul, after fifteen chapters on the wisdom of God putting to shame the wisdom of the world (that would be you materialists) finishes his exposition by saying in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, “If there is no resurrection of the body, then we are to be pitied more than all men. Send money.”

So, since miracles = impossible (cf. G.E. Lessing), and since the resurrection of the body = a miracle, then, it follows, therefore there is no God.

The materialist has the advantage in an ever-improving society and ever-progressing technology as a result of Science, material proof. The only way for me to prove my faith is for me to become a corpse.

They called Thomas “The Twin” for a reason, you know.

man-in-the-mirror
Image borrowed from http://menfash.us/styling-tips/am-i-really-looking-good/

 

When No Argument Can Save You

This week I had the pleasure of listening to my friend Noah appear on EconTalk to discuss the status of economics as science with my former professor in that discipline, Russ Roberts.

I would characterize neither of them as epistemologists or philosophers of science, but perennial practitioners. The chief difference between them, other than age or Noah’s ability to draw on a knowledge of physics as well as economics, is one of faith.

Noah himself brought this up: all science requires a leap of faith somewhere, as he put it. The example he used was Galileo’s experiment demonstrating that two balls of different mass will fall at the same rate. There’s only so far you can go to prove that this represents a universal law, or even a very general one. What if it only applies in our part of the universe? What if it only applies when there is a human observer?

Noah isn’t saying this makes us helpless or that we have to willfully ignore such thought experiments—nor should we.

The arc that Russ Roberts has gone through on this subject since I took his class during the crash in 2008 to the present can be characterized as a loss of faith—rather than the embrace of a given intellectual framework.

Russ has become unwilling to make that leap of faith when it comes to economic methods and arguments. But more importantly, he has lost faith in the sense of trust—trust in his fellow economists. Most importantly of all, he has lost faith in his own judgment.

The questions that he seems to come to again and again—why economists can’t agree on the effect of the 2009 stimulus, whether any study has ever completely won over people whose perspective was at odds with its conclusions—are attempts to establish, or prove once and for all the absence of, the credibility of economics as a field.

I’m not sure there’s an answer that could satisfy him. There’s a certain self-fulfillingness to losing trust in this way, much as widespread generosity in granting trust seems to perpetuate itself. How such trust can get established in the first place is a mystery, one that I’m certainly not going to get to the bottom of in a blog post.

Good Faith

trust

A lot of philosophy and social science boils down to the quest for the right standards.

  • What standard of measurement shall we use for overall or even individual well being?
  • What standards of behavior should we hold ourselves and one another to?
  • What standards of justification should we use to undergird our use of the other standards, and how could these standards of justification themselves be justified?

The standard, as an ideal, is supposed to be something set apart from our particular interests, biases, and social status—in short, they’re supposed to be fair, and perhaps even neutral.

I was recently reminded of a metaphor my dad had for standards internal to most bureaucracies: the treadmill.

The ideal is for the treadmill to be used to determine whether or not you qualify for something. A baseline standard of health is set, and everyone gets to be tested against it. It sounds impartial, even egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who you are—so long as you can pass the treadmill test, you qualify.

Unfortunately, the people who run the test are part of the political machinery of the bureaucracy, and it turns out to be quite easy to put their thumb on the scale.

When the powers that be want someone to qualify, they are given a much less taxing experience on the treadmill. Meanwhile, if those powers are determined that you will not qualify, they crank up the speed and leave you on until you die of a heart attack.

Standards can never be neutral, but they can be fair. But only when we’re able to trust one another to act in good faith.

Trust

I am fascinated by the questions that philosophers have asked for thousands of years, but amused by how completely worthless all our answers are without a foundation of faith.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that trust is the most important aspect of faith in this respect. How is coordination and cooperation among millions of strangers possible? A widespread trust. How are we able to learn anything? By trusting in certain authorities and in the authority of certain sources. How has science advanced? By creating specialized communities of inquiry who trust each other enough to learn from each other, and develop standards of evidence that they believe will be employed in good faith.

What you believe is, I think, much less a factor of your theoretical pre-commitments, or your religion, or your politics, than of who you trust. Indeed, your pre-commitments, religion, and politics are largely determined by a combination of who you trusted in the first place and your own judgment.

The so-called culture war is nothing more than the professionalization of political mistrust, the monetization, glamorization, and weaponization of bad faith. We are more likely to trust people we don’t know who espouse beliefs similar to the ones we do, than people we don’t know who disagree with us. If people in the first group are pouring a lot of energy into portraying people with different beliefs as untrustworthy and cynical opportunists, then the already existing divisions in trust will only grow wider.

