Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The New Yorker: WHY FACTS DON’T CHANGE OUR MINDS
-New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.
“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”... 
Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.
Since theorists dreamed up rational action it only makes sense that it could only be debunked when researchers "discovered" it was bullshit.

Our legal system is founded on the formalization of "myside bias". History is the history of actions mostly founded on delusion; literature is the intimate description of failure. But scientists, or those who claim to be, don't read either, because art is subjective and history is bunk.

The New Republic: In Defense of Cultural Criticism in Trump’s America
-Why the arts need a space the state can't touch—and how we get there.

Call it progress: "We succumb to binaristic thinking"
When scholars read literature of the early imperial era of Rome—Lucan, in her example—they almost always make a big mistake. They rush to identify the author’s attitude toward the new emperor on the scene, “as though when Tiberius came into power the Roman elite woke up and were like, ‘Oh fuck, this is DIFFERENT and this is all we can think about now.’” But in fact, Romans saw the régimes of Tiberius and Nero not as sea changes but rather as “grotesque” exaggerations of “features that were long baked into Roman politics and culture.”

Approaching Lucan in this narrow way would be akin to 31st-century scholars poring over the novels of, say, Jonathan Franzen to discover whether he thought Donald Trump was good or bad, instead of absorbing his depiction of the features of American politics and culture in the early 21st century on its own terms. Binaristic readings of Lucan—was he appeasing the emperor or subverting his rule?—blot out vast swaths of meaning. They also totally fail to see that Lucan’s political epics “work as spaces to reconfigure agency and the political (or philosophical) self,” as Regler put it. In simpler terms: “It’s not always about Nero.”
It's hard for me to imagine classicists being as unthinking and intellectually flat as the author describes. It reads like 9th grade, but parts aren't bad.
Art is about creating those spaces evident in Lucan’s epics. It’s as if a zone is staked out for a variety of ideas and postures to flex and interact. This zone is the place where the arts play. It is not an apolitical place, it is just not owned by government. In this aesthetic space, the arts explore a less confined politics than the one that controls the state. The state is not the beginning, end, or the reason for this space.
That's better than Graber and Tushnet, but it's unclear if she understands that free speech means free speech for Nazis. She refers to Ranciere and dissensus [etc], forgetting or ignoring that "disruption" is now the language of Uber, as others with the opposite form of selective memory forget that it was once a ubiquitous Modernist trope. Ranciere is still a Modernist.
Most arguments against mass surveillance don't respond fully substantively to claims that you shouldn't worry if you "have nothing to hide".  Defense of personal freedom isn't enough.  What's needed is an argument in defense of the need for citizens in a democratic state to be able to be all kinds of wrong, all kinds of confused, creepy, conflicted, desirous, weepy or hate-filled, so that they may be able to learn to understand and outgrow their childishness. The choice is between a community of adults with a minority of the inveterately childish and criminal or a community of children ruled by moralists and crime lords. 
The two pieces above set me off. I'm not sure why I'm picking on the author at the New Republic. PhD or not, she's a kid. Dan Sperber is an adult, or he's supposed to be. The link in the paragraph above is good for him too. He's a man who claims the authority of a philosopher or judge, and lawyers laugh at judges behind their backs.

The authors of another book discussed in the New Yorker piece have an op-ed in the Times.
The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.

Why We Believe Obvious Untruths
Recently, for example, there was a vociferous outcry when President Trump and Congress rolled back regulations on the dumping of mining waste in waterways. This may be bad policy, but most people don’t have sufficient expertise to draw that conclusion because evaluating the policy is complicated. Environmental policy is about balancing costs and benefits. In this case, you need to know something about what mining waste does to waterways and in what quantities these effects occur, how much economic activity depends on being able to dump freely, how a decrease in mining activity would be made up for from other energy sources and how environmentally damaging those are, and on and on.

We suspect that most of those people expressing outrage lacked the detailed knowledge necessary to assess the policy. We also suspect that many in Congress who voted for the rollback were equally in the dark. But people seemed pretty confident.
The authors' bias is clear, but rather than epistocracy it's more the old argument for "a vital center", Arthur Schlesinger's managed mediocrity, adding only that Fernbach is a professor of marketing at a business school.
I may have linked to this before. I don't remember.

We're returning to the notion that knowledge is collective, not that the collective needs to be imposed on us but that it's constitutive of what we are. But the arguments are still anti-political, still trying to rise above politics rather than engage it. Jason Brennan is merely more explicit.  And the author at the New Republic is still more interested in theory than culture itself, as practice.

If knowledge is collective then politics is central, and the model is not Plato or Mill and Bentham and Weber but everything Plato opposed. Politics is an art.

I've quoted parts of what's below a dozen times by now but left out important parts, on this page if not elsewhere. He's writing in the late 30s. So much has been lost.
I
Nine days before his death Immanuel Kant was visited by his physician. Old, ill and nearly blind, he rose from his chair and stood trembling with weakness and muttering unintelligible words. Finally his faithful companion realized that he would not sit down again until the visitor had taken a seat. This he did, and Kant then permitted himself to be helped to his chair and, after having regained some of his strength, said, ‘Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen’—’The sense of humanity has not yet left me’. The two men were moved almost to tears. For, though the word Humanität had come, in the eighteenth century, to mean little more than politeness and civility, it had, for Kant, a much deeper significance, which the circumstances of the moment served to emphasize: man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that implied in the word ‘mortality.’

