Distract, Maul, And Dominate: Donald Trump’s CNN Wrestling Video GIF And Hitler’s Reichstag Fire

“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a free press” (Samuel Adams in 1768).

However tense we may be with Trump as president, our republic is still functioning and we’re at peace. Yet something isn’t right, is it? One of its core values–the freedom of an oppositional press–is clearly under assault.

Why?

Because a full-on, Putin-style takeover of America is still in the cards with this president, and Trump’s Twitter GIF of him taking down CNN forecasts it.

We’re one Reichstag fire away from this Trump take-down.

By this time next year, we may find ourselves whispering under our breath Shakespeare’s line, “all that is solid melts into air.”

That line will take on an especially horrific character if Trump’s Reichstag fire is an exchange of nuclear weapons between himself and Kim Jong Un.

So the question isn’t whether our press freedoms, our Constitution, and the separation of powers will hold-up under Trump for a couple of years in peace time, but in war.

A major war, perhaps with nuclear weapons, is the sort of crisis that a free press is being softened-up for right now. The knock-out blow on press freedom will come, not in peace, but in war.

Trump’s video is thus as telling as when Hitler announced publicly that war between the great powers would mean the extermination of Jews from the continent of Europe. Trump’s not articulate. He’s not going to speak his intentions that directly and explicitly. But he’s going to post a GIF that symbolizes them. And that’s what he did.

In that GIF, Trump has now announced that he means to conduct a mauling from behind of the press–and when freedom of the press goes, the rest of the republic will follow.

So the video is not humorous, it’s literal. It’s psychologically telling. Trump’s instinct is to distract, then maul and dominate.

It’s thus plausible that sometime over the next three years Trump will gather Putin-like powers to himself in the following manner: first, he’ll maul Kim Jong Un or Iran, initiating a first-strike on one of them, perhaps with nuclear weapons, bringing on a major global crisis. Then he’ll act on his domestic enemies, conducting a rapid-fire take-down of the press (federal marshals shutting down The New York Times for leaks or “treason,” shooting or disappearing a few prominent journalists, etc.). From there he’ll consolidate power, ultimately crippling the separation of powers and ending free elections.

At that point it will be Trump’s America. He’ll own us. He’ll do exactly as he pleases. But it will all be achieved in crisis, not peacetime.

The summer of 2017 is in the eye of the storm. It’s calm, we tell ourselves. Trump’s not effective as a peacetime president. He can’t get anything done. He’s therefore harmless.

That’s our mistake. We shrug at his antics, failing to marshal organized, serious resistance to him in peacetime, focusing on distractions, and turning our backs on him.

Then we get hit.

Hard.

That’s what Trump’s Twitter GIF means. He’s forecasting his modus operandi for how he means to deal with the press in a time of crisis or war. He intends to soften-up his enemies with distractions, then maul and dominate them. We’ve been warned.

 

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, donald trump, edward feser, feminism, God, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

What Does It Mean For God To Exist, Think, And Act?

It’s always comforting to (seemingly) settle hard questions in thirty seconds. But as a matter of logic, if space-time is the condition for existence, and existence is bound up with space-time (as Einstein proposed), then in what sense could God possibly exist, think, or act outside of space-time?

The very concept of being is itself entangled in questions surrounding space-time. So the problem with someone saying that God exists, thinks, and acts outside of space-time is in definition. What does it mean to say that something “exists” outside of space-time, or that something “thinks” or “acts” outside of space-time?

Because thinking and acting are processes, thinking and acting necessarily require space-time as a condition for their functioning. One’s thoughts shift in relation to space-time; one’s actions shift in relation to space-time. So when someone says that God exists, thinks, and acts, making a world, she or he must be using the words “exist,” “think,” and “act” in a manner that is very different from their conventional use. But by shifting the meaning of the words without redefining them to the new context, the person essentially talks gibberish. It’s akin to calling God “good.” In what sense is God “good” after having let the Holocaust happen?

If skeptical questions surrounding God’s existence and relation to the cosmos were as easily slapped down as religious apologists so frequently imply, then (one would think) the geniuses of the past several hundred years–from Spinoza to Stephen Hawking–would not have puzzled over space and time quite so intensively, and drawn such starkly different conclusions about what it means to “exist.” In a cosmos where God isn’t talking, the more honest responses to the question of God’s existence are “I don’t know” and “Define God.”

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Posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, edward feser, Genesis, God, God, Lucretius, philosophy, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Trump and Authoritarianism

Clarity. A must-view, short video from Vox surveying some of the political science data on authoritarianism and its relation to Trump. A really excellent summary.

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, donald trump, edward feser, feminism, God, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Enlightenment Under Attack: Free Desiree Fairooz

A woman, it appears, may soon go to jail for a year for laughing at Jeff Sessions. Her name is Desiree Fairooz. A quote from a recent article at CNN’s website:

[T]he notion of an American citizen going to jail for a nonviolent political protest is utterly antithetical to what this country is all about. It is a disgrace. Officer Coronado is a disgrace for arresting her. The prosecutor is a disgrace for charging her. The jurors are disgraces for convicting her. Add that to the optics … a government with, at the moment. a bit of an authoritarian bent, in a hearing to confirm our top law enforcement official (who arguably has authoritarian tendencies of his own), allowing a person to be taken into custody, and then the pressing of charges. And now Fairooz faces actual jail time? That is not the image of an America guided by the Enlightenment.

