A defence

Posted by on September 22nd, 2007

The world of philosophy is a joy to behold for it has so many possibilities. Certainly not everything (in fact far from everything) in it is right or good, but most of it has been imaginative, creative and intent upon the betterment of life, existence, society and the self.

Part of the joy of a blog like this is that a broad diversity of opinion should be created, aired, argued, and at times rejected or forgotten. For where else can such dialog, and at times monologue take place?
A science faculty would probably reject such an anti-rationalist from the outset, so too would many philosophy departments. And yet mavericks within their fields have perservered. Wittgenstein and Feyerabend (in terms of philosophy) fought against the odds at times.

Opinion is no more a valid method than conjecture or rationalism or reason. Each is a method by which an ideology and worldview is propagandized.

Some of the relatavism and epistemological anarchism I have been promoting of late has been about tearing down the walls of rigid and uncritical thinking. Nietzsche did it, Wittgenstein did it, Feyerabend did it and there are plenty who follow. It is ironic and sad that in discussing intellectual and individual freedom we should seemingly reach such an impasse as makes progress unachievable and seem afraid to express our ideas freely.
I am reminded of certain articles of what was once called the Postmodernist creed. A title no-doubt that you would abhor anyway, but it seems much of the diverse material I seek to present and to elaborate upon often crashes against the rocks of your systematic and unwavering method. Compromise seems to be highly valued and yet secretly guarded (a fault perhaps we both possess).
“Be open to ideas.
Feel free to disagree, but give space to let be.
Do not be convinced that you have the totality of the truth in your grasp, there is always more. Be not like the boy who thought he could put the sea in a bucket!
When challenged and seemingly engulfed by a system take out the tools of deconstruction, let it fall apart like a Meccano set. Recognize the component parts for what they are, cultural influences, power plays and confirmational bias.
Feel the mystery blowing in your face for it is alright to be perplexed and awestruck, be open to the unknown.”

It is perhaps pure unadulterated madness to you, but I am certain there is method in it.

On Liberty: in brief

Posted by on September 22nd, 2007

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill is taken to be the manifesto of libertarianism, its founding document. It is also the basis of a variety of offsprings, from liberal democracy to anarchism.

Its arguments (in brief) go as follows.

  • “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.
  • This stands in contrast to the tyranny of the majority.
  • Such a tyranny exists where the majority of society controls for example the norms of etiquette and morality. Such a society is an unelected power capable of horrific things.
  • Libertarianism stands opposed to this tyranny, advocating individual decision making over the self.
  • A central tenet of this philosophy is the harm principle. Do as you wish, though do no harm to others.
  • A variety of traditions incorporate the harm principle into their philosophy, though interpretations of what constitutes harm varies enormously.

In the original text there follows a description of the dangers of the tyranny of the majority, dangers that he describes as worse than the tyranny of government. Inherent in this is a concept similar to brainwashing. People who are subject to what society thinks is suitable are in grave danger of being fashioned by these opinions. Thus the minority found in faith, race, gender etc, are in grave danger from the tyranny of the majority. Because a majority opinion may not be the correct opinion.

There are some fundamental freedoms that Mill considers integral to the notion of individual freedom.

  • The freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions known as the freedom of speech.
  • The freedom to pursue tastes and pursuits, even if they are deemed “immoral,” as long as they do not cause harm.
  • The “freedom to unite” or meet with others, often known as the freedom of assembly.

Without these the individual is not truly free. It is the role therefore of society and whatever form of government it takes to safeguard these freedoms. These safeguards he deems as necessary rights (a concept far removed from natural rights). They are necessary to safeguard the natural freedoms of the individual in society.

There is in Mills opinion only one legitimate reason for the exercise of power over individuals:

“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

To conclude with there are two imporant provisos and questions. (i) What if society resists liberty? (ii) What principles should one appeal to when resolving issues of harm and when exercising power to prevent harm?

The brief answer:

(i) Libertarianism is not compulsory, however any society that wishes to be ‘free’ and which does not pay lipservice to the notion of ‘freedom’ will hold the principle of the autonomy of the self.

