Fake news, junk knowledge, and learning to reason again

My reason hurts. I’ve been neglecting it for too long and it’s now profoundly out of shape. But there is a way back to good rational fitness: you just have to start scrutinising every piece of information that comes your way to a pedantic degree.

My latest article on MercatorNet sets you on the path to avoiding junk knowledge, and learning to reason again:

Every piece of information you take in, and how you treat it, is your choice. The manufacturers of junk knowledge don’t have your best interests at heart. Either intentionally or through ignorance they are out to get you hooked on their product. And while good quality sources of knowledge do exist, it’s up to you to distinguish them from the junk.

It’s up to you because in reality you are a lone, isolated individual mind, with the ability to take in, scrutinise, and reject all the information and propositions that come your way. You don’t have to believe everything you read.

You can instead cultivate a healthy suspicion of every proposition that comes your way, first by learning to recognise that it is a proposition in the first place.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/sick-of-fake-news-how-about-a-junk-knowledge-diet

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Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/heroes-and-villains-the-real-world-significance-of-our-most-popular-stories

Racism and homophobia

In my previous article at MercatorNet I was labelled more insidious than a Southern Baptist preacher. I don’t know much about Southern Baptist preachers, so in all honesty I’m not sure if that makes me very insidious, or just a little. But given the tone of the debate, it seemed about time to reflect a little more deeply on the nature of our intellectual disagreements:

many people believe that a hidden or clandestine animosity or prejudice is the underlying motive of people who oppose or dissent from various aspects of the LGB agenda.

In my case it means that although I state I am sceptical of how the concepts of sexual orientation and sexual identity are constructed, and I am therefore sceptical of derivative phenomena like same-sex marriage, some people will nonetheless argue that I am secretly motivated by animosity and prejudice toward homosexuality – that I am in fact homophobic…

Dispassionate thinkers should be able to see both sides and understand the nature of the disagreement. But most of us are not dispassionate thinkers, and the public debate is littered with activists on both sides. Non-activists, like pacifists in the middle of a war-zone, are liable to take fire regardless of their motives and intentions.

Disavowals of homophobia will not satisfy activists who lack the capacity or the will to understand the real points of contention. But if those of us who disagree with the LGBT movement are to remain dispassionate thinkers, then we can’t blame them for this failing either.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/racism-and-homophobia/18334

 

Is morality rational?

Bonus question: is reason moral?

Matthew asked the following question in response to our discussion of the is-ought problem:

if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

I think the key question is “what is the role of reason?” with regard to actions and judgements.

During my ill-fated PhD studies I took a closer look at the intellectualist perspective of the will, which informs the Natural Law perspective. Aquinas is pretty much the poster-boy of intellectualism, and in his view the will is defined as the appetite for the good as perceived by the intellect. In this sense, we are hard-wired to do whatever the intellect (reason) tells us is good.

What the intellect identifies as good is an open question. A skeptic can become paralysed by moral doubt, genuinely unable to decide what is truly good. An ordinary person might think twice about eating meat after seeing some horrific mistreatment of livestock. A tasty piece of food might suddenly become unappetising when you realise your three year old son dropped it in his potty by accident.

All our choices are underpinned by reasons. But the motive force – what moves us to make choices – comes not from intellect/reason but from will.

The purpose of Natural Law is to straighten out the operation of the intellect so that the goods it presents to the will are genuine goods. In other words, it seeks to ensure that our reasons are rational ones.

But how does the intellect know what is good? Doesn’t that just bring us back to the problem of how the intellect (reason) can determine what is good and what isn’t? Won’t we just get mired in meta-ethical debates at this point?

This is a genuine problem, by which I mean a practical one in addition to a theoretical one. If good means “that which the will desires” but the will desires based on what the intellect tells us, then good must be whatever the intellect determines it to be.

But as we’ve already explained, the intellect cannot reach those kinds of determinations without a given premise. Pure reason gets us nowhere. A pure moral skeptic cannot recognise any criteria for ‘good’, and thus doubt can stymie the will, the appetite for (unknowable) good.

Nonetheless, there is a way out of this cul-de-sac. There isn’t space to turn around, but we can hit reverse and find our way back to the open road.

While it may be true that, starting from scratch, we cannot determine what is good on purely rational grounds, it is also true that we cannot justify “starting from scratch”, nor the demand for purely rational grounds.

In the first instance, this means that Aquinas and his ilk set out not to create a rationalist or skeptical ethical framework from scratch, but to determine through observation how it is that we already make choices, how we already do ethics, and whether we can improve on what we already do.

This is where the analogy to psychology is quite reasonable. Psychologists don’t really know what mental health means as some absolute or refined category. They define it in the context of people’s ordinary lives, where the line between mental health and illness is drawn fairly broadly in terms of whether or not you can get on with living.