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Posted in atheism, atomism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, david hume, donald trump, edward feser, feminism, hillary clinton, Lucretius, Politics, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

“Siloviki”: Yale’s Timothy Snyder Nails The Stakes Surrounding Trump’s Firing Of James Comey

A hijacking. A Putin-like coup. Is this where it’s going? The below quote from Yale Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder is the most chilling I’ve run across since the firing of James Comey. It clearly articulates exactly what is at stake: “My Russian friends refer to agencies like the FBI as siloviki. The agencies that use force. For Trump to build an authoritarian state in the USA, the FBI must cease to be a police agency that investigates according to law, and become a top-down instrument of force: siloviki.”

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Spring (a poem)

SPRING

 

God gave me a rose.

And God is love.

The rose made me.

 

Sneeze. I have

Asthma. The rose

Landed.

 

Me in hospital.

That can’t be right.

If God is love.

 

And gave me a rose.

And anticipates all.

So God wanted me.

 

In hospital.

To show me love.

I would have

 

Done it differently.

God hates me.

Clearly.

 

Or does not exist.

I chanced upon a rose.

It meant nothing.

 

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Best Explanation, Ad Hoc Explanation, and Occam’s Razor

Best explanation vs. ad hoc explanation. A sign that you may not be seeking the best theory surrounding the truth of a matter, and instead protecting a favored theory—one you want to be true over all others—is if you’re doing a lot of ad hoc reasoning in response to objections to it. We might call this “ad hoc-ing.Ad hoc is Latin for “for this explanation or moment only” or “add here for a special purpose,” as when a business or bureaucracy forms an ad hoc committee to address an unforeseen situation. Ad hoc reasoning is deployed in, as it were, unanticipated or emergency intellectual situations; situations where a thesis or claim has failed to foresee an important objection or is at an impasse. When you engage in ad hoc explanation, you’re trying to save a favored thesis from pointed and skeptical questions—or new and disconfirming data or competing theses—by seat-of-the-pants rationalizing that cannot be generalized to other theses of the same type: “My psychic powers failed today because the audience had too many doubters in it.” “UFOs exist, but they never land on the White House lawn because they prefer not to be seen.” These explanations save the theses in question (the claims that psychic powers and UFOs are real), but at the expense of adding additional claims to them (psychic powers are real plus they don’t work in the presence of doubters; UFOs are real plus they don’t want to be known).

With the addition of a premise (a claim supporting another claim) to each thesis, the theses become less simple and probable—though still logically possible. In ad hoc premise adding, skeptical questions and new data are not really being anticipated or naturally incorporated into a theory or claim, but deflected with an additional claim or premise that is logically possible, but maybe not subject to empirical verification (reality testing). The ad hoc explanation, with each new premise added to the original claim, thus renders the explanation less plausible. Because there are lots of logically possible ways that the world can be that cannot be verified by evidence—we may, for example, be a dream in the mind of a butterfly—if you are willing to believe things absent evidence, you can engage in a lot of “ad hoc-ing” to save your favored beliefs, theories, explanations, and behaviors from skeptical inquiry and new data. Ad hoc premise generating can also be a sign that someone is arguing in bad faith (their motivations for posing such explanations are something other than the truth or the good).

Occam’s razor. One way to push back against ad hoc rationalizers is to deploy in response Occam’s razor, stated by William of Occam, c. 1324, in this manner: “No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.” That is, if you can keep things simple, do it. Don’t multiply premises unnecessarily. Ad hoc explanation’s seat-of-the-pants rationalizing multiplies premises, Occam’s razor shaves them off: “Maybe psychic powers fail in the presence of skeptics—and UFOs don’t land on the White House lawn—because neither psychic powers nor UFOs exist.”

Often the simplest explanation is best. And in some instances, mathematics can be deployed in support of Occam’s razor. As a matter of sheer probability, for example, two inductions being true are always going to be at least slightly less likely than a single induction being true. Each time a premise is added to an inductive thesis, the odds of the combined premises being true must necessarily come down (induction, recall, is about probabilities, not certainties). If, for instance, you’re 90% certain a particular woman is a Democratic voter, 90% certain she’s vegetarian, and 90% certain she signed your friend’s animal rights petition, the odds that you are actually right about all three of these in combination drops statistically to 72% (.9 x .9 x .9 = .72). If you also infer, say, with a confidence of 65%, that she’s a feminist, then the odds that she’s all four of these things come down further still (.72 x .65 = .468 or 46.8%). With just four inferences or assumptions surrounding the woman in question, your odds of being right about her have plummeted to under 50% (assuming you scaled your levels of confidence surrounding each claim accurately in the first place). Occam’s razor helps us get our odds of being right back up—proceeding with caution in the multiplication of premises.

But a caution to simplicity (Occam’s razor) as a criterion for evaluating truth is offered by the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead: “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” Why distrust it? One reason is that humans tend to find comfort in things they can control, and simple models or explanations might thus serve an emotional bias for control, distorting the complexity of the matter at hand, as in “the politician’s behavior can be summed up in one word: greed.” If you accept this simple heuristic (rule of thumb, model) for the politician’s behavior, you’ve got a lot of control over the processing of news you encounter about him or her, and you don’t have to expend energy thinking about it, but you may judge their words and actions wrongly, or fail to anticipate how their actions might impact your life. Simplicity as a criterion can arrest a deeper inquiry, and can open people up to such things as the availability heuristic (landing on the nearest and simplest rule of thumb, model, or map that comes to mind for explaining a problem or situation). Occam’s razor, used too casually, can signal lazy thinking.