(ii) John Stuart Mill proposed Utilitarianism, and the principles of utility to be useful tools for governance. This however has its limits and interpretational problems, as previously discussed on this blog. (My own preference is for a form of Negative Act Utilitarianism).

“Yet There Is Method In It” vs “No Method”

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 22nd, 2007

You said in a recent comment:

“the point of Feyerabend”.. “is neither a reccomendation nor a requirement but an opinion” and “it is about the realm of possibilities.”

I have rejected the nature of rational argument and thus its correlating fallacies”

Since opinion is now a method which you accept, in my opinion, Feyerabend only offers tautology and nihilism. And if you want to abandon rational argument, is it time to abandon this blog? The title of the blog implies method! You can start a new one called “against method”?

Anti Citizen One

Relativism in step by step propositions

Posted by on September 22nd, 2007

1: individuals, groups, entire civilizations may profit from studying alien cultures, institutions, ideas, no matter how strong the traditions that support their own views (no matter how strong the arguments that support these views). For example, Roman Catholics may profit from studying Buddhism, physicians may profit from a study of the Nei Ching or from an encounter with African witch doctors, psychologists may profit from a study of the ways in which novelists and actors build a character, scientists in general may profit from a study of unscientific methods and points of view and Western civilization as a whole can learn a lot from the beliefs, habits, institutions of ‘primitive’ people.

The spectrum of responses to this thesis are:

  • The thesis is rejected, which happens when a tightly knit world view is regarded as the only measure of truth and excellence, as happens with certain religious, political or scientific beliefs.
  • The thesis is rejected, but only in certain areas, as occurs in pluralistic cultures with separate components (religion, politics, art, science etc.) that are each guided by a well defined and exclusive paradigm.
  • An exchange of ideas and attitudes between different domains (cultures) is encouraged, but is subjected to the laws that rule the domain (culture) entered.
  • An acceptance that even our most basic assumptions, our most solid beliefs, and our most conclusive arguments can be changed, improved or defused, or shown to be irrelevant by a comparison with what at first looks like undiluted madness.

Lets modify the thesis to consider freedom and democracy:

2: societies dedicated to freedom and democracy should be structured in a way that gives all traditions equal opportunities, i.e. equal access to federal funds, educational institutions, basic decisions. Science is to be treated as one tradition among many, not as a standard for judging what is and what is not, what can and what cannot be accepted.

At this point Feyerabend modifies his view that this thesis is not suitable for export, where a society is content, convinced of the rectitude of its method, or unwilling to change its ways.

The second thesis can be strengthened to say:

3: Democratic societies should give all traditions equal rights and not only equal opportunities.

This finally leads us towards some definitive statements:

4: for every statement (theory, point of view) that is believed to be true with good reasons there may exist arguments showing that either its opposite, or a weaker alternative, is true.

And its stronger variation:

6: For every statement, theory, point of view believed (to be true) with good reasons there exist arguments showing a conflicting alternative to be at least as good, or even better.

These propositions lead Feyerabend to his comments and conclusions that I posted here.

Feyerabendian relativism

Posted by on September 22nd, 2007

I thought it fair to clarify taht Feyarebend had a complex view of Relativism, and certainly did not adhere to the standard and simplistic doctrine of old.

This simplistic relatvism could be summarised as “all cultures have their values and these values are equally true for these cultures, therefore all values are equal.”

Feyerabend departed from this viewpoint by stating that a ‘Live’ investigation of culture realizes that it is always a work in progress, and that some cultures thrive, some fail, some stagnate. The relativism that he promotes therefore is not that “all values are equal” but that they deserve to be considered at any given point in their ‘Live Being’ as equal.

He defines Culture and Nature as Being. And he expounds his theory of cosmological relativism as opposed to the Ontological variety in this way:

Being responds differently, and positively, to many different approaches. Being is like a person who shows a friendly face to a friendly visitor, becomes angry at an angry gesture, remains unmoved by a bore without giving any hint as to the principles that make Him (Her? It? Them?) act the way they do in different circumstances. What we find when living, experimenting, doing research is therefore not a single scenario called ‘the world’ of ‘being’ or ‘reality’ but a variety of responses, each of them constituting a special (and not always well-defined) reality for those who have called it forth. This is relatvism because the type of reality encountered depends upon the approach taken.

