Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Truth and Neutrality

"What if God were not exactly truth, and if this could be proved? And if he were instead the vanity, the desire for power, the ambitions, the fear, and the enraptured and terrified folly of mankind?"                          -Nietzsche

There is physical truth, the lab-experiment-verified principles of the way the world physically works, which I will not question here. What I'm going against is the existence of truth in values. There was no 'subjective revolution' in society, and cultural attitudes still have not dampened the idea that 'the truth will set us free'. But the bulk of understanding of the mind has made our perspective of it more and more mechanistic while undermining even the possibility of metaphysical discovery. In order to not see this, one must be determined not to look; we can change moods and behaviors with drugs, we can boil the interpretation of our experiences down to brain regions and relate the functioning of the brain to a computer. There's a reason atheists dominate intellectual circles today. With more information comes a more secular worldview.

As a matter of the principles of reality, this is not a new idea; it's just a statement differentiating positive and normative. David Hume stated the "fact-value problem" two hundred and fifty years ago, saying, "You can't derive an ought from an is." Despite a lot of trying, particularly from partisan economists and sophomoric philosophers, this point has never been convincingly disproved. Suddenly, morality need not be real in any metaphysical sense, just popular, and from there, it was a fairly straight road to postmodernism.

Two hundred years before that, Spinoza argued for pantheism through logical discourse on the nature of God. This is quite possibly the most rebellious act in the history of Western Philosophy; the entire idea of God as a basis for morality vanished when everything became a reflection of God's will. God could no longer be used as a normative moral anchor.

Subjectivism has a terrible reputation; religious philosophers probably gain their greatest current traction when they play on the fears of those who need to see morality and existence as being concrete, comprehensible, and purposeful. Subjectivism leads to conflict and does not dictate a resolution, so accepting it and having values anyway is akin to building your house on sand.

But by any scientific standpoint, values ARE subjective, based on mental programming which can be quite faulty and not at all the same as describing objective fact. Two people can describe a brutal murder as being factually the same. They can agree on the angle of the microphone stand as it slammed into Ke$ha's skull, and the look of gleeful malevolence on my face. They might notice certain things about the physical reality differently, because their eyes are drawn towards different elements of the scene. But in how the incident is evaluated, however, its overarching normative meaning, the stories need not actually be conflicting in content to have wildly different value interpretations. If you hate Ke$ha, you might see this act as good, of positive value. If you like Ke$ha, or if you're one of those sad deontologists who think that all violence is bad, you'll be horrified.

What if the search for depth and the belief in the possibility of metaphysically important knowledge and value is, itself, another product of the human desire for empowerment? Could we accept it, no matter how well proven? Modern philosophers will tell you that they have given up metaphysics, but they have not. The unwillingness to look in the dark nooks and crannies, at what traditional morality would call "evil", for answers to questions speaks to either their primitive superstition or their belief in something beyond the material world. Goodness, as it were, proves illogical in every materialistic context. Logic, as it were, must remain indebted to something irrational to come to the desired conclusions of those who use it.

Wittgenstein seemed prepared to accept a certain level of this about language and thought. Following in the footsteps of Nietzsche's On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, Wittgenstein annihilated the assumption that language and truth have some deep, intimate relationship. Language, particularly, is tremendously important in the shaping of the mind (there's purpose to those "word games" posts I put up), but Wittgenstein still seemed to think that the mad and futile grasp for meaning was, to the degree that anything had meaning, a neutral act. Wittgenstein never seemed to be a Nietzschean; he never thought of all existing for power.

But it is. Creating the operating currency and context for information yields tremendous influence. Knowledge is power, and defining the ideas that make up knowledge is absolute power. There is no neutrality here.

The Nietzschean way of viewing language is one where exchange between people is a form of empowerment, in the same way that market interactions empower people. It's frequently if not normally unequal, and the underlying motivations of many conversations have everything to do with establishing a control over other people's perspectives.

I'm reminded of this every time I take a college course. If you ask a professor, most classes you take in college are predominantly neutral, with only a touch of understandable bias from the instructor coming through. They have to say this because they know their fellow professors are biased in some way, and while sometimes they disapprove, they want the same liberty to have an opinion. Tenure holds value because professors can say what they want to say, and this is academic freedom. The student hardly finds anything but a single perspective in most cases.