It would be a strange and (ironically) an unreasonable step for Aquinas to decide arbitrarily that from today he would start determining good and evil from a purely skeptical premise. He’d have to – to put it crudely – be a real believer in skepticism.

Instead, he took the much more reasonable approach of looking at how people – including himself – already identified things as good or evil, and sought to find clarity in that dynamic. That doesn’t mean he abandoned reason at all, rather, he identified the reason implicit in people’s ethical choices and judgements, and found that it was coherent even if it wasn’t absolute.

That is, there’s a reason why people prefer truth over falsehood, just as they prefer eating bread over eating dirt.

In this sense, the good in its varied forms is something Aquinas discovered through observation and analysis of human behaviour (and reading Aristotle). These goods are rational, which is to say, there is an order and a proportion and an appropriate relationship between the many things consistently and coherently identified as goods.

And the reason behind them can be compelling. But compelling in the hypothetical sense that presumes we all already have this practical ‘natural’ inclination toward certain things as good for us, not compelling in the sense that these reasons can move a skeptic. But then, a skeptic is someone who has chosen to take an immovable position.So I would agree that Natural Law is outside “orthodox” modern moral philosophy, but I think the is-ought problem and the question of rational justification are just symptoms of a deeper problem.The is-ought problem in its historical context was not a response to Natural Law, but to Moral Rationalists. Ironically, the group Hume sided with sound much more like Natural Law theorists:

The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

The ‘deeper problem’ I mention is simply that the approach to ethics changed. I’m not sure if it changed with Descartes, and the more general philosophical revolution, but change it did. As a result, subsequent theories of ethics seem to want to reproduce not Natural Law but Divine Law outside of a religious context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The limits of non-fiction

The problem with my first attempt at writing  a novel was simply that it lacked meaning. It wasn’t meaningful enough for me to pursue it beyond the first five or six rejection letters and additional non-replies. I knew deep down that despite finding it interesting, enjoyable, and challenging, it had particular faults that stemmed ultimately from a failure to fully invest myself in it.

This is, I think, the most likely answer to the previous post’s question: why am I so conflicted about writing fiction? – a question I attempted to unravel through finding the essential value or purpose of stories or histories generally.

But on reflection, it turned out that what matters more than the essential purpose (there may very well be multiple non-essential purposes) is finding a single purpose that is sufficient to motivate me. After all, different authors have different reasons for writing, and all that matters in the end is that my reason is good enough to get the job done. And for me that means that the process itself has to be personally enriching.

A novel is a huge undertaking, and I don’t have the patience or the energy to write for the sake of merely completing the task. What I need is a purpose and a process that can sustain me through it, make me want to keep going, make me turn to fiction for nourishment or re-invigoration.

That purpose lies in the special nature of stories as opposed to non-fiction: I love that non-fiction lets me describe, analyse, and solve problems with as much clarity and wisdom as I can muster. But the fact is that fiction has its own power to solve problems, with a clarity and wisdom that is paradoxically both stronger and weaker than its more realistic counterpart.

Ideal non-fiction has the attributes of realism, certainty, and fact. It is direct and unadorned, making no attempt to hide the truth or to embellish it; relying only on what can be known and reveling in the clarity and openness of whatever it can grasp.

Fiction, on the other hand, is not limited to facts, certainties, or the real. It is entirely unreal, and accordingly imprecise; attuned as much to the wildest fantasy as it is to truth. It can grasp anything, but nothing of any substance. It is totally without the raw integrity of non-fiction – the constraints that make non-fiction relevant, that keep it grounded and useful.  Fiction is ultimately empty; the freedom from constraints equally a lack of discernible essence or identity.

Yet in this weakness lies also fiction’s strength. While non-fiction allows us to identify, analyse, and resolve problems, its power is really our own power, and we are limited precisely to what we can identify, analyse, and resolve for ourselves, using whatever reason and wisdom is at our disposal.  Fiction may be imprecise, but this is what makes it perfect for problems we cannot precisely identify.  Fiction may be as attuned to fantasy as to truth, but non-fiction cannot go far beyond the truths we already recognise and understand. Fiction may be empty, but its very emptiness allows it to soar far beyond the crawling limits of non-fiction’s methodological constraints.

What is of all things most yielding
Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
Being substanceless it can enter even where is no space;

– Daodejing 43

The value of fiction, then, is that it alone can deal with the problems we cannot pin down, the challenges and themes of which we are at best only vaguely aware. Not every problem or challenge in life can be safely abstracted, intellectualised, and dissected under the light of day. In the dark there are dragons and monsters that can only be fought, treasures that can only be found, if we are willing to enter – even blindly enter – into the fray.

