In the introductory note to the ‘Portable Athiest’ anthology; Hitchens states two analogies, both I think are interlinked as part of an overall argument. The first one is possibly interesting in itself, as a lucid observation about cats and dogs. It goes something like this:
If a dog is domesticated by means of being given shelter, warmth, food, hygiene and water; they would treat such a provider as a God. If a cat is treated in a similar way, by being given shelter, warmth, food, hygiene and water; they think that they are God.
How interesting a mindset. For Hitchens, the strong suggestion here is that we need to be less like dogs and more like cats. This is not stated explicitly, however, the practice of worship by dogs is treated with explicit derision.
The second analogy, the actual subject of this post, is between our perspective of the world being likened to the philosophical doctrine of solipsism; which is the epistemological and metaphysical thesis that no outside minds exist, because we have no epistemic access to other minds we must presume that we have no grounds for believing in their existence; since we have access to our own thoughts (being presumably, the author of our thoughts), I (the author of my thoughts) am the only person that exists. Consider ‘I’ to be indexical to you (the reader, even if that means I’m reading this post again).
Hitchens likens solipsism with a sense of philosophical and human ignorance. Religious belief and superstitious supernaturalism, according to Hitchens, is the belief that human beings are the centre of the universe, or are central to the universe by virtue of being favoured by divinity, or being the possessors of consciousness itself; either way, as a blanket claim, human beings are taken to have a central place. This, Hitchens would call a solipsism. The suggestion is that a more advanced approach to things would be to acknowledge that we are not the centre of the universe, and accept the alternative, science-driven account of the place of human beings? I thought to consider that option, especially since Hitchens explicitly is appealing to natural selection.
Natural selection takes place, from a retrospective point of view, with us at the present and various stages where intermediary or proto-human structures lived. We are but one in a set of genii, and even higher order taxa. We have among our cousins, bananas and slugs; crustaceans and birds. That seems, prima facie, a less solipsistic vision of the world, although considering the current resource usage humankind are certainly pretending to be the centre of everything.
Adding to this however, is the consideration that evolution itself requires certain pre set conditions, certain elements need to be available; certain physical conditions wherin life may take place as a mere possibility. Beyond even this, certain conditions and laws of the universe are to be presupposed so even the physical conditions can maintain. For a universe to have slightly different laws may be a difficult thing to conceive, but it is certainly not difficult to concieve of differential physical conditions within the space of a given universe. Considering the issue of natural selection; within the earth a system has established where all classifications of life take place iwthin a closed locus. If there were to be other life beyond the earth, the conditions must obtain for the mere possibility of natural selection to take place, which is even less a guarantee than it taking place itself, let alone enough for conscious life.
Hitchen’s solipsistic metaphor seems then to turn into another solipsism. We are not the centre of the universe, but we may be completely alone as conscious beings of higher order thought. A cold and empty universe where the only people who can appreciate its vastness and complexity are limited by the ever changing conditions of wider environment of galaxies and beyond. That’s probably something to appreciate, but it’s also much more pessimistic. It’s also solipsistic.
I thought i would write a bit about some things I have observed following the recent natural disaster in Haiti.
1. Social media funding campaigns. Many of my favourite twitter celebrities have been promoting various disaster funds in light of the event at Haiti. I’ve also noticed a new item called a ‘Haiti drum’ on a facebook game I have been playing. It seems that the mechanisms for getting funding are so diverse as to call for an appeal from all groups. Even the godless JREF and Humanists are raising special funds.
2. It is almost cliche to not this, but there has been a renewed lot of articles that basically appeals back to the old philosophical problem of evil. Namely, why would God allow disaster to happen. This seems, whether for a believer or not; a very poignant issue. I was having a conversation with an atheist lately in bringing up this issue which was far from unfamiliar to the both of us. We asked the question in a different way: does suffering serve a higher purpose or end?
Perhaps we may make positives from our experiences of calamity and make better persons of ourselves from it. But maybe they are just absurd. Maybe they have no moral standing at all and suffering is completely irrelevant to our agency, or our moral and psychological development. For someone like myself, it seems a consolation to make a phenomenon like natural disaster subsue into some greater end or telos. If there were not one, it seems almost question-begging in some way.
This natural disaster seems to evoke something very fundamental in many people. That being, sympathy as an aspect of moral character. From the atheists to celebrities; many have taken to this Haitian disaster.