Historically the word humanitas has had two clearly distinguishable meanings, the first arising from a contrast between man and what is less than man; the second between man and what is more. In the first case humanitas means a value, in the second a limitation.

The concept of humanitas as a value was formulated in the circle around the younger Scipio, with Cicero as its belated, yet most explicit spokesman. It meant the quality which distinguishes man, not only from animals, but also, and even more so, from him who belongs to the species homo without deserving the name of homo humanus; from the barbarian or vulgarian who lacks pietas and παιδεια- that is, respect for moral values and that gracious blend of learning and urbanity which we can only circumscribe by the discredited word "culture."

In the Middle Ages this concept was displaced by the consideration of humanity as being opposed to divinity rather than to animality or barbarism. The qualities commonly associated with it were therefore those of frailty and transience: humanitas fragilis, humanitas caduca.

Thus the Renaissance conception of humanitas had a two-fold aspect from the outset. The new interest in the human being was based both on a revival of the classical antithesis between humanitas and barbartias, or feritas, and on a survival of the mediaeval antithesis between humanitas and divinitas. When Marsilio Ficino defines man as a “rational soul participating in the intellect of God, but operating in a body,” he defines him as the one being that is both autonomous and finite. And Pico’s famous ‘speech’ ‘On the Dignity of Man’ is anything but a document of paganism. Pico says that God placed man in the center of the universe so that he might be conscious of where he stands, and therefore free to decide ‘where to turn.’ He does not say that man is the center of the universe, not even in the sense commonly attributed to the classical phrase, “man the measure of all things.”

It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from this two postulates result responsibility and tolerance.

Small wonder that this attitude has been attacked frorn two opposite camps whose common aversion to the ideas of responsibility and tolerance has recently aligned them in a united front. Entrenched in one of these camps are those who deny human values: the determinists, whether they believe in divine, physical or social predestination, the authoritarians, and those "insectolatrists" who profess the all-importance of the hive, whether the hive be called group, class, nation or race. In the other camp are those who deny human limitations in favor of some sort of intellectual or political libertinism, such as aestheticists, vitalists, intuitionists and hero-worshipers. From the point of view of determinism, the humanist is either a lost soul or an ideologist. From the point of view of authoritarianism, he is either a heretic or a revolutionary (or a counterrevolutionary). From the point of view of "insectolatry," he is a useless individualist. And from the point of view of libertinism he is a timid bourgeois.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, the humanist par excellence, is a typical case in point. The church suspected and ultimately rejected the writings of this man who had said: "Perhaps the spirit of Christ is more largely diffused than we think, and there are many in the community of saints who are not in our calendar." The adventurer Uhich von Hutten despised his ironical skepticism and his unheroic love of tranquillity. And Luther, who insisted that "no man has power to think anything good or evil, but everything occurs in him by absolute necessity," was incensed by a belief which manifested itself in the famous phrase; "What is the use of man as a totality [that is, of man endowed with both a body and a soul], if God would work in him as a sculptor works in clay, and might just as well work in stone?"

II
The humanist, then, rejects authority. But he respects tradition. Not only does he respect it, he looks upon, it as upon something real and objective which has to be studied and, if necessary, reinstated: "nos vetera instauramus, nova non prodimus" as Erasmus puts it. ["we are reviving the old, without betraying the new."]

The Middle Ages accepted and developed rather than studied and restored the heritage of the past. They copied classical works of art and used Aristotle aaad Ovid much as they copied and used the works of contemporaries. They made no attempt to interpret them from an archaeological, philological or "critical" in short, from an historical, point of view. For, if human existence could be thought of as a means rather than an end, how much less could the records of human activity be considered as values in themselves.

In mediaeval scholasticism there is, therefore, no basic distinction between natural science and what we call the humanities, studia humaniora, to quote again an Erasmian phrase. The practice of both, so far as it was carried on at all, remained within the framework of what was called philosophy. From the humanistic point of view, however, it became reasonable, and even inevitable, to distinguish, within the realm of creation, between the sphere of nature and the sphere of culture, and to define the former with reference to the latter. ie., nature as the whole world accessible to the senses, except for the records left by man.

Man is indeed the only animal to leave records behind him, for he is the only animal whose products "recall to mind" an idea distinct from their material existence. Other animals use signs and contrive structures, but they use signs without "perceiving the relation of signification,  and they contrive structures without perceiving the relation of construction.

To perceive the relation of signification is to separate the idea of the concept to be expressed from the means of expression. And to perceive the relation of construction is to separate the idea of the function to be fulfilled from the means of fulfilling it. A dog announces the approach of a stranger by a bark quite different from that by which he makes known his wish to go out. But he will not use this particular bark to convey the idea that a stranger has called during the absence of his master. Much less will an animal, even if it were physically able to do so, as apes indubitably are, ever attempt to represent anything in a picture. Beavers build dams. But they are unable, so far as we know, to separate the very complicated actions involved from a premeditated plan which might be laid down in a drawing instead of being materialized in logs and stones.

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