Leather Foot Journalist Tim Pool: Few People Want What He’s Selling

Tim Poole appears to be a new breed of independent reporter. There are few people like him, and, unfortunately, it seems that there are few who can be like him.

Here’s an intriguing recent tweet from Tim, who has always thought of himself as a person who identifies more with political liberalism:

And here he is with an absolutely fascinating analysis and breakdown of the modern news industry.

It is well worth a look. Two of the highlights for me were his discussion of churnalism and his appraisal of — and concern about — the increasing political divides that characterize modern journalism. He sees these divides as being perpetuated in response to what people want — highly partisan sources of information. Therefore news organizations that want to be viable (make money) respond in kind.

All this said, evidently You Tube, one of his sources of income, is making it much more difficult for persons like him to do what he does:

 

Listening to these men talk is a little bit surreal. Is what they are talking about real? They seem quite credible.

They say it’s not really the case that You Tube is targeting persons who are more wiling to give time to political causes on the right – some You Tubers more on the left are getting hit as well. These You Tube reporters hypothesize that the recent changes regarding advertising revenue that are happening on the platform have more to do with the traditional forms of media (not just reporting) going down — and wanting to drag everyone else down with them… (You Tube though, Pool says, is losing advertisers to, for reasons he describes in the video).

As Pool points out, if this new breed of reporters is going to survive, they are going to need to find patrons to help support them, through Patreon or other such means.

FIN

The Golden Rule is Not a “Social Construction”

[NOTE: as of April 17, 2017, the content of this post has been supplemented]

…and it relates to what journalists, scholars and librarians all do.

Do we want others, as much as they are able, to give us and our views an accurate — and even sympathetic —  hearing and portrayal? If someone is not “going to bat” for us, do we not want them, at least, to be as “impartial” as they can? To strive to meet standards like these in their professions?*

If yes, then we should aim to do the same for them.

And there is more to this as well — “social constructionism” and these professions ultimately do not mix.

Librarians, like scholars, have always advocated for seeing “the human community of practice” rather expansively (at least when it comes to their international “communities” of choice) and have realized that people want people who will both:

  • try to live honestly; and
  • who, to say the least, will not continually insist that we cannot really begin to know anything about objective reality – particularly when we make careful and disciplined efforts to do so.

I make this very concrete when I talk about a librarian who defies the [ACRL] Framework‘s advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” in order to effectively do her work (its in section V of my RSR paper, “The Framework Cannot Escape ‘Traditional Notions of Granting Authority,’” which you can read at the end of this blog post).

Again, I continue to argue that there are certainly many particular, individual facts and truths that we are able to discover, even as when it comes to larger questions of Truth (the set of all things which exist), full knowledge and understanding certainly escapes us (and I believe ever will). Why should we assume that because there are many ways of “being in the world” that this is not the case?

So is the “Golden Rule” really as “solid” as I am saying it is? I think so. Some of what follows is from my RSR paper and some of it is material that was cut from the published piece.

As philosopher-librarian Wilkinson notes, in social constructionist philosophy, “all are just different perspectives, and there are no facts independent from the contingent social forces that created them” – an assertion that would apply not only to standards in any discipline, but to any “moral facts” we might think – or hope(!) – exist as well.

For instance, political theorist Nancy Luxon seeks to find ways to “prepare individuals to evaluate persons, claims, and events in the absence of absolute values or certain knowledge” (Crisis of Authority, 2013, p. 43). Alternatively, I argue that we can’t not give serious consideration to just these things – for both, ultimately, seem to be necessary and unavoidable (in any case, we inevitably will judge, in our present, some forms or ways of life as being inferior or even beyond the pale).

After all, when it comes to thinking human beings, who is going to deny that the Golden Rule – first positively stated by Jesus as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – at the very least, “sounds like a good idea”?[i] Even if the Golden Rule is a rather abstract idea, in that it does not address particular practices, concrete applications of the dictum in this or that context are readily imaginable. Is it only my own personal inclinations – perhaps informed by my religious training? – which cause me to resonate with it? Or, rather, is it not the case that recognition of this seemingly enduring earthly reality is more widespread?

Indeed it is. Forms of this rule have an impressive pedigree, appearing, importantly, in concrete testimony both trans-historically and trans-culturally. And this, it seems, is most significant for our discussion here regarding social constructionism and its either implicit or explicit claims about power’s all-encompassing role. For understood rightly[ii], the Golden Rule’s profundity is undeniable. As relational beings, all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constantly make moral judgments about ourselves and others (easier!). Here, the Golden Rule gives us the means whereby we might test the consistency of our judgments vis a vis our own lives, consciously self-legislate our behavior, and even recognize the significant overlap of our judgments with those of others – particularly those committed to living ethical lives. Further, it is conducive to building human understanding, respect, and mutuality – solidarity, trust, and even love (Guseinov, 2014).

Perhaps looking at a concrete application might help us to see the problems with the social constructionists’ approach. When it comes to the matter of justice – which, contrary to notions of power, has traditionally depended on ideas of authority and truth (including “good faith”) – the 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Spinoza, inspired by Plato, argued that “the beauty of proportionality [in mathematics and nature]” can cause one to “abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else” (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, 2014, pp. 392, 393). Wise persons across a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds have agreed – at least when it comes to those we are closest to (family, tribe, etc.). And one can of course see this as balancing with another observation that John Locke made – certainly in tension with the one above – namely, that human beings realize that taking from others what they have attained by their honest industry without their consent is an injustice – even if one would call it justice (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1959, p. 234).

The “common sense” Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, quoted by Wilkinson in his defense of his “social epistemology” approach, took this even further, as according to Arthur Holmes he noticed that

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 1997, p. 117)

These are just some of the things it seems different groups of people do not really “design” or “construct” (unconsciously or consciously), but instead, as if by built-in design, can recognize and receive. In other words, they appear to be ethical principles that are intrinsic to properly-functioning human being.

Not only this, but when put in the context of the Golden Rule as expressed by Jesus (“do unto others…” and not “do not do unto others….”), one can see these insights being connected not so much with one’s desire to assert one’s own rights, but rather – at the very least – being concerned to guard and defend the rights of one’s neighbor. Hence the proper Western concern for its colonialist past, which was evil because of the objective wrongness of unjust exploitation – of wrongly-used power.

And – to meet possible objections from social constructionists [in the library world and beyond] – none of these observations necessarily claims that it is easy to explain or apply this Golden rule in lived contexts, for we come to learn that our ethical choices often involve criteria that are tacit and inarticulable (Holston, 2016). Neither does it mean that we come into contact with this rule – and recognize its goodness – apart from the presence of other persons, i.e. community. This is not a positivistic search for “acontextually authoritative and valid sources” of guidance, as opposed to a “more situated and participatory vision” (Foasberg, 2015). It is not, for example, necessary to the argument I am making here to insist on some abstract or transcendental “historically unmediated insight,” i.e. that “human understanding takes place outside the horizon of a particular, historically situated vantage point,” or to deny that we do not, to some degree, “depend on our prejudices… [understood in a positive sense] to furnish contexts of meaning”. (Holston, 2016).

[Apr. 22 update] It is interesting to consider this video “Where Does Morality Come From | Moral Foundations Theory, Jonathan Haidit” in light of both the content of this post and my previous post Sola Commoditas!: Truth is Fitness Alone

FIN

For a Christian meditation on the Golden Rule appropriate for the approaching Good Friday, see this older post at my theology blog here.

 

Images:

Golden Rule montage: http://www.care2.com/news/member/827551733/3895730

Notes:

**For journalism in particular, see the discussion on “objectivity” in this book, for example ; also see here and here.

[i] Recent years have seen a resurgence of scholarly interest in the Golden Rule. See, e.g., Neil Duxbury’s and Harry Gensler’s impressive work on the topic.

[ii] For example, its application need not preclude considering the effects of actions on those neighbors one is closest to (“…as you would have them do unto your mother, daughter, friend, etc…”!), nor consideration of the indirect effects actions could have, in the short or long term.