3. Another point I wish to bring up is that I read Naomi Klien’s book on disaster capitalism with some closeness to the event when the earthquake happened, and I do not have much doubt that Klien’s ‘disaster capitalism’ thesis is correct. It would be interesting for the sake of scientific hypothesis confirmation to see what political and financial infrastructure is placed in Haiti.
4. Perhaps one thing people might think is: where is Haiti? I’ve been following Haitian news stories for the past two years, and always commented that they have been ignored by the international community with regard to their political and social instability. A lot of citizen journalism comes out on alternative media sources that show vigilante violence in the area and one hopes that attention to the country will bring a change to the overall instability of the country.
I have been delving a little into some 19thC literature of late in leisurely pursuits, and I thought I would come to bring up these two insights:
1. Freud, in an essay on death; wrote that the very thought of our own death in some respect is inconceivable. For every thought that we have presumes at least a third personal perspective, as ourselves being the author of those thoughts. Yet, with the event of death, it is the thought that the self is absent in a way that the living self cannot conceive of without presuming the third-personal perspective of the living thinker.
This strikes me as being both a Wittgensteinian thought, and a Kantian one. It reminds me of a passage towards the end of the Tractatus (I think) where almost the very same notion is addressed, namely, the inconceivability of death. Wittenstein, by constrast, appeals to the inconceivability of death by means of a zeno paradox, as well as the notion that a finite thing cannot conceive of its end. Both of these thoughts would either be prima facie false, or reveal some paradoxical (dialetheia) truth.
The Kantian thought is that Freud’s assertion seems to resemble the appeal of Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception, namely, the notion that there is no thought without the presumption of an “I think”, or agent who has the capacity of such a thought.
2. From Schopenhauer’s ‘On Suffering’; suffering is the privation of pleasure. I am surprised to take a liking to the philosophy of Schopenhauer. There are distinct ethical dimensions to his psychological insights. Schopenhauer’s writings are ethics in the most sincere sense of the word, that is, a guide on how to live well.
schopenhauer turns the Augustinian thought that evil is nonexistent on its head. Pleasure is ultimately a frivolous thing because it is transient, and the only immortal thing about pleasant experiences or fond moments, are the recollection; or shared recollection of them. It is also the sign of a wretched old life if one is always reminiscing a past that has long gone.
Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism is surprising. Not least for the appeal to eastern philosophy, but the extent in which I find it a life-affirming way of approaching life. If a fond experience, like a first kiss or the birth of a child will inevitably end, it also has the immortal quality of being in one’s memory and summoned any time that the memory is recalled. Pessimism as a way of life seems to be the precept, or starting point. Once you accept it, you get on with one’s life, and contemplation becomes less effort in terms of whether the notion of pleasure or the good life are arguable issues. In cruder terms; Accept life is shit, and get on with it. It might be more fun once we accept that.
Lately I have been reading two books which, although are quite unrelated in their subject matter; have led me to the same insight. Let me start off with two casual observations, that perhaps you may or may not agree with.
1. When you look at a women’s magazine today, it features pictures of attractive women. When you look at men’s magazines today; they feature pictures of attractive women.
Of course there are a great many caveats to this crass observation. But for the sake of brevity let us continue.
2. The United States would never invade a country that has a McDonalds.
I have been reading The Lolita Effect by M. G. Durham; and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (of No Logo fame). Both of these books read as polemics and both are critical analyses of the status quo. The one successful thing that I found that holds between both monographs, as well as social science in general; is how a theory can be made around a social observation; or rather, how reality is sought to fit into a theoretical construct where we may understand social conduct in terms of certain forces or agencies at work. I am reminded, as an analogy, of Kant’s notion of perceptual knowledge having a strict desideratum of being matched to theoretical concepts.
For Kant, perception does not make sense until we actively join the percept to a concept. This concept is a higher genera concept that can account for specificities. In the context of perceptual content; we may visualise something and put it under certain metaphysical and other categories before we can say “this is a cloud”. With sociological data, however, which is mediated in a way that differs from perception (which one may say is immediate to cognizance, by comparison); we are still impelled, by the norm of proper understanding, to make a theory or hypothesis fit social phenomena.
The success of social analysis comes when our hypothesis finds instances of confirmation or disconfirmation. With Klein’s thesis, she addresses very complex historical cases. Klein asserts that, following the influence of Milton Friedman and his academic associates and students, a certain neoliberal economic doctrine has been put forward and tested after human and natural catastrophes, Klein refers to this as the Shock Doctrine.
