A Pro-Bono Offer To Teach Brett Stephens Some Epistemology

This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.

Greetings,
I’m a professor of philosophy of Brooklyn College and I’m writing to offer to teach epistemology (the study of knowledge) to Brett Stephens, your Op-Ed columnist. His last three essays (‘This Revolution Too, Will Eat It’s Children‘, ‘This I Believe About Blasey vs. Kavanaugh,’ ‘Believability is the Road to National Ruin‘) have shown an alarming ignorance of some basic principles of epistemology–the kind that we introduce to our beginner undergraduate students in elementary introductions to philosophy or in our elective epistemology class. (The study of epistemology goes back all the way to Plato and a firm grounding in its fundamentals is essential for any student, not just philosophy majors.)

To wit,  Mr. Stephens does not understand the relationship between beliefs and action. He does not understand the difference between belief and knowledge. He does not understand the difference between different epistemic standards employed in differing contexts–as such, he does not understand the difference between legal standards of belief and knowledge, and how they pertain to legal decisions, and ‘normal’ or other standards of belief and knowledge and how they apply in different contexts. These are elementary distinctions and everyone, especially every adult and every responsible citizen of a democratic republic, should be aware of them. It is entirely possible that Mr. Stephens has never taken a class in philosophy or epistemology and perhaps he has never been introduced to the notion of ‘epistemic standards’ and how these might vary across different ‘epistemic contexts.’ But that is no reason for him to remain ignorant of them.

Which is where my pro-bono offer to teach Mr. Stephens some basic epistemology comes in. I also teach philosophy of law, and would be happy to introduce Mr. Stephens to some basic jurisprudential debates about the nature of belief formation in legal contexts and how even within legal domains, there can be differing epistemic standards that generate varying epistemic contexts.

I write in the spirit of offering to perform my civic duty. Mr. Stephens has a prominent and powerful pulpit from which he can address the American people, and he is, as I am, concerned about the state of the American Republic. I believe, as I’m sure he does, that his writing would be improved if he did not trade in the sorts of elementary confusions that are on display in his writing. Mr. Stephens indicates in his pieces the need to keep an open mind; I appreciate that spirit, and in keeping with it, would like to help educate Mr. Stephens.

I do not have contact information for Mr. Stephens and would appreciate it if you could please forward this email to him. I can be reached at my work email address above. I look forward to hearing from him, given his avowed commitment to open inquiry and fair thinking.

best,
Professor Samir Chopra
Department of Philosophy
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210

 

Epistemology and ‘The Leftovers’

Imagine that an extremely improbable event occurs, one for which there was no warning; your best theories of the world assigned it a near-zero probability (indeed, so low was this probability then calculating it would have been a waste of time). This event is inexplicable–no explanations for it are forthcoming, and it cannot be fitted into the explanatory frameworks employed by your current conceptual schemes. What effect would this have on your theory of knowledge, your epistemology, the beliefs you form, and the justifications you consider acceptable for them?

This question is raised with varying degrees of explicitness in HBO’s The Leftovers–which deals with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of approximately two percent of the earth’s population. ‘The Departure’ selected its ‘victims’ at random; no pattern appeared to connect the victims to each other. The ‘departures’ all happened at the same time, and they left no trace. There is no sign of them anymore; two percent of the world’s population has been vaporized. Literally.

The Leftovers is not a very good show, and I’m not sure I will watch it any more (two seasons has been enough). It did however, afford me an opportunity to engage in the philosophical reflection I note above.

One phenomena that should manifest itself in the aftermath of an event like ‘The Departure’ would be the formation of all kinds of ‘cults,’ groups united by beliefs formerly considered improbable but which now find a new lease on life because the metaphysical reasonableness of the world has taken such a beating. Critics of these cults would find that the solid foundations of their previous critiques had disappeared; if ‘The Departure’ could happen, then so could a great deal else. The Leftovers features some cults and their ‘gullible’ followers but does little of any great interest with them–lost opportunities abound in this show, perhaps an entirely unsurprising denouement given that its creators were responsible for the atrocity called Lost.

