Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
They Said It:
Men who are participating in a great social movement always picture their coming action as a battle in which their cause is certain to triumph. These constructions, knowledge of which is so important for historians, I propose to call myths; the syndicalist “general strike” and Marx’s catastrophic revolution are such myths. As remarkable examples of such myths, I have given those which were constructed by primitive Christianity, by the Reformation, by the Revolution and by the followers of Mazzini. I now wish to show that we should not attempt to analyze such groups of images in the way that we analyze a thing into its elements, but that they must be taken as a whole, as historical forces, and that we should be especially careful not to make any comparison between accomplished fact and the picture people had formed for themselves before action. . .
I can understand the fear that this myth of the general strike inspires in many worthy progressives, on account of its character of infinity, the world of today is very much inclined to return to the opinions of the ancients and to subordinate ethics to the smooth working of public affairs, which results in a definition of virtue as the golden mean; as long as socialism remains a doctrine expressed only in words, it is very easy to deflect it towards this doctrine of the golden mean; but this transformation is manifestly impossible when the myth of the “general strike” is introduced, as this implies an absolute revolution. You know as well as I do that all that is best in the modern mind is derived from this “torment of the infinite”; you are not one of those people who look upon the tricks by means of which readers can be deceived by words, as happy discoveries. That is why you will not condemn me for having attached great worth to a myth which gives to socialism such high moral value and such great sincerity. It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to refute it. . .
Georges Sorel, “Letter to Daniel Halevy,” 1907.
MYTHMAKING AND REALITY.
This past weekend, on the advice of Scott Adams, the creator and author of the of the Dilbert comic strip and one of this season’s most unexpected but provocative political commentators, we read a fascinating article published by NPR. Adams promised that the article, written by Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, would be “mind-blowing” and would “forever alter your understanding of reality.”
Adams was right, or at least half-right. The piece by Frank was indeed mind-blowing – or, at the very least, incredibly fascinating. Unfortunately, the second part of the prediction was a little less accurate. Frank’s article did not, as Adams promised, forever change our understanding of reality. Rather, it may have forever altered our understanding of the hard sciences as an academic port of reality in a sea of post-reality pabulum.
The topic of Adam Frank’s article is his fellow academic, a man named David Hoffman, who is a longtime “cognitive scientist” at the University of California Irvine. Apparently, the theories proposed by Hoffman have taken the scientific and philosophical worlds by storm and have caused many in those communities to reevaluate their understanding of the world around them. Frank writes:
Look around you. What do you see?
Other people going about their business? Rooms with tables and chairs? Nature with its sky, grass and trees?
All that stuff, it’s really there, right? Even if you were to disappear right now — poof! — the rest of the world would still exist in all forms you’re seeing now, right?
Or would it?
This kind of metaphysical question is something you’d expect in a good philosophy class — or maybe even a discussion of quantum physics. But most of us wouldn’t expect an argument denying the reality of the objective world to come out of evolutionary biology. After all, doesn’t evolution tell us we’ve been tuned to reality by billions of years of natural selection? It makes sense that creatures that can’t tell a poisonous snake from a stick shouldn’t last long and, therefore, shouldn’t pass their genes on to the next generation.
That is certainly how the standard argument goes. But Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist, isn’t buying it.
For decades, Hoffman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has been studying the links between evolution, perception and intelligence (both natural and machine). Based on that body of work, he thinks we’ve been missing something fundamental when it comes to fundamental reality.
Fundamentally, Hoffman argues, evolution and reality (the objective kind) have almost nothing to do with each other.
Now, before you shake your head and dismiss this as just so much nonsense, you really should read the entire article (found here). And then you should dismiss it as so much nonsense.
Science, as Karl Popper noted, is defined by the principle of falsifiability. But if reality is something that is ultimately unknowable, as Hoffman argues, then it is ultimately unfalsifiable as well – everything is ultimately unfalsifiable because everything is ultimately the subjective interpretation of the observer. Hoffman (mis)applies the principles of quantum physics as well as his own study of cognitive science to create a theory, which he claims is supported by experiment and evidence and which is, therefore, truly scientific, even in Popper’s terms. But his reasoning is circular and eventually collapses under the weight of its own logic.
