Conspiracy “Theories”

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Those who choose to believe in the existence of “secret” societies with global agendas often make appeals to “evidence”. They often reject any form of reasoning against such beliefs by repeated appeals to “evidence”. These appeals are never articulate and are more often then not followed not by reasoning in support of this or that “theory”, but by a link to a YouTube video or some other internet “resource” that somehow carries the weight of “proof”. Those of us who reject this pseudo-reasoning, no matter how articulate, are more often than not dismissed as “close-minded”.

What happens in this “open mind” when it chooses to believe that secret societies lurk in the shadows, plotting global domination, political assassinations and what-not?

The answer is simply: Ignorance. Profound ignorance of what it means to have a “theory“, to have a well-articulated belief, deep ignorance of what constitutes evidence, a spectacular blindness to the nuances of the idea of truth and, finally, a catastrophic misunderstanding of what it means to be in the possession of knowledge.

This is what this “open mind” does:

1. A “theory” is accepted which sounds plausible. The problem is, this is not a theory at all, for there is nothing that can falsify it. Each argument against it encounters the similar answer: “but it is secret – how do YOU know that this is not the case?”

2. A “belief” is formed without regard as to its truth. This sort of belief is assumed to be true based on the “evidence”. How is this “evidence” considered?

3. What this “open mind” considers “evidence” is actually made “evidence” by the force of the pre-accepted belief in a non-theory. The circularity alone should alert an inquiring mind that something is off here.

The path to knowledge (however tenuous) must flow only in this direction: Falsifiable theory > Verifiable Evidence > Informed Belief > Tentative Knowledge (that can grow in force only by continuously re-assessing the reasons for believing).

The weak link here is “Evidence” > Its force is pre-supposed by an already accepted belief that re-enforces itself through an apparent cohesion with pre-accepted evidence. And on and on this goes in annoyingly boring cycles of self-serving affirmations.

A good analogy here is a paranoid person who believes that everyone is out to “get” him: every behavior of everyone is then interpreted in terms of persecution. This cohesiveness gives and illusion of “truth”. But truth requires one more element for its survival: correspondence (with reality). This is always absent in conspiracy theories. This is why we call them ‘crack-pot’.

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Authenticity

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In the NYT article titled “The Gospel According to Me” (Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster)

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/29/the-gospel-according-to-me/?_r=0

the authors bring our attention to the currently popular notion of “authenticity”, the idea that one ought to “be oneself”. Realizing “who I truly am” is seen as a value, as something I ought to pursue in an effort to transcend the pressures of work, family, relationships, the world in general. 

“The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!”

The authors conclude that “at the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others.”

Here is the account of Authenticity as encountered in existential philosophy:

Authenticity 

(From the article “Existentialism” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

By what standard are we to think our efforts “to be,” our manner of being a self? If such standards traditionally derive from the essence that a particular thing instantiates—this hammer is a good one if it instantiates what a hammer is supposed to be—and if there is nothing that a human being is, by its essence, supposed to be, can the meaning of existence at all be thought? Existentialism arises with the collapse of the idea that philosophy can provide substantive norms for existing, ones that specify particular ways of life. Nevertheless, there remains the distinction between what I do “as” myself and as “anyone,” so in this sense existing is something at which I can succeed or fail. Authenticity—in German, Eigentlichkeit—names that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own (eigen).

What this means can perhaps be brought out by considering moral evaluations. In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally (according to Kant) because I am acting for the sake of duty. But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. My moral act is inauthentic if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, I do so because that is what “one” does (what “moral people” do). But I can do the same thing authentically if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, acting this way is something I choose as my own, something to which, apart from its social sanction, I commit myself. Similarly, doing the right thing from a fixed and stable character—which virtue ethics considers a condition of the good—is not beyond the reach of existential evaluation: such character may simply be a product of my tendency to “do what one does,” including feeling “the right way” about things and betaking myself in appropriate ways as one is expected to do. But such character might also be a reflection of my choice of myself, acommitment I make to be a person of this sort. In both cases I have succeeded in being good; only in the latter case, however, have I succeeded in being myself.

Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous “one-self” that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus “become” what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard’s version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. 

Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of “transparency” with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous “one-self” that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integrity—not that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus “become” what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard’s version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. 