Feyerabend is critical of traditional relativistic theories that would (to offer a nod to AC-1’s comments) demand that all views are equally valid in all contexts. But he is equally critical in the traditional responses.

If two parties disagree’, says Popper, ‘this may mean that one is wrong, or the other, or both. It does not mean, as the relativist will have it, that both may be equally right.’

This comment reveals in a nutshell the weakness of all intellectual attacks on relativism. ‘If two parties disagree’ – this means the opponents have established contact and understand each other. Now assume that the opponents come from different cultures. Whose means of communication will they use and how will understanding be reached? … Popper… seems to assume that there exists, basically, a single medium of discourse, that the medium is ‘rational’ in his sense (for example, it obeys simple logical laws), that is consists mainly of talk (gestures, facial expression plays no role), and that everybody has access to it…

Finally Feyerabend challenges the notion that a stumbling block for relativism be the potential deadlock between mutually incompatible things.

Why should it not be possible to say conflicting things about ‘the same situation’ and yet be right? A picture that can be seen in two different ways (Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit is an example) can be described in two different ways – and both parties will be right. It is a matter of research and not of philosophical fiat to decide whether the world we inhabit resembles a duck-rabbit picture.

Man, 72, refused alcohol over age

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 21st, 2007

I will file this news item under loss of freedom and humour I think…

“Supermarket staff refused to sell alcohol to a white-haired 72-year-old man – because he would not confirm he was over 21.” BBC

Its a mad, mad world.


A Tangent on Freedom and Politics

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 21st, 2007

You quoted:

In a free society “all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power”. (SFS, p. 9), Feyerabend

That is unworkable since it results in a deadlock of values. Let me try to explain: out of “all traditions” let us consider tradition X. But some difficult person (like me) objects saying I believe in tradition “anti-X”. Remember that both “X” and “anti-X” are part of “all traditions” and they have “equal access to the centres of power”. Since no compromise is possible between X and anti-X, then what? Deadlock! (or we could have abortion legal one day and illegal the next?) Basically, I don’t subscribe to the view that all points of view have equal worth in all contexts. And power and politics contain value judgments themselves, so you can’t say all traditions have equal access – what about anarchism??

Feyerabend’s statement and themes have a certain similarity of Nietzsche’s concept of the “last man” and his supposed views:

Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wanteth the same; everyone is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,”—say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby. (Thus Spake Zarathustra)

Naturally, Nietzsche was opposed to this view. Considering his writing, it is ironic that Nietzsche did go mad.

“When such conflict occurs the libertarian response is not to restrict or dilineate freedoms. Rather the ideal is to bring about consensus.”

As you mentioned, Libertarianism could use consensus to resolve disputes. This is effectively giving a right for people not to have force initiated against them (without their consent). It is therefore assigning natural rights. The only political system that is based on natural state of affairs is anarchism (as far as I can see).


Faith Schools 2

Posted by on September 18th, 2007

In response to AC-1’s interesting and thought provoking post I had written a point by point response, highlighting werethere was agreement and clarifying my position where there was disagreement. Yet as I read over what I had written it occured to me that it was unsatisfactory, that despite a fairly common level of acceptance on certain libertarian principles, there were still one or two axiomatic principles of which neither of us were ever likely to agree. I therefore decided to avoid the circular route and chose instead to write this post here. I have divided it into three sections, in the first I outline what I consider to be a key principled disagreement between AC-1 and myself. In part 2 I present the view that the ‘moderate’ faith school system as it exists in the UK is not worth all the hysteria that some secularists have spent on it, and finally in part 3 I quote extensively from Paul Feyerabend on the problems of education in general.

Freedom of Choice, Freedom of Thinking

In AC-1’s last post he disagreed with my assertion that prohibiting the existence of faith schools is an attack on the principle of freedom of choice, which by extension is an attack on free thinking. He claims that it would be possible into indoctrinating people into making ‘free choices’ by choosing what he would percieve as the not-so-free choice of a faith school.