I like to use the example of anti-vaccine people, something I trust most of my audience will agree is an instance of a group being simply wrong about something. This piece depicts how often this group makes other choices outside the mainstream, opting, for instance, for alternative forms of education for their children. When it comes right down to it, trusting the authority of doctors and medical researchers is conventional. It therefore makes sense that communities who reject big, central conventions in one area (like the standard American education) would also be more likely to mistrust those who are conventionally trusted.

Note that even a fairly nuanced piece on this group is entitled “Vaccine deniers: inside the dumb, dangerous new fad”. The intended audience is clearly not the “deniers”. And any denier who saw this piece would no doubt dismiss it out of hand, without reading it, since it leads off by insulting their intelligence.

Imagine you wanted to persuade a member of this group that they are mistaken about vaccines. Would you lead off by demanding that they prove they even care about their children’s health, or the health of the larger community? Of course not. No amount of “proof” could suffice; trusting that they do care about such things is always a leap of faith, one that can only be given and never earned.

The problem is precisely that they trust sources that spread skeptical narratives about vaccines and the authority of mainstream medicine, while mistrusting the conventional authorities on the subject. Any hostility directed at them from people whose trust is more conventional only reinforces their belief in the bad motives of those people, and their defensive responses surely only reinforce the reciprocal assumption of bad faith on the other side.

I have no solution to such deficits of trust, other than to do the best you can to be worthy of trust yourself—by striving to act in good faith—and to start from an assumption of good faith on the part of others. If you can’t grant this assumption, if you can’t extend your trust, then there is no point to having a conversation at all.

If my father is correct, then we are living through a time when trust in conventional authorities is bleeding away at an alarming rate, with no clear successors in sight. I hope he is wrong, or at least that the trajectory can be reversed or a better one found. Such a path cannot lead anywhere good.

Faith

indiana-jones-leap-of-faith

In a secular age, we are often uncomfortable talking about faith outside of church or possibly among family. Many of us do not even go to a church, or have not ever. Especially among decisive, hard-headed people of business, faith can be an embarrassing subject. But it is an important subject, for Atheists and Christians, businessmen and teachers alike. And this isn’t a high-minded statement pronounced while looking down from above—faith is as crucial to the practicalities of daily life as the very ground under our feet.

For thousands of years there have been philosophers who made a name for themselves by attacking what was accepted on faith. The ancient skeptics believed all knowing and reasoning was impossible. The ancient cynics thought human society was inferior to nature. More recently, David Hume argued that the fact that something has happened repeatedly does not logically demonstrate that it will happen again—so there is no proof that the sun will come up tomorrow. Even more recently, Derrida emphasized that context determines the meaning of what we say and do, but we have an endless amount of context that we could focus on for any one action. So how can we ever be sure we understood it or have been understood?

In some sense, all of these skeptics were right. There are deep limitations to our knowledge and what we can work out with nothing but reasoning.

Faith fills in these gaps and makes it possible to live a full life without constantly being paralyzed by uncertainty. This is not a blind faith—treating faith and reason as opposites is a big mistake. It’s not just that you need faith and prudence together to be fully virtuous, the way you need to be courageous on behalf of justice rather than cruelty. It’s more than that. You need faith before prudence is even possible. Remember our discussion of the novel—how all other books and stories we had read or heard or watched helped form the perspective we bring as readers of a specific book. This is faith—the belief that everything we have experienced up until now in our lives is not for nothing, that it is salient as readers of the situation we are now confronted with and as authors of the rest of our lives.

Again, this is no blind faith! When we are confronted by circumstances that challenge our perspective as it stands, the prudent person will reexamine those aspects of their perspective that have been challenged. The just person knows that they owe it to the people in their lives to be open to the questions such circumstances pose to us, rather than stubbornly ignoring them and missing an opportunity to refine our judgment.

But stubbornly ignoring the questions posed by situations that do not fit your expectations is not what it means to be faithful. That is an unvirtuous faith, an imprudent faith, just as much a vice as an imprudent courage is mere recklessness. Moreover, unexpected circumstances only appear at all if we have expectations in the first place. It is the faith that we bring into the situation that identifies it as special to begin with. It is only because of the perspective we already have that we are capable of viewing our subverted expectations productively in the form of questions that such subversion raises.

Without faith, you are just a “bundle of experiences,” as Hume put it. With faith, you are a person, a character in an ongoing story of which you are both a reader and a co-author. Confidence, self-assurance, and trust—these qualities, which are so vital to our lives, are aspects of the virtue of faith.

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Responsiveness to Reasons

The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.

What does it mean to act for the right reasons?

Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?

But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.

Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.

Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.

From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.

Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.

That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.

Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.

If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.

Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.

 

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