If you paid attention in your philosophy 101 class in college or, better yet, if you’ve paid attention to the drivel we churn out on a weekly basis, then you will recognize that the arguments formulated by Hoffman are much the same as those formulated by the likes of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the rest of the proto-postmodernists. Kant, in particular, serves as a precursor here. Stephen Hicks calls Kant “the most significant thinker of the Counter-Enlightenment,” and about that, there can be little doubt. You see, Kant presented himself as a defender of an advocate for reason and for science – just like Donald Hoffman. But Kant’s “advocacy” was somewhat lacking. Hicks continues:
The fundamental question of reason is its relationship to reality. Is reason capable of knowing reality – or is it not? Is our rational faculty a cognitive function, taking its material from reality, understanding the significance of that material, and using that understanding to guide our actions in reality – or is it not? This is the question that divides philosophers into pro- and anti-reason camps. . . .
Kant was crystal clear about the answer. Reality – real, noumenal reality – is forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products. Reason has “no other purpose than to prescribe its own formal rule for the extension of its empirical employment, and not any extension beyond all limits of empirical employment.” Limited to knowledge of phenomena that it has constructed according to its own design, reason cannot know anything outside itself. Contrary to the “dogmatists” who had for centuries held out hope for knowledge of reality itself, Kant concluded that “[t]he dogmatic solution is therefore not only uncertain, but impossible.”
Thus Kant, that great champion of reason, asserted that the most important fact about reason is that it is clueless about reality.
We are not, we’ll admit, the first people to notice the similarities between Donald Hoffman and Immanuel Kant. And to be fair, Hoffman has addressed the criticism, saying, essentially, well Kant wasn’t doing science, but I am. OK. Fair enough, we suppose. But that still doesn’t make Hoffman’s logic any less circular. Moreover, that’s sorta the problem.
At present, we live in a society overrun and overwhelmed by the notion that there is no objective reality, that “truth” is a fallacious concept, created and constructed to facilitate the accumulation and exercise of power. The consequences of this notion – which has been drilled into the heads of every man, woman, and child in this country for the last half-century or more have been and will continue to be devastating. Consider, for example, the following:
As you well know, the entire country is, once again, gripped by concern over rioting related to the shooting death of a black man by police officers. These occasional bouts of unrest spring up every few months and get uglier and more violent as time progresses. Professional, college, and even high school football players protest the national anthem at games, in solidarity with the protesters and their cause. Candidates for high political office pander to this movement, purportedly dedicated to achieving “justice” for black men. Some “protesters” have, of course, responded with violence toward police. And even in the best of situations, police are growing hesitant to use deadly force in confrontations with possibly armed individuals. In turn, they are reducing the likelihood that they will confront such individuals, which means that they are limiting contact with the public. And the urban violent crime rate – mostly perpetrated against poor minority populations – is surging for the first time in nearly two decades.
Worst of all, the entire thing is premised on lies, complete and utter falsehoods, purposefully disseminated by politicians and pseudo-intellectuals and implemented by so-called “social justice warriors” who wouldn’t know a “justified shooting” if it jumped up and bit ‘em on the backside. In an interview published over the weekend, the inimitable and indefatigable Heather MacDonald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, explained in very simple terms the type of thing she has been saying and writing for the better part of two years now. She put it this way:
When it comes to the subject of American police, blacks, and the deadly use of force, here is what we know:
A recent deadly force study by Washington State University researcher Lois James found that police officers were less likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white or hispanic ones in simulated threat scenarios.
Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer analyzed more than 1,000 officer-involved shootings across the country. He concluded that there is zero evidence of racial bias in police shootings.
In Houston, he found that blacks were 24% less likely than whites to be shot be officers, even when the suspects were armed or violent. . . .