Yet in a libertarian worldview, and an agenda of open debate where all ideas are free to exist, the notion that freedom to choose a method (no matter how offensive that method may be) could be seperate from the notion of free thinking is incomprehensible. They are in my opinion inseparable, to remove one (the freedom to choose) in order to preserve the other (free thought) is no true freedom at all but is instead a tyranny and a guided debate and contrary to all libertarian ideals.

Ac-1 proposes that Faith schools be abolished on the grounds that they are at worst indoctrinating children or in the least preventing them from having a free-thinking education. Yet his opposition to this is grounded in the idea that a faith ethos is a bad thing, in essence that faith is bad method. Immediately it should be obvious that such an opinion is itself the weapon of an indoctrinaire agenda. In this case the agenda of secular humanism and atheism.

It is in fact an attack on freedom to restrict or remove parental choice as to how they may educate their children. But it is an attack not only on free-choice but crucially on free-thinking. For the opponents of faith schools, with their hysterical accusations of indoctrination are in fact saying that the option to recieve a faith school education must be removed because they do not think the parents are capable of making a free or informed choice in the matter. The opponents of faith schools who defend their position as free-thinkers are in fact demonstrating a remarkably judgemental and patronising attitude to society. “We know whats best for your children, and as you seem incapable of making the right choice, we shall remove the option for you.”

It is ironic, but I can think of no greater an example of the propaganda and indoctrination of one methodic worldview over another, than this one.

What is a Faith School?

As I read over AC-1’s considered attacks on faith schools I noticed that little attention was paid to what it actually means to be a faith school. I shall attempt in brief to rectify this.

Firstly a faith school is affiliated to a ‘faith.’ But in practise this means that a faith institution, such as a Church contributes towards the funding of that school. Such a beneficent act (probably seen as the carrot and stick incentive to those who accuse them of indoctrination) has its roots in the philantropic traditions of each faith, and the cultural identity also. But lets look at the funding, 85% of the funding for a Faith school is paid by the state. A sizeable proportion, in return there are obvious rules and regulations that need to be followed. This brings us to the second fact about faith schools, and that is that they are obliged as are all other schools to teach the curriculum and are assessed and inspected in accordance with same criteria as secular schools. In other words a faith school teaches exactly the same material as a non-faith school. What role then does faith play in the teaching of religious education? In 57% of faith schools the faith that the school adheres to is taught with reference to an anthropology of other faiths where the curriculum deems it to be appropriate. In the remaining 43% of faith schools a non-denomination religious educational curriculum is taught. Across all faith schools its policy of religious education is presented to prospective parents and pupils pre-enrolment. So do faith schools only employ and teach members of that faith community? The answer is no! No school can have a prejudicial employment or enrolment policy, and this is safeguarded in the Race Relations Act and other employment legislation. Although a preference may be shown, a system is devised by school governors and the local education authority to determine what constitutes a fair admissions policy. All schools (faith and non-faith) have to determine an admissions system that favours the local, and which reflects upon the social demographics.

Besides indoctrination (which is the focus of AC-1’s ire) another contentious issue (which he hints uopn) is the suggestion that faith schools promote divisiness and intolerance and that by their very existence damage race-relations and the agenda of multicultural integration. Besides pointing out that the agenda of multiculturalism is accused of being a doctrine by some, and therefore is open to attacks that it is indoctrinaire in nature, I am more willing to accept a conciliatory tone on this matter. In particular I think there have been positive attempts at promoting legislation to make faith schools even more inclusive. This is infact the basis of much recent educational policy.

A final point on faith schools is this. AC-1 is as we should now know opposed to their indoctrination techniques, as though a faith school employs a thought police that weeds out heresy and malpractise. This should be exposed for the utter rot that it is. A faith school like any other school in the land aims to provide a rounded multi-curriculum education. It’s success in doing so is measured (rather glibly) by the academic performance of its students. Therefore a succesful faith school is a school that succeeds in its educational remit. As schools are measured by independently set standards any failure to facilitate the well-rounded education demanded of the curriculum are met with measures imposed by the education authority. Therefore the aim of all schools faith or non-faith is to provide that curriculum to the best of their abilities.

