Against Ideology

Since first dipping my feet (brain?) into philosophical waters I’ve realized that the world has more dimensions than my mind. Many more. Which means insisting on a consistent philosophy is, in all likelihood, a recipe for disaster.

This isn’t to say I’ve got an inconsistent philosophy, or that I’m ready to throw up my hands and say “anything goes!“. But like a good bridge, my philosophy is full of tensions.

I can’t derive everything back to the Harm Principle (a principle I like), recognition of subjective values (which I’m on board with), or some notion of a social utility function (which I do like as a rhetorical crutch or skyhook, but am unwilling to take with me more than arm’s length from the whiteboard).

Instead, I’ve got a smorgasbord of mental tools–ethical notions (“don’t kill people!”), social science models (prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage)–that I try to match appropriately to the situation.

This puts me in the unfortunate position of requiring a great deal of humility. But as it will say on my tombstone: worse things have happened to better people…

I approach the world with libertarian priors. At the end of the day, I’m a left-libertarian anarchist. But Jonathan Haidt’s work has convinced me that my priors say more about me than the world. To be sure, libertarianism brings something important to the table, but so do other views.

Recognizing the importance of ideological pluralism lets me use my ideology like a lever instead of a bat–a tool instead of a weapon. And hey, what’s more libertarian than pluralism?!

As a centuries-long-run prospect for a meta-utopia I’m still staunchly libertarian. Go back in time 500 years and you’ll be told democracy is a pipe dream. I think we’re in a similar moment for the ideas of radical freedom, self-determination, and decentralization of power I’d really like to see put into practice. But imagine going back in 500 years, convincing everyone you’re a powerful wizard, then implementing democracy all at once. I don’t think it’d work out very well. Hell, I’m not even sure about going back in time 3 years to run that experiment! Similarly, flipping the An-Cap switch tomorrow would probably be 100 steps forward, 1000 steps back. Without the appropriate culture in place, good ideas are likely to backfire.

Still, I’m a libertarian anarchist by default and want to see the world move in that direction. But in the short-medium run I refuse to be dogmatic.

I get a lot out of my ideological priors, but I get more by refusing to slavishly follow them at all costs. Yes, the greatest good will be served in an anarcho-capitalist world (I think). But it’s a long trip from here to there. Sustaining that equilibrium will require a cultural shift that hasn’t happened yet–and ignoring those informal institutions is likely to lead to something more like feudalism than utopia. In the mean time, I say move towards greater freedom and avoid getting bogged down in partisanship.


So I’ve got a long-run goal: radical federalism and maximal freedom. But how do we get there? What are the short- and medium-run goals?

Simply to make things better while encouraging people to engage in voluntary interactions that create value, especially by building up social capital networks.

My Austrian-subjectivist priors are in tension with my rationalist-utilitarian instinct. But I think we find a way out by considering policy effects on future generations. Tyler Cowen suggests pursuing policy that promotes long run economic growth.

The big caveat is that although GDP is the best available metric to pursue, GDP is an imperfect measure. Figuring out “GDP, properly understood” adds a layer of complexity that makes policy evaluation all the more difficult. Which is part of the controversy with my recent posts on pollution taxes.

For example, after the end of slavery, total leisure time increased which would decrease measured GDP. But clearly a proper accounting of productivity would discount the initially higher GDP by the cost of forced labor. Similarly, we have to refine our notion of measured* economic well-being to account for things left out of the old methods–like household consumption, leisure, black markets (side note: the war on drugs is a waste!), human capital**, and ecological assets that fall outside the private property system.

Addendum for the left: what’s best for the world’s poorest people is a worthy addition to Cowen’s policy. And it’s an addition that also tends to push us towards libertarian arguments (like liberalization of immigration policy).


Unfortunately, I’m a rationalist by default which means I have to work at my epistemic humility. I’m constantly tempted to see the world as more legible than it really is. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t know could fill a library. But the world is much more complex than any functional team of smart people could handle, let alone a lone economist–even if he happens to be one of few who really do get it.

One of my favorite arguments is the Austrian-libertarian point that “if we knew what people would do with their freedom, we wouldn’t need it.” For example, the reason to allow someone to start new businesses isn’t because we know that it’s going to make things better. Instead, it’s because market innovation depends on decentralized, crowd-sourced experimentation. We don’t say “oh, this Steve Jobs guy is about to improve our lives,” because if we could do that (we can’t) then we could instead find a less costly way to get the same outcome (we can’t do that either). 

This line of reasoning also applies to policy. There are some easy cases–there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in occupational licensing. But society is a complex system, so you can’t do just one thing. Any one policy change ripples through the system and creates unintended consequences. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should do nothing. But my conservative friends are right that we shouldn’t go too fast. In any case, we’ve got more tensions that require me to listen to a wider range of ideological voices due to my cognitive limits.


A particularly interesting policy question is to what extent we should (not) take account of the impacts of American (Canadian, European, Chinese, etc., etc.) policy on non-Americans.

Here we find another tension. On the one hand, surely being accidentally born into a particular geography doesn’t give you greater moral weight than others. On the other, even if we want American policy to help Haitians, there’s a knowledge problem exacerbated by distance.

I think the appropriate response is a friendly and open federalism. Local issues should be handled locally. We should be neighborly. We should resist the temptation to centralize power. 

But we should also take advantage of large-scale governance structures (private or public) to deal with large-scale issues. Match the scale of governance to the scale of the relevant externalities.

The downside of this approach is that some locales will do terrible things. “States’ rights” is a bad argument for slavery (or for anything else). But stepping in to make things better isn’t an unambiguous improvement. If there’s one thing to learn from America’s adventures in statecraft*** it’s that you can’t just force a country to be free.