Ideally, the critical thinker wants to locate heuristic rules of thumb, models, and maps that, like Goldilocks in search of her soup, chair, and bed, are just right. (That is, useful, attendant to the right signals in the noise, neither more nor less complicated than necessary.)

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Scientific Method For Poets: What Is Scientific Method, Exactly, And Can It Be Separated From Our Values?

Scientific method. If we’re not engaging in self-deception, trying to ad hoc our way across the bridge from logical possibility to the actual truth of a matter, we see that we have a variety of genuinely objective tools ready-to-hand to help us reach warranted belief (logical possibility; the three rules of thought; deduction, induction, and abduction; and Occam’s razor). These are all brought together in scientific method. The scientific method is a process by which one: (1) brings questions to the cosmos (“Why are there so many species of organisms on our planet?”); (2) generates competing theses or theories about it that are capable of falsification (evolution by natural selection versus, say, evolution by the intervention of space aliens who introduce new organisms from their space ship once every ten million years); (3) tests those theories (if natural selection is true, we should see transitional organisms in the fossil record; if alien intervention is true, we should see a marked shift of organisms in the fossil record only once every ten million years or so, and with no intermediate fossils of any sort); and (4) incorporates the best of those theories into a coherent network of other best theories (the biologist’s theory of evolution by natural selection, being the best theory of the two above, should slot coherently into the geologist’s best theory as to the age of the Earth).

Survival of the fittest theories. So scientific method is a sorting process; it’s about discovering survivors after an ordeal of testing, whether in or out of the lab. It’s about the survival, as it were, of the fittest theories (models, maps for navigating reality). These fittest theories are discovered in the way that the best gladiators in the ancient Roman arenas were discovered: by contrivances dreamed up for trial or testing. But in the case of science, these trials are not dreamed up by emperors, but by scientists–scientists deploying scientific method.

Criteria of adequacy. Aside from a theory being testable (a theory that cannot be falsified, or is phrased in such a way that it’s impervious to new data, reality testing, or competition from competing theories is not a scientific theory), by what general criteria is it to be judged in relation to other theories? First, if it’s an interesting theory, scientists agree that is must be fruitful (it makes predictions that pan out; it’s not readily surprised by new data, constantly requiring the addition of ad hoc premises to save it). Second, it has scope (it explains a lot of things, not just, say, one or two things). Third, it slots into our already well-established background knowledge (a theory of biology shouldn’t contradict a well-established theory of physics). Fourth, it’s simple (it doesn’t multiply premises beyond necessity; it incorporates new data in a natural, as opposed to a strained, way). These four, plus testing, can be posed as straightforward questions brought to a theory: Is it testable? Is it fruitful? Does it have scope? Does it accord with our well-established background knowledge? Is it simple? These questions, together, are sometimes called by scientists the criteria of adequacy.

Abduction: reasoning to the best hypothesis. But it’s not enough to be adequate. Even if a theory passes through these five questions with flying colors, it still has to survive the judgment of the sixth and final criterion: Is it the best theory? It can’t be merely a good, interesting, or adequate theory. It needs to be the very best on offer. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity works, but Albert Einstein’s has greater scope, and so works better. (Sorry, Isaac.) And perhaps someday a better theory of gravity will arrive, overthrowing Einstein’s. Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Galileo’s telescope never comes down.

Fact-value entanglement. In one sense, when working with scientific method, we’re not dealing with values, but facts. Noticing, for instance, that evolution entails competition (a fact) doesn’t tell you whether you should be competitive or cooperative with someone at work (a value). No is demands an ought. It was the philosopher and historian David Hume who first made this important is-ought distinction. But while it is often crucial to maintain this is-ought distinction in reasoning (noticing when one is pointing to a fact—an is—and a value—an ought)—it should also be observed that is and ought are difficult, arguably even impossible, in practice to wholly disentangle. Think, for instance, on the six criteria scientists broadly agree should be deployed to reach the truth of matters, and to lock-down things we can take to be facts. A good theory: (1) should be testable (2) should be fruitful; (3) should have scope; (4) should slot into our already well-established scientific background knowledge; (5) should be simple; and (6) should be the best theory on offer.

But notice all the shoulds in this list. In other words, our criteria for arriving at a thing we take to be a fact are value-laden. If, for example, we value the criteria of adequacy, then evolution is vastly more reasonable than alien intervention in explaining the variety of species on our planet. But why should the truth be a matter readily testable? Why do we value fruitfulness, scope, and coherence? Why should the things we take to be facts be simple, possessing an economy of premises, rather than elaborate and complex, possessing a multiplication of premises? Isn’t it obvious that there are many things that we take to be true that fail to meet one or more of the criteria or adequacy? And so, even if we are convinced that we have adopted the best values and models for generally getting at the truth of matters, we cannot wholly disentangle the processes we have chosen to get at the facts from the facts themselves. The criteria we value for bringing us to confidence that we’ve reached the truth cannot, like a ladder, be kicked to the ground after reaching the roof. If we kick away the ladder, we lose our basis for certainty as to where we actually are. Our values and models condition and infect our facts. We never have a wholly objective, value-free, or unmediated relation to the truth or the good.