Yet if we were to believe AC-1 for a fraction of a second we should think that the succesful graduation of a pupil from a faith school should depend upon their religious belief, their attendance at religious ceremonies, their ability to recite the holy scriptures of their respective faith, and so on. If AC-1 should choose to step into a faith school (and this can be arranged) he will note that the ‘faith’ element has no bearing upon the material being taught, and the hopes and expectations that teachers and parents have for their pupils. A faith school like any other seeks to churn out succesful students (albeit a standard of success that I disagree with) not soldiers of God.

An analysis of what happens in ‘education’

One area that we both agree with is that education/schooling is in an imperfect state. But I feel we perhaps disagree to what extent or as to how we can rectify this. To this extent I have decided to conclude not with my ‘manifesto’ for education but with a quote from Paul Feyerabend on his views about the matter.

From 1958 to 1990 I was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. My function was to carry out the educational policies of the State of California which means I had to teach people what a small group of white intellectuals had decided was knowledge. I hardly ever thought about this function and I would not have taken it very seriously had I been informed. I told the students what I had learned, I arranged the material in a way that seemed plausiable and interesting to me – and that was all I did. Of course, I had also some ‘ideas of my own’ – but these ideas moved in a fairly narrow domain (though some of my friends said even then that I was going batty).

IN the years around 1964 Mexicans, blacks, Indians entered the university as a result of new educational policies. There they sat, partyly curious, partly disdainful, partly simply confused hoping to get an ‘education’. What an oppurtunity for a prophet in search of a following! What an oppurtunity, my rationalist friends told me, to contribute to the spreading of reason and the improvement of mankind! What a marvellous opportunity for a new wave of enlightenment! I felt very differntly. For it now dawned on me that the intricate arguments and the wonderful stories I had so far told to my more or less sophisticated audience might just be dreams, reflections of the conceit of a small group who had succeeded in enslaving everyone else with their ideas. Who was I to tell these people what and how to think? I did not know their problems though I knew they had many. I was not familiar with their interests, their feelings, their fears though I knew that they were eager to learn… Was this the right thing to offer to people who had been robbed of their land, their culture, their dignity and who were now supposed first to absorb and then to repeat the anaemic ideas of the mouthpieces of their oh so human captors? …

Now there was much talk of liberation, or racial equality – but what did it mean? Did it mean the equality of these traditions and the traditions of the white man? It did not. Equality meant that the members of different races and cultures now had the wonderful chance to participate in the white man’s manias, they had the chance to participate in his science, his technology, his medicine, his politics. These were the thoughts that went through my head as I looked at my audience and they made me recoil in revulsion and terror from the task I was supposed to perform. For the task- this now became clear to me- was that of a very refined, very sophisticated slavedriver. And a slavedriver I did not want to be…

I wanted to know how intellectuals manage to get away with murder- for it is murder, murder of minds and cultures that is committed year in year out at schools, universities, educational missions in foreign countries… I envisaged a new kind of education that would live from a rich resovoir of different points of view permitting the choice of traditions most advantageous to the individual. The teacher’s task would consist in facilitating the choice, not in replaceing it by some ‘truth’ of his own… I thought that regarding all achievements as transitory, restricted and personal and every truth as created by our love for it and not as ‘found’ would prevent the deterioration of once promising fairy-tales and I also thought that it was necessary to develop a new philosophy or a new religion to give substance to this unsystematic conjecture…

I now realize that these considerations were just another example of intellectualistic conceit and folly. It is conceited to assume that one has solutions for people whose lives one does not share and whose problems one does not know. It is foolish to assume that such an exercise in distant humanitarianism will have effects pleasing to the people concerned…

My own view differed from those just mentioned but it was still a view, an abstract fancy I had invented and now tried to sell without having even shared even an ounce of the lives of the recievers. This I now regard as insufferable conceit. So – what remains?…

I could follow my own advice to address only those people whom I think I understand on a personal basis… Another possibility is a change of subject. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, pp263-267

Faith Schools

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 17th, 2007

On your recent post:

“Which at times AC-1 has confused between [terminology and meaning].”

You did not clarify exactly where we disagree, which was probably out of politeness! Unless it is with the definition of words, which I will address.