Given that, we should be more open to accept the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Historically, our record is far from spotless. But there have also been humanitarian successes in moving people away from tyranny

We have a moral obligation to at least consider the well-being of everyone around the globe. And the lowest hanging fruit for actually making a positive difference is opening up our borders. Not to say there’s a simple answer, but the answer lies in the direction of freedom of movement.


How should we (according to me) go about deciding questions of public policy? We should opt to encourage the creation of value and reduction of costs (i.e. economic growth). But we should do so carefully and with open minds.

GDP growth is a worthy goal, but not for it’s own sake. John Stuart Mill wrote

“How many of the so-called luxuries, conveniences, refinements, and ornaments of life, are worth the labour which must be undergone as the condition of producing them?… In opposition to the ‘gospel of work,’ I would assert the gospel of leisure, and maintain that human beings cannot rise to the finer attributes of their nature compatibly with a life filled with labour.”

Mindless insistence on measurable output overlooks important things like going to your kid’s little league game, grabbing a beer with friends, or quiet contemplation. And even if the people arguing for protecting the environment seem a bit silly, we’re wrong to ignore the importance of environmental externalities in affecting our standard of living. All of which is to say, Cowen is right that we need to carefully consider the shortfalls of how we measure economic growth, all while encouraging it.

Perhaps most importantly, we should relish a tension between consequentialism and principles. There are plenty of low-hanging fruits for libertarianism, but if we want to get the most out of this metaphorical tree we need to let a fear of bad outcomes encourage us to invest in civil society, informal institutions, and rich social networks so that freedom can expand without costing us inhumanity. I want to see the welfare state ended, but I’m willing to wait while we start by reducing barriers to entrepreneurship. I want to see taxes go away, but I’m willing to see a less-bad tax replace an egregious one.

We should reject the dogmatism that too often leads us to over-prioritize ideological purity. First, such purity can trap us in local optima (metaphor: a self-driving car programmed to never go east sounds like a good way to get from NYC to LA… till it gets stuck in a cul de sac somewhere). Second, that purity is an illusion. God’s true ethical system simply isn’t available to us–it’s more complex than our brains are–so why worry?


Post script: don’t take this to be an argument against libertarianism. Or a call to prioritize “pragmatism” over ideology or any other political values. I’m not trying to make a definitive argument abolishing ideology, I’m just gently pushing back. The key word here is tension. We can’t have tension between A and B if we get rid of A.


*Here’s another tension: I don’t believe we can actually measure economic well-being. I think we can make educated guesses based on well-thought out studies of observable proxy variables, but I believe in the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparison.

**A major pet peeve of mine is the conflation of education and schooling. Education, properly understood, is simply not measurable. We might find some clever proxy variables (for example, the Economic Complexity Index is my current favorite metric for productive capability–which overlaps capital and human capital accumulation).

***That’d be a good title for a comic book! If you know the right historian and/or international relations scholar, put them in touch with Zach Weinersmith!

The Philosophy and Ethics behind Blockchain (smart talk)

I have recently given a 7-minute smart talk on “the Philosophy and Ethics behind Blockchain” at the Saxion Smart Solutions Festival. The talk is intended for laymen who are interested in the intersection of Philosophy and Blockchain.

What follows is a video and transcript of the talk.

Purpose of my Smart Talk

The purpose of this smart talk is four-fold:

  1. Firstly, I contend that philosophy matters if we would like to understand the practical and social implications of Blockchain;
  2. I then give a brief description of Crypto-Anarchism, a philosophy that together with the Cypherpunk movement have deeply influenced the Blockchain space from its early beginnings;
  3. This is then followed by a description of the essence of the Bitcoin Blockchain. I also make a comparative analysis between the Bitcoin Blockchain and Crypto-Anarchism;
  4. Finally, I will conclude that the Blockchain space is moving towards the development of products that are very well in line with its initial philosophy. These products are Distributed Autonomous Organizations or DAOs in short.

Why Philosophy Matters

I believe that in order to understand something, and to understand where it’s going to we have to understand where it’s coming from. In other words, if we want to understand the practical and social implications of Blockchain, we cannot dismiss the philosophy that has given birth to it.

What is the Crypto-Anarchist and Cypherpunk philosophy?

The invention of Blockchain has a long and very intriguing history. Blockchain was invented in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto, a mysterious person or group of people whose real identity until this day has always been concealed. Although Blockchain was invented in 2008, we also know that Satoshi was heavily influenced by crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks.

In 1992, a crypto-anarchist called Timothy May invited a group of cryptographers, mathematicians, engineers, and others concerned with our liberties for a meeting. Their goal was to think of ways to protect

  1. their privacy,
  2. their political freedom,
  3. and their economic freedom through the use of cryptography.

Cryptography is the science or practice of making information unintelligible. It is a means to protect your communication. For example, if you make a purchase on a webshop you actually don’t send a message to the payment service provider that includes your name, your product Y, the amount X and the time Z. What you send is a message that is scrambled into something unintelligible so that whenever a person intercepts the message – for example a malicious hacker – will not be able to understand it.

Crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks are practical idealists so they developed real-life applications that supported their ideals. They developed such things as untraceable e-mail, untraceable payments. They discussed ideas of anonymous markets, self-enforcing smart contracts, secure messaging etc. Most of the technical elements that form the foundation of Bitcoin and the Bitcoin Blockchain were already developed by this group of people.

This group of people that came together in 1992 are known as Cypherpunks. I am sure that most people know at least one person from that group. The Dutchman Robert Gonggrijp (founder of XS4ALL) was part of this group as well as Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks).