 

 

Can We Concede We Share No Knowledge – and Hence No Truth!?

My latest post on the ili listserve discussing my articles, and, in addition, more detailed responses – my analysis and thoughts – regarding the conversation that is happening there:

All,

As I reflect on the recent conversation – including Lane [Wilkinson]’s throwing in his two cents – there are all kinds of responses I want to make.

At the same time, I am aware that my explicitly-stated goal – getting the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame changed – could certainly get in the way of fruitful conversations with others. It is with this in mind that I share the following select thoughts, taken from a larger set:

  • When I think about the relationship of philosophy and librarianship – the relationship of philosophy and most anything else actually – I am certainly thinking about the more classical understandings of philosophy. This means the search for wisdom and what has been called “the good life”. How should we live? What does it mean to be human? The idea here is that there are things that are good, true and beautiful and that should be sought by us. Historically, the word “science” simply meant “knowledge” and went hand in hand with “philosophy”. Therefore, the classical understandings of the “liberal arts” certainly had ideas about things like identity and power – they were, after all, the arts of a free man and not a slave! – but, for many, *they were about much more than this*. Now, the concerns of classical philosophy have faded to the background as modern philosophy, vying for relevance, tries to mediate between what we now call the humanities (idealists!) and the sciences (realists!). Therefore, I acknowledge that my argument may seem quite strange in the ears of many.
  • Still, how should we live? Do we not all ask ourselves this? Does this not mean, in part, looking for reasons and clues and evidence (scholarship takes this to higher levels!). I think this also means being honest with one’s self and others, and being honest about the basic “facts of life” (while there is some diversity here, can we agree that there are some things we all pay attention to and can’t not?). And, this also means trusting, in part, that our rational and sensory “equipment” are, or should be, a help and not a hindrance here. Do not even those who think they have the beginnings of good answers, in part because they have had good and wise guides, continue to think this way? Namely, that it is good to seek out what truly objective reality — i.e. what is the case about life, and therefore, what is the case about how we should live? Is there any doubt that we are learning these things from our first breath? And I think it is uncontroversially true that we all have a philosophy, more or less thought out, about what it means to be human. If we could say there is One Overarching Philosophy it would be True – Truth. It would be the Way. I am interested in exploring this question of course, but my core point is this: we do not need to go there to speak of truth with a little t….

A rather classic definition of truth, one that I utilized in my Christian Librarian paper, is “being in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false.” Another is simply “the state of being the case,” which is synonymous with “objective reality”. Here, however, modern academics – and evidently, many modern day librarians – balk. They insist that this is not really a good starting point, but that we must, from the get-go, have a different approach: what is the goal of an idea of truth; what does it do? (see Kirkham, Theories of Truth, 1992).

Well, my answer to that is above, in what I’ve just said. Our most pressing questions are things like: “How should we live?” “How can we human beings live lives that are true?” And, therefore: “How should we librarians practice?”

I do not want to give the impression that the rest of the ideas I have had in response to those contributing here (thank you much, by the way!) might also not be useful for promoting mutually beneficial dialogue – at least among certain folks. If you are interested in more of the thoughts I have had, you can check out the latest post at my blog [note: here, at the blog, this now directly follows…]

-Nathan

+++

I think what the latest round of posts here on this thread [my authority is constructed and contextual critiques] shows is that many of us, understandably seeing the value of skepticism and intellectual humility, are comfortable talking about our views as things that we believe, or have strong convictions about. We are less comfortable these days talking about anything – even things that we really do seem to hold in common – in terms of their being knowledge.

As you might guess, I think that this is quite unfortunate (it also seems to be a bit inconsistent, given the efforts of many these days to impose their views on others, going so far as to make certain speech impermissible). Evidently, the classical understanding that knowledge is “justified, true, belief” – Lane Wilkinson’s fine essay in the book Not Just Where to Click notwithstanding – has utterly vaporized among many of us. As I said in my last post, we now have “knowledge”: “conceivable, useful, trust”.

I guess that this definition really is something that people can no longer agree on (and, as I noted in a another previous blog post, I have my own theory of why that is the case), and, evidently has, in most cases, been replaced by something else… Increasingly, our “common understanding” (irony noted here) is that there is now really no common knowledge at all (and statements like “the truth is that there is no truth” seem to readily correlate).

Therefore, knowledge is now best thought of as a useful fiction, or, again, “conceivable, useful, trust”. This is perhaps why most of the participants on the ili thread have not so much been interacting with the content of my papers, but are trying different angles to approach the issue. I understand. : )

Nevertheless, my papers are about truth, so let struggle to try and bring my above thoughts back to that issue.

First, let me be clear that when I talk about seeking truth, I am not saying that it is always easy to do this – it often, especially when it comes to scholarship, is not (not to mention when it comes to knowing Truth with a capitol T!). Again, all of us are obviously not going to agree on one overarching philosophy or Way. For instance, we might feel or think we only have strong convictions (not knowledge!) that the cosmos we experience is in many respects shared to say nothing about it being essentially and ultimately good (yes, I know – we need to define and interrogate this word to, right? : ) ). And we might think or feel it only seems a “conscience” that we have is telling us that there are indeed things that are wrong about us, others, and the cosmos!

Still, I think there is more than I think can and should be said….therefore…

Second, I think that what this conversation shows us is that we need to really start examining the difference between things that we call “useful fictions,” and things that we call “propaganda.” What is it, other than our own worldviews/inclinations of course, that is decisive for us? For one thing, we usually do attach a negative label to the term “propaganda,” and do not hesitate to say this means people are providing mis- or even dis-information. When we do this, we do not mean to say that we disagree with the useful fiction that they understandably, being human, use. No. Rather, we actually are concerned about people who are doing wrong things and hence being untrue, unintentionally or intentionally misleading others (most parents also are concerned about their children acting in ways like this). Or is it really only ideas that promote practices that we don’t like or prefer or, perhaps, do not think are conducive to fitness that we just call propaganda?

And going along with this, of course we all should see the value of being skeptical of our own biases or inclinations – at least as regards this or that. This is surely important, for a number of reasons. At the same time, how can we begin to determine whether certain inclinations are, overall, good things? Or is this just the inevitable endgame?

Third, please understand that I am, by means of the questions I ask, only laying out what I see as the implications of this view – that is, that we now have no knowledgefor the sake of having a real and relevant conversation with everyone. It is a “useful fiction” for me – and I hope for you to! – so that we can be prevented from inhabiting completely “different worlds”! Of course, I personally do not believe it is true that there is no knowledge or truth, but that there is common knowledge and hence truth, and that this is in fact exemplified by the conversation that we are now having!

In fact, I want to say this to you, who I don’t intend to “other”: I know this. And I think you do to! Not only because things like my religion give such confidence (I don’t deny that this might have a big impact on me – even were I to cease to be a believer at some point), but because I strongly believe that human beings are truly wonderful and unique creatures (a view even non-believers might hold) who can’t not share the cosmos (and, as I have said, can’t not decide that some ways or forms of life are not good – see above remarks about philosophies of life). In fact, I think it can even be well-supported from the empirical evidence (historical and archaeological) that we have available to us that a “human community practice” has shared much, in terms of the things that we all experience, that is trans-cultural and trans-historical.

This, I submit, is also all very trans-“existential.” For example, even as we are often “both-and”ing creatures, who, in the “human community of practice,” would not “tag” the physical objects rolling down a little girl’s face whose father has just died, some term like “tears” – and only some term like this? Or should we insist that this physical manifestation cannot point to a non-physical thing that all human parties could meaningfully and decisively label “sadness”? I suggest in such a circumstance, “joy” is not a meaningful label!

Likewise, one may “tag” a certain kind of insect as “tasty” – even if that categorization is not meaningful to many others – but should we insist that it cannot be meaningfully and decisively labeled something like “animal” (as opposed to a plant) by all human parties, possible confusing classification exceptions (like platypuses!) aside? It seems that ethical judgments are involved in all of these situations: we would think less of one who denied the girl’s sadness and perhaps question the manners of the person who brought up the insects they enjoy eating while at dinner.