The hypothesis goes something like this. After a disaster situation happens, there is a certain period of mourning that goes on through the general public; which has potential for serious legislative, policy and economic changes in favour of a neoliberal/lassez faire/capitalist agenda, which are largely ignored due to the catastrophe. Klein compares the following events as being part of a social experiment of the ‘shock doctrine’: The coup d’etat of Pinochet in Chile; the September 11th 2001 bombings; Hurricane Katrina and the US occupation of Iraq. While there is a great deal more detail to the analysis, Klein establishes her thesis by pointing out the similarities and overall unity (namely, the Friedman connection) of these events as part of the ‘shock’ observation.
Durham’s Lolita Effect draws from a great body of evidence, ranging from textual analyses of teen magazines, to public health reports and medical papers, not to mention a great deal of theoretical and empirical work from cultural and media studies. While the virtues of social science method are much like their natural science cousins; there is a similar epistemic imperative between the two which should not be ignored. that imperative is, within nature, we see unity and try to establish an understanding of nature viz an ontology of forms, taxa and laws insofar as similarities can be found. These things are essential to theory-construction. Within the domain of social science, the imperative of proper understanding also impels us to construct theories which not only assists our moral agencies in the apprehension of phenomena which may be morally significance; but theory construction serves to unify various insights that hitherto seem unrelated, and having a greater second order apprehension over such propositions serve to make these social observations more understandable.
The notion of the amateur was once a term of endearment for many endeavours, however with the professionalisation of many disciplines such as physics, mathematics and so forth; the amateur is now indistinguishable from the quack. The quack is described in Michael Shermer’s ‘The Borderlands of Science’ and has certain criterial features such as their perceived ‘rejection’ from the intellectual mainstream and a bohemian complex.
Many people appeal to the fact that many of the worlds greatest figures were ‘amateurs’ in their field. This however, is anachronistic a reading at times. Socrates, or Plato did not have any philosophy credentials in the sense of a doctorate, because there were no such academic standards. It is anachronistic to impute our modern standards to them; likewise, it is also ignorant to thing that mutatis mutandis, today’s standards of excellence do not apply.
I’d like to consider some other cases: the foundational figures of social sciences had very little social science credentials. By modern standards this can easily be shown by the lack of rigour in early social research. Of course, some time has passed to give us the wisdom of epistemic rigour in social sciences. It is also the case that we may have more to learn in terms of methodologies in the social sciences (consider the case of feminist insights on methodology). So, we find that figures such as Comte, Durkheim or Marx. These figures had intellectual backgrounds in the sciences that were pre-existing in their time, so they were necessarily ‘amateur’.
Another factor in an anachronistic misreading of the amateur is to consider the techno-socio-economic conditions. In the age before the university institution, or a separation of church and civil society; Islam and Christianity had a serious impact on mainstream (European) intellectual culture. Thus figures such as William of Ockham or Aquinas worked within the locus of the church and the fruit of the Islamic translation movement.
Not only was scholarship and the construction of theories important, but also the preservation and dissemination of texts. This involved the skill of translation and copying. In modern day academia, we have the system of journals; most of which can be accessed by the internet. Almost all papers these days are also digitally encoded so we have little utility for the copyist. If anything, it is easier for the amateur to ‘thrive’ in an environment of greater open access to learning materials. It is for this reason that I support the open access movement for journals and public domain texts and things such as the gutenberg project, wikipedia, librivox and the open university.
Perhaps there is a sense in which some barriers are established to the amateur. Some sciences, for instance, have become so complex that the tools for experimental analysis have become too expensive or developmentally young to become publically accessible. But there are computational programmes and other avenues for the amateur to work. With the onset of more computational methods in experimental studies, we can contribute our computer time towards processing very powerful computer tasks such as protein mapping; identification of galaxy types or interpreting complex images.
In the computer sciences there is room for amateurism. A ‘professional’ in the computer world used to be someone who had a PhD in logic; then it became someone with a doctorate in mathematics; then maybe you could say it was a computer scientist. However, there is a social division between people who work as programmers without formal qualifications such as mathematics or computer science degrees (I have a friend who is a fairly proficient programmer and is an ex-vet student who just became obsessed with linux); and those who write papers about certain code and assess the situation in a professionalised way. The scope for amateurism is quite like the borderlands of science insofar as new innovations that eventually become the mainstream are formed in that border.