As one of the characters notes in the second season, ‘The Departure’ made the holding of ‘false beliefs’ more respectable than it had ever been. And as yet another character notes in the first season, that old knockdown maneuver, the one used to dismiss an implausible claim made by someone else, that ‘the laws of nature won’t allow that,’ is simply not available anymore.  Science used to tell us that its knowledge was defeasible, but now that that dreaded moment, when evidence of the universe’s non-uniformity, irregularity, and non-conformance with scientific laws is upon us, what are we to do? In The Leftovers a scientific effort gets underway to determine if geographical location was determinative of the victims’ susceptibility to being ‘departured,’ but it seems like this is grasping at straws, a pathetic and hopeless attempt to shoehorn ‘The Departure’ into extant scientific frameworks.

So, in the aftermath of ‘The Departure,’ we reside in a zone of epistemic confusion: we do not know how to assign probabilities to our beliefs anymore, for the definition of ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’ seems to have been radically altered. That old ‘you never know’ has taken on a far more menacing tone. Only the resumption of the ‘normal’ stream of events for a sufficiently long period of time can heal this epistemic and metaphysical rupture; it will be a while before our sense of this world’s apparent predictability will return. But even then, every argument about the plausibility or the implausibility of some epistemic claim will take place in the shadow of that catastrophic disruption of ‘reality;’ the reasonableness of this world will always appear just a tad suspect.

Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.

Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.

 

Nevil Shute’s _On The Beach_ And Normative Epistemology

The first reading in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class this semester–which focuses on the post-apocalyptic novel–is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach. I expected, more often than not, moral, ethical, and political issues to be picked up on in classroom discussions; I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the very first class meeting–on Monday–honed in on an epistemic issue, more specifically, one of normative epistemology: What should we believe? Are beliefs that comfort us–but that are otherwise without adequate evidentiary foundation–good ones? Can they ever be? Under what circumstances?

Dwight Towers, the American Navy submarine captain, is one of those unfortunates who have, thanks to nuclear war, lost their all–their homes, their families–in the northern hemisphere. In Towers’ case, this means his home in Connecticut, and his wife and child. Indeed, this loss provokes his host in Australia, Peter Holmes, to take the precaution of arranging extra companionship–as distraction–for him when Holmes invites Towers to his home for dinner. But Towers does not seem to regard his family as lost. As he attends a church service, Shute grants us access to his thoughts about home:

He would be going back to them in September, home from his travels. He would see them all again in less than nine months time. They must not feel, when he rejoined them, that he was out of touch, or that he had forgotten things that were important in their lives. Junior must have grown quite a bit; kids did at that age.

Later, Shute does the same with Moira Davidson, his new-found female friend in Melbourne, who has seen the photographs of his family in his cabin:

She had known for some time that his wife and family were very real to him, more real by far than the half-life in a far corner of the world that had been forced upon him since the war.  The devastation of the northern hemisphere was not real to him, as it was not real to her. He had seen nothing of the destruction of the war, as she had not; in thinking of his wife and his home it was impossible for him to visualise them in any other circumstances than those in which he had left them. He had little imagination, and that formed a solid core for his contentment in Australia.

Towers makes this explicit:

“I suppose you think I’m nuts,” he said heavily. “But that’s the way I see it, and I can’t seem to think about it any other way.”

These reflections bring us, as should be evident, to the CliffordJames debate. I have taught that debate before–in introductory philosophy classes and in philosophy of religion. The discussions–and judgments–it provokes are often quite illuminating; Monday’s was no exception. The novelistic embedding available here, of course, also enabled a segue into the broader ethics of ‘coping strategies’ and escapism like, for instance, Moira Davidson’s palliative heavy drinking.

I  expect this issue to recur during this semester’s discussions; I look forward to seeing how my students respond to the varied treatments of it that my reading list will afford them.