That other Pope meat. The human condition, it thus appears, is to strive to reason even as we often fail in reason. So it is that we dwell in uncertainties as best we can, as the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) observed:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

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Posted in atheism, atomism, beauty, david hume, edward feser, Lucretius, origins, philosophy, science, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Jim Jones, Critical Thinking, and the Mass Suicide of the Mind

The problem. 2018 will mark the 40th anniversary of the collective suicide of the Jim Jones cult. In 1978, over 900 people left California, set up a commune in Guyana in South America, and ultimately died there together, notoriously drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

How does one make sense of this? How do you get 900 individuals to do something so extreme—and obscene—as to collectively kill their children, their spouses, their other relatives, and themselves? And why, in general, do so many people believe and do such weird things?

Critical thinking and rhetoric. Perhaps what happened at Jonestown can be demystified—at least a bit—by thinking about the nature of critical thinking and rhetoric. We live, after all, in a culture saturated with messages—everybody’s trying to sell something—from consumer products, to services, to political candidates, to religions. Like the followers of Jim Jones, we’re all susceptible to being conned, in large and small ways, and being taken-in by messages.

From Josephus to market bubbles. So when I think about Jonestown, my first thoughts go to Josephus—the Jewish historian of the first century CE—who gave us the famous tale of Masada, in which a group of Jews, high on a mountain fortress, held off the Romans, until finally, when their resistance could no longer be sustained, and so as not to be taken into slavery—committed a collective act of suicide. I also think of the collective delusions that have gripped people throughout history, from millennial madnesses to witch crazes; from tulip manias to housing market bubbles. People have long jumped on bandwagons and suspended their critical thinking in fundamental ways in the service of beliefs, greed, and collective projects.

The question is why.

Self-destruction. Think of collective and individual self-destructiveness, and the psychology that underlies self-destructive behavior. In the 40 years since Jonestown, suicide has become an ever-more shocking feature of global culture. Examples range from Japan to England, and include the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego. Most virulently, suicide takes the form of suicide terrorism. And even democracies can commit collective suicide, handing their collective wills and the rule-of-law over to the whims of authoritarian, alpha-males. In some sense, Jonestown weirdly marked itself, 40 years ago, as being a canary in the coal mine of our collective unconscious—foreshadowing an era of new and murderous religious and political manias.

But how might we demistify such human self-destructiveness? Why, for example, did so many Americans give Donald Trump the keys to America’s nuclear codes? Do we chalk-up such behavior to imprecisely defined causes, such as collective hypnosis, spell, or magic–or can we get some genuinely rational grasp on this matter? I think we can find rational ground here.

Pleasure and pain, harmony and confusion. To get our heads around human self-destructiveness, it might be best to start with evolutionary psychology. First, we can safely say that human beings have a highly evolved mechanism for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain—and one way this manifests itself is in anxiety reduction. When our environment seems to us in harmony, whole, and safe–and when we seem to understand what’s going on around us–we tend to enjoy a feeling of calm. This is deeply rewarding; it signals to us that we are okay. But when things around us seem out of harmony, confusing, and potentially dangerous, our anxiety-system is aroused, and we seek some way of feeling harmonious, whole, and safe again. Few human beings can live free of anxiety without this feeling that the world around them makes sense—that there is, at some level, meaning and harmony and purpose underlying the world.

Liquid times. Though we long for anxiety reduction, we live in a world that is highly fluid and alienating. It’s full of big cities, technologies, forces, and complexities that we can scarcely comprehend. The internet, for example, is larded with contradictory currents of information that resist harmonization or full sense. And the cosmos itself is packed with mysteries that resist our sense-making—as when our loved ones die or we try to contemplate the vast emptiness between the stars.

The world, in short, is, to echo Wordsworth, “too much with us.” The more we think about it, the more confusing and scary it can become. It’s a place where change is constant; where stability is not the norm.

Daddy, daddy. For a time, in our infancy and childhood, we may have had a strong father who guarded our innocence, protected us, and gave us simple and calming answers when we had questions about the world. But the invariable movement from innocence to experience, from childhood to adulthood, leaves all of us in a state of Mel Brooks-like, high anxiety. And because we are social animals, and there is strength in numbers. It makes sense for us to join a group where the individuals in it will look after one another as brothers and sisters. And so it hardly seems surprising that people might flock to religious, political, and social movements that promise to reduce anxiety, to make sense of the world, and to bring us into a place of safety, wholeness, and harmony.

And these movements are not likely to be terribly rational because reason takes a great deal of effort, both intellectual and in terms of discipline. To remain in the realm of the rational, you have to research things, and think about things, and read books, and live with your anxiety. To be reflective necessarily means you don’t know all the answer yet. And oftentimes reason does not bring you to a harmonious, satisfying, or conclusive answer to your concerns. Indeed, it often raises as many questions as it solves. And so it is extraordinarily difficult for people to live genuinely rational lives; lives that do not run primarily on oversimplifying cognitive maps and heuristics (rules of thumb). The temptation is to gamble on the easiest, nearest-to-hand, and most emotionally satisfying answers to anxiety-inducing questions.

Advertisers recognize this—and so rarely appeal to reason as such—but offer all sorts of shortcuts to persuasion: flashy colors, attractive images, sing-song slogans, etc. And likewise, religious, political, and social movements engage in similar appeals. Thus, what might at first seem mysterious—how could people follow Jim Jones—actually makes a good deal of sense. Jim Jones came across as someone supremely confident, and with a utopian vision of a better life. He had an authoritarian, father-figure ethos that can be extremely appealing to frightened people. He represented a short-cut to anxiety reduction.