We have a very high level of agreement despite your concerns on my post. We seem to have different terminology – but I obviously think I take precedence, since I was first to post! 🙂

When you say “To Teach/Be Taught”, I said verbal information. I think we agree apart from the terminology.
You discussed “To Educate/Be Educated” and its role in independent thinking and what I would consider mental “skills”. When you mention development of “latent talents”, I am thinking latent skills. Again, agreement.

I get the feeling you think these terms “to teach”, “to school” and “to educate” are separate and self evident. But the meaning of the words, in the dictionary, are about the same and are widely (but not completely) interchangeable. I don’t think they lend clarity when you separate them without solid definitions. You referenced the root of the words “educate” and “seminary” but this is heading towards argument from etymology and also don’t clarify the argument.

“Surely the response here is that potential is defined by the pupil themselves.”
I agree but I think it is hard for teenagers to know what they want. They are notoriously influenced by peer pressure, etc. I would say your suggestion is an aim point and ideal state but not fully achievable. (In fact, I don’t think most adults reach this stage either.)

“A faith school does not pressupose that all its teachers, nor all its students hold, practise, or assent to the same values.”
This is the central point of disagreement, I judge. A faith school, by definition, makes a value judgement. For example, in a certain school you might be familiar with, it states in the prospectus:

“The school seeks to do this in the context of a Catholic community, where everyone shares a vision based on the teachings and exemplary life of Jesus Christ”

Admittedly some schools are more strong in the presentation of the message than others. Usually, the senior teachers positions are reserved for followers of that faith. The other teachers are not normally allowed to contradict this value judgement – although some schools allow teachers to refrain from comment on religion. Each school varies, but the sactions would vary from getting a cold shoulder to termination of employment. For example, it would be inconcevable that a UK teacher at a faith school could announce in an assembly that there is no god (and keep their job).

“The curriculum that these schools must adhere to transcends cultural and social values expressed by ethnic and religious groupings.”
Well I have read in one school prospectus:

“The entire curriculum in [the school] is influenced by its religious identity and has at its heart the values and beliefs expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

You also have to remember that the curriculum established by government also has a certain Christian bias; this is hardly surprising considering the religion of the majority of MPs.

Since in faith schools, all teachers support or, at least, don’t oppose the faith, it is presented as “true” with no alternative. It is the very definition of indoctrination.

“Therefore …. (insert object of distrust/dislike) … is a bad thing.”
First off, I was talking about systems of values. Many of the items you listed are not value systems, but I think I understand your broader point. I don’t agree because I argued that one single value system was indoctrination. The solution: present more than one value system! You don’t necessarily need to abolish the school.

“A ’school’ is an expression of social values. It is the value that says education, the chance to flourish brightly in whatever pursuit the individual chooses is a good thing.”
This is an interesting point that I hinted at previously, but totally chickened out answering! What is the purpose of compulsory education? Isn’t the answer, as you suggest, a single value judgement? That is probably why many libertarians want to abolish state education.

“Should not the anti-realist like myself clamour for schools to ban the teaching science, on accounts of its taught methods being indoctrination of a particular world view about reality?”
I think you just straw manned by argument! (IMHO.) I argued for multiple value systems to be presented. The alternatives to science are already taught in schools. I did not say any single subject should be banned! That would be the path of nihilism.

“It is incoherent that in promoting free-thinking we should also prevent the free-choice of parents”
No, they are two separate issues. By their logic of total “free choice”, I could brainwash the parents to my point of view! How is that different from them indoctrinating their children?

“[The vast overwhelming majority of pupils h]ave little difficulty in being cohesive members of a diverse society.” “If you can specifically identify cases where this does not occur then I would suggest this to be the exception and not the rule”
You are assuming I agree that society is sane and healthy. I suggest society is maladjusted. I guess that is a specific case of sorts! lol

“Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of our industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation. Now it’s long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist with whatever suffering and injustice it entails, as long as it’s possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.” Noam Chomsky

Anti Citizen One

Meditating on Descartes 1st Meditation

Posted by on September 16th, 2007

Following on from the previous discussions about education and teaching I got thinking about Descartes, solopsism and the anti-realist perspective.

In particular I got thinking about authority, should we trust teachers, or should we assign to them the same doubt that we would our imperfect senses?