And yet, when a three-year old child playfully calls the squirrel outside a bear (or, in a different time and place calls the jerboa a camel or the penguin a walrus) – “calling into question” her sisters’ and mother’s judgment – she is making an ethical decision that such humor is appropriate to the moment. Undoubtedly, this fiction is useful for making us all smile! (and hopefully lightening up the mood a bit!)

So, as I argued in my paper, when it comes to matters like this, we cannot escape existential issues of the deepest moral import – in the midst of life’s challenges, we find ourselves not only using “labels” like “ineffective”, “impractical”, “imprudent”, or “unwise”: we say “true” or “false” to some statements, “good” and “bad” to some behaviors, etc.

All this said, I need to face the music… the facts: for whatever reason, all of the stuff I say above proves more to me and some others than it does for the wider “community of practice”.

So, fourth — perhaps we can begin to discern a little bit of agreement here, at least: many of us personally believe that to be in line with something we call the truth we should, in general, be as honest as we can about the things we call facts – those objects and/or experiences that many seem to think/feel are worth our attention and even those objects and/or experiences that only a few think/feel are important.  For many of us of course (perhaps this is related with our finding ourselves to be librarians), we also believe that this means we should represent views that differ from our own – in ways that seem to be of greater or lesser significance – in ways that can be recognized by the proponents of those views (“yes, that is what I believe – in fact, you said it better than I could have!”).

And again, as regards these matters such as these, we see how “being true” – ethics – is important to us. Even though we might not act like it all the time, we are creatures that are ultimately designed to be concerned about right and wrong – not merely about “what works.” Therefore, we are not surprised when we meet people of strong convictions, and are happy when we detect much overlap (while we nevertheless, may not, as I do, draw out formal implications from this about what philosophers have typically called “universals”).

So far my analysis of the current conversation. I know Richard Kirkham wrote the classic work Theories of Truth (which yes, I am looking at again), but I don’t think truth is a theory, even if there exists socially constructed “theories of truth”…

-Nathan

FIN

 

Images:

O’Connor quote, Brent Payne: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brentdpayne/3267403071 (CC BY 2.0); Twain quote, BK: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/28547424986 (CC BY-SA 2.0) ; Truth or Consequences https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sign_-_New_Mexico_-_Truth_Or_Consequences_-_Exit_(4892943477).jpg

Truth is a Linguistic Concept = Its True That All We Have is Useful Fictions

But there is more to!: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” — Hamlet Act 1, scene 5

To be more truthful, I should have said “Its ‘True’ That All We Have is Useful Fictions” with the “True” in quotes. After all, those coming to this conclusion would not say they know it, but that they trust (weakly or more strongly) that it’s the case. Even though asserting that “authority is constructed and contextual,” for example, is likely to give the impression that people are saying they know that it is always true, that is, always the case.

Here is what I am getting at in the latest offering to folks on the ili listserve (found below the: +++ ) talking about my papers (challenging the idea that “authority is constructed and contextual”):

Modern philosophers nowadays really just talk about their “theories of truth.” We can’t just do that.

For example, librarian-philosopher Lane Wilkinson shared with me that “[s]emantic theories are quite common among philosophers who study logic, language, information, cognition, the mind, etc.” (he kindly linked me here, here, and here), and believes that “semantic theories of truth offer the best account of how we [can accurately describe objective reality].” (which he evidently does not think truth can be a synonym of).*

Modern philosophers might want to talk about theories of truth, but if truth is just a “linguistic concept,” and part of its definition is not that it is objective reality, what does knowledge as “justified true belief” mean? Knowledge is not only that which we choose to put into phrases and sentences, right? And this gets at my larger point: in general I think that moderns are rather misguided, being overly reductionistic, and that the ancients had better ideas (where philosophy deals with what it means to be human and how to live and does not kneecap the importance of the deepest metaphysical questions from the get-go).

Not classical philosophy

I will therefore offer here at this point my own, I think more helpful, theory:

Even among persons who are very secular, knowledge used to be justified true belief. Now, however, it has been gradually and increasingly transmorgifying into “knowledge,” that is “conceivable useful trust” – even among some who still say want to say its justified true belief.**

In sum, I think that focusing on “theories of truth” — which would seem to be at the expense of being concerned to live according to it — is a big mistake.

+++

On to my email:

The assertion:

“’The Red Sox are a baseball team,’ ’I’m a library director, ‘Pluto is not a planet’” are all true” NOT “only because we agree that they are true” but because of the way that language works.”

“The way that language works.” Now we are getting somewhere! Let’s break this down.

Are we saying something like this?:

If truth is a linguistic concept, we can’t separate linguistics from human beings, and therefore, presumably, we might have a group or even, conceivably, a particular individual who see what Lane Wilkinson calls “objective reality” (this is what exists regardless of what we believe exists, and independent of whether we can grasp these things, describe them, be aware of them, etc.), or this or that facet of objective reality (thinking here of the illustration of the blind man and the elephant), more clearly than others. And then this group or person gestures or speaks or writes (communicates!) truth. Here, if we call rain a “social construct,” we *also* rightly note it, being something that is also trans-historical and largely trans-cultural! (why I would not, BTW, call rain a social construct) is an objective reality.

Is that what is meant by “the way that language works?”

If so, it would seem that in spite of Lane saying that I am setting up a straw man, he is nevertheless saying something that is roughly analogous. It’s just that what he calls “objective reality” I chose to call Truth (the whole elephant) and/or truth (parts of the elephant). Semantics.

Or, on the other hand, are we saying something like this?:

A spoken “language” (yes, I know this is a very fluid concept) can be considered to be like a given system of mathematics. Letters, words, and sentences are designed to describe, but each “language” — just like each math — has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. Since within a given “language” (i.e. English) the concept of “truth” has a place, we can accept it as a part of the way that people speak within the whole construct of the English language (kind of like a specific formula for a circle in a system of geometry). With that being said, just because there is a place for “truth” in the language-system we know as English, it does not mean that ultimately what we declare to be “true” actually is.

Is that what is meant by “the way that language works?”

Oh, be practical. Just method please.

If something like this is the case than Lane and I are saying very different things indeed. In other words, we now have a theory and are now dealing with “truth”. The matter is dealt with in a rather substantive way — and we are even able to say that we ultimately do believe in something like it (e.g. Lane’s “objective reality”) — but at the end of the day we nevertheless do not deal with what actually is true. In this system therefore, there seems to be a reduced incentive to seek, with others, what I and some others call truth/objective reality (real facts and real common ground: regarding what we find in “nature”, morality, etc.) or to be overly concerned about it (meh). Also less incentive to take a stand on the basis of principle (sometimes good, sometimes not…), struggle with certain kinds of questions that arise, and, correspondingly, make discoveries regarding those questions through discussion and debate.

Rather, the incentive shifts to valuing others who feel like us when it comes to doing what we want to do and, yes, think we should do in the world (we all can’t stop “shoulding” others – or worse!) – and using this or that “useful fiction” (and, question: what’s propaganda when no one can really know anything that is true?) to reach our goals. And here, Michael Gerson, in his article “The Tribal Truths that Set the Stage for Trump’s Lies,” is right (even if the article as a whole has not aged too well): stands are more likely to be taken based on group identity.

And now, consider this: Richard Rorty, the now deceased social constructivist philosopher extraordinaire, said that truth was what your peers let you get away with saying. No one is going to let you get away with saying that the moon is made of lime jello — if one actually had an incentive to say that! — but they might find other things to say that they think might be of material, social, and political benefit to them and their buddies, and that people will let them get away with.

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. — “Neopragmatist” and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

Because, as anyone who has kids knows, human beings who want something really badly will try to wear you down.

What this means in practice is that when it comes to the ultimate issue of authority, absolutely everything is ultimately reduced to ad hominem argumentation, where the reliable/credible/competent scholars and/or wise men/women that one cites and lists are the ones to trust.