A father for your thoughts. So the reasoning runs as follows: If I follow the father figure, I don’t have to think. My anxiety will be reduced, and he will lead me to the Promised Land (however that gets defined). If I join Jim Jones in his vision, I will have a community of brothers and sisters to look after me, and for me to love and look after in return. I’ll sing with them; I’ll dance and work with them. I’ll never be alone or lonely. The world will make sense, and life will have a purpose.

Family dynamics. But of course, once you enter into a relationship with a father and a family, all of the psychological dynamics of childhood come into play: desire to please the father, guilt at disappointing the father, and peer pressure to conform to the norms of the family. And once you are in such a dynamic, it’s tricky to get back out, for there are all sorts of ways that the group has for suppressing your legitimate questions and doubts. You sing each day harmoniously together, enforcing your connection to the group; you listen to the same sermons of the father-figure; you go out together and tell others about your way of life. And by telling others how great your life is, sharing your testimony, you reinforce the story for yourself.

And when you are in a group where miracle claims are being made, it becomes a bonding mechanism to solder you to the group. Miracles seem to be heaven’s warrant for the very existence of the group. How can you leave a group that heaven is showering with such powers? And how can the group be wrong if miracles are happening in the midst of it in the first place?

Ganfalloons and the stages of commitment. Another thing binding one to such a group is what the novelist Kurt Vonnegut calls ‘granfalloons.’ These are cultural markers that seems to make people imagine they have more in common than they do (as in all wearing similar clothes). Still another thing binding you to the group are the stages of commitment. The more you give to a group or family, the less you want to admit to yourself that you are wrong and over-committed. So each step of commitment may be small compared to the last step, but each step brings you, in an ever more extreme fashion, into the group. It’s like a frog in hot water. You might end up reaching a point where collective suicide is a relatively small step, given how far you’ve already come with the group.

The sacrifice of minds before bodies. So as we reflect in 2017 and 2018 on what might seem to be incomprehensible and rare–a mass suicide of over 900 people 40 years ago–it is in fact actually an all too human occurrence. The bodies of large groups of people may not be sacrificed en mass, but their minds might be. There are groups all around us in which the price for belonging amounts to the suicide of the critical faculties. Jonestown is an extreme example of the human ability to be swept-up in movements that are hyped, utopian, father authoritarian, and function as a kind of extended family. Jonestown is remarkable for the sacrifice of bodies, but all around us are groups that daily lift up on altars of sacrifice, and in vastly larger numbers, human minds.

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Posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, edward feser, philosophy, science, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and Checking Your Premises

Rhetoric and critical thinking. In classical rhetoric, the central appeal is not to the emotions (pathos), but to reason (logos), and Aristotle’s rhetorical invention categories—his topoi—are heavily weighted to rational appeals (appeals to logic, evidence, comparisons, definitions, examples, and so on). You can have everything else going for you rhetorically—an interesting topic, thesis, and genre; an engaging title and opening paragraph; a tone and style that matches your audience’s sensibilities; and a thoughtful arrangement of paragraphs—but if you don’t reason well, your ultimate success will remain in doubt. Like poor grammar, poor reasoning clangs to the ear, leading the reader to say no outright to your statements or to murmur, “That doesn’t sound right.” Benjamin Disraeli once cast shade on another parliamentarian by saying, “I was with you, sir, till I heard your argument!”—suggesting that his fellow parliamentarian was doing his own argument damage by supporting it poorly. It is not always enough to appeal to an audience’s existing desires and prejudices, but to support your claims with good reasons. Thus argumentation entails the study of critical thinking.

Critical thinking. To write clearly is to think clearly, and to think clearly is to think critically. Critical thinking is the attempt to arrive, as nearly and objectively as possible, at the truth of a matter. In 1946, George Orwell, the author of the novel 1984, wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled, “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he laid out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” It’s a funny observation, and it rests on a powerful syllogism (two premises accompanied by a conclusion): (1) our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; (2) they rarely match reality; therefore, (3) our conclusions rarely match reality. In the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In these two sentences, Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out one’s eyes.

Where to start objective thinking? Is there a First Idea that can assist one in reaching objectivity as reliably as in mathematics; something that can function as a North Star for reasoning, conferring on it powers of clarity for writing, and empowering individuals to begin a process of confidently and steadily thinking out issues for themselves, arriving at conclusions it would be unreasonable to ever doubt?

Well, no. Or, if there is, there’s never been a broad consensus as to what that First Idea might be, exactly. Perhaps if we agreed on that First Idea, we’d all reach the same conclusions—but then again, maybe not. For example, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and Protestant philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, all powerful minds and careful logicians (studiers of logic), started their reasoning with the ultimate Big Idea—God. In each of these thinkers’ thought, God functioned as the ground of being and for thought—and yet they did not reach the same conclusions as to what this Big Idea implied for the nature of their existence and what should be regarded, ultimately, as the true, the good, and the beautiful. Though they attempted to reason to a broader certainty in life by taking God’s existence as their First Certainty, they nevertheless ended their processes of reasoning in different places.

One reason for their diversity of opinion has to do with definition. None of these men defined God in exactly the same way, so they didn’t really start their arguments in exactly the same place. As with the butterfly effect in chaos theory (even a small flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Asia can make exact weather prediction on a particular date six months later in California uncertain), so a small difference in definitions or premises can have largescale effects for ultimate conclusions. Exact starting and stopping points for arguments are crucial to notice.