Authenticity defines a condition on self-making: do I succeed in making myself, or will who I am merely be a function of the roles I find myself in? Thus to be authentic can also be thought as a way of being autonomous. In choosing “resolutely”—that is, in commiting myself to a certain course of action, a certain way of being in the world—I have given myself the rule that belongs to the role I come to adopt. The inauthentic person, in contrast, merely occupies such a role, and may do so “irresolutely,” without commitment. Being a father authentically does not necessarily make me a better father, but what it means to be a father has become explicitly my concern. It is here that existentialism locates the singularity of existence and identifies what is irreducible in the first-person stance. At the same time, authenticity does not hold out some specific way of life as a norm; that is, it does not distinguish between the projects that I might choose. Instead, it governs the manner in which I am engaged in such projects—either as “my own” or as “what one does,” transparently or opaquely.

Thus existentialism’s focus on authenticity leads to a distinctive stance toward ethics and value-theory generally. The possibility of authenticity is a mark of my freedom, and it is through freedom that existentialism approaches questions of value, leading to many of its most recognizable doctrines.

 

Test Your A-Morality

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by Goran

TheTest Your Morality experiment is based the new “super-organism” moral theory. This “theory” happens to be just the latest among the disturbingly ubiquitous displays of profound ignorance as to what morality and ethics are about.

We are invited to take part in what Lab UK calls “groundbreaking science”:

“The new theory suggests that all moral actions are based on the fundamental need to ‘police’ society in order to keep the ‘superorganism’ functioning properly, and that everyone in human social groups inadvertently plays the role of ‘unofficial policeman’ by making judgments about how others behave.

Moral action, according to this theory, is driven by the expectation of punishment if we don’t properly carry out our roles within the ‘super-organism’ properly.

We each play a variety of roles in the large societies of which we are a part. These range from our professional roles at work, to being a good parent, to being captain of the local chess club.

If we shirk on the job, or let our kids run wild, or cheat at tournaments, we can expect to be punished by others in the relevant social group. This may be directly, through confrontation or sanctions, or indirectly, through shunning or exclusion.

So why do we have individual morality? Why isn’t everyone’s morality the same? Because the theory posits that our moral responses are ‘tuned’ to the roles we fulfil in our social groups. We each fulfil different roles in society, so we each develop our own personal morality.”

And the purpose?

 “Ultimately, we hope the findings from Test Your Morality will lead to an improved understanding of how morality works and could help us to organise our societies in more fruitful ways in future.”

To summarize:

1. Social groups are “organisms”. We, (you and I) are parts of an organism, much like ordinary cells are part of a body.

2. Social groups, like organisms, have mechanisms of self-defense which protect them from harm. We (you and I),  are much like anti-bodies, kicking into gear by firing up our moral judgments whenever a threat is on the horizon. We apparently do it both out of biological necessity and fear of punishment.

3. Now that we know what we do and why we do it, we will finally be able to organize our societies (organisms) in such a “fruitful” way that their well-being is better assured in the future.

This “theory” is based on several items of appalling intellectual recklessness:

– Poor analogy. I remember having similar thoughts at about the age of twelve. Then I read some books.

– The effortless transition from what we do and why we do it  to somehow knowing (usually in some future) what we (will) ought to do. (The incoherence of this sentence illustrates the incoherence of the thought behind it). No mechanism is ever given for this transition. We just need to trust that it will happen.  Never mind that, as far back as 1739,  David Hume demonstrated the impossibility of moving from “Is” to “Ought”.  But that’s just philosophy. No one takes it seriously any more.

– Like any moral theory, this one too pronounces “the good”:  “The good” is the “super-organism”, the society. The goal is to become better at protecting it. Inadvertently,  like a blind chicken, the “groundbreaking science” stumbles upon an “ought” – We ought to become better at protecting the society (organism) of which we are part. This, apparently, is the goal of morality.

The study of ethics is, it appears,  no more than observation of human behavior and formulation of theories that explain it. Then we have a Promise that in some future  sufficient amount of accumulated fact will make us “better”. This is based on an (accidental) assumption of what “the good” constitutes of.

On display here is the naturalistic approach to ethics. It seems to be all the rage in certain circles lately. It certainly sells a lot of books. As Richard Polt puts it in his excellent NYT article “Anything But Human”:

“Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.”

