Thursday, July 30, 2009

Truth

I've been thinking the last couple of weeks about why I quit blogging. Ironically enough, the closing of this blog has been noted as much (with barely concealed glee) in the religious blogosphere as in the atheist.

Let me clear something up: I'm not a nihilist, and I'm not in any kind of serious despair. I have a happy and fulfilling life outside the blogosphere, with only the ordinary problems everyone has. But I am, or was, very pissed off at the academic and amateur humanities intelligentsia, especially the left-wing and atheist intelligentsia.

Now it may be true that I'm either an incompetent hack or in some way delusional. I think I'm not, but I would think that, wouldn't I? If I am, one more piece of bullshit won't really matter. But assuming I do have something useful and real to say, I'll go ahead and say it.

The underlying problem as I see it is that the humanities (i.e. non-scientific, especially philosophical and political) intelligentsia lacks a serious ethical commitment to the ordinary, prosaic, factual truth. Ophelia Benson notes an instance of this lack of commitment. I have little doubt that were Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum professional scientists writing about a scientific subject, they would have been drummed out of the profession in a heartbeat. But the problem is not really with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum as individuals: why should they voluntarily hold themselves to an ethical standard that's not just unenforced but barely comprehended in their profession?

A lot of people blame postmodernism, or some subset of the postmodernists, for undermining the commitment to truth in the humanities. I disagree: I do not believe that the humanities has lost or abandoned a serious ethical commitment to the truth; I think they have never really had one. The humanities' outright hostility to the truth goes back far before postmodernism's emergence in the 1960's. George Orwell notes this hostility in Notes on Nationalism:
By ‘nationalism’ I mean... he habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. ...

Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.

Now that I have given this lengthy definition, I think it will be admitted that the habit of mind I am talking about is widespread among the English intelligentsia, and more widespread there than among the mass of the people.
(It's also the case that many postmodernists have worked to counteract the deception and self-deception of traditionalism; the postmodernists are at least not wholly hostile to the truth.) No, the problem is deeper and goes back farther than the 60's.

The humanities have looked down their noses at the scientists for more than two millennia, going back to ancient Greece. It was the scientists who adopted a commitment to the factual truth by desperate practical necessity: you just can't do science at all unless you're confident in your colleagues' data.

Once you have a commitment to the factual truth, you undermine not only outright lies but also bullshit, i.e. assertions of truth with no factual basis. And without bullshit metaphysical, mystical and political, 95% of the professional humanities intelligentsia would be working at McDonalds. Contrawise, if you deprecate the need for factual truth to permit bullshit, it becomes just a solecism to lie about the facts. The facts are, after all, mostly irrelevant: the real meat is in the apparent profundity of the bullshit.

It seems clear that the right-wing "intelligentsia" (well, they can at least write with correct grammar and spelling) is immeasurably deeper in lies and bullshit than the left-wing intelligentsia. But just as the moderate religious discard their best argument against the zealots, extremists and fundamentalists, so too does the left-wing intelligentsia discard their best weapon against the conservatives and reactionaries by failing to hold themselves to as high an ethical standard of factual truth as do scientists.

I first noticed this lack of ethical commitment to the truth about seven or eight years ago on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (now the Freethought and Rationalism Discussion Board). It was astonishing and infuriating to me that we couldn't explicitly call creationists liars, even when they manifestly lied about facts trivially available to the general public. We could not — according to the policy — be absolutely certain they were knowingly or intentionally misrepresenting the facts. But that policy is nonsense: we cannot ever be absolutely certain about much of anything, and after a certain point negligence is just as ethically objectionable as malice.

I've noticed, at IIDB, other discussion boards and on this blog, that controversy arose only when I contradicted some reader's personal dogma. And when that happened, they used every rhetorical trick to protect their dogma: open derision, uncharitable interpretation, equivocation and excluded-middle fallacies, and sometimes outright misquotation. Every trick but a rational examination of the factual truth.

(Scientists are not saints though. I was once bullied off a discussion board for asking a question about statistical mechanics and thermodynamics; amusingly enough, almost the same question was discussed a month or two later in Scientific American as serious and perspicacious. And while scientists do typically care seriously about the ethical value of factual truth, they often restrict this standard to their own specialty. Worse, they often allow humanistic concerns to take a back seat to their sincere pursuit of truth. I imagine there are no small few scientists would would quit in disgust if they were required to falsify data but who would at best feel a vague sense of discomfort designing weapons intended to kill millions of people.)

The humanities' lack of serious, thorough commitment to the factual truth as a matter of principle has pissed me off time and again for the last nine or ten years. But it shouldn't, and it doesn't anymore. On the one hand, I think I understand why the humanities lack this commitment; on the other hand, I don't know what I can do about it. It's not just that most humanities academics would be out of a job if bullshit weren't highly tolerated. Ethical principles emerge from material, economic factors: the commitment to factual truth in the sciences arose from the economic value of technology. You can't get the machine to work if the other guy doesn't get his facts right.

There's just no underlying economic reason for the humanities as an institution to so strongly embrace the truth. A person in the humanities intelligentsia will (if he's greedy) embrace and justify the ruling class, or at least refrain from criticizing them sharply (remember Ward Churchill). But above all, he'll endorse the shibboleths of his in-group, regardless of the facts.