On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

Inconsistency in our beliefs–and thus actions–is often held to be not just a cognitive failure, a breakdown of rationality, but also a moral failure of sorts. Sometimes the inconsistent are accused of hypocrisy, of disingenuousness. We are urged to forensically examine their utterances and actions, sifting through the traces they leave, all the better to indict them of a catalog of epistemic and ethical sins. The expression of an inconsistency is also often taken to be a cover-up for a truly held belief, a masking of a sordid reality; there are the things we ‘really believe’ and then there are the things we only pretend to believe.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the inconsistent–especially as most of us, if not all, are guilty of it.

There is a simple apologia we can offer for this widespread inconsistency; we are creatures of limited reasoning power; we may find it too cognitively expensive to check our enterprise for consistency. We often satisfice, rather than optimize, the sanitation and hygiene we impose on our beliefs.

But there might be something even more fundamental at play. The accusations leveled against the inconsistent often presume there is a genuine, authentic self, one covered up and disguised by incompetency, for nefarious purposes. They suggest we are whole and are fractured by this tolerance of rupture within our corpus of belief. But perhaps–as many have suggested before me–we are a shifting conglomerate of sorts. We play host to many selves, many drives, many desires, all at once; if these drives and desires and instincts may conflict with each other, then why not our beliefs? Beliefs are revealed by actions, by visible exertion and the spoken word; these issue from our inner being, each bearing the impress of the turbulence that gave rise to it. Unsurprisingly, the agent who has been assigned their ownership appears singed by incoherence at the edges. But this incoherence may instead be a pleasurable medley of a kind.

I do not think there is much, if any, novelty in what I have noted above. But consistency continues to hold sway as an epistemic and moral ideal. It is still put down as a signpost, as a marker, for our aspirations. We are urged–when we have the time and the energy–to look closely and carefully under and around ourselves, and to conduct search-and-destroy missions for all and any inconsistencies.

We are too harsh on the inconsistent. In a fit of self-righteous rectitude, we indict them of too much. To be sure, some inconsistencies are harmful; for ourselves, for those impacted by our actions. The inconsistency of the powerful hypocrite is a particularly damaging one. But all too many variants of this supposedly deadly sin are not. At worst, they may only puzzle and perplex us, impatient as we are to categorize, all too neatly, our friends and family and acquaintances. But we should be more tolerant, and treat these visible faults in action and belief as spurs to a more sympathetic investigation of the human condition and the complexity of the inner life.

No Atheists in Foxholes, My Ass

Here is vignette #7 from Ernest Hemingway‘s In Our Time:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out . Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus.

No atheists in foxholes, indeed.

This little bon mot, intended to deflate the pretensions of skeptics and disbelievers has a long and dishonorable history; it is often trotted out, a triumphant smirk spreading across the countenance of the faithful as they surmise they have honed in on the Achilles heel of the atheist. The atheist stands indicted: he is merely a fair weather disbeliever. When the chips fall, he will duck for cover under the shelter provided by the Good Lord, just like the rest of us. (There is another, crafty, way to interpret it, of course: that only believers go to war. But I don’t, ahem, believe that.)

I wonder if the faithful ever stop to think–I know, silly question–about how awful an argument for faith this is. It suggests that our true believing nature will be revealed  when shells are cascading down around us, when, in short, we are possessed by extreme fear, anxiety, and panic.

But why would anyone imagine that a psychological state riven by such extreme sensations and affects is one in which we will rationally come to hold beliefs? One might as well just say that in these states, we witness the breakdown of rational decision-making and belief formation, that the beliefs held by those in foxholes are forced upon them by their circumstances.

Similar arguments are made in other domains, and they are just as silly. Consider, for instance, a familiar claim made about reversions to states of nature–as in post-apocalyptic scenarios:

[A] standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed’….The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true.

But:

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

To conclude, let me complete my excerpting of the vignette above:

The shelling moved further up the line . We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

Note: Italics and capitalization of Hemingway vignette as in original 1986 Scribner Classic edition, pp. 67