Truth is just a linguistic concept? All facts are socially constructed? And all this is because this is just “how language works”? I agree with Lane about “social epistemology” – in our lives, we cannot avoid trusting some persons and not others (and this, believe it or not, is a good thing)! But here folks, is the point: all of those sentences above are truth claims – and rather audacious ones at that. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Bruce Lincoln’s 1989 work hearkening of things to come….

Ask yourself – and others – what the reasons and evidence are for such bold assertions of what is the case. And then ask yourself: if we really believe this stuff, and that “facts” and “truth” are merely socially constructed, then what business do Americans have, for example, for criticizing China or Saudi Arabia for their own social constructions that have been around for centuries prior to 1776?

Again, as I say in the abstract to my RSR paper: “The assumption of a “social constructionist” frame for truth has serious implications for matters going well beyond libraries and their “information resources”.

I am interested in knowing just why some consider this to be a straw man argument.

(end email).

FIN

 

Images: True and Truth, Leigh Blackall: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leighblackall/19693376419 (CC BY 2.0);

Notes:

*One person counters me here, saying the following:

“Well, I’m not sure I’d agree that truth IS objective reality. Rather, I’d say that truth is congruence with reality. A point (factual statement, hypothesis, argument, etc.) is true if it tallies with some aspect of reality.

There are many facets of reality that a point can be true to – to the material world (“Pluto is composed of rock,”) to a text (“Hamlet lives in Denmark” is not true to physical reality, but is true to Shakespeare’s play,) to a mathematical principle, to a moral principle, to an esthetic principle, to doctrine, to personal experience (“Licorice tastes nasty” is true for me but not for others,) etc.

We’re human and fallible, so we’ll never be able to say we know “the whole truth” about anything, but in various fields of study we have many methods – from close reading to symbolic logic to double-blind studies – for determining (as best we can) a point’s congruence with the aspects of reality that are relevant to that field.”

My response:

Come on, we don’t need to be philosophers. : ) I also am not saying that we can really know the full Truth, but simple truth. And insofar as we speak in accordance with what is objective reality, we speak truly and authoritatively.

If I say “I think so and so is guilty,” and you say “I wonder what the truth is?,” you are saying “I wonder what really happened? I wonder what the objective reality of the situation is?”

And, speaking more broadly, everything is about this but on a bigger scale: what happened? That, of course, affects the answer to your question: how should I live? Which informs our question: how should we librarians practice?

** My position, more specifically, is that all sentences are socially constructed and we can’t, to this or that degree, avoid speaking in accordance with truth (and hence, speaking authoritatively). Furthermore, much knowledge is also socially constructed as well, being that the word knowledge is inextricably tied up with our justified true belief , that is our knowing as human beings.

However passively or actively human beings receive aspects of objective reality/truth (see…the final section of my Christian Librarian paper), that does not mean, contra Bhaskar, that all knowledge, because it is “produced by means of antecedent social products,” is a “social product.” Smart phones and librarians and libraries are social products but the sun, the rain, food, water, children, and mothers, are not, strictly speaking, [human] social products, but trans-cultural and trans-historical objects we receive trans-existentially.

And often with thanks, even if we aren’t religious.

NOTE: The following sentence: “Furthermore, much knowledge is also socially constructed as well, being that the word knowledge is inextricably tied up with our justified true belief , that is our knowing as human beings,” has been corrected. It previously said that “all knowledge is also socially constructed.”  What I mean to say is that our knowledge is largely socially constructed/produced. There is knowledge, however, that we directly obtain from the world apart from other human beings, even though we are not islands.

“Independent Bloggers and Social-Media Voices are Scooping the Mainstream Media”

Remember this?

This piece from Michael Gerson, “The Tribal Truths that Set the Stage for Trump’s Lies,” is an excellent and important read, but in some regards it has not aged well.  I’m talking about the Susan Rice story.

And in a piece from the City Journal, Aaron M. Renn tells us about “The Real Unmaskers: Independent bloggers and social-media voices are scooping the mainstream media”.

A couple clips:

“The news this week that former national security advisor Susan Rice likely requested the “unmasking” of Donald Trump-related names in intelligence materials promises to upend the narrative about spying and collusion that has obsessed media circles for months. But just as startling as any revelations about illicit domestic political espionage is the story of who broke the news and how: independent writer Mike Cernovich on his Twitter account @cernovich.

Just a week after Cernovich was the main subject of a 60 Minutes report on “fake news,” he took to Twitter and unloaded some real news: “breaking news! Susan Rice requested unmasking of incoming Trump administration officials.” The tweet received 6,900 retweets, a level comparable to some of President Trump’s own. The next day Eli Lake wrote about the story for Bloomberg in more detail, breaking it widely into the major media—though some outlets like CNN have declined to cover it, labeling it a “distraction.”

How did an independent person working at home in Southern California, completely outside the traditional media ecosystem, manage to get such a scoop?…”

and…

“The apotheosis of the independent right-wing blogger came during the 2004 election, when documents purporting to show that President George W. Bush had been granted special treatment during the Vietnam War were proven to be fakes. Crowd-sourced intelligence from typographers, military historians, and amateur journalists demonstrated that CBS News had erred in not authenticating these apparent forgeries. Dan Rather’s career was essentially destroyed in the fallout from the controversy, a dramatic chapter in the Internet’s destabilization of traditional media power.”

And here are a couple very interesting clips from the unedited transcript of Cernovich’s appearance on 60 Minutes, which was tweeted out by, for example, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway:

Scott Pelley: You say you don’t publish anything that you believe to be true. How do you decide whether something is true?

Mike Cernovich: How does anybody decide? That’s an epistemological question. What is the nature of truth? How do human beings who are floating around this rock with eyes and ears and skin and smell, how does anybody ascertain what is true or what is false?

Scott Pelley: Well, you ask questions, you verify the information it’s not that hard.

Mike Cernovich: You reach your own truth, find the truth. It’s not that hard?

Scott Pelley: I do it all the time.

And:

Scott Pelley: You wrote in August a story about Hillary Clinton’s medical condition the headlines said, “Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s disease. Position confirms.” That’s quite a headline.

Mike Cernovich: Yeah, Dr. Ted Noel had se-sent a story to me anonymously, that I checked out, analyzing her medical condition. And –

Scott Pelley: It isn’t true.

Mike Cernovich: How do you know?

Scott Pelley: Well, she doesn’t seem to have any signs of Parkinson’s disease.

Mike Cernovich: She had a seizure and froze up walking into her motorcade that day caught by a citizen journalist.

Scott Pelley: Did you, well, she had pneumonia. I mean –

Mike Cernovich: How do you know?

Scott Pelley: Well, because that’s what was reported.

Mike Cernovich: By whom? Who told you that?

Scott Pelley: Well, the campaign told us that.

Mike Cernovich: Why would you trust a campaign? Why would you trust the Hillary Clinton flats?

Different worlds!

Renn closes his piece with the following words:

“….even if Cernovich stumbles, an army of replacements is standing by, waiting to take his place. Nearly 20 years on from Drudge’s Lewinsky scoop, the political power of the Internet continues be felt in new and surprising forms.”

FIN

Fear, Favor, and the Truth

“without fear or favor…”

What are two things that might inhibit persons from seeking the truth?

Fear. Of what one will learn. Or, of those who do not want to be discovered.

Favor. Maybe those who don’t want the truth to out have nice carrots — not sticks! — for you.

But, as a whole, we as human beings can’t get away from matters of truth. As C.S. Lewis said:

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.”… The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them.” — St. Augustine

Can this be the case for journalists as well? Does the idea of having “leather feet” still have significance? And can they really try to be, in most circumstances, as even-handed as possible? And if they think that they must, for the sake of conscience, take a side, can they a) push to get an op-ed column and/or b) maybe tip their hat merely by quoting their “side” last? Why not?!

Why not — without fear or favor?