Noticing starting and stopping points. Oftentimes the Oz curtain of a person’s way of thinking, if it appears mysterious, confusing, or suspiciously unsupported, can be drawn back by simply asking, “Why did this person start his argument exactly where he did, and why did he stop it exactly where he did?” If this question cannot be inferred or explicitly answered to your satisfaction, it may be because the author has misread you, his audience, expecting you would treat his points of departure and conclusion as your points of departure and conclusion, granting his opening and closing claims as in need of no additional justification because you are, at those points, at yes with him. (Recall that rhetoric is about getting to yes with an audience.) Perhaps he assumes that you have the background knowledge he does, and are part of his community, sharing his general sensibilities, assumptions, and beliefs, knowing where questions can generally start and stop without a lot of justification or explanation. But perhaps you’re not part of his community. Perhaps you don’t share his way of talking about things, and so you’re unwilling to start and stop arguments where he does. If, for instance, you do not take as axiomatic (self-evident; foundational; something not in need of additional argument) that all human beings are created by God and created as equal, as Thomas Jefferson so famously claimed in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”), then you are in want of additional convincing. You have not reached yes with this message sender, sharing his premises.

What are premises? Premises are those explicit and implicit claims that support another claim or conclusion. They are the things you assume in argument—and that you hope your audience assumes. An example can be found in any enthymeme. Aristotle called a sentence containing a claim and support an enthymeme: “I didn’t get on the plane because grandma dreamed the night before that it would crash.” An enthymeme includes one premise and one conclusion, but relies on the reader to fill in the second premise: the dropped premise. In this case, the dropped premise is that the dreams of grandmas have predictive power—which is obviously a dubious argumentative assumption, and a nice reminder as to why one should always check a writer’s or speaker’s premises (including one’s own). Putting it more formally, an enthymeme is an argument that leaves the reader to supply the missing premise: “Grandma dreamed the plane would crash [first premise]; grandma’s dreams foretell the future [the dropped second premise]; therefore, I didn’t get on the plane [the conclusion].” Support is about getting to the because of your claim—and an enthymeme achieves this in a single sentence. Any sentence with because in it is an enthymeme (whether it appears at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere in the middle), and any sentence with because in it will have a dropped premise that the writer expects the reader to supply without the writer having to make it explicit.

Circular reasoning and question begging. If the writer means to communicate specifically to you, and yet fails to address your fundamental doubts, requests for clarification, or objections by offering additional and substantial premises, claims, or arguments to bring you into agreement with him, then you can rightly accuse him of circular reasoning or question begging (assuming as true what is not yet agreed on between the message sender and his audience): “How do you know all people are created equal?” “Because God created them that way.” “But how do you know God created them that way?” “Because they’re equal. God would only create people equal.” “But how do you know that?” “I just do.” Round-and-round it might go if no additional, substantial claims are on offer. If, however, the person is not talking to you (that is, if you’re an audience crasher, butting-in on an argument being made to another audience)—and the audience being addressed indeed accepts his initial claims as self-evident—then it’s not really fair to call the starting and stopping points for his arguments circular or question-begging, but as, rather, axiomatic (things neither he nor his audience call into question, such as, say, the reality of human equality, the authority of Jefferson, Buddha, or the Bible, etc.). As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wryly observed, “Arguments have to stop somewhere.

But also note that Wittgenstein’s claim itself can be question-begging if you don’t accept it, and he’s talking to you, and nowhere in his writings does he offer further justification for his claim. Question begging is audience dependent: it is question begging from the vantage of whom, exactly? Any explanation or justification might invite an additional flurry of “But why?” follow-up questions from somebody in an audience, as when a child asks a parent why, exactly, the sky is blue, again and again, never satisfied with the parental explanation. If you ignore the “But why?” question, or arrest it with something akin to “Because I say so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” you’re carrying on with your argument when premises are unclear to your audience or in dispute. You’re assuming what is, in fact, in question (and thereby begging the question). Begging the question begs a reader or hearer to go with your argument absent additional reasons or evidence; to grant your premises, even if just for the sake of argument.

But let’s say we agree with Wittgenstein; let’s grant him his premise: we’ve all got to start and stop our narratives and arguments somewhere. If so, then where an author begins and ends tells one a lot about what an author thinks can go without saying and when enough has been said—and what the author believes an audience will let him or her get away with. If you can’t say everything—or justify everything—then you’ve got to guess what can safely go unsaid.

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Trump’s America Is Not My America

I don’t like the phrase “not my president.” I understand the sentiment, but I think it would be a more accurate reflection of that sentiment to say, “not my America.” Trump’s America is not my America in exactly the same sense that Nazi Germany was not Einstein’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy was not Umberto Eco’s Italy. Authoritarianism, Nazism, and fascism may be overlaid onto America, Germany, or Italy, and when a person is imprisoned or dies fighting these overlays, he or she has been imprisoned or died for America, Germany, or Italy.

This thought was inspired by something I read recently of a Jewish woman in Nazi Germany whose dying breath was, “For Germany.” That is, her death was for a vision of Germany that included her–which is the very sort of Germany that in fact exists today.

Those of us in the Trump resistance are keeping alive the torch of America–the America that will once again embrace all of us as equal citizens, with no individual deemed an “enemy of the People” or rendered suspicious for being a journalist or scientist, or for not having the right religious beliefs or skin color, or for being oppositional to presidential or federal power, or for exercising the rights guaranteed in our Constitution and First Amendment.

I like the cover of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. It shows a symbol of America–El Capitan in Yosemite–overlaid with a Nazi swastika. The swastika is America’s foreign element, not its native element.