An analysis of federal police crime statistics and the Washington Post police shooting database shows that fully 12% of all whites and Hispanics who die of homicide are killed by cops.
In contrast, only 4% of black homicide victims are killed by cops.
But isn’t it a sign of bias that blacks make up 36% of police shooting victims, but only 13% of the U.S. population?
It is not. And common sense suggests why: Police shootings occur more frequently where officers confront armed or violently resisting suspects. Those suspects are disproportionately black.
According to the most recent study by the Dept. of Justice, although blacks were only about 15% of the population in the 75 largest counties in the U.S., they were charged with 62% of all robberies, 57% of murders, and 45% of assaults.
In New York City, blacks commit over three quarters of all shootings, though they are only 25% of the city’s population. Whites, by contrast, commit only 2% of all shootings, though they are 34% of the population.
New York’s crime disparities are repeated in virtually every racially diverse city in America.
You take all of this and add to it the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement began based on another lie – “Hands up, don’t shoot” – and what you have is a powerful, growing, influential, and occasionally violent movement that is, in every way, completely disconnected from reality. In her interview, MacDonald asked repeatedly “does the truth matter?” The answer, obviously, is no; it doesn’t matter one whit, or at least it doesn’t matter to the people who are in charge of organizing, funding, supporting, and agitating the BLM movement. They have spent the last half century ensuring that the truth doesn’t matter, and now they’re reaping the benefit. You might be inclined to call it reaping the whirlwind, but this “whirlwind” is precisely what they want.
Ironically, at this stage in our political devolution, earnest and informed conservatives like Heather MacDonald are not the only people asking if the truth matters. Late last week, the Clinton campaign released a dossier on Trump’s manifold lies – and they are manifold. At the same time, the campaign also held a conference call with reporters, mentioning all of Trump’s lies and asking the media to “do its job” with respect to exposing the man’s patent dishonesty. The members of the media responded precisely as you would expect them to, which is to say that they all ran home and typed up pieces about what a liar Donald Trump is. Over the weekend, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Politico, all ran prominently placed “news” stories about Trump’s penchant for deceitfulness. And one particularly representative column was written by the mainstreamiest of mainstream columnists working today, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who whined about how hard it is to cover an election featuring a bona fide “charlatan.” To wit:
Traditionally, American reporters respond to a controversy by quoting people on each side and letting the public decide. Some of us have argued that this approach hasn’t worked in this election cycle, and that we in the media (particularly some in cable television) have enabled a charlatan by handing him the microphone and not adequately fact-checking what he says.
If a known con artist peddles a potion that he claims will make people lose 25 pounds and enjoy a better sex life, we don’t just quote the man and a critic; we find ways to signal to readers that he’s a fraud. Why should it be different when the con man runs for president?
Frankly, we should be discomfited that many Americans have absorbed the idea that Hillary Clinton is less honest than Donald Trump, giving Trump an edge in polls of trustworthiness. Hello? There is no comparison.
One commonly cited example of Clinton’s lying is her false claim in 2008 that when she was first lady she came under sniper fire after her plane landed in Bosnia. In contrast, with Trump, you don’t need to go back eight years: One examination found he averages a lie or an inaccuracy in every five minutes of speaking. . . .
When some in cable TV cover Trump endlessly without sufficiently fact-checking his statements or noting how extreme his positions are, because he is great for ratings and makes money for media companies, we are again failing the country. We are normalizing lies and extremism. . . .
Our job is not stenography, but truth-telling.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: one must have a heart of stone to read the death of truth and not laugh. Is this guy serious? For twenty-five years now, guys like Kristof have been letting the likes of Hillary and Bill Clinton get away with lying, cheating, and God knows what else because to do otherwise would threaten their liberal myth. And for fifty years now, people like Hillary and Bill Clinton, their philosophical muse, the postmodern giant Richard Rorty, and “reporters” like Nick Kristof have argued that “truth” is irrelevant, that reality is fashioned by and for the powerful; that the words we use regulate and govern the truth, not the other way around. And they’re unhappy with Trump? Unhappy with the voters who don’t see his lies or, worse still, don’t care about them? Seriously?