In his first meditation Descartes sets about a methodic skepticism. The first target for his doubt is his senses, they are prone at times to decieve him. Now considering that Descartes wishes to eliminate doubt and to establish certainty he realises that he cant trust his senses, even though predominantly they appear to be offering a truthful perspective.

He could of course be dreaming, and all that he percieves to be real could be but the constructions of the unconscious mind. And of course he could be mad, and imagine that things are not as they really are.

All of these recieve some attention. But finally Descartes looks at something supernatural. What if, he asks, God is decieving us? Very quickly, and then again systematically over the course of the following meditations he dismisses this idea. It seems that for Descartes the idea that God is not good, or truthful is a thought too hard to bear. But nonetheless he still has to address the idea that we are being deceived by some supernatural source. So instead of God decieving us, Descartes turns his attentions to the evil and deceiving demon . In many ways this decieving demon is similar to a deus deceptor, a decieving God, for it would appear to possess omnipotent powers in order to suceed in its deception. But thats material for a different discussion.

Descartes posits that this evil demon has the power to thoroughly decieve us and present to us an illusion of external reality so convincing that we should believe it to be real, and should have no means of knowing whether this ‘reality’ was any more or any less ‘real’ than another kind. A more modern reinterpretation of the evil genius can be found in the ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment.

Considering the evil demon, and our recent discussions on education and teaching and most importantly free-thinking, I got to meditating on the idea of existential uncertainty. By this I meant to consider not only the untrustworthiness of our senses (though very important) and not only the possibility that we are being decieved by an evil genius, but what about the possibility that we are being deceieved by our fellow human beings, including our families and friends? What if everything that we are taught and gradually learn and comfortably assume to be true is in fact fabrication? In fact what if just some of what we are taught and learn and assume to be true is in fact fabrication? (After all in Descartes method of skepticism if something is partially untrustworthy then we should be skeptical of it all).

I must admit that my thoughts moved at this point from the philosophy of The Matrix to that of The Truman show. But on a serious note should we not challenge the very basic assumptions of our own existence. Are our parents our own? Were we conceieved naturally or artificially, are our siblings fully or only partially related? All of these speculations are quite important, there was a recent news article that said that research undertaken in light of the recent trend towards unearthing ones genealogical history demonstrated that a great many people had uncovered seemingly unpalatable truths about their ancestry. Dark secrets, skeletons in the closet, and downright lies. Some extraordinary figures emerged, 6% discovered secret adoptions, 7% a convicted criminal, 14% someone who has abandoned the family name.

If one were to discover at a late age that you were adopted, or that you had brothers and sisters, or even children of whose existence you were ignorant, wouldn’t such a discovery shake the very foundations of the assumptions upon which previously you had built your life? I should imagine so. And this is a phenomena that occurs to a not inconsiderate number of people.

Now of course I must point out that I am not adovcating a breakdown in trusting relationships, and that we must begin to suspect everything that our familes and friends have told us, for much if not all is probably true. But what I am proposing is that like the anti-realist, and the solopsist, we should treat all truths as impermanent and temporary. And not allow ourselves to get carried away by notions of certainty.

What relevance has this then towards teaching? Well I was pondering the nature of logic and the endless list of fallacies that formal logic presents. One of which is the fallacy of arguing from authority. This says that it is fallacious arguing to present evidence as being anymore factual because it has been presented by someone who is in a position of authority. This would seem them to rule out teachers (and by some irony the author of the fallacy, and perhaps even the invoker of such a fallacy when used in an argument). But this would also have a detrimental effect upon the credence that we give to our parents, family and friends, who do indeed teach us certain things.

It is interesting that Descartes used the idea of an evil demon; a devil as his supernatural deciever. For the greek word for the devil is diabolos, which means slanderer and accuser and also has roots in the terms the deciever and the liar. Thus at the conclusion of this meditation my thoughts are that although methodical doubt of our senses, our sanity, our being dreaming, or our not being a brain in a vat, not to mention our assumption that we are not under hypnosis, or under the influence of hallucinogenics, are all valuable sceptical points of view, perhaps the most crucial and underestimated is the possibilty that those whom we trust and love the most are (for whatever reason, and at this point we must abandon judgement) decieving us, in a way that radically alters the world in which we think we live.