An important question we have to raise here is:

“What are Crypto-anarchists and Cypherpunks and what do they want?”

In the words of Timothy May (1994),

“Crypto-anarchy is the cyberspatial realization of anarcho-capitalism (libertarian anarchism)… Digital cash, untraceable and anonymous (like real cash), is also coming, though various technical and practical hurdles remain… For libertarians, strong crypto provides the means by which government will be avoided.”

Working in the same philosophical tradition as John Locke. The crypto-anarchists are also strict contractarians. They believe that two parties should be allowed to engage in any social and economic activity as long as both parties agree on the said activity. In other words, they believe that every social interaction should be legitimate as long as it happens voluntarily and without coercion. They are very skeptical of centralized institutions, such as governments as – according to them – governments are monopolistic coercive institutions. They want governments to be limited, and preferably non-existent. Crypto-anarchists don’t equate anarchism with disorder. They believe that within an anarchist society – thus one without a government – rules and regulations will emerge naturally from the ground up.

“And what are cypherpunks?”

Cypherpunks are activists who are also very skeptical of centralized institutions like governments. They use cryptography as the means to preserve the freedoms they deem important.

Let’s sum up what they want.

Crypto-anarchists/Cypherpunks
Transparency: Transparency of governments
Voluntaryism: Voluntaryist social and economic interactions
Privacy: Privacy for everyone
Propertarian: Strict property rights
Free markets: No institutional monopoly of money production
Decentralization: Decentralization of power. Social order happens from the bottom-up

Overview of the workings of the Bitcoin Blockchain

Now, let’s take a look at what a Blockchain is and see how it’s related to Crypto-anarchism and Cypherpunk. The most basic explanation of Blockchain is that it is a database, distributed among a network of computers so that every computer has an exact copy of this database. Every computer on the network – also called a node – verifies every mutation of the database. When someone tries to insert malicious data into the Blockchain, the network will easily discover it. In order to hijack the database, you need to be able to hijack a majority of the nodes on the network.

This is in stark contrast with traditional, centralized networks that contain a central server. The relationship between the central server and the connected devices is called a client-server relationship. However, one could also refer to it as a master-slave relationship. The central server has an administrator. This administrator can determine who Is adding what content to the database, he stores your password, your username etc. In such a network, you have to trust the administrator that he acts properly. These type of networks are very prone for corruption, censorship and attacks. In order to attack this centralized network, all you have to do is attack this central server. Therefore, we also say that it has a single point of failure (SPOF).

This is the most basic explanation of what Blockchain is and how its contrasts with centralized networks – but it’s also a boring explanation. A question I’d like us to explore is:

“What is the essence of Blockchain?”

The essence of Blockchain, I beleive, is that it creates trust in a network of unknown participants. It is an elegant solution to the possible corruption of digital networks. In its essence, it is a technology against censorship and corruption of digital networks. There is no need to appeal to authority, because rules are set by consensus, reached through active discussions and persuasion instead of coercion.

In this sense, the Bitcoin Blockchain perfectly matches the philosophy of Crypto-anarchism and Cypherpunk.

Comparison between Crypto-Anarchism and the Bitcoin Blockchain

Crypto-anarchists/Cypherpunks Bitcoin Blockchain
Transparency: Transparency of governments Transparency: Blockchain is open source and transparent. Everyone can look into the source code and follow every transaction.
Voluntaryism: Voluntaryist social and economic interactions Voluntaryism: Everyone is free to join and leave the network. Everyone is allowed to use Bitcoin, and not coerced into using it.
Privacy: Privacy for everyone Privacy: Anyone, anywhere can create a Bitcoin wallet without having to provide private information. Bitcoin addresses are pseudonymous and its encouraged to use a different Bitcoin address for every transaction.
Propertarian: Strict property rights Propertarian: When you own your private key of your wallet, no one can take it away from you.
Free markets: No institutional monopoly of money production Free markets: Introduces competition in money production.
Decentralization: Decentralization of power. Social order happens from the bottom-up Decentralization: Blockchain is copied and distributed over a large network of computers. There’s no need to appeal to authority to participate or to make transactions. In that sense, it is radically neutral. Everyone on the network, no matter whether you are a king or humble civil servant, is treated the same and according to pre-specified consensus rules.

What types of applications can we look forward to

Knowing where Blockchain came from. What can we say about the types of applications they would like to build? What types of applications can we look forward to in the future that hold true to this anti-censorship/anti-corruption philosophy of the Crypto-anarchists and Cypherpunks?

The ultimate types of application for them are Distributed Autonomous Organizations or DAOs for short. These are organizations, that don’t have a single point of decision-making. They have no board of directors, no select group of owners that have exclusive ownership rights, no one executive that directs the organization. These organizations, instead, are open and inclusive for anyone. They are ruled by machine consensus and not by the whims of a small group of people.

There are already DAOs. Bitcoin was the first DAO. There is no Bitcoin company, no Bitcoin executive. If you think about DAOs, imagine a Facebook without a Facebook CEO, a YouTube without a YouTube company, and an investment fund without a fund manager.

Nightcap

  1. Foucault in California, dropping acid Eric Bulson, Times Literary Supplement
  2. Tiananmen and the New Authoritarianism Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books
  3. Is philosophy conservative or progressive? Matt McManus, Areo
  4. David Hume’s book burning bonfire Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon

New Books: Philosophy of the Novel, French conquests

Just wanted to call your attention to Barry‘s newest book, Philosophy of the Novel. Here’s a description:

This book explores the aesthetics of the novel from the perspective of Continental European philosophy, presenting a theory on the philosophical definition and importance of the novel as a literary genre. It analyses a variety of individuals whose work is reflected in both theoretical literary criticism and Continental European aesthetics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Moving through material from eighteenth century and ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics, the book provides comprehensive coverage of the major positions on the philosophy of the novel. Distinctive features include the importance of Vico’s view of the epic to understanding the novel, the importance of Kierkegaard’s view of the novel and irony along with his other aesthetic views, the different possibilities associated with seeing the novel as ‘mimetic’ and the importance of Proust in understanding the genre in all its philosophical aspects, relating the issue of the philosophical aesthetics of the novel with the issue of philosophy written as a novel and the interaction between these two alternative positions.

