Friday, March 16, 2007


This article by Jonathan Rosenblum writing in the Jerusalem Post the other day got me to thinking about philosophy:

Inveterate Bush haters are as derisive of the president's religiosity as they are of his supposed stupidity. Indeed the former is often cited as proof of the latter. A lengthy New York Times Magazine hatchet job prior to the 2004 election portrayed Bush as convinced that he had a direct line from God - a conviction that rendered him oblivious to both reason and all empirical evidence.

The president's refusal to pull out of Iraq, his failure to sign the Kyoto Protocols and his use of religious terminology - e.g. the "axis of evil" - are said to betoken the rigid mind-set of a religious zealot.

That critique of Bush's faith-based anti-empiricism is nonsense. I don't know one religious person who believes that God speaks to her directly, or that one need only open the Bible to determine whether the Iraqi insurgency is primarily led by al-Qaida or by ex-Ba'athists.

If all that is needed in Iraq is greater attention to facts, let the Democrats in Congress - many of whom are stumped about whether Iran is a Sunni or Shi'ite country or whether there is any difference between the two - show the way rather than just pass non-binding resolutions to appease their voters. That many crucial "facts" remain unknown has nothing to do with Bush's lack of interest. The intelligence community itself remains sharply divided about who is leading the insurgency in Iraq.

Democrats charge that the administration cooked prewar intelligence about Saddam's WMDs, even though CIA director George Tenet called the conclusion a "slam dunk" - a view shared by every Western intelligence service and the Clinton administration. And in the same breath, they are scandalized that undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith sought alternative analyses of the data on a possible Saddam-al-Qaida connection, in the face of the CIA's conclusion that secular Ba'athists and Islamists could never join forces. (And Hitler and Stalin could never have agreed to divide Poland.) President Bush, according to his critics, is being anti-empirical whether he accepts the CIA's conclusions or questions them.

Talk of an axis of evil deeply offends those whose default inclination is to assume that all men are basically rational economic actors seeking to increase material goods and pleasures. In describing radical Islam as "evil," however, Bush means that radical Islam constitutes a belief system irreconcilable with that of the West and its adherents seek to destroy the West. That seems like a fair description of reality.

One of the major controversies of our time boils down to these questions: how do we know reality and how do we know what is true?

Empiricism is a theory which holds that the origin of all knowledge is the experience of our senses. The term also refers to the method of observation and experiment used in the natural sciences. Often, empiricism is contrasted with rationalism, a theory which holds that the mind may apprehend some truths directly, without requiring the medium of the senses.

The dispute between rationalism and empiricism takes places within epistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to studying the nature, sources and limits of knowledge. And one of the important questions in epistemology is, "What does it mean to "know" something as opposed to merely having an opinion?" As you can see, this is not only a question that plagues the blogsphere and all political discourse; it is an issue that has been at the core of Western philosophy since before Socrates.

Until it is answered, all other questions become unsolvable.

Rationalism and empiricism are not conflicting philosophical concepts, so much as they are complementary ones. For example in some areas of mathematics, rationalism is clearly the method used to obtain knowledge and ideas about the universe; while in the physical sciences, empiricism generally rules.

G.W. Leibniz in New Essays on Human Understanding makes the following excellent argument to illustrate this (page 150 -151):

"The senses, although they are necessary for all our actual knowledge, are not sufficient to give us the whole of it, since the senses never give anything but instances, that is to say particular or individual truths. Now all the instances which confirm a general truth, however numerous they may be, are not sufficient to establish the universal necessity of this same truth, for it does not follow that what happened before will happen in the same way again. . . From which it appears that necessary truths, such as we find in pure mathematics, and particularly in arithmetic and geometry, must have principles whose proof does not depend on instances, nor consequently on the testimony of the senses, although without the senses it would never have occurred to us to think of them…"

Whatever the conflicts and disagreements philosophically between empiricism and rationalism they are actually complementary mental processes; and it seems reasonable to conclude that optimally gathering knowledge of the real world requires the use of both capabilities. On a primal level, our senses give us direct information about reality; and our brain is then capable of using rational deductive and inductive processes as a meta-process to evaluate that information further.

However you cut it, it seems clear that OUR MINDS are the source of our knowledge of the world, and while a given mind might be corrupted by a variety of factors, and its reliability may be suspect at times; our mind is the best tool we have for understanding and evaluating reality.

Certain very popular ideologies today subscribe to the notion that the human mind is incapable of knowing the real world because there is no world out there that exists separately from our senses. In other words, everything that exists is all in our heads.

And, furthermore, what's in your head is no better than what's in my head.