An op-ed from Aug. 19, 1996, written in the New York Times (all bold and italics mine):

Exactly 100 years ago today, Adolph S. Ochs, the founding father of the modern Times, published a declaration of principles in these pages setting forth his goals for the respectable but failing newspaper he had just taken over. The 38-year-old publisher, who had already rescued a dying paper in Chattanooga, Tenn., now found himself pitted in New York against powerful, sensationalistic competitors in the heyday of yellow journalism. His statement envisioned a dignified and responsible alternative that would provide trustworthy news and opinion. One especially elegant and inspirational goal — ”to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved” — has held a place of honor at The Times ever since. Ochs’s statement, reprinted below, was widely quoted at the time and remains a worthy credo for journalists everywhere, however difficult to fulfill. [:]

To undertake the management of The New-York Times, with its great history for right doing, and to attempt to keep bright the lustre which Henry J. Raymond and George Jones [the paper’s founding publishers] have given it is an extraordinary task. But if a sincere desire to conduct a high-standard newspaper, clean, dignified, and trustworthy, requires honesty, watchfulness, earnestness, industry, and practical knowledge applied with common sense, I entertain the hope that I can succeed in maintaining the high estimate that thoughtful, pure-minded people have ever had of The New-York Times.

It will be my earnest aim that The New-York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make of the columns of The New-York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

There will be no radical changes in the personnel of the present efficient staff. Mr. Charles R. Miller, who has so ably for many years presided over the editorial pages, will continue to be the editor; nor will there be a departure from the general tone and character and policies pursued with relation to public questions that have distinguished The New-York Times as a non-partisan newspaper — unless it be, if possible, to intensify its devotion to the cause of sound money and tariff reform, opposition to wastefulness and peculation in administering public affairs, and in its advocacy of the lowest tax consistent with good government, and no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society, maintain individual and vested rights, and assure the free exercise of a sound conscience.

ADOLPH S. OCHS, New-York, Aug. 18, 1896

FIN

“A Scoop is a Scoop, Regardless of its Truth.”

A good piece in the Washington Post about “Fake News” by Christopher J. Scalia. A few select clips:

“The Trump administration has made the sales of old novels great again. Americans who fear the rise of demagogic autocracy are seeking dystopian books to learn more about the dangers Trump poses or to convince themselves that our present Armageddon has been prophesied. George Orwell’s “1984,” Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been among the top-selling books on The Washington Post’s paperback fiction list for weeks. George F. Will recently recommended another, more recent dystopian novel, Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.” As The Post’s nonfiction critic Carlos Lozada put it, “A president who rarely cracks books has unwittingly launched a book club for America.”

These literary choices make sense for the many Americans who see Trump as a serious threat to America’s constitutional order. But what about the many others who see threats elsewhere? A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that while the president’s unfavorability ratings are remarkably high, the reporters covering the president aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory. Forty-seven percent of respondents disapprove of President Trump — but 53 percent believe that the media overstate the problems in his administration. Similarly, 51 percent believe that the media have been too critical of the president; only 6 percent say that the media should be more critical. And although Americans trust the media more than they trust the president, a Gallup poll from September shows that only 32 percent of Americans trust the press “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”

A reading list for our times should take into account this widespread skepticism of the media. And perhaps the classic novel that best captures some of the sentiments that many Americans feel about the press is Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 satire “Scoop.””

I admit I didn’t know about this book which Hitchens tells us is…:

“…Ranked by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century and by Robert McCrum of the Guardian as the 60th best novel written in English, “Scoop” is, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather.””

Near the end of his article, he says:

“The most salient connection between the novel and today’s skepticism of the media is what Waugh calls “the innuendo and intricate misrepresentations, the luscious, detailed inventions that composed contemporary history” — a beautiful, though less hashtaggable, description of what we lazily refer to as “fake news.” The papers in “Scoop” seek to convey a specific partisan perspective on the civil war in Ishmaelia, and they frame their stories to support that limited narrative. When Lord Copper sends Boot off, he tells him precisely how the war should proceed in his reporting: “A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colorful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war … We shall expect the first victory about the middle of July.” Boot is not there to report news so much as to complete a prefabricated story line.

With these obligations in mind, many of the novel’s journalists are only too happy to make up news — a scoop is a scoop, regardless of its truth. There is the legendary journalist Wenlock Jakes, whose phony eyewitness accounts of a revolution that wasn’t happening, in a country he wasn’t in, were so alarming that they eventually caused an actual revolution. “There’s the power of the press for you,” one character concludes.

When one correspondent files an obviously false report about a Russian agent, the other journalists nonetheless feel compelled to “find a red agent” so they don’t lose face. (The prominent role of Russian agents is another echo we hear today.) A journalist who has taken Boot under his wing explains that knowing about the mistake would only shake “public confidence in the Press. Besides, it looks as if we weren’t doing our job properly.” Although the false story is killed, its damage is real: When Boot receives reliable information about an actual Russian plot which, as he puts it, “really is news,” his mentor explains that true or not, it’s too late to be news. “Russian agents are off the menu, old boy.” The fake news makes the real news implausible and unfit to print.

Little surprise, then, that when an aspiring journalist asks him whether “inventing imaginary news” is good training, Boot replies, “None better.”

You might say that it’s best to take Waugh’s satire seriously, not literally. The correspondence between the novel’s foreign press corps and America’s political reporters, while imperfect, is instructive. I doubt members of the mainstream press make stories up, but they are certainly amenable to scoops that fit their story lines, which makes them vulnerable to sloppy reporting. Trump-era media outlets have, for example, released un-vetted dossiers, incorrectly claimed that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was removed from the Oval Office, irresponsibly suggested Trump’s energy secretary didn’t understand his job, and generally stoked what Mollie Hemingway calls “a full-blown Red Scare conspiracy theory.” These mistakes made in the effort to hold Trump accountable inspire skepticism — some of it extreme, to be sure, but some of it reasonable. And the whole mess is exacerbated by Twitter, which spreads misreported information faster than ever; the corrections are never retweeted as much…”

This put me in mind again of this great clip featuring the actor Denzel Washington, when he was asked about fake news:

“One of the effects of ‘too much information'” is “the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So what a responsibility you all [the media] have — to tell the truth…”

FIN

Should I Trust Everyone Concerned with Validity, Reliability and Accuracy?

When it comes to reliability, are librarians missing the mark?

Maybe not. It might be helpful to know what they think about the matter of truth.

For example, the ACRL “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame of the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy, it states:

Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.

Under “Knowledge Practices” the frame states:

Learners who are developing their information literate skills acknowledge they are developing their own authoritative voices in a particular area and recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability, respecting intellectual property, and participating in communities of practice.

Some might say that things like this are “sufficient references to ‘truth'”.

As one person stated on the ili listserve, “The frame does not need verbose, obtuse philosophical discussions of truth. If librarians do not understand validity,  accuracy, or reliability, our profession is in trouble.”

I do think the library profession is in trouble, but not for the usual reasons.

Here was/is my careful answer to librarians who hold this position:

I know that I said I only wanted to engage with persons on the basis of my paper’s arguments. That said, this seems like a strong objection to what I have written even getting off the ground, and so will carefully address it. I did talk about the words that you bring about in my papers, and your statements drove me back to re-examine specifically what I had written. The key point is that there is a wider context that needs to be dealt with, taking into account this frame (and, of course, the Framework) as a whole.

I understand your viewpoint that the notion of “truth” is somehow covered in the presence of these words: validity, accuracy, and reliability. In fact, in part II of my Reference Services Review paper “The New Framework: a Truth-less Construction Just Waiting to be Scrapped?”, I concede that persons might get the impression that authority and truth are linked together in the Framework (even as others will vigorously deny this).

I actually say that because the Framework talks about how information is valued and used in creating new knowledge (which, if we retain the traditional notions, is “justified true belief”), it can’t avoid the issue of truth, even as it is ultimately trying to remain indifferent to it (i.e., the Framework has a “truth-deficient approach to authority”).