Barry has more on liberty and the novel here and here.

Jacques has a new book out, too, titled Indecent Stories by Decent Women. It’s under a pen name, John René Adolph, for obvious reasons. Here is a 2014 essay by Jacques titled “Why Young Women Are Stupid (If They Are): A Scientific Inquiry.”

The death of reason

“In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions p. 111

I can remember arguing with my cousin right after Michael Brown was shot. “It’s still unclear what happened,” I said, “based soley on testimony” — at that point, we were still waiting on the federal autopsy report by the Department of Justice. He said that in the video, you can clearly see Brown, back to the officer and with his hands up, as he is shot up to eight times.

My cousin doesn’t like police. I’m more ambivalent, but I’ve studied criminal justice for a few years now, and I thought that if both of us watched this video (no such video actually existed), it was probably I who would have the more nuanced grasp of what happened. So I said: “Well, I will look up this video, try and get a less biased take and get back to you.” He replied, sarcastically, “You can’t watch it without bias. We all have biases.”

And that seems to be the sentiment of the times: bias encompasses the human experience, it subsumes all judgments and perceptions. Biases are so rampant, in fact, that no objective analysis is possible. These biases may be cognitive, like confirmation bias, emotional fallacies or that phenomenon of constructive memory; or inductive, like selectivity or ignoring base probability; or, as has been common to think, ingrained into experience itself.

The thing about biases is that they are open to psychological evaluation. There are precedents for eliminating them. For instance, one common explanation of racism is that familiarity breeds acceptance, and infamiliarity breeds intolerance (as Reason points out, people further from fracking sites have more negative opinions on the practice than people closer). So to curb racism (a sort of bias), children should interact with people outside of their singular ethnic group. More clinical methodology seeks to transform mental functions that are automatic to controlled, and thereby enter reflective measures into perception, reducing bias. Apart from these, there is that ancient Greek practice of reasoning, wherein patterns and evidence are used to generate logical conclusions.

If it were true that human bias is all-encompassing, and essentially insurmountable, the whole concept of critical thinking goes out the window. Not only do we lose the critical-rationalist, Popperian mode of discovery, but also Socratic dialectic, as essentially “higher truths” disappear from human lexicon.

The belief that biases are intrinsic to human judgment ignores psychological or philosophical methods to counter prejudice because it posits that objectivity itself is impossible. This viewpoint has been associated with “postmodern” schools of philosophy, such as those Dr. Rosi commented on (e.g., those of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Butler), although it’s worth pointing out that the analytic tradition, with its origins in Frege, Russell and Moore represents a far greater break from the previous, modern tradition of Descartes and Kant, and often reached similar conclusions as the Continentals.

Although theorists of the “postmodern” clique produced diverse claims about knowledge, society, and politics, the most famous figures are nearly almost always associated or incorporated into the political left. To make a useful simplification of viewpoints: it would seem that progressives have generally accepted Butlerian non-essentialism about gender and Foucauldian terminology (discourse and institutions). Derrida’s poststructuralist critique noted dichotomies and also claimed that the philosophical search for Logos has been patriarchal, almost neoreactionary. (The month before Donald Trump’s victory, the word patriarchy had an all-time high at Google search.) It is not a far right conspiracy that European philosophers with strange theories have influenced and sought to influence American society; it is patent in the new political language.

Some people think of the postmodernists as all social constructivists, holding the theory that many of the categories and identifications we use in the world are social constructs without a human-independent nature (e.g., not natural kinds). Disciplines like anthropology and sociology have long since dipped their toes, and the broader academic community, too, relates that things like gender and race are social constructs. But the ideas can and do go further: “facts” themselves are open to interpretation on this view: to even assert a “fact” is just to affirm power of some sort. This worldview subsequently degrades the status of science into an extended apparatus for confirmation-bias, filling out the details of a committed ideology rather than providing us with new facts about the world. There can be no objectivity outside of a worldview.

Even though philosophy took a naturalistic turn with the philosopher W. V. O. Quine, seeing itself as integrating with and working alongside science, the criticisms of science as an establishment that emerged in the 1950s and 60s (and earlier) often disturbed its unique epistemic privilege in society: ideas that theory is underdetermined by evidence, that scientific progress is nonrational, that unconfirmed auxiliary hypotheses are required to conduct experiments and form theories, and that social norms play a large role in the process of justification all damaged the mythos of science as an exemplar of human rationality.

But once we have dismantled Science, what do we do next? Some critics have held up Nazi German eugenics and phrenology as examples of the damage that science can do to society (nevermind that we now consider them pseudoscience). Yet Lysenkoism and the history of astronomy and cosmology indicate that suppressing scientific discovery can too be deleterious. Austrian physicist and philosopher Paul Feyerabend instead wanted a free society — one where science had equal power as older, more spiritual forms of knowledge. He thought the model of rational science exemplified in Sir Karl Popper was inapplicable to the real machinery of scientific discovery, and the only methodological rule we could impose on science was: “anything goes.”

