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

 

America’s Next Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, Is A Lying, Rapey, Fratboy

I believe Christine Blasey Ford; I believe Brett Kavanaugh did precisely what she accuses him of doing. My reasons for offering this expression of my beliefs are quite simple: Brett Kavanaugh has done everything possible–especially during his ludicrous interview to Fox News yesterday–to indicate to me that he not only did what Ford alleges he did, but that this kind of behavior was par for the course for him and his drunken prep school buddies. (As various other testimonials about his rapey and drunken belligerent behavior on other occasions seem to confirm.) I’m not convicting Brett Kavanaugh in any legal domain and of course, were the Senate not to vote in favor his nomination, they would not be doing so either–they would merely be letting him continue in his present position at the  highly prestigious Federal Appeals Circuit as a judge; still, given these two sources of information available to me about what happened some thirty-six years ago, I’m inclined to find one of the pair named in my opening sentence above vastly more credible.

Ford, that is. Not the dude who looks like just about every other rich, privileged, self-satisfied, smug, drunken frat boy it has been my misfortune to either personally encounter or read about. There is a history to these matters, and in almost every single reckoning, dudes like Brett Kavanaugh are the guilty ones, yet almost always unpunished, and women like Ford, who have been assaulted or harassed, are forced to suffer further indignities. (Three women friends of mine have been raped; not one of them ever filed a report. Their rapists still walk free.)

Seeing isn’t believing. Most of the knowledge we claim about the world comes from testimony, written or otherwise. I know the sun is 93 million miles from the earth; reliable, authoritative, scientific sources tell me so. I know Napoleon came to power in 1799; reliable historical sources tell me so. Neither of these claims graduated to the status of knowledge via a courtroom; they went through ‘standard epistemic channels’: statement, corroboration (possibly via other testimonials), confirmation by taking actions based on the truth of these propositions, and so on. If we were to examine the corpus of our beliefs, we would find that the grounds we have for believing them are exceedingly varied; very few of them have been vetted by any kind of legal standard. There is no reason to hold, as many obfuscators would have us do, that the grounds for rejecting Kavanaugh’s nomination should be a ‘conviction’ by the standards of a criminal court. It should merely be enough that we find ourselves agnostic no longer, and inclined to believe one account. On which we could base our future actions. Like we do every single day of our lives. Context matters, yes, and this is a nomination process for the next Supreme Court Justice. But it is no more, and no less, than a highly dramatized job interview. There are no criminal penalties here. Our standards should be appropriately configured.

And when I do that, I find that I”m in a very familiar epistemic situation: on one side, a graduate of an institution–a fucking petri dish for toxic masculinity–that breeds and confirms privilege, which condones drunken behavior, imbued with a sense of entitlement, allegedly engaging in a species of behavior that is, by all historical and cultural accounts, very common to such places, and on the other side, a woman alleging an assault whose parameters sound very familiar, and who did not speak up for years because she feared precisely the reaction sent her way by the Republican Party.

The evidence is in: Brett Kavanaugh is a lying, rapey, fratboy.

Neuroscience’s Inference Problem And The Perils Of Scientific Reduction

In Science’s Inference Problem: When Data Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Does, while reviewing Jerome Kagan‘s Five Constraints on Predicting Behavior, James Ryerson writes:

Perhaps the most difficult challenge Kagan describes is the mismatching of the respective concepts and terminologies of brain science and psychology. Because neuroscientists lack a “rich biological vocabulary” for the variety of brain states, they can be tempted to borrow correlates from psychology before they have shown there is in fact a correlation. On the psychology side, many concepts can be faddish or otherwise short-lived, which should make you skeptical that today’s psychological terms will “map neatly” onto information about the brain. If fMRI machines had been available a century ago, Kagan points out, we would have been searching for the neurological basis of Pavlov’s “freedom reflex” or Freud’s “oral stage” of development, no doubt in vain. Why should we be any more confident that today’s psychological concepts will prove any better at cutting nature at the joints?

In a review of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), I made note¹ of related epistemological concerns:

When experiments are carried out, neuroscientists continue to run into problems. The level of experimental control available to practitioners in other sciences is simply not available to them, and the theorising that results often seems to be on shaky ground….The localisation techniques that are amongst the most common in neuroscience rely on experimental methods such as positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephelography (MEG). [In PET] a radioactive tracer consisting of labelled water or glucose analogue molecules is injected into a subject, who is then asked to perform a cognitive task under controlled conditions. The tracer decays and emits positrons and gamma rays that increase the blood flow or glucose metabolism in an area of the brain. It is now assumed that this area is responsible for the cognitive function performed by the subject. The problem with this assumption, of course, is that the increased blood flow might occur in one area, and the relevant neural activity might occur in another, or in no particular area at all….this form of investigation, rather than pointing to the modularity and functional decomposability of the brain, merely assumes it.