And why is truth basically unimportant to the Framework? Because when it comes to authority, there is another element that is thought to be the core issue: power (or, perhaps, as I more specifically argue in a recent blog post, fitness, which I argue would entail “justified true belief” being dissolved in acid forever).

Are we all sophists now?

As I say in the RSR paper, what ultimately is at issue is “whether authority – which seems to be necessarily tied up with ideas of knowledge, experience, trust, truth, tasks and responsibility – is actually only a synonym for the successful use of power, or whether it is something more.” I say it must be something more and make that case, thereby also making the case that the frame “AiCC” should scrapped and revised.

After all, when the Framework talks about the “validity” of information this is to be determined, it seems, primarily on the basis of the worldview/orientations/systems which influence us (note: “An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins… remain[] skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it”; also, “recognize the value of diverse ideas and worldviews”).

It is because of this wider context of these words in the Framework then, that I wrote the following in my paper, “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual ?: a Classical Challenge to the Framework for Information Literacy” (and this is where I also dealt with the use of the words “accuracy” and “reliability” that you note, as a part of a rather exhaustive cross-examination of the AiCC frame):

Even those who will advocate for more objective forms of authority based on some kind of philosophical reason or principal recognize that “unlikely voices” can be authoritative, but the question here is why? Why do we recognize, or why should we recognize (?) this? Is it because we see that they, perhaps over and against “the man” – and perhaps encouraged by “special experiences” – believe that it is important to be true and to seek truth and even the truth? Or something else? And if matters of truth – and perhaps with this, justice – are indeed at issue, should the Framework strive for appropriate language that could somehow make this explicit? I note that in the “Knowledge Practices” section, it does say persons “developing their own authoritative voices” should “recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability.” The question however, is “why”? To “participate successfully in collaborative spaces”, to be sure. But the wider question is this: is it simply about avoiding potential consequences, e.g. one should do this so as not to discredit one’s self and those one associates with? Is the thing of real import here asking“relevant questions” with the intention of undermining power structures perceived or intuited to be unjust? Or are there deeper concerns that should be addressed here?

With the Framework’s insistence that all authority is [socially] constructed (Oxford Dictionaries says this of “construct”: “an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence” [“Construct,” 2016]), and its advice to question “traditional notions of granting authority” – with no guidance as to what kind of traditional notions we might consider retaining – the import of the word “validity” that occurs in the more prominent parts of this frame is, to say the least, called into question here.

A word like truth, on the other hand, still retains the common connotation of being connected with what is the case, as well as what should be the case. See the New York Time’s advertising again (or, again – should I have a much more cynical view of this? I also explored this possibility in my latest blog post, sub-titled “Truth is Fitness Alone”). Truth is a word which, in effect, still means that we not only construct, but are accountable for what we construct. It brings to our mind the idea, it reminds us, that things might be wrongly constructed, a possibility the Framework doesn’t mention. Also then, that not every “useful fiction” is defensible, but might rightly be called propaganda, i.e. mis- or disinformation.

What does this mean N.Y. Times?

Again, I also am not interested in “verbose, obtuse philosophical discussions of truth” being present in the Framework. I think its mention, however, would be helpful, particularly in the context of the importance of seeking it. Without this interest, all is lost.

Again, all of this just briefly touches on the more extensive argumentation found in my papers, which I encourage persons to read and address.

FIN

What I Want From the Framework for Information Literacy

Click here to read the Framework

On the ili listserv, I am asked:

Would it be possible to sum up in a simple sentence or two, exactly what it is you would like the Framework to do in order to address the issue of Truth?  Do you simply want it to mention the phrase “to seek truth” somewhere or are you arguing that the frame Authority is Constructed and Contextual needs to be scrapped and rewritten entirely?  I apologize, but I’m getting rather lost in the philosophical discussion… it might help if I had a better understanding of why you’re arguing this or what you would like to propose as a change in order to satisfy your concern.

I didn’t want to answer in a simple sentence or two, so I said the following:

Thanks for asking. But no sound bites. : )

There are definite strengths to the Framework. That said, there is room for improvement. In the RSR paper, in the conclusion, I write:

…if one acknowledges the foregoing argument to be very strong – that is, unlikely to encounter an effective rebuttal – this is an indication that the statement “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is unhelpful and should be scrapped. After all, the critical question is whether power, in forms both subtle and overt, is ultimately determinative, or whether the issue of truth – and with it our ability to reason together regardless of religion, race, or creed – have a role to play. This is critical for the Framework – any standard promulgated by so prestigious an organization as the ACRL should itself be a product of the best critical thinking. It should not be noted for its concealed propositions, unarticulated assumptions, and disregarded alternatives.

So, at the very least, the phrase “AiCC” should be scrapped, along with some kind of acknowledgement or nod to the idea that issues of truth are inextricably connected with issues of authority (I add: cultural and political power are connected with, but not the same thing as, authority), and hence we should reject the idea that “quests to be true, tell the truth, and seek what is really true, for example, are questionable forays at best, and naïve and unwelcome at worst.” I contend that if you believe that, you ultimately can’t have scholarship, and hence libraries that support scholarship (as opposed to temples).

FIN

Sola Commoditas!: Truth is Fitness Alone

Are we all sophists now?

Note: I thought about making what follows more succinct, but I was concerned about losing necessary nuance. I’ve pared it down as much as I am comfortable with (admittedly putting a lot in the lengthy footnotes below). I hope you’ll give this almost article-length piece a chance.

+++

If some folks do believe, vs. the New York Times, that there is an alternative to truth, just what is it they believe?*

I thought I knew. In one of my published papers taking on the popular idea among librarians that “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” (see the abstract of the first paper here, which has now been downloaded over 350 times), I in essence argued that truth is not, contrary to impressions given, power alone.

I now am thinking that my argument was perhaps not specific enough. I am beginning to think that, for many, truth is ultimately fitness alone. Sola Commoditas. In other words, whoever evolutionary-wise is most fit, is most true.

How was such a conclusion — startling to many of us to say the least! — reached? And what is wrong with this idea?

I got there in part by reading a piece from Oregonian writer Douglas Perry: “Donald Trump rejects reality? That might make him a great president.”

“I alone can fix it!” – Donald Trump, author of Think BIG and Kick A** in Business and Life and 45th President of the U.S.A

Jumping off the example of a Donald Trump television surrogate who argued that facts, for example, are not really facts (of course, intriguingly, that person also said that this is unfortunately the case now), Perry provocatively says “Well, it turns out Trump and [his surrogate] Hughes just might be onto something important here (italics mine).”

Having dropped that bomb, he goes on… “Just ask Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California in Irvine.” Hoffman, Perry explains, argues that “Our senses are not designed to show us the truth, he argues. Their job is to help us survive, procreate and, yes, win.” They “maximize[] evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.”

Perry comments:

….Maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction. That does kind of sound like Trump — or any successful salesman. Trump rose to public prominence as a Manhattan real-estate developer. And Manhattan real-estate developers — always selling, working over bank executives and politicians and the press — exist by necessity in a fantasy space between what is and what might be. Here’s how a big-time real-estate developer in Tom Wolfe’s novel “A Man in Full” sees himself: “You had to sell the world on … yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in … you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I!”

Wolfe “maps” Trump?

More Perry:

“But it’s not just Trump’s expert salesmanship at work here, at least not according to scientists like Hoffman. It’s quantum physics, which tells us that objects don’t really exist — that an object is simply whatever it’s measured to be, meaning that whoever is doing the measuring gets the prize.”

(and now cue link to “Schrodinger’s cat” You Tube video)

In sum, Perry’s article boils down to the idea that life is ultimately about personal power for non-“traditionalists” – even if here we are mercifully just talking about their ability to satisfy and sway, not coerce or physically force. And even if what persons like Scott Adams claim about Trump is true — that he is not so much a liar as much as he is a strategic and natural “bull-shitter” — we are still fixated on what works. Here ideas, consequential as they are, are not so much related to truth so much as they are useful and expedient tools of the fit history-making and shaping will.