Feyerabend’s views are almost a caricature of postmodernism, although he denied the label “relativist,” opting instead for philosophical Dadaist. In his pluralism, there is no hierarchy of knowledge, and state power can even be introduced when necessary to break up scientific monopoly. Feyerabend, contra scientists like Richard Dawkins, thought that science was like an organized religion and therefore supported a separation of church and state as well as a separation of state and science. Here is a move forward for a society that has started distrusting the scientific method… but if this is what we should do post-science, it’s still unclear how to proceed. There are still queries for anyone who loathes the hegemony of science in the Western world.

For example, how does the investigation of crimes proceed without strict adherence to the latest scientific protocol? Presumably, Feyerabend didn’t want to privatize law enforcement, but science and the state are very intricately connected. In 2005, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences to form a committee and conduct a comprehensive study on contemporary legal science to identify community needs, evaluating laboratory executives, medical examiners, coroners, anthropologists, entomologists, ontologists, and various legal experts. Forensic science — scientific procedure applied to the field of law — exists for two practical goals: exoneration and prosecution. However, the Forensic Science Committee revealed that severe issues riddle forensics (e.g., bite mark analysis), and in their list of recommendations the top priority is establishing an independent federal entity to devise consistent standards and enforce regular practice.

For top scientists, this sort of centralized authority seems necessary to produce reliable work, and it entirely disagrees with Feyerabend’s emphasis on methodological pluralism. Barack Obama formed the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013 to further investigate problems in the field, and only recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice will not renew the committee. It’s unclear now what forensic science will do to resolve its ongoing problems, but what is clear is that the American court system would fall apart without the possibility of appealing to scientific consensus (especially forensics), and that the only foreseeable way to solve the existing issues is through stricter methodology. (Just like with McDonalds, there are enforced standards so that the product is consistent wherever one orders.) More on this later.

So it doesn’t seem to be in the interest of things like due process to abandon science or completely separate it from state power. (It does, however, make sense to move forensic laboratories out from under direct administrative control, as the NAS report notes in Recommendation 4. This is, however, specifically to reduce bias.) In a culture where science is viewed as irrational, Eurocentric, ad hoc, and polluted with ideological motivations — or where Reason itself is seen as a particular hegemonic, imperial device to suppress different cultures — not only do we not know what to do, when we try to do things we lose elements of our civilization that everyone agrees are valuable.

Although Aristotle separated pathos, ethos and logos (adding that all informed each other), later philosophers like Feyerabend thought of reason as a sort of “practice,” with history and connotations like any other human activity, falling far short of sublime. One could no more justify reason outside of its European cosmology than the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs outside of theirs. To communicate across paradigms, participants have to understand each other on a deep level, even becoming entirely new persons. When debates happen, they must happen on a principle of mutual respect and curiosity.

From this one can detect a bold argument for tolerance. Indeed, Feyerabend was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Maybe, in a world disillusioned with scientism and objective standards, the next cultural move is multilateral acceptance and tolerance for each others’ ideas.

This has not been the result of postmodern revelations, though. The 2016 election featured the victory of one psychopath over another, from two camps utterly consumed with vitriol for each other. Between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Americans drifted toward radicalization as the only establishment candidate seemed to offer the same noxious, warmongering mess of the previous few decades of administration. Politics has only polarized further since the inauguration. The alt-right, a nearly perfect symbol of cultural intolerance, is regular news for mainstream media. Trump acolytes physically brawl with black bloc Antifa in the same city of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. It seems to be the worst at universities. Analytic feminist philosophers asked for the retraction of a controversial paper, seemingly without reading it. Professors even get involved in student disputes, at Berkeley and more recently Evergreen. The names each side uses to attack each other (“fascist,” most prominently) — sometimes accurate, usually not — display a political divide with groups that increasingly refuse to argue their own side and prefer silencing their opposition.

There is not a tolerant left or tolerant right any longer, in the mainstream. We are witnessing only shades of authoritarianism, eager to destroy each other. And what is obvious is that the theories and tools of the postmodernists (post-structuralism, social constructivism, deconstruction, critical theory, relativism) are as useful for reactionary praxis as their usual role in left-wing circles. Says Casey Williams in the New York Times: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.” The idea of the “post-truth” world originated in postmodern academia. It is the monster turning against Doctor Frankenstein.

Moral (cultural) relativism in particular only promises rejecting our shared humanity. It paralyzes our judgment on female genital mutilation, flogging, stoning, human and animal sacrifice, honor killing, Caste, underground sex trade. The afterbirth of Protagoras, cruelly resurrected once again, does not promise trials at Nuremberg, where the Allied powers appealed to something above and beyond written law to exact judgment on mass murderers. It does not promise justice for the ethnic cleansers in Srebrenica, as the United Nations is helpless to impose a tribunal from outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, this moral pessimism laughs at the phrase “humanitarian crisis,” and Western efforts to change the material conditions of fleeing Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Venezuelans, North Koreans…

In the absence of universal morality, and the introduction of subjective reality, the vacuum will be filled with something much more awful. And we should be afraid of this because tolerance has not emerged as a replacement. When Harry Potter first encounters Voldemort face-to-scalp, the Dark Lord tells the boy “There is no good and evil. There is only power… and those too weak to seek it.” With the breakdown of concrete moral categories, Feyerabend’s motto — anything goes — is perverted. Voldemort has been compared to Plato’s archetype of the tyrant from the Republic: “It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” … “he is purged of self-discipline and is filled with self-imposed madness.”

Voldemort is the Platonic appetite in the same way he is the psychoanalytic id. Freud’s das Es is able to admit of contradictions, to violate Aristotle’s fundamental laws of logic. It is so base, and removed from the ordinary world of reason, that it follows its own rules we would find utterly abhorrent or impossible. But it is not difficult to imagine that the murder of evidence-based reasoning will result in Death Eater politics. The ego is our rational faculty, adapted to deal with reality; with the death of reason, all that exists is vicious criticism and unfettered libertinism.