The fundamental problem–implicit and explicit in Kagan’s book and my little note above–is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris, and the various challenges Kagan outlines in his book bear out the foolishness of this enterprise. It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

Note: In Metascience, 11(1): March 2002.

Dear Men, Shut Up About ‘Due Process’ Already

From sea to shining sea, on social media pages nationwide, brave men are taking up cudgels on behalf of their brothers-in-sex-and-gender, the ones whose lives are facing ruination because of this country’s #MeToo moment, as accusation after accusation of sexual harassment and assault issue forth from women who’ve previously remained silent. In each case, their defense takes an exceedingly simple form: it is to insist on ‘due process,’ to assert that every ‘accused’ has a ‘presumption to innocence,’ that they are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ that they fear this business of identifying the men who harass and assault in impunity is all too likely to morph into that most dreaded of social epidemics: the witch hunt. Cease and desist, they say; let us wait till ‘the facts are in,’ till a ‘trial’ has taken place and ‘guilt’ has been conclusively established.

There are several–deliberate, I suspect–confusions at play here. Most prominently, this kind of response confuses the standards for a criminal conviction by the state in a court of law with the usual evidentiary standards that underwrite our usual social judgments of misbehavior. A courtroom furnishes one epistemic context; it addresses the imbalance of power that exists between the state and the accused, and puts the burden on the state to prove its point. This standard of proof is relaxed in civil cases, which only require a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ and do not require guilt to be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Our day-to-day social encounters furnish yet other epistemic contexts; within them, we are, on a daily basis, subjected to ‘evidence’ of varying  levels of reliability, submitted by sources whom we trust to varying degrees; we act on the basis of these sorts of claims, assessing them using our socially acquired and developed skills of evidence evaluation; we often act on the basis of incomplete or only partially verified evidentiary claims; indeed, we have to, for stasis and inaction are not options more often than not. That is, we do not sit around, waiting for the standards of a criminal court to be satisfied before we act; social ends, desirable ones, have to be met.

Critical legal studies scholars have, for a long time now, identified one dishonorable ideological function that the law and its institutions–among which is legal language–play in our society: the establishment of a kind of ‘rationality’–the legal kind, which ostensibly aspires to the value-free, fact-laden-and-dependent kind of reasoning followed in the sciences–which can then be used to discredit other kinds of reasoning. The invocation of deployment of criminal law’s standards of evidence and its methodology for determining ‘guilt’ in social contexts outside of courtrooms is a good example of this kind of ideological maneuver. This invocation is particularly problematic when it is realized that courtroom deliberations themselves are anything but value-and-bias-free; determinations of guilt in courtrooms are as socially and politically riven as those that take place elsewhere; it is just that legal decisions lay claim to a presumption of having cleansed themselves of prejudice thanks to their supposed circumscription by ‘legal method.’

This particular technique of obfuscation has a long and dishonorable history–and it looks likely to continue for the established future. After all, maintaining this confusion is necessary for the maintenance of established power relations and for the continuance of bad behavior by serial offenders.

Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

Nietzsche As Pragmatist

Nietzsche is a pragmatist with strong resonances with the American pragmatists; this is not a new claim. Renè Berthelot, for instance, termed Nietzsche “a German pragmatist” and emphasized the resemblance between Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the pragmatist theory of truth.[1][2] The resemblance between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists [3] is made especial note of in Arthur Danto‘s Nietzsche as Philosopher, which bids us examine The Gay Science. There, as Danto notes, Nietzsche claims that “we `know’…just as much as may be useful in the interest of the human herd” and that our primary epistemic concern is “how far a belief furthers and supports life, maintains and disciplines a species.” Nietzsche’s epistemological strategy has clear entailments for his ontology: what we believe exists is a function of how useful that belief is; metaphysics and epistemology are inseparable. Questions of ontology for Nietzsche are questions of human interests; they do not address the ‘ultimate nature of being,’ to anything unconditioned, to “something which would be true, absolutely and unconditionally, outside of all temporal and perspectival conditions.”

For Nietzsche, perspectives, interpretations, constitute our epistemological relationships with the world completely, rendering talk of distortions of reality unintelligible. Thus, marking the beginning point for pragmatic evaluations of theoretical formulations, our dominant perspective and its attendant ontology are the most “useful and necessary.” Morality and our moral theories too, allow a life-preserving way of living and interacting with this world. Morality becomes one of our many perspectives; but there are no moral phenomena or facts—all we have are “moralistic interpretations of phenomena.” Nietzsche thus dismisses the fact-value distinction—as a pragmatist might—because there are no facts, only interpretations guided by our interest-driven values. Such values come to constitute our sense of ourselves for “evaluation is creation.”