And here, are we not viewing the world from the peak of pragmatism, with everything ultimately being an engineering problem of sorts?** Whether it be through the “useful fictions” of the scientist or the propaganda (including mis- and disinformation) of the politician, we can make things work. We can save ourselves and the world, or, at least, make a difference.

Looking more closely at an interview with Hoffman, we learn that evolution has “programmed” us to survive in complex ways that are largely beyond our ability (or the average person’s ability) to understand. For example, it is not accurate perceptions which help us to survive but “fitness functions,” i.e. “mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction.” “Suppose,” he says,

“there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not… And yet the desktop is useful.”

In the end, Hoffman calls this view “conscious realism,” meaning that “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.”

“we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.” — Donald Hoffman

And again, he speaks of “maximiz[ing] evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction”. Therefore, are we not left wondering what “truth” has to do with anything? Are things not rather all about a particular kind of success in the world: surviving and thriving (gaining respect, influence, health, wealth, power, etc.)?

If this is the case, why urge anyone to seek truth? Might such a notion just get in the way? Whether one attempts to simply give one’s children a good future or to enact more utopian dreams why give too much attention to this idea of “being honest with” “facts”? Who can know, after all? Why should we worry about what is ultimately the right, true, and good thing to do? Yes, it is disturbing to some of us when utopians talk about the need to break a few eggs (millions of eggs?!) in order to make an omelette, but we have self-sacrificing heroes like Spock from Star Trek as well, right?: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Some take real comfort in that. And in the meantime, different variations of scientism, materialism… philosophical naturalism (including some approaches to quantum physics) — all get worked into our “life equation”. Even the Romantic and Idealistic (as in the actual formal philosophy of “Idealism”) philosopher Curtis White’s core argument in his book The Science Delusion, is that the attack on the arts is “also an attack on our earliest human instinct: our ability to invent our way to survival” (p. 91, italics his).

In the tank with scientism,  materialism, and Social Darwinism after all?

What is happening here? Why, quaint ideas like real beauty, goodness, and virtue are leaving — have left! —  the building. Perhaps we didn’t even notice as they went. As fellow cognitive scientist (and philosopher of science) Daniel Dennett says (who, now, has a new book out which seems to echo Hoffman’s claims), things like evolution (which he equates with philosophical naturalism) are a

“universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways” (see here).

And, it is here where I make the claim that Hoffman’s views sync perfectly with those of the ancient sophists. Like many of our modern materialists (who might say they personally believe in goodness and evil but that they do not exist in any real sense), the Sophists of the ancient world said that our base assumption should be that certain truth and goodness is unattainable. With change being the only constant and knowledge an illusion, absolutely everything must be about building consensus through persuasion. The ethical sophist – assuming positing such a person is reasonable! – would persuade on the basis of arguing for things that are not true, but possible and perhaps probable… (cue librarian Lane Wilkinson’s understandable efforts to salvage “information literacy” in a post-truth world — I note that even I make the argument to classes that library databases, for example, have a “greater concentration of deeper and factually sound sources” than the web — at least when it comes to traditional academic disciplines).

Daniel Dennett’s new book, syncing with Hoffman.

So the possible, or perhaps even probable, is all that we are left with. This is something that perhaps many think they can live with. That said, remember that with Hoffman’s view temporal survival seems to be what life is all about, and  “Fitness alone!” is the cry, where, truth, including but not limited to “accurate perceptions,” is driven to extinction. But if this is if this is the case, as long as one can avoid the impression one is totally disconnected from what many have traditionally considered “matters of concrete fact,” disqualifying one’s self in others’ eyes, is not the sky the limit? “Useful fictions” and propaganda become one.

Why should any theory or narrative we use to help us cope with and explain life not be thought of as us advertising our fitness — which might well include our ability to deceive (tell “noble lies!” we say) — through clever and plausible sounding words? (helping advertise that we are one of the fit!) Why, for example, should a philosophical naturalist believe that the theory of evolution is true at all? It might be useful for “life” to perpetuate itself, but true?***

WWWJD: What would William James do? What about Peirce?

And yet, of course, what Hoffman is doing in his interview – what he cannot avoid doing even if he might protest he is doing it – is putting forth not a possibility or a probability but a truth claim. Truth, in one sense, is “driven to extinction,” where, in another, it rises from the ashes reborn. “Believe me,” he is saying… “I am speaking with some real authority on these matters.” Again, the ancient sophists played the same game… the truth is that we cannot not really know truth… what is important is that you listen to me, noticing how clever I am…

So just what is his truth claim?

In short, it is this: He is the Truth. And take heart! For maybe You to, if he wants to associate with you (perhaps because you believe his materialistic theory and narrative!), are also the Truth! This is what he seems to really believe is the truth, even if, at this point, he perhaps knows more than he can tell (see Michael Polanyi). This, after all, “works” for him (and here, whether the desire to be the truth comes before or after materialistic accounts of evolutionary theory becomes the chicken and egg problem).

Again, if Hoffman means what he says, everything we as human beings experience, do and say will impact our evolutionary fitness level, increasing it or decreasing it. Regarding any particular issue, “truth” need not relate to what really is the case. And that, I conclude, ends up being “truth”: Subjective Truth with the ability to master this physical realm — including the power to influence one’s fellows — is all there is

This is the “fitness function” at work! As Hoffman says, “Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.” Again, to sum it up, Fitness Alone. Sola Commoditas is his creed. Again, whoever evolutionary-wise is most fit, is most true.

Maybe that, after all, is what the New York Times means when it talks about the truth? “We, subjectively, are the Truth.” Maybe I should ask them for clarification?

Merely a survival strategy? Or should it be something more?

In any case, when it comes to this kind of kind of sophistry exhibited by Hoffman and Dennett — infused with a modern scientific and technological mindset as well (what I call the MSTM, where all “truth” and “limits” must succumb to human ability*) — I’m calling B.S.

There is real truth and common ground, as I argued forcefully in my last post.

Where do we go from here?

Well, if all of the Hoffman and Dennett Truthers oppose persons like me socially and politically and we fight back (evidently with our own fitness functions that still falsely believe there is real truth and real goodness!), just what hope for common ground do we now have?

I suggest that insofar as the kind of thinking that Hoffman and Dennett exhibit is rejected or at least questioned, there remains a sliver of hope.

Is guilt for any “wrongdoing” more of a pragmatic problem, psychologically and socially, than anything else? If so, where does that leave us? (pictured: Freud)

Even then, some may be tempted to reject Hoffman and Dennett only insofar as they deny that we can have empirical accuracy (they also do not deny the reality of mathematics of course, which not only survives the materialist acid, but is presumably behind it all). In other words, in spite of being almost entirely naturalistic in the variety of methodologies that they practice, they simply deny the logical endgame of philosophical naturalism, asserting, for this or that reason, that it does us no good (e.g. it is not useful for our sanity! : ) ) to posit that our senses may deceive us, even if we might be able to readily imagine them doing so in this or that circumstance. Skepticism about some things, even if arguments are echoed by other highly accomplished secular persons, is a bridge too far.

To counter such an attitude, here is my question: “Are the stakes too high?” I am talking about the importance of truth in principle, but consider also the truth about how this relates to the least powerful likely to be preyed upon. Note the words of librarian Joshua Beatty:

“For elites, the evolutionary model has served to retroactively justify the hierarchy of society — the wealthiest and the most successful must have been the most fit, while those in ranks below were progressively less fit.”****

Harrowing diagnosis

I’d hope that people at the extremes who ideologically insist that economic poverty causes bad character, full-stop — or vice-versa — might both pause at that.