It is no accident that the “super-organism” theory completely ignores the individual. When a human being is explained away in terms of behavior, biology and, in this case, silly analogy, the individual is stripped of all value. That value is transferred to whatever accidental “good” happens to be given.  In this case it is Society, but the word is synonymous with “The People”, “Fatherland”, “Motherland”, or whatever other pet-name is given to the “Super-Organism”.

If this sounds sinister, that’s because it IS.  It is bad enough when these old, worn out, populist and ultimately evil-producing perversions of ethics are driven by political, clerical, nationalist and other agendas. This latest naturalistic fad is especially atrocious because it is based on agendas far lesser in scope. It sells books. It rides free on the enormous successes of our scientific endeavors. It appeals to common sense.

It is free of philosophy. It is a dry, empty husk, light as a feather, easy to lift. It is worthless.

It spreads ignorance.

The Morality Test is worth taking. If your results indicate that you are a danger to the “Super-Organism”, wear that badge with pride and walk away in full possession of your individual human dignity.

If your results indicate anything else, forget about it as quickly as you can. This has nothing to do with ethics.

Eight Ways to Improve Our Conversations

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by Kathy

 

Most of us from Philosophy Workshop would be happy to help improve the process of group communication, whether or not we agree with the following list of suggestions.  First however we must all face the biggest obstacle to any improvement: habit.  It’s difficult to change the way we talk; often we speak the way we do because we’re so used to it that we can’t imagine an alternative.  But I don’t think anyone believes we’re all  stuck with our current behavior, even those of us who don’t believe in free will, but who would probably nevertheless agree that we can change for other reasons.  So I think that with some practice and effort (or insert the word you believe describes the process) and some patience with one another, we really could have even more amazing conversations.  These are my ideas about how to accomplish it, and I’m looking forward to hearing yours too.

1.     Read more philosophy

Admittedly, philosophy is often difficult to read.  If you’re a newcomer to the group and the subject, you may well want to stick to the posted essays and to learning more from other people rather than reading additional philosophy.   But once you’ve been around for a while, ask yourself, would you attend a wine group even though you never drink wine just so you could voice your opinions about it?

It helps to ask someone knowledgeable for reading recommendations.  They can probably point you toward books or essays that are less technically demanding if that’s a concern.

2.   Avoid implying that philosophy is a person and that she has come to certain sweeping conclusions

Philosophy, like most intellectual disciplines, has become professionalized since the 19th century and is practiced by a diverse group of people.  While philosophers usually agree on certain basics, such as what constitutes a reasonable argument, the laws of logic, and so on, they’ve come to little or no agreement on most of the major issues.

This should come as no surprise.  After all, if philosophers had a huge meeting, agreed on a consensus, and then published their findings, couldn’t you just go read that, accept it, and avoid thinking for yourself ever again?   While there’s no shortage of people who would be glad to tell you what to think, there is a shortage of consensus.  So when you speak, try to be precise and avoid sweeping statements about philosophy.

3.     When you mention scientific studies as part of your argument, be careful and precise

When you avoid sweeping generalizations about science and say what you specifically mean, you’ll avoid all of the following problems.

a.       Avoid implying that science is a person

Science is a process, a systemized way of approaching a study; the rules of the system have been built up through custom, the history of its practice.  As with the word “philosophy”, try not to personify science.

b.      Philosophers are the best philosophers

Is it really necessary to point out why this is so?  You would typically have to study philosophy for at least nine years before you could earn a PhD, so it follows that a doctor of philosophy usually knows philosophy best.  Similarly, within science, a myrmecologist usually knows more about ants than an astronomer.   Specialization just works that way….

But some people may be unusually resistant to this because they imagine that philosophy is nothing but the random voicing of our opinions about stuff.    Actually, philosophy in the West has consisted of some of the best minds of our civilization working on the most basic questions of meaning for at least the last 2500 years.  A student of philosophy studies what those other philosophers have said, and attempts to perfect the arts of rational argument and presentation.   If by some miracle a philosopher does all that, earns his PhD, actually finds a job, and manages to publish, don’t you think maybe he could have picked up a helpful idea or two about the subject, or developed an idea in all its implications that a myrmecologist, for example, might have been too busy with ants to have explored?

c.       Respect the difference between science and philosophy

This one’s a little tougher than the others, because some areas of philosophy have, over time, migrated into the arena of science.  It is also completely possible that more questions about the self, the mind, identity, and so on may in time migrate in that direction.