We need to remember that in–what shall we call it?–TrumpAmerica.

Posted in aesthetics, atheism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, feminism, God, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Tools of Manipulation vs. The Tools of Critical Thinking

In a recent article at The New York Times (“Why We Believe Obvious Untruths”), two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, claim that dispersed knowledge is a ready and overriding explanation for why people profess belief in foolish things (Noah’s ark rests on Ararat, global warming is a conspiracy of the Chinese, vaccines and genetically modified foods are dangerous, etc.). In other words, the authors claim that humans have a natural, evolutionarily favored, habit of thinking thusly: So-and-so in my community knows this, so I know this. It’s part of what makes us successful as a species. If we cast our lot with group reason, as opposed to individual reason, we’re likely to be more successful than otherwise.
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But this strikes me as an inadequate explanation for why people believe weird and ridiculous things. Certainly, it’s a piece of the puzzle, but a bit too glib as a total or near-total explanation, functioning as the key signal in the noise. I’d like to suggest that if humans were taught the tools of critical thinking (Occam’s razor, etc.) and practiced them from a young age (say, starting around ten), then we could do better than the current, sorry state of affairs.
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But perhaps I’m too optimistic about the possibilities of basic education, and the toolbox of intellectual strategies it offers, as resistance to fanciful claims. Clergymen, politicians, and advertisers all have an interest in people not thinking too clearly or closely, and maybe there are enough manipulative tools in their own toolboxes to guarantee that most people don’t.
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Clergymen, politicians, and advertisers–like the poor–will always be with us, perhaps. But must they win the arms race between their manipulative tools and our critical thinking ones? Resistance is not futile. I hope we won’t cede the field to the Kellyanne Conways of this world, but instead find ways for people like Steven Novella and Michael Shermer to win an ever larger audience.
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Is it too late in history to rediscover the optimism of Emanuel Kant in his 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, in which he writes, rousingly, the following:
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Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is the tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sepere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’–that is the motto of enlightenment.
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The Promethean milk has spilled. The intellectual tools are there. We live after the Enlightenment, not prior to it. Rationality doesn’t have to be in the back seat the way it is. We need only to share intellectual tools with one another and pick them up ourselves.
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Do you suppose I am a fool to believe this?
29a0b-twowaystogo
Posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, david hume, donald trump, edward feser, feminism, God, hillary clinton, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

“A Neutral Color Or Yellow?” A Poem On The Problem Of Fence Sitting In The Age Of Trump

A NEUTRAL COLOR

OR YELLOW?

 

If the emperor

Says he has clothes,

And has no clothes,

Is silence suspended

Judgment or cowardice?

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2h-berlin-may-10-1933

Per Wikipedia: “On 10 May 1933, in an act of ominous significance, the students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books, thereby presaging an era of uncompromising state censorship.”

Posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, feminism, meditation, philosophy, poetry, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Time Is It? (Another Poem for Daniela Vargas)

WHAT TIME IS IT?

 

There are times

When silence

Does not mean

Neutrality,

Nor fairness,

Nor indecision,

Nor open-mindedness,

But consent

And approval;

Indifference

And cowardice.

Our time is one

Of those times.

 

Posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, meditation, philosophy, poetry, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Question (a poem for DREAMer Daniela Vargas, in the United States since age seven, arrested in retaliation for exercising her free speech, 2017)

QUESTION

What does it mean

If a tree falls

In a forest

On a person

And no

One makes a sound?

the-tempest-1505.jpg

Posted in aesthetics, beauty, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, meditation, philosophy, poetry, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Camille Paglia Trolls the Oscars

Camille Paglia has, it seems to me, a persistent issue with confirmation bias. In the linked article below, she once again arrives with a dubious thesis that she then (predictably) locates a few snippets of anecdotal evidence for, rarely (never?) considering contrary instances. And the cultural narratives she purveys are tidy just-so stories that coincidentally line up with the youthful glory days of her own biography: how much the young have missed by not being young when she was young! (They’re the outsiders, she’s the insider.) And she manages (surprise!) to see exactly what she wants to see. Her readings are creative and contrarian, but what relation to reality do they actually have? And why, after pumping Trump up against Hillary throughout the election season, has she now fallen silent on his election? She shows up in public again, at a moment of astonishing contemporary upheaval, to tell us her analysis of…the cultural magnitude of Elizabeth Taylor in 1961. Seriously.

I do like the Faye Dunaway image that accompanies the article, though.

 

The social critic and author of the upcoming ‘Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism,’ writes that Elizabeth Taylor’s 1961 win was “a huge cultural watershed,…
Posted in aesthetics, beauty, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

African American Sculptor Edmonia Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra

I was stunned when I first saw this, thinking it the best “death of Cleopatra” themed sculpture I’d ever seen, then learned it was done by a 19th century woman I’d never heard of–Edmonia Lewis–who also happens to have been African American. So I post it as part of African American history month, 2017.

edmonia-lewis-the-death-of-cleopatra

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Let Gorsuch Through

This is the wrong fight. Let him through. Let the Democratic senators express their concerns and make their points, but this is not the man to filibuster. Don’t behave like Republicans have over the past eight years, supporting left-leaning iterations on Ted Cruz. In the age of Trump, this guy is a win for liberals. Yes, for liberals. Why? Because Trump has much, much worse options for Supreme Court vacancies–political hacks who can pave the way for a deterioration of the separation of powers, the First Amendment, etc.