Plato predicts Voldemort with the image of the tyrant, and also with one of his primary interlocutors, Thrasymachus, when the sophist opens with “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” The one thing Voldemort admires about The Boy Who Lived is his bravery, the trait they share in common. This trait is missing in his Death Eaters. In the fourth novel the Dark Lord is cruel to his reunited followers for abandoning him and losing faith; their cowardice reveals the fundamental logic of his power: his disciples are not true devotees, but opportunists, weak on their own merit and drawn like moths to every Avada Kedavra. Likewise students flock to postmodern relativism to justify their own beliefs when the evidence is an obstacle.

Relativism gives us moral paralysis, allowing in darkness. Another possible move after relativism is supremacy. One look at Richard Spencer’s Twitter demonstrates the incorrigible tenet of the alt-right: the alleged incompatibility of cultures, ethnicities, races: that different groups of humans simply can not get along together. The Final Solution is not about extermination anymore but segregated nationalism. Spencer’s audience is almost entirely men who loathe the current state of things, who share far-reaching conspiracy theories, and despise globalism.

The left, too, creates conspiracies, imagining a bourgeois corporate conglomerate that enlists economists and brainwashes through history books to normalize capitalism; for this reason they despise globalism as well, saying it impoverishes other countries or destroys cultural autonomy. For the alt-right, it is the Jews, and George Soros, who control us; for the burgeoning socialist left, it is the elites, the one-percent. Our minds are not free; fortunately, they will happily supply Übermenschen, in the form of statesmen or critical theorists, to save us from our degeneracy or our false consciousness.

Without the commitment to reasoned debate, tribalism has continued the polarization and inhumility. Each side also accepts science selectively, if they do not question its very justification. The privileged status that the “scientific method” maintains in polite society is denied when convenient; whether it is climate science, evolutionary psychology, sociology, genetics, biology, anatomy or, especially, economics: one side is outright rejecting it, without studying the material enough to immerse oneself in what could be promising knowledge (as Feyerabend urged, and the breakdown of rationality could have encouraged). And ultimately, equal protection, one tenet of individualist thought that allows for multiplicity, is entirely rejected by both: we should be treated differently as humans, often because of the color of our skin.

Relativism and carelessness for standards and communication has given us supremacy and tribalism. It has divided rather than united. Voldemort’s chaotic violence is one possible outcome of rejecting reason as an institution, and it beckons to either political alliance. Are there any examples in Harry Potter of the alternative, Feyerabendian tolerance? Not quite. However, Hermione Granger serves as the Dark Lord’s foil, and gives us a model of reason that is not as archaic as the enemies of rationality would like to suggest. In Against Method (1975), Feyerabend compares different ways rationality has been interpreted alongside practice: in an idealist way, in which reason “completely governs” research, or a naturalist way, in which reason is “completely determined by” research. Taking elements of each, he arrives at an intersection in which one can change the other, both “parts of a single dialectical process.”

“The suggestion can be illustrated by the relation between a map and the adventures of a person using it or by the relation between an artisan and his instruments. Originally maps were constructed as images of and guides to reality and so, presumably, was reason. But maps, like reason, contain idealizations (Hecataeus of Miletus, for examples, imposed the general outlines of Anaximander’s cosmology on his account of the occupied world and represented continents by geometrical figures). The wanderer uses the map to find his way but he also corrects it as he proceeds, removing old idealizations and introducing new ones. Using the map no matter what will soon get him into trouble. But it is better to have maps than to proceed without them. In the same way, the example says, reason without the guidance of a practice will lead us astray while a practice is vastly improved by the addition of reason.” p. 233

Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Granger sounds like Bertrand Russell at times, like this quote about the Resurrection Stone: “You can claim that anything is real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody has proven it doesn’t exist.” Granger is often the embodiment of anemic analytic philosophy, the institution of order, a disciple for the Ministry of Magic. However, though initially law-abiding, she quickly learns with Potter and Weasley the pleasures of rule-breaking. From the first book onward, she is constantly at odds with the de facto norms of the university, becoming more rebellious as time goes on. It is her levelheaded foundation, but ability to transgress rules, that gives her an astute semi-deontological, semi-utilitarian calculus capable of saving the lives of her friends from the dark arts, and helping to defeat the tyranny of Voldemort foretold by Socrates.

Granger presents a model of reason like Feyerabend’s map analogy. Although pure reason gives us an outline of how to think about things, it is not a static or complete blueprint, and it must be fleshed out with experience, risk-taking, discovery, failure, loss, trauma, pleasure, offense, criticism, and occasional transgressions past the foreseeable limits. Adding these addenda to our heuristics means that we explore a more diverse account of thinking about things and moving around in the world.

When reason is increasingly seen as patriarchal, Western, and imperialist, the only thing consistently offered as a replacement is something like lived experience. Some form of this idea is at least a century old, with Husserl, still modest by reason’s Greco-Roman standards. Yet lived experience has always been pivotal to reason; we only need adjust our popular model. And we can see that we need not reject one or the other entirely. Another critique of reason says it is fool-hardy, limiting, antiquated; this is a perversion of its abilities, and plays to justify the first criticism. We can see that there is room within reason for other pursuits and virtues, picked up along the way.

