Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Advice? Don't Listen to My Advice

How should I know whether the climate is warming due to human activity?

Or what specific measures would best resurrect today’s sour economy? Or whether the Supreme Court’s latest decision is the correct one? Or whether vaccines cause autism? Or whether escalating, or scaling down, is the right way to go in Afghanistan? Or whether the Israeli or Palestinian version of the story is the right one?

There are people with Ph.D.s working on all these questions. So how could I have the hubris even to have an opinion on such matters?

Let’s face it. I’m just not informed enough about most of the many important issues of our day to be entitled to an opinion. And even where I am reasonably informed, I’m just not smart enough to be confident of any opinion. The issues – the data, the variables, the formulae -- are far more complex than my own brain is smart.

About the only thing I am confident about is that I ought not be very confident about anything.

All this is obvious to me. But here’s what’s scary.

I myself have a Ph.D. Admittedly not a very relevant one; it’s in philosophy. But my degree means that at least someone thought me capable, at least to some degree, of grasping difficult things, of making and evaluating rational arguments. I also think my I. Q., not to mention my SAT scores, puts me somewhere around the 97th percentile in such matters. (Though how should I know if these are meaningful measures of anything?) I even got to portray not just a genius, but The Genius, on the David Letterman show a few years back. I may not be an Einstein, but I’m not exactly the dimmest bulb on the planet either.

So if I’m not entitled to an opinion on today’s issues, then who, exactly, is?

Well, there are those 3% of the population above me on the scales – those smarty-pants. And quite a few of them even have Ph.D.s., even relevant Ph.D.s.

There’s just one problem.

These brainiacs never seem to agree amongst themselves on any of the important issues. Just about every side of every issue has its experts, its authors, its talking heads. Here am I, regularly following the news, reading the columnists and blogs, occasionally even making my way through long articles in the monthlies. The first guy makes what seems like a pretty compelling case; the next lady makes an equally compelling case for the opposite conclusion.

And I’m supposed to sort it all out, to figure out which side to sign onto? Me, with my measly Ph.D., outrageous test scores, and celebrity Genius career?

Lately I’ve realized that what I tend to respond to isn’t the actual force of the competing arguments I’m hearing so much as the degree of confidence each talking head projects. Yet even the great Isaac Newton – as much an Einstein as Einstein himself – recognized that his own achievements were comparable to finding a smoother pebble than ordinary “whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” And if this groundbreaking thinker saw that the universe was far more complex than even his brain was smart, then just where do these cocky 3-percenters get off projecting so much confidence in their opinions?

About the only other thing I am confident about is that no one ought to be very confident about anything.

The big problem, of course, is what I’m supposed to do with this confidence (or lack thereof).

I think I need to consult an expert.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ignoratio Elenchi (1636-1710)

As this year marks the 300th anniversary of his death, now seems as inappropriate time as any to remind us of one of the long-forgotten dead white males who gives being a dead white male the reputation it deserves.

Who was he?
Ignoratio Elenchi was an Italian rationalist, empiricist, and skeptic, and the primary inspiration for the earliest modern anti-humanists. Hegel cited him as one of the thinkers that it's most important for philosophers to overlook; Marx reserved his harshest words on Hegel to a savage critique of that understatement. Nietzsche wrote an entire sentence about him, the famous exclamation, “Ignoratio Elenchi is dead!” (Apparently Nietzsche was speaking at a ceremony celebrating the 179th anniversary of Elenchi’s death.) In 1982, the American Philosophical Association did Elenchi the unique honor of naming one of the most bone-headed logical fallacies after him.

His life
Elenchi was born in a village just outside Rome better known for its production of manure than for that of philosophers. He didn’t get beyond second-grade in his formal education, and even that achievement, Spinoza speculated in a letter to Descartes, was probably only due to grade inflation. Nevertheless he achieved some early notoriety for a series of letters he wrote protesting the government’s provision of housing and food for disabled orphans, arguing that they would never learn to fend for themselves if their basic needs were taken care of for them. (Lost for centuries, these letters only recently resurfaced in the bedside drawer of former U. S. President George W. Bush.) Elenchi’s lack of education prevented him from obtaining an academic position, and so he supported himself by working in his village’s main industry. Hume wryly observed a century later, in a long essay on Elenchi’s legendary personality disorder, that “the keenest eye could scarce discern where ‘tis, exactly, that Elenchi’s remunerative work leaves off, and his intellectual work, as such, commences.” The final years of Elenchi’s life saw him in a bitter dispute with Leibniz, instigated when Leibniz claimed to have stolen the idea of the calculus not from Elenchi but from Newton, upon which Elenchi grabbed Leibniz’s wig right from the great man’s head and tossed it out the window, exclaiming “I refute you thus!” (Leibniz recounted the affair in an interview years later, conceding that Elenchi’s refutation was probably devastating, if only anybody could figure out what the hell he was talking about.) Elenchi died in a village just outside Rome better known for its disposal of disagreeable wastes than for that of philosophers. The precise cause of death was unknown, but Feuerbach, in an early 19th century journal entry, speculated that Elenchi’s might have been the only credible case of death due to a self-inflicted sexually transmitted disease.

His work
Elenchi wrote prolifically, mostly angry letters he sent to all the leading intellectuals of his day. These were collected and published posthumously, in a volume entitled The Prosecution’s Case Against Ignoratio Elenchi. Many had a similar structure. Elenchi would begin by praising the thinker’s work, noting that he himself had been thinking along similar lines; he’d then suggest that, perhaps, the thinker in question was familiar with Elenchi’s own work; he’d then accuse the thinker of stealing his work; and then wrap up by asking to borrow some money. In fact Elenchi adopted for his own some of the most famous doctrines of his day: Cartesian dualism, Malebranchian occasionalism, Leibnizian theodicy, and so on. Nevertheless he did develop at least one original doctrine, his idiosyncratic version of pantheism -- according to which God was, quite literally, a particular kind of iron skillet. This doctrine remains alive and well to this very day in the recently founded religion “Pastafarianism,” which acknowledges that there could have been no Flying Spaghetti Monster to create the cosmos if there had been no prior divine vessel in which He was prepared.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What You See is NOT What You Get

People regularly tell me to come to my senses, but the philosopher in me thinks we should run as far from our senses as we can.

To concentrate just on vision, our shifty little eyes deceive us all the time. A tower in fact square may look round from a distance. Our bedsheets look spotless yet harbor more hungry dust mites than we want to know. The moon looks larger on the horizon than above us and yet it isn’t. A straight stick in water looks bent. The sky looks blue when in fact it consists only of air or gas molecules which aren’t themselves blue. When we watch a movie, objects seem to move across the screen when all we’re actually seeing is a rapid sequence of still pictures. And finally that dining room table we paid a month’s salary for, for what looks like its solid cherry surface? In fact it’s composed mostly of the empty space inside its atoms. Suckers!

Indeed the whole idea that our eyes can tell us how things really are doesn’t make a lot of sense. Our perceptions are constantly varying, for one thing, without our having any basis for choosing one perception to be the “true” one. In fact (for example) I shouldn’t have suggested above that the stick “really is” straight since even that information only comes from other conflicting perceptions. Instead we should just say that to our visual perception the stick looks crooked while to our tactile perception of it under the water it feels straight. There is no way of saying how things “really” are. We can only say how things appear to us in different circumstances.

Even more importantly, to confirm that our visual perception of a thing is accurate we’d have to compare that perception with the thing itself. But how can we do that? Every time we look at the thing we only get another perception of it, and never the thing itself!

Things are simply not, in short, as the eyes have it. So next time you’re told to come to your senses—say nay!