Look, the fact of the matter is that we spend a great deal of time on this seemingly extraneous stuff for reason, namely because we don’t think it’s extraneous. We think it matters.
Over the past quarter century or so, we have often cited the syndicalist/socialist Georges Sorel and the “communist-turned-anti-communist” Max Eastman, both of whom argued that Marx had it wrong, that the revolution of the workers was not a historical inevitability. In order to prepare society for radical change, Sorel argued, those who advocated change had to create effective and inspiring social myths. As Eastman put it, describing Sorel’s point, the “myth” is “an idea not valid, but necessary to set the masses in motion.” This was all, Eastman argued, part and parcel of the “violence against language committed by the Marxian revolution.”
All of which is to say that we think that when Heather MacDonald laments that black lives are being lost as the result of a “myth,” she’s right. Additionally, those aren’t the only lives thusly lost. We think Sorel was right about the “social myths.” Moreover, we think that these myths are far more likely to be believed and thus to enable radical change if the population at large is unable to distinguish truth from lies; reality from fiction.
As we noted last week, this has been the function of social science/liberal arts academia for the last seventy-five years or more, to lay the foundation for the social myths, to create the fertile ground on which the denial of objective reality will produce men and women susceptible to fantasies that have no connection whatsoever the observable world. We have little patience for the demagogues who exploit the condition of the American people for their own social and political gain, who exploit their confusion about reality to advance objectively wicked ends. And we have little sympathy for those who have discovered that the demagoguery works both ways, if you will, and that a fantastical world can be created and exploited by those who do not necessarily share all of their political sympathies.
The good news in all of this is that while the liberal arts have been mercilessly debased and therefore rendered worse than useless over the last fifty years or so, the hard sciences have mostly remained immune to the Left’s attempts to “soften” reality and to make it conform to its desires. Or at least they have until now.
Over the course of the last couple of decades, the future plans of the reality-denying Left have been made clear. The “global warming” exercise, which became the “climate change” exercise when the earth refused to comply with the warmists’ models, has provided the blueprint for the Left’s attempts to subjugate even those fields that would seem to be most immune to the denial of objective actuality. And over time, the effect has likely been what the Left had hoped.
Normal, average people can look around and see that Florida isn’t underwater, and nor is New York. They can see that the Great Plains still get snow every winter and still have storms every spring. They can see that hurricanes in the Atlantic have been fewer, rather than greater, as predicted by all the climate models. They can see that there has been an unexplained “pause” in the increase in global temperatures for going on two decades. They can see that the polar icecaps haven’t melted and that polar bears still exist. In short, they can see that present day reality is nothing like Al Gore told them it would be, nothing like the movies tried to scare them into believing, nothing like what their high school environmental studies teacher predicted. All of which is to say that this reality has to be explained away; it has to be discounted as misleading and deceptive.
Enter people like Donald Hoffman.
For the record, we are not saying that Donald Hoffman is pursuing his version of cognitive science with the intention of achieving political ends. Indeed, if we had to guess, we’d say that the practical political implications of what he has theorized have never occurred to him. And even if they have, he probably doesn’t give them much thought. He almost certainly believes – earnestly and adamantly – that what he is doing is completely and utterly disconnected from the sordid, definitively anti-scientific world of politics. But he is wrong. The denizens of political Left understand full well how important it is to their political program to convince the public at large that the “reality” they believe in is false; that it is a creation of their own implicit biases. For better or worse – and this point, we’d say for better – the public tends to believe scientists, to think that while the media, politicians, lawyers, teachers, and others are self-interested and dishonest, scientists are not; scientists can be trusted. And for this reason, they tend to believe what scientists tell them.
If Donald Hoffman, for example, tells them that reality as they understand it is not actually real, a significant percentage of people will believe it. He’s a scientist, after all.
But he is a mythmaker as well. Or at least he will be when our ruling class is finished with him. And the repercussions of that could be horrific.