The emphasis on lived experience, which predominantly comes from the political left, is also antithetical for the cause of “social progress.” Those sympathetic to social theory, particularly the cultural leakage of the strong programme, are constantly torn between claiming (a) science is irrational, and can thus be countered by lived experience (or whatnot) or (b) science may be rational but reason itself is a tool of patriarchy and white supremacy and cannot be universal. (If you haven’t seen either of these claims very frequently, and think them a strawman, you have not been following university protests and editorials. Or radical Twitter: ex., ex., ex., ex.) Of course, as in Freud, this is an example of kettle-logic: the signal of a very strong resistance. We see, though, that we need not accept nor deny these claims and lose anything. Reason need not be stagnant nor all-pervasive, and indeed we’ve been critiquing its limits since 1781.

Outright denying the process of science — whether the model is conjectures and refutations or something less stale — ignores that there is no single uniform body of science. Denial also dismisses the most powerful tool for making difficult empirical decisions. Michael Brown’s death was instantly a political affair, with implications for broader social life. The event has completely changed the face of American social issues. The first autopsy report, from St. Louis County, indicated that Brown was shot at close range in the hand, during an encounter with Officer Darren Wilson. The second independent report commissioned by the family concluded the first shot had not in fact been at close range. After the disagreement with my cousin, the Department of Justice released the final investigation report, and determined that material in the hand wound was consistent with gun residue from an up-close encounter.

Prior to the report, the best evidence available as to what happened in Missouri on August 9, 2014, was the ground footage after the shooting and testimonies from the officer and Ferguson residents at the scene. There are two ways to approach the incident: reason or lived experience. The latter route will lead to ambiguities. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson and another witness reported that Officer Wilson fired his weapon first at range, under no threat, then pursued Brown out of his vehicle, until Brown turned with his hands in the air to surrender. However, in the St. Louis grand jury half a dozen (African-American) eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s account: that Brown did not have his hands raised and was moving toward Wilson. In which direction does “lived experience” tell us to go, then? A new moral maxim — the duty to believe people — will lead to no non-arbitrary conclusion. (And a duty to “always believe x,” where x is a closed group, e.g. victims, will put the cart before the horse.) It appears that, in a case like this, treating evidence as objective is the only solution.

Introducing ad hoc hypotheses, e.g., the Justice Department and the county examiner are corrupt, shifts the approach into one that uses induction, and leaves behind lived experience (and also ignores how forensic anthropology is actually done). This is the introduction of, indeed, scientific standards. (By looking at incentives for lying it might also employ findings from public choice theory, psychology, behavioral economics, etc.) So the personal experience method creates unresolvable ambiguities, and presumably will eventually grant some allowance to scientific procedure.

If we don’t posit a baseline-rationality — Hermione Granger pre-Hogwarts — our ability to critique things at all disappears. Utterly rejecting science and reason, denying objective analysis in the presumption of overriding biases, breaking down naïve universalism into naïve relativism — these are paths to paralysis on their own. More than that, they are hysterical symptoms, because they often create problems out of thin air. Recently, a philosopher and mathematician submitted a hoax paper, Sokal-style, to a peer-reviewed gender studies journal in an attempt to demonstrate what they see as a problem “at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.” The idea was to write a nonsensical, postmodernish essay, and if the journal accepted it, that would indicate the field is intellectually bankrupt. Andrew Smart at Psychology Today instead wrote of the prank: “In many ways this academic hoax validates many of postmodernism’s main arguments.” And although Smart makes some informed points about problems in scientific rigor as a whole, he doesn’t hint at what the validation of postmodernism entails: should we abandon standards in journalism and scholarly integrity? Is the whole process of peer-review functionally untenable? Should we start embracing papers written without any intention of making sense, to look at knowledge concealed below the surface of jargon? The paper, “The conceptual penis,” doesn’t necessarily condemn the whole of gender studies; but, against Smart’s reasoning, we do in fact know that counterintuitive or highly heterodox theory is considered perfectly average.

There were other attacks on the hoax, from SlateSalon and elsewhere. Criticisms, often valid for the particular essay, typically didn’t move the conversation far enough. There is much more for this discussion. A 2006 paper from the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences,” called the use of scientific evidence “fascist.” In the abstract the authors state their allegiance to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Real Peer Review, a Twitter account that collects abstracts from scholarly articles, regulary features essays from the departments of women and gender studies, including a recent one from a Ph. D student wherein the author identifies as a hippopotamus. Sure, the recent hoax paper doesn’t really say anything. but it intensifies this much-needed debate. It brings out these two currents — reason and the rejection of reason — and demands a solution. And we know that lived experience is going to be often inconclusive.

Opening up lines of communication is a solution. One valid complaint is that gender studies seems too insulated, in a way in which chemistry, for instance, is not. Critiquing a whole field does ask us to genuinely immerse ourselves first, and this is a step toward tolerance: it is a step past the death of reason and the denial of science. It is a step that requires opening the bubble.

The modern infatuation with human biases as well as Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism upset our faith in prevailing theories, and the idea that our policies and opinions should be guided by the latest discoveries from an anonymous laboratory. Putting politics first and assuming subjectivity is all-encompassing, we move past objective measures to compare belief systems and theories. However, isn’t the whole operation of modern science designed to work within our means? The system by Kant set limits on humanity rationality, and most science is aligned with an acceptance of fallibility. As Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, “to understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.”

Pinker goes for far as to advocate for scientism. Others need not; but we must understand an academic field before utterly rejecting it. We must think we can understand each other, and live with each other. We must think there is a baseline framework that allows permanent cross-cultural correspondence — a shared form of life which means a Ukrainian can interpret a Russian and a Cuban an American. The rejection of Homo Sapiens commensurability, championed by people like Richard Spencer and those in identity politics, is a path to segregation and supremacy. We must reject Gorgian nihilism about communication, and the Presocratic relativism that camps our moral judgments in inert subjectivity. From one Weltanschauung to the next, our common humanity — which endures class, ethnicity, sex, gender — allows open debate across paradigms.