When you think about it, that's a rather an amazing assertion, particularly since it is inherently contradictory. Those who fervently believe this BS are Cretans--or rather, they suffer from a variation of the famous Cretan Paradox. "What is in your head is no better than what is in my head" is a statement of absolutes which presupposes that the "my head" person is correct --i.e., what's in his head about this issue is the absolute truth--that what he "thinks" is no better or worse than what you think.

But, what if what's in your head tells you differently--i.e., what if you think you think better than him? Personally, I get a bad headache just thinking about the mental contortions necessary to formulate this theory in the first place.

In fact, almost all applications of postmodern philosophy (for that is what this crazy theory is called)--from art criticism to politics; and psychology from philosophy and rhetoric to science--result in a pervasive blurring and distortion of reality, rather than in its understanding.

If you are still with me, let us consider a rather astonishing attempt to further undermine reality and our ability to perceive it, reported by Melanie Phillips (hat tip: G.Hanner and Ray). Phillips is discussing comments made by Professor Mike Hulme, from the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research — a key figure in the promulgation of climate change theory. Phillips says:
What an admission! Let’s read that one again. Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking. Of course not. The facts don’t support it. It’s not true. So, says Hulme, let’s abolish the need to establish the facts and the truth and impose the theory on the basis of — what’s that again — ‘values and beliefs’. In other words, climate change science has got to be anti-science. It’s got to be anti-truth. It’s got to be nothing more than an ideology.

Post-modernism long ago deconstructed truth. Now in similar vein, ‘post-normal’ science deconstructs scientific empiricism and rationalism and detaches science from truth. In other words, where science fails to support an ideology, the absolute and overriding imperative of putting that ideology into practice means that science has to suspend its very essence as a truth-seeking activity and instead perpetrate lies. That is the inescapable implication of Hulme’s position.

A blatant rejection of reason and truth by a leading scientist is, to say the least, incredibly ironic. Back when the entire premises underlying postmodern philosophical BS were first beginning to make their way up the idea food chain, its proponents had a simple objective: to preserve faith and religion, which they believed was under siege from reason and logic.

The epistemological basis for postmodernism has its origins in this desire. Philosopher Stephen Hicks notes:
By the late 1700s religious thinkers had a choice—accept evidence and logic as the ultimate court of appeal and thereby reject their deeply-cherished religious ideals—or stick by their ideals and attack the whole idea that evidence and logic matter. “I had to deny knowledge,” wrote Kant in the Preface to the first Critique, “in order to make room for faith.” “Faith,” wrote Kierkegaard in Fear and trembling, “requires the crucifixion of reason”; so he proceeded to crucify reason and glorify the irrational.

Thus Kant and others in the 18th and 19th centuries paved the way for the more recent postmodern attacks on reason, logic and reality itself. Postmodernism is merely the latest incarnation of the Kantian rejection of reason in order to “make room for faith”. The irony is that in today's postmodern world, it is the supposed champions of reason and logic--scientists--and those that like to call themselves "the reality-based"community" who have wholly embraced religion and faith as primary, though it is an entirely secularized religion and perfectly godless.

Have you ever wondered why the political left is so relentlessly hostile to Christianity and Judaism? The answer is simple—they are in competition with these religions for the hearts of the people. The ideology of the left has evolved into a religion that is essentially even more fundamental (and certainly more fanatical) than either Christianity or Judaism--both of which had their more toxic elements blunted by the rationality of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, the left regularly makes common cause with a third religion, sharing with Islam a fundamentally postmodern view of both metaphysics and epistemology.

In the ensuing 300 years since Kant critiqued pure reason, religion--i.e., Christianity and Judaism-- have more or less come to an uneasy compromise with those who recognize the importance of reason, logic, and reality in the real world. This is almost certainly the psychological foundation of the Western concept of "the separation of church and state"; which is a very bold strategy designed to keep the fundamental conflict at bay and allow the independent development of both these spheres of human experience unimpeded by the other (sort of like "don't ask, don't tell").

The left refuses to accept such constraints on their religion, and have embraced postmodern rhetoric and politics with religious fervor in order to save their own sacred beliefs about socialism. This time instead of rescuing faith from reason and logic, they have managed to rescue science from it so they can make science whatever they want it to be.

It is immensely interesting to observe how the left's topsy-turvy thinking about this conundrum works: realistically, rationally, and logically the left finds itself unable to criticize the excesses of Islam in any way, shape or form--without exposing for even the most dim-witted to see, the fatal flaws and contradictions in their own religion--which disavows reality, reason, and logic.

Kant and his successors have never been able to explain away the formidible contradictions inherent in a philosophy that celebrates the irrational and the unreal at the expense of reason and reality; yet somehow expects to bring peace, harmony, productivity and progress to human living.

From all perspectives, postmodernism is pure bullshit.

UPDATE: More on "post-normal science" from Jules Crittendon; Maggie's Farm and The Belmont Club

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