But science will never give us the answers to the most fundamental questions about supernatural belief or about values.  Why is that?  Is science somehow lacking?  No, it is not.  These just aren’t the things that science studies to begin with.  Scientists may well study the effects that ideas and beliefs have on people and the world, but the questions of rational belief, value, and interpretation fall within the realm of philosophy.

Confusing the focus of these two disciplines never fails to bring down the level of group discussions.

d.      Don’t give “science” the credit for your opinions

While it’s true that individual scientists have opinions about philosophical issues, scientists do not all convene to pass group judgment on, for instance, ethical or theological issues.   Groups of scientists do, however, occasionally take action together, such as signing a letter or petition or launching a protest on some issue.   Such groups of scientists never claim to speak for every existing scientist, so why should you?

4.     Recent is not necessarily better

Our culture admires progress.  So it’s hardly surprising that many people assume philosophy progresses in the same way as, for example, science.  Philosophy, however, is one of the humanities, and in the humanities neither the date nor the popularity of a work or idea are used to gauge their worth.  For instance, you wouldn’t expect someone to discard Shakespeare because J. K. Rowling has the latest word and is more popular, would you?

Wikipedia defines Whig history as “the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress toward enlightenment.”

To take a Whiggish approach to the history of philosophy isn’t actually an error.   But it is an error to present it as fact rather than an opinion.  Also, note that this is usually a pejorative adjective – that means that Whiggishness is usually not admired.  Consider that the term is based on the English Whig party who believed that all of history had conspired to develop the height of civilization in the form of the 19th century British Empire which would supply the final word on everything.  They were not the first or the last to be wrong about that.

5.     Try not to use your personal beliefs as the basis of an argument

Beliefs can and should appear in a discussion of philosophy.  However, it is asking too much to expect others to accept your beliefs as the basis of an argument.  For example, if I am a Druid of a certain variety and worship the Grand Ginkgo Overlord (hereafter referred to as the GGO), I may wish to mention him in a discussion of animism.  I may even wish to quote the GGO if he has made pertinent remarks on that subject.  What I should not do is tell others that they had better believe it because the GGO says so, and to ignore him is to court a total absence of reason and powdery mildew as well.  If we expect others to share our beliefs, there are many places we can find that sort of fellowship – such as churches, secular humanist groups, and so on.  But it’s out of place in a philosophy group or discussion.

People usually have no trouble understanding this when it comes to religious beliefs.  However, the same is also true when it comes to secular and cultural beliefs.

6.     Argue but don’t brawl

Some people are very sensitive to disagreement, and avoid argument at all cost.  Others enjoy a real fight.  Neither extreme is appropriate here.  People are expected to rationally argue their case, but without aggression.

7.     Use good manners if you want to get along well

Your mother was right, of course.  If you want to be liked, you should always avoid pomposity, show consideration for others, not talk too much, and not burp publically.  You know the drill.

8.     Don’t dwell on your mistakes

However, once you’ve come home from a meeting and realized that you have violated every suggestion in this list, just come back and try to do better next time.  You can put it behind you faster if you also apologize or at least make nice with anyone you may have offended.   But I can’t think of any ethics that demands you sit around feeling badly forever, and besides, this is a pretty forgiving group.

Thoughts on Reading Philosophy

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By Goran

Due to the special nature of philosophical argument, writing philosophy (well) requires, at the very least, specialized attention to structure and form. For the same reason, reading philosophy (well) requires a special sort of attention from the reader.

When reading philosophy we owe it to the author to approach her work with attention that it deserves. This includes, at the very least, listening carefully to what the author is saying and in doing so establishing carefully what the author is NOT saying.

In general, I think we can say with much certainty, that a philosophical text is never about our (readers’) preconceived notions, established beliefs, biases, interests, etc. Yet many of us are guilty of all too easily inserting those very things into the readings we encounter. The temptation seems to increase with the level of interest or emotional relevance the text has for us.

This is why reading philosophy requires a double strain: the ordinary strain to grasp the concepts, and the extraordinary strain of curbing the tide of our preconceptions.

Reading, writing and discussing philosophy is an exercise not only of intellect, but even more importantly, it is the training ground for developing humility and tolerance.