Gorsuch is not one of those. He can be reasoned with. He will protect the core values of the Republic and the Constitution that both (non-authoritarian) conservatives and liberals revere. He is not the pick we would expect from a non-ambivalent authoritarian; he’s not the sort of rubber stamp judge that, for instance, Putin would pick for a court appointment in Russia. Gorsuch will act independently. He knows what his job function is in a liberal and democratic Republic. If we want to get out the other side of the next four to eight years with our Republic and Constitution functioning and in tact, we better reward Trump when he doesn’t go with his worst impulses. Recall that Trump also didn’t appoint a torture proponent as Secy of Defense. When Trump gets it right, don’t pretend he didn’t. This is good for him and good for the country.

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For a party that has often strained to match the fury and zeal of its base during the wave of anti-Trump activism since the election, a full-scale showdown may prove…
Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Steve Bannon’s Vision in a Nutshell–and California as the Counter-Model

Steve Bannon’s chief goals are outlined in the link below to a recent Washington Post article. Among them is a large strategic vision grounded in national sovereignty. Bannon thinks that Western countries have surrendered ever increasing degrees of sovereignty to international agreements and that the United States should take the lead in showing nations how to recover their autonomy. Thus Steve Bannon wants to renegotiate trade agreements nation-by-nation, with each one having to pass through the Senate on votes, so that they get debated openly. Steve Bannon thinks this is what the founders of the Constitution would have wanted for the country, not international agreements that cede sovereignty. That sounds plausible, even rational. And Donald Trump seems to be exactly the sort of hard-nosed businessman who might do well with such a renegotiation task.

But the psychologically darker side of Steve Bannon’s vision is border-closing to immigrants. He thinks that the world will be more peaceful if nations get hold of their distinct racial and religious essences as nations, and that those differences come to be recognized and respected, not blithely ignored. No more intruding on each other’s national and cultural sovereignty. And he wants to halt the multicultural goal of urban elites (“the Davos crowd”) to transform their countries into mirrors of their largest urban centers, where they end up looking like a United Colors of Benetton ad. So there’s a decidedly racist and Christian nationalist component here; a Karl Schmidt component.

A second component on the dark side of this is a second Cold War, this time with Islamic and/or Confucian civilizations.

So this dual formula–retake sovereignty via newly negotiated trade agreements and closing borders to Muslims, Hispanics, and Chinese–also turns out to be the way, in the United States, for Republicans to pick the lock on rust belt states. Trump won the election: (1) by animating blue collar workers on the matter of trade and sovereignty (who doesn’t want to feel in control of their destiny?); and (2) by animating racists and evangelicals surrounding border-closing and religion.

How successful is this likely to be as electoral strategy and policy in the long run? I suspect that, over the course of fifty years, such a vision cannot sustain itself. Demographers insist that, by the end of this century, 90% of humans will live in cities, and that doesn’t lend itself well to nostalgic and reactionary nationalist politics. Cities tend to be liberal places. And if sea level rise takes on the nature of crisis because of accelerated global warming, international agreements will have to be a key way to address it. Also, if the global economy begins to contract because free trade has become too difficult, the new nationalism will be seen as folly. But over the next decade, this sort of politics will be tried, and its limits for the 21st century tested. (I’m guessing Bannon would say that if individual countries negotiate trade agreements with one another, and that both sides are happy with the results, trade will grow, not be constrained. But I’ve got to wonder what happens if a country gets locked out of a larger trade pact and has to work something out individually with each country in that pact. The logic of trade pacts is strength in numbers, is it not? Or am I missing something?)

As we witness how this plays out, Calfornia will function as a counter-model to Bannon’s vision, with its large population of Muslims, Hispanics, and Chinese Americans–and its media and tech internationalists in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

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Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Robert Young is Probably Wrong. Trump Neutrality Endangers Resisters. And That’s Why Scientists Should March on Washington

The more people who peel off, the more dangerous it becomes for those remaining in the streets who resist. So this is hard for me to read. I post a link to the below article by Robert Young, not because I agree, but because I want to think about it some more. I’m wondering how his piece will read six months from now. Four years from now.

My first response is: stop pretending that scientists won’t have to resist what’s coming; that they can adopt an above-it-all neutrality that will be effective against a Putin-like authoritarian supported by sophisticated propaganda and the levers of the state. Before this is over, scientists are going to be arrested, lose jobs, and may even be killed (either by rogue enthusiasts for Trump, as with the Quebec shooter, or by the state itself). Scientists are going to have to fight alongside the rest of us, and take the slings and arrows of malicious accusations surrounding the so-called “politicization of science.” It comes with the territory of our growing crisis. The alternative is silence. Stop pretending neutrality is possible in this environment. Of course scientists will be on the side of the Anglo-French Enlightenment vision of humanity, the First Amendment, and reason. Of course.

And there’s a psychological passivity at work in adopting a neutral position that does Trump’s bidding, and perhaps serves an unconscious wish for Trump to prevail. It’s the same attitude that some (most?) in the military are taking at the moment. It’s how we ended up, after WWII, with the Nuremberg defense (“I was just obeying orders”). At some point people who pride themselves on being neutral professionals will have to join the rest of us in the streets–or see a dwindling resistance movement culturally isolated and ultimately mown down in the streets. We will hang together, or hang separately.

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Posted in atheism, atomism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, climate change, david hume, donald trump, hillary clinton, Lucretius, Politics, science, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 2 Comments