Dealing only with problems we feel we can understand is like only fighting battles we know we can win. It is safe, secure, and some would say wise. But much can be gained or lost in the space between what we know we can win, and what we actually could win if we fought for it. What is lost, above all, in limiting ourselves to problems that can be dealt with through careful analysis is the broader domain of our own selves. We are not simply analytical intellects. And though the whole of our lives, selves, and experiences may be intelligible, they cannot all be engaged or approached with the shining clarity of the intellectual problem-solving mind.

For me, the appeal of non-fiction is that it can draw the entire world and reality itself into my intellectual domain. The challenge represented by fiction is to drag me out of that very same domain, that safe and comfortable fortress, into the broader, wilder, more mysterious world beyond.  It’s no wonder then that I have both resisted and yearned for it, knowing that there is more out there, but unwilling to put aside the obvious power and clarity of the intellect.

 

 

My passive self

A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.

The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.

In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.

In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.

Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.

In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.

Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.

For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive.  Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.

Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us.  Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.

In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place.  This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.

Or to put it another way:

“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”

 

 

 

 

How to win an internet argument

Ever wanted to win at internet arguments? My latest piece on MercatorNet shows you how:

We would ridicule a sportsman who delights in devastating much weaker players, and for the same reasons we should ridicule in ourselves the temptation to interpret others’ arguments in their weakest possible ways.  And though many sportsmen are obsessed with winning within the rules, what we admire most of all is the kind of person who regards even winning itself as trivial – a mere by-product of a good game that pushes all players to do their best.

What it means to be free

 

In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.

 

 

The vibe of ‘white genocide’

So when I wrote an article basically mocking the idea of ‘white genocide’ and the people who subscribe to it, I didn’t think I’d get many hostile comments. Perhaps the moderators were already working overtime, but even the stuff that got through surprised me.

It turns out that some people really do believe multiculturalism is a genocidal plot aimed at white people! I was kinda hoping the whole thing would turn out to be elaborate satire. Alas, no.

In comments we’ve had LOTS OF CAPS to emphasise the seriousness of the threat, we’ve had what looks like an attempt to pin ‘white genocide’ on ‘The Jews’, and we’ve also had the slowly dawning realisation that this is apparently the first (alleged) genocide ever to be carried out by means of voluntary intermarriage between consenting adults.

The essence of the ‘White Genocide’ argument is elusive.  I’m not sure we ever got to the level of actual evidence; but evidence isn’t really required in this kind of argument, not when it’s all so obvious and everyone knows it’s happening, right?  I mean, to have to meaningfully compare alleged genocidal acts against precedent would detract from the spirit of the debate.  To have to explain how this ‘genocide’ is supposedly happening, the expected time-frame, and the interventions required to stop it BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE is asking a bit much of people who are already demonstrating such courage in speaking out against the conspiracy.  Ultimately, in language any true White Australian will understand, when it comes to ‘white genocide’: “it’s the vibe of the thing.”

 

 

 

I’m moving to Finland, to be with my people

Comments on my latest MercatorNet piece have been surprisingly supportive of the whole ‘white genocide’ idea.

For example, a reader calling itself “Time to think” writes:

Africa is still for the Africans and Asia is still for the Asians, but white countries are for everybody. Only white countries are going it, only white children are affected by it, it is indeed genocide. WHITE GENOCIDE. Go and look up the laws for the definition of genocide and you will see that this is true.
Even if the idea of white privilege were true, how does it justify genocide? And this is not only happening in Australia. It is happening in UK, France, Germany, USA and all other white countries. Just research Sweden. Every multicultural position places us in a world with no white people in it. In your opinion white identity is racist, you are only say that to whites, anti racist is code word for anti white.

To which I replied:

Genocide is:

“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life
calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

— Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2”

Okay, I looked up the definition, still not impressed.

You say it’s happening in “all other white countries”. Is Finland not ‘white’? As of 2013 it was still 89.33% Finnish. What about Lithuania: it’s 84.2% Lithuanian as of 2011. Is that enough? How about Estonia: oh wait, it’s only 69.7% Estonian! Genocide! No, wait, 25.2% are Russians…
Maybe they complain about Estonian Genocide in Estonia? I wish I knew, but I don’t know how to say ‘genocide’ in Estonian, because despite being members of the one glorious white race, we are completely different ethnic and linguistic groups.

Perhaps you could come up with a new slogan other than ‘white genocide’ which on the one hand includes all the nations where you think white genocide is happening, but at the same time excludes those nations where it isn’t happening? Then it might be an accurate label rather than an incendiary polemic tool.

It is indeed time to think. Whenever you’re ready….

Head over and enjoy the careful and reasoned debate in its full glory:
http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/white_identity_in_a_multicultural_world