And I’ll close with a rhetorical question for the highly stubborn from near the end of my recent paper titled: “Is Authority Always Constructed and Contextual: a Classical Challenge” (mentioned second here):

“When the influential Richard Rorty defined truth as “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, how does this not, in effect, make truth liable to being nothing more than a power play for one’s advantage? From which it follows that it is really true (!) that it is ultimately only things that overpower other things that can be said to exist – to be. This certainly puts a new spin on what Aristotle said about truth, namely that “to say that which is, is and that which is not is not, is true”! With this assumed, the best among us can only be those who take – and lead – leaps of faith into oceans, hoping that the evolving beliefs we think are “good” – and not just our genes – will be spread and passed on. Here, any classical notions of knowledge as “justified true belief” are banished, as whatever can function to win, if only temporarily, is all that remains for us to hope in. On the other hand, what if what we ultimately need is just such knowledge… and real wisdom… perhaps even involving a truth that even goes beyond “accuracy” – implying perhaps even a goodness that goes beyond our own subjective impressions?”

A childish view? Perhaps, but then again… (click on that if you want a well-thought-out religious answer)

“Computer scientists talk about the difference between exploring and exploiting — a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. Babies explore; adults exploit.”Alison Gopnik

FIN

Images: Trump, William James, Freud, Gopnik: Wikipedia. Donald Hoffman: http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/

Notes:

-Some parts of the post have been updated to increase clarity since its initial publishing. Also, substantial parts of this post contain re-worked content from my previous writing.

*Many of these certainly believe in science. Or, at least one particular kind of purportedly scientific approach which is the enemy of truth — where all the boundaries limiting man’s power over nature increasingly are expected to succumb. We can call this faith, as I did in a conference presentation, the Modern Scientific and Technological Mindset, or MSTM, for short (this would go hand-in-hand with scientism, while not being the exact same thing).

Many years ago, I was reading Isaac Asimov’s fictional Foundation series and was introduced to the character of Hari Seldon. This man develops a science called “psychohistory” that enables him to predict the future via probability using mathematical formulas.  As an impressionable sixteen year old, this was a very new idea for me at the time and had a real impact on me – I vividly remember the time and place I read this and my subsequent wrestling with the concept: was science really progressing such that it would have abilities like these? Or if it was not, could it? Recently, I came upon what is by now a familiar theme – the universe as a machine, albeit a beautiful one – in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. As opposed to Hari Seldon’s formula(s), which took into account contingencies (and hence probabilities), what we find in Hugo Cabret certainly seems to be a more deterministic way of looking at things. Whether or not this is the case, here I submit that the practical idea is the same: by treating the cosmos as a machine and by carefully observing it, mathematical formulas can assist in “capturing” the world and be used to make predictions about it.

**Of course, none of us can simply be pure “social engineers,” for matters of myth, morals and meaning have at least some pull on all of us — more or less so (this is not to say that a person cannot attempt making this into an engineering problem as well – where confident about how things work and could work, we look to find a balance between humankind’s selfish and more altruistic impulses). Years ago, “postmodernists” looked to dispense with value “systems” because they were thought to perpetuate oppression, and “preferences” were highlighted. These days however, there is a growing awareness (see Jonathan Haidt’s work) of the fact that most every human being always find some forms of life — ways of being and doing — “beyond the pale”

Think here, for example, of the Nuremberg trials. Or, consider this quote also from the 18th c. Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid:

“…[m]oral indignation is evident even among those, who, like robbers, have little active regard for the common good. Gratitude for favors only makes sense because a favor goes beyond what is just, and resentment for injury only because it falls short of justice. All these natural sentiments presuppose the idea of justice. Property rights likewise depend on it” (Holmes, 1997, p. 117)

For some, ethics fundamentally evolves as humans evolve (and now, this primarily happens culturally), and some are able to “get it” while others do not. For others, things like beauty, justice, and goodness not only are intrinsic in our cosmos in general and human nature in particular (and these also exhibit some real stability), but also, to some degree, the way the cosmos is informs our moral decision making.

Again however, not only the practical, but the pragmatic, is lurking in the background. William James, the father of pragmatism, is the father of us all, where “truth is the cash value of an idea”. “Moral decision making,” in many cases, is understood in just this frame, where a kind of scientific and technological mindset* also prevails.

***Broken down piece by piece, the argument would look like this:

  • In brief, Hoffman makes the assumption that temporal survival is what life is all about, saying that it is our “fitness functions,” and not accurate perceptions, which help us to survive, pass on our genes, etc.
  • For example: “According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.
  • Along the same lines however, why would it not also not be the case that being able to create grand, plausible sounding theories – whether they are true or not – also can be reduced to being about survival value (in that they attract fit partners who intuit or know brains are valuable for providing, protecting, and producing good offspring)?
  • And if this is the case, as long as one can avoid the impression one is totally disconnected from what we typically call “matters of concrete fact,” disqualifying one’s self in others’ eyes, the sky is the limit!
  • As Hoffman says, our perceptions are “tuned to fitness, but not to truth”. Why, then, would our capacity to construct narratives, our story-telling imaginations, not be as well? Why would this also not figure into the all controlling “fitness function”?
  • So, if this is the case, why, for example, should a philosophical naturalist believe that the theory of evolution is true at all? It might be useful for “life” to perpetuate itself, but true?
  • Why can’t it just be a way of us advertising our fitness — and ability to deceivethrough clever and plausible sounding words?

****Another interesting chunk from Beatty, writing at In the Library with the Lead Pipe:

“It is innovation that takes the place of evolutionary changes in Moore’s business ecosystems. Moore argues that we have to accept the collapse of business ecosystems as a fact of life Instead of propping up old ecosystems, we should help those individuals affected make their way into newer, healthier ecosystems. The key to making this transition work is laissez-faire capitalism: “it’s only essential that competition among them is fierce and fair — and that the fittest survive.”

This last phrase is a tell. “Survival of the fittest” is a famous phrase coined by Herbert Spencer, and not Charles Darwin himself. Spencer, a philosopher, took up Darwinian ideas to argue for the application of evolutionary ideas to society and politics. “Social Darwinism,” as it later came to be called, was the intellectual justification for decades of foreign colonization and internal racial oppression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nor was Darwin averse to the use of evolutionary ideas in this manner. Gregory Claeys has argued that both Darwin and Spencer were influenced by the Victorian intellectual culture of their time, which viewed society through a lens crafted by the Enlightenment thinker Thomas Malthus.

According to Claeys,

Malthus viewed society in terms of an organic metaphor in which similar laws governed both animal and human worlds. He strongly distinguished between people who benefitted society (as defined in terms of productivity) and those who did not, and he defined rights as derived solely from productivity, competition-as-natural-selection dictated the survival of the “fittest,” and the starvation of the less successful, unless other factors intervened. We do not, of course, have a theory of inherited characteristics in which this “fitness” is transmitted, but we do very nearly have the symbolic imagery, so suitable to an age that prized usefulness above all else, in which such a concept functioned not as science, but as social theory.11

Our age, too, prizes “usefulness” above all else. Evolutionary metaphors are everywhere in our culture. They’re so pervasive that in an article about the dark underpinnings of evolutionary metaphors Claeys (to all appearances unwittingly) used one himself, referring to “intellectual historians concerned with how ideas themselves evolve.” For Moore to use a fairly complex evolutionary metaphor to describe the world of business was no more than tycoons and corporate thinkers had been doing since the Gilded Age. But the ecological metaphor would itself become pervasive, creeping into the library world via the high-tech business press.”

(end quote from Beatty, italics and bold mine)

Regarding “usefulness,” a quote from a previous blog post:

“In the second paper (RSR), I, at one point, state: “1) Are we, as human persons, concerned primarily with questions about what is true and right – or, alternatively, questions about what is useful and “works”? And, 2) what are the reasons for our answer?”… and go on to deal with this issue. That said, I understand that the practical (it’s William James’ world and we are all his children!) is undoubtedly on many people’s minds here, so let me also briefly address that. With the help of Thomas Mann, I put some real flesh on Wilkinson’s point in the RSR paper. You can read that excerpt near the end of my blog post Rebutting the Often Unstated Premise “Libraries Must Change or Die.”