Bias goes beyond delivery; in liberal arts classes particularly, the delivery of the material is secondary. The content of the material is where the real bias is. Remember, the modern world is beholden to the dynamics of the attention economy. By selecting readings and choosing the focus of the class, any given professor ignores truckloads of other material in the field that he or she could have covered, but chose not to. Political balance might be valued in some particularly neutralist schools, but balance is not neutrality. No one will present material that insinuates, say, something positive about Hitler. As a history major, I can tell you without reservation that any history course, even a survey course with a standardized syllabus, solidly reflects the values of the instructor or organizer, not even touching the actual commentary in the class; if someone teaching a class about medieval France chooses to focus on peasant life instead of court life, this says more about their perspective than it does about France. It has to be this way, too: you can't tell a student everything about France over the course of centuries in one lifetime. There's no obvious way to decide what matters, except in historically rare outlier events that absolutely demand attention, and this is why historiography creates such vehement arguments. Frankly, it's no better in economics. About the only place to find something close to values-neutral instruction is in the hard sciences or very technical fields, and those must be sharply specialized.

The Jesuits understood that the power of a teacher is in the hold they get over the pupil's mind.

Having said this, don't bother arguing about it. Arguing is the most obvious case where conversation is all about power.

Confrontation in Conversation

For most people, a pleasant conversation is an agreeable conversation, in the literal sense: you agree with what's being said. These sorts of conversations reinforce what we already know, or simply pass along new information that we have no preconceived notions on.

But for confrontational conversation, there are two types: argument and debate.

Argument happens between two people where an audience is not the point. You're trying to convince the opposition of something he has some cause to not believe, which is a form of identity assault. Debate is what happens when you're just going through motions with the intention on swaying the people watching.

The tactics are different. Arguments can be full-on war, verbal brutality, although this usually doesn't result in much more than shutting up the opposition. That's a short-sighted way to fight, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment. Debates, meanwhile, require finesse to win, because you have to be likable and relatable to pull in an audience. Both are competitive, but in the case of a one-on-one, your purpose is more nakedly antagonistic. With debates, you must look more like you're interested in "the truth", as investigating by opening yourself up to criticism. You have to promote a notion of yourself and your position as desirable, far more than promoting it as logical.

Both debate and argument are confrontational, but debate operates on more of a "market" mechanism. You are selling your ideas, convincing others of their value. As markets tend to do, this helps boil them down to effective size and refine them into something usable and high-impact, as no one becomes convinced by watery, unfocused presentation. The idea market makes thought more efficient, then, and this is reflected in language.

I have my own problems with this, I know, but after long exposure to academia, argument is more like war to me than sales. I've been trained to over-argue rather than under-argue for fear of missing points and leaving entire avenues open to approach. I might not inspire anyone, but my arguments are much more airtight than most of what everyone else is doing. I've had to loosen up to write online, as everything I publish would be book-length if I felt a greater need to be unassailable.


Of course, objective truth-seeking is not the goal. In this entire understanding of human conversation, truth-seeking is never the goal. And how can it be? What truth would we be talking about here? Divide up the types of conversation again: you have agreeable conversation in which there is no disagreement, then there's argument, and there's debate. The first does not challenge, the latter two challenge for the sake of winning and not for finding truth. Where would truth come in to a subjective disagreement?

Conversation, argument, debate, are all about one thing: the domination of a point of view.

You share a perspective, or you don't. People who agree share a perspective. Those who don't just don't, and you can't have that, given that the bastard might run around spreading his bullshit over your "truth". So it has to be resolved, and suddenly, you are in a fight and words are your weapons, the swords that clash and take apart the enemy perspective, limb from limb.

Men, in particular, approach argument and debate like an honorable fight. They get into it wanting tovalidly and respectably change your mind. They do not get into it for the purpose of destroying someone emotionally... unlike some other genders we will not discuss.

They want to sharpen the definitions of their words and use them to make precise, waste-free cuts against the enemy that brings about greater and greater understanding with each slice. They want to do so without cruelty, as eventually, their competitor may need to become their friend, in case of further attack. They need their respect. The arguments establish an implicit hierarchy, and a hierarchy does not function well within a context of absolute brutality. Productively winning an argument or debate is about bringing people on board.