As Danto notes, Nietzsche claims there is “an inescapable tendency on our part to posit entities—to think in terms of things—and to regard the world as characterized by ‘unity, identity, permanence, substance, cause [and effect], thinghood and being.”[4] This positing tendency, the hallmark of theory construction, leads to perspectives which speak of, and manipulate these entities in their claims; these perspectives are sustained by their success in helping achieve our ends; utilizing these concepts ‘works for us’ in furthering our collectively determined ends.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism entails all terms are theoretical. The supposed contrast between theoretical terms and constructs and the objects of ‘common sense’ now vanishes; the solid object we bump up against is a theoretical posit within the perspective termed ‘common sense.’ We construct a world and its attendant reality—for ourselves, the theory’s proponents—by constructing a theoretical world indispensable for the forms of life we lead. The acceptance of these ‘articles of faith’ and their indispensability hints at the theoretical resilience of these entities. Nietzsche thus urges a pragmatic understanding of concepts like ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ as “conventional fictions.” Concepts are creative, ways by which we can fashion a new being, a new form of life.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism—human needs constitute the world for us—rejects metaphysical realism, preferring a view in which a dynamic always-becoming world is theorized into a form suited to our purposes.  Perspectives are interpretations; they make some statements true and not others but none is privileged–absolutely–above the others. In Nietzsche’s ontological view “the world is a mere fiction, constructed of fictitious entities” (The Will to Power, 568); these entities are invented to suit our ends. The entities Nietzsche considers ‘fictitious’ includes “substance, soul, (ego, philosophical subject), synchronic and diachronic identity, being, thing, cause and effect, duration, and materiality.”[5] Our language—a theory with its theoretical terms, its ‘fictions’—is a function of our means and ends and interests and bears the mark of our social activities and organizations, its service of particular ends and ways of life. Those forms of life determine the metaphysics the language necessitates. (For instance, the view that “the self is a substance that is identical over time and is that which acts and is the agent of moral responsibility” is ‘required’ by law and adopted in its ontology. )

For Nietzsche ‘things’ do not exist independent of perspectives; objects—the members of an ontology—exist within theories; they do not have character independent of them. Our concepts carve up the world according to our interests; they give us a lens through which we may categorize and make comprehensible the world.  Our interests dominate our theoretical presumptions; we assess explanations by their consonance with those interests and our values.

The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.

Notes:

[1] (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dickstein-pragmatism.html

[2] Resonances with the pragmatist theory of truth may also be found in In Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.

[3] These resonances between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists have been exhaustively explored in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s magisterial American Nietzsche.

[4] (Danto, 86) 

[5] (Danto, 60-61)

Critical Theory And The Supposed Post-Truth Era: The Ideological Reaction

The tools that critical theory provides enable the undermining and subversion of established structures of power–political, cultural, discursive, technical, material, governmental, architectural, scientific, moral. They expose ideological pretensions and foundations, thus making it possible to see that all that is seemingly permanent and absolute may rest on evanescence. on historical contingency and accident and luck; they enable a corrosively suspicious response to any claims to political virtue. Critical theory is subversive; it should induce a kind of vertigo of possibility, one tinged with both fear and excitement; moreover, if the kind of critical position it points to is available for all dominant systems of cultural and political and intellectual formations, then it should also induce a fierce counter-reaction to its ‘revolutionary’ possibility, a co-opting of its ‘tools’ to be used against it. That is the least you would examine of any sophisticated ideology with a track record of survival; the ability to utilize the features of its opponents to undermine it.

The current brouhaha about how postmodernism made the Donald Trump presidency possible, by clearing the decks for fake news and alternative facts and truth-free daily briefings for the White House Press Corps and Pinocchio-inspired press spokespersons, by inspiring disrespect for ‘truth’ and ‘justification,’ is part of this counter-reaction. It is perfectly predictable; when those in power are subjected to the critique that their claims carry with them their pretensions to power, that they are invested with their own selfish material interests, that their philosophies are but their autobiographies, they will use those critical tools against the critique itself.

The suggestion that tools of critical analysis, the ones used to unmask pretensions of power, are the ones used to prop up an authoritarian regime that plays fast and loose with ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and all of the other components of a realist, respectable, scientific, naturalistic epistemology is a reactionary one; and a predictable one too. It is of a piece with all those claims that point out problems with the form and content of protests; never the right time, never making its points in the right way, or speaking at the right volume. When directed at critical theory, this reaction says that your kind of protesting, its form, its methods, its techniques have resulted in the creation of a new and deadlier political and cultural monster; cease and desist with your critical analysis at once. It suggests that our tools are being used against us; we should lay them down at once; we should exert no other form of critical analysis to help us make political, cultural, or epistemic judgments. We should have known all along what was coming at the terminus of this ‘critique’: the claim that power in place should not be criticized, that critique has gone bad.

The perfect predictability of this ideological maneuver makes its deployment unsurprising; the personnel recruited for it–philosophers and journalists–are also the expected ones. Their easy acquiescence might be a little worrisome, of course, but all kinds of resistance breaks down when power comes calling.