It's just as impotent and ridiculous to get mad at the lack of a standard that has no economic support as it is to despise Honda for not making flying cars. The humanities intelligentsia is what it is and has the standards it does have because of the economic circumstances; my personal feelings about it are irrelevant.

But I personally do care passionately about the truth, and I can't stop caring about it. Why should I contribute to a field where this commitment is not just without value but exposes me to the ridicule and hostility of those I consider my friends and allies? I'm not all that smart: All I have going for me is that curious and, above all, I consider myself honest. But very few people really care about honesty, not against the rock of dogma. And why should they? It's pointless to get mad at the world merely because it does not conform to my preferences.

Like I said, I still have my ordinary life, my work, my family, which are very fulfilling. The intelligentsia doesn't want me, they've made that abundantly clear, and it's unseemly to try to force myself into it. They have just as much a right to their rules as I have to mine, and they were there first. I've written enough to figure things out for myself, and the archives are there if you want to see what I had to say, but I don't have anything more to contribute.

The fight is not to find the truth, but to make people care about the truth more than their pet dogmas. Finding the truth isn't so hard: you don't have to be all that smart, just curious and completely honest. But I don't have the faintest clue how to even begin to persuade people to care about the truth, especially without any compelling economic reason to do so. And it's a fight I just don't have the stomach for.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anarchism and totalitarianism

This [passage] illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is implicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of Society. In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behavior is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by 'thou shalt not', the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by 'love' or 'reason', he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.

— George Orwell, Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels, October 1946

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Quotation of the Day

The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can't disarm their enemy.

— H L Mencken, "Aftermath" (coverage of the Scopes Trial) The Baltimore Evening Sun, (September 14, 1925)
[h/t to Bucky Katt]

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Plus ├ža change

The more I read about man and his maniacal ruthlessness and his murderous envious scatological soul, the more I realize that he will never change. Our stupidity is immortal, nothing will change it. The same mistakes, the same prejudices, the same injustice, the same lusts wheel endlessly around the parade ground of the centuries. Immutable and ineluctable. I wish I could believe in a god of some kind but I simply cannot.

— Richard Burton [the actor]

Folly, thou conquerest, and I must yield!
Against stupidity the very gods.
Themselves contend in vain. Exalted reason,
Resplendent daughter of the head divine,
Wise foundress of the system of the world,
Guide of the stars, who art thou then if thou,
Bound to the tail of folly's uncurbed steed,
Must, vainly shrieking with the drunken crowd,
Eyes open, plunge down headlong in the abyss.
Accursed, who striveth after noble ends,
And with deliberate wisdom forms his plans!
To the fool-king belongs the world.

— Friedrich Schiller, The Maid of Orleans (translated by Anna Swanwick)


I started this blog two and a half years ago because (and yes, you may laugh) I wanted to do my bit to save the world.

Lately, I've been reading George Orwell's essays. I'm struck by two impressions: One, is that Orwell is a brilliant, perspicacious, and eloquent writer; his talent of course surpasses my own by many orders of magnitude. More importantly, looking back at the last 60-70 years since he wrote, his writing and thought has had less impact on the world than Ann Coulter's.

The world, I now believe, does not want to be saved. Whether the ordinary people close their eyes to the precipice towards which we are rushing headlong, or whether they see and simply do not care, or believe God or science or truth will magically rescue the chosen few, I do not know.

I'm not discouraged by the vitriol of the religious, of the libertarians, of the laissez-faire capitalists. I am, however, discouraged by the vitriol (and worse, the often blithe dismissal) of atheists, philosophers, progressives, socialists and communists, always (to my eyes) for daring to disagree with some item of cherished dogma. Perhaps I'm equally guilty of my own vitriol, but I have always done my best to at least avoid dogmatism, to substantiate my anger with facts and arguments. I have received no such consideration from my detractors. Perhaps I am wrong; I don't think I'm stupid, but who does?

Perhaps I am myself no better than the ordinary person or my detractors; how can I know what I am blind to? Either way: what use is my work? Even the mostly sensible intelligentsia, from Marx to Myers, attract little more than hordes of ass-kissing sycophants: such is the most I could aspire to. Hell with that. I can make more money as a butcher.

The world cannot be saved, does not deserve to be saved, does not want to be saved. Or the same thing: my meager talents and position are insufficient to alter the course of history by a jot or tittle. I've said what I had to say; words writ on air. I've clarified my own thinking; gone forevermore when soon I am dead.

Before the century is out, humanity may well be reduced to under a billion, perhaps only a few tens of millions, perhaps to zero. I'm powerless to change this outcome. It'll happen or not no matter what I do. Those who survive, if any do, will survive and erect their own society, a socialist utopia or a totalitarian nightmare, regardless of my attempts at guidance, advice or effort.

I intend to enjoy my few remaining years (I'm in no danger of dying early, but no person's span of years is more than the blink of an eye) and arguing with fucktards — on the internet or in real life — is no longer enjoyable.

Goodbye.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Closed for good

I'm closing the blog for good. I've been persuaded to restore the archives, even though I think it's all useless bullshit.