Language binds by relaying ideas. When you win the war of defining words, then your words reflect ideas that establish the framework by which others think. The language is the legacy we pass down, the infrastructure of thought, and its resiliency depends on the relevance of its words in the long term. To have sharp, well-honed definitions to your words gives them longer-term, perpetual ability to cut through existence and define it down to the dimensions the wordsmith sees fit. A sharp sword is good for living, not just for fighting. 

But the problem with all this is that in a fight, the sharpest sword is not the most effective sword.
You want a BIG sword

A big sword, no matter how dull, can batter you to death if you get pinned down, if you try fighting with honor against the honorless. What that type of sword has to have is weight, emotional weight, a "taking it personally" heaviness that, so long as the fighters are part of something, so long as they have any code or character, will always be there. If you believe things about yourself, then even when no one is watching, you can be beaten to death by your own convictions. Everyone with any kind of observational awareness knows that emotions are more powerful than cold logic and no perspective ever gets anywhere without emotional appeal built in. David Hume established that idea, too.

This is not an honorable fight. An honorable fight features two who decide to legitimately find out who is strongest, and a debate or argument which is aimed at really focusing the definitions of words and finding the consistency in values, at sharpening everyone's swords, embodies this type of honor. Competitive honor means the world, especially to men. It is everything that empowers civilization.

An honorable, winning argument is the most recognizable thing in the world. An honorable, winning argument makes sense.

In contrast, an honorless, emotional fight just means winning. There's no sense of illumination when one perspective is pushed onto another, like being pushed through a door. There's no cohesive and logically consistent worldview presented. An emotional fight is like dropping an A-bomb or assassinating a king. While it may occasionally be necessary to survive, no one wants to do it and it cannot become a way of life or a tradition if you ever want to see a culture capable of trust. It's what happens when you need the enemy to simply die. There is no respect, no assumption that the end of the fight means a rectification of relations and later cooperation. It's fighting against an enemy without humanity. If you do this, you'd best kill the enemy fast and kill him twice, because if they come back, they will know your tricks, disregard honor, and want you thoroughly dead, just like you did to them. You're fucked.

Some people fail to understand this consistently. These people hate any form of coercion, so fighting of any kind is evil to them. They don't want a society built on strength, so they think that unless it's worth fighting no-holds-barred, a survival situation, then there's no point to fighting at all. Might as well just be nice. This, of course, is bullshit; you're basically saying, "there's nothing in the world worth fighting for." For those with any convictions, it can't work that way. They care, so they fight. It matters to them.

The temptation to lie and cheat, right up to the point of doing something dishonorable, is extreme, because who would believe the loser who's making excuses? So in an argument, you might need a ref, an empowered ref that can enforce rules conducive to honor and a goal-centered game, an agent of the system's hierarchical powers. In a debate, the audience should be the ref, but audiences are usually just the general public and these are not intelligent people, so even in debates, we need a ref.

And the ref has a code taken from the hierarchy. Honor references what the culture values as the context of the argument. Honor means acceptable according to certain principles that limit the individual for the sake of bigger concerns than the individual. A good referee says, "Stick to the rules, guys", and supposedly does not favor any one side over the other. This is usually what's meant by "neutrality". But it's not neutral. It's holding the sanctity of the game itself over any personal preference for one side or the other. It's favoring the existing system of values by which the rules establish themselves over some upstart code of unproven value that's being pushed by people who would benefit from it.

Specifically excluded from this view is the notion that the ref should be trying to even things out for the sake of "better competition" all the time; would you want to watch a game where any team that got ahead suddenly started getting fouls called constantly, while the losing team could do whatever the hell it wanted, so long as it was losing? Every good ref says, "may the best man win" and in an argument, that's the person who makes sense according to the prevailing cultural context. Every good ref is a conservative. Every good rule is conservative.

Without the cultural context, there's no sense to be made. Every idea you've heard is a take-off of some old idea, and they're perpetually being recycled for the sake of someone's agenda. There can never be values-neutrality; it would mean nihilism and no one will fight for nothingness. Every debate or argument you hear operates within the context of a language and culture; the universality of morality is actually a universality of self-interested emotion and by no means does it always come to the same conclusions.

There is no neutrality to be found here. And there cannot be.

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