In the face of relativism, there is room for a nuanced middleground between Pinker’s scientism and the rising anti-science, anti-reason philosophy; Paul Feyerabend has sketched out a basic blueprint. Rather than condemning reason as a Hellenic germ of Western cultural supremacy, we need only adjust the theoretical model to incorporate the “new America of knowledge” into our critical faculty. It is the raison d’être of philosophers to present complicated things in a more digestible form; to “put everything before us,” so says Wittgenstein. Hopefully, people can reach their own conclusions, and embrace the communal human spirit as they do.

However, this may not be so convincing. It might be true that we have a competition of cosmologies: one that believes in reason and objectivity, one that thinks reason is callow and all things are subjective.These two perspectives may well be incommensurable. If I try to defend reason, I invariably must appeal to reasons, and thus argue circularly. If I try to claim “everything is subjective,” I make a universal statement, and simultaneously contradict myself. Between begging the question and contradicting oneself, there is not much indication of where to go. Perhaps we just have to look at history and note the results of either course when it has been applied, and take it as a rhetorical move for which path this points us toward.

Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal

A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”

Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender persons entails, logically, support of the transracial individuals. Tuvel details the claims of Rachel Dolezal, who made major news last year, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).

The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the more extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatireleased a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”

Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?

Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.

These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Critics on Twitter were more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.

Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)

The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and Jesse Singal at NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. Adding to this, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.

The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.

Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.

It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.

“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.

Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal. And it does belong.

Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.

In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemn Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and call for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.

Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”

By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.

Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.

The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.

There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.

Alethic relativism and modern physics

As the treasurer of the philosophy club at Chico State, I help organize weekly meetings to either explore topics from class more in-depth, or just argue with each other until the majority wins. As anyone will tell you, a group of philosophers is called a disagreement.

In this century, positions like absolute idealism, transcendental dualism or “free” free will are very marginal, and outside of those that favor the continental and those that favor the analytic schools, philosophy talk at a state college can tend toward groupthink.

One position that never fails to attract criticism is relativism, whose adherents persist to this day about morality. Someone will even come along now and then and claim truth itself is subjective (alethic relativism). Although at least the latter notion seems outright preposterous — it too easily leads to contradictions — Marvel Studios, of all places, recently gave me some insight into this debate.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, says “the truth is a matter of circumstance.” Before I’m kicked off this site for talking about mainstream cinema twice in a row, I want to argue that this off-hand sentiment raises some powerful and plausible connotations.

Truth does sometimes seem to be circumstantial. I don’t want to get grouped into the alethic relativists or skeptics quite yet, but sometimes truth at one level (or circumstance) becomes falsity at another. The most obvious example is our dual systems of mechanics. Newtonian physics describes the physical world we function at with excellent approximation, including planetary motion. After its creation, it defined the paradigm for over two hundred years, improved upon by greats like Faraday and Maxwell, until experiments with optics wore heavily on our common sense and prevailing calculus. The nature of light was questioned, and so a new theory of optics was necessary (and thence truth). This would be theorized by Einstein. 

Albert Einstein formalized light as quanta, and went on to pen special relativity to understand bodies approaching the speed of these sometimes-packets, sometimes-waves. And he went on again to redefine our understanding of gravity. Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expedition in 1919 corroborated Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which predicted light, traveling along the indenture of space-time by massive bodies, would appear curved. In the eclipse observation a star which should have been hidden was shifted outside of the eclipse — confirming that starlight itself, which is massless, had been affected via light deflection. It was a dramatic event in scientific history, akin to Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric universe, or the abandonment of Aristotelian innate qualities.

Just like this early test of light deflection helped cement general relativity a century ago, physicists with LIGO just confirmed gravitational waves, another Einsteinian prediction. Stephen Colbert recently featured Brian Greene (whose online courses I used to learn special relativity) on his show to discuss the pivotal discovery, and Greene does an excellent job modelling the experiment in three dimensions. So exactly a century after Einstein first thought up his theory of the workings of the universe, scientists have transformed the mysterious and radical postulates into the popularly tangible.

The theory of general relativity explained the flaws and limits of Newtonian physics, but did not completely retire the mathematics. It became the new theory of truth for new areas of study. The problem being that general relativity doesn’t work for everything.

Albert Einstein never thought we would be able to practically test for gravitational waves, and he also denied a fundamental discovery of the fresh field of quantum mechanics: nonlocality. After the 19th century two-slit experiment, in which electrons were found to behave with wave-particle duality, quantum probability and nonlocality were introduced, to which Einstein proposed multiple solutions to avoid. These tenets have since been generally accepted. However, quantum mechanics, for all its brilliant complexity, works only to describe the extremely small scale, and fails to describe the universe we live in, which Newtonian mechanics excels in practically predicting, but which in turn fails to with true accuracy describe cosmological characters, like black holes and spacetime itself, in turn best explained by general relativity. The issue of gravity has been a key dissonance between the theories, as the other forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear) have their explanations in quantum field theory on the fundamental level at certain speeds, but a quantum explanation of gravity has been empirically evasive. Scientists must utilize classical or relativistic or quantum mechanics or quantum field theory, and each has its own domain of validity.

All of our current presiding and college-instructed theories, though compatible in certain contexts, war with each other at others, and ultimately fail to describe everything in every scenario… which is where “the truth is a matter of circumstance” comes to play. What can indisputably be said to be true for one scenario becomes false in another. Meaningfully saying that this is certainly true here, and anything else would be false, but then there, speaking of the same “this,” is false and an anything-else is true, seems to be only a reward of the past century of physics. Truth has a context within our understanding of the scale it admits to. It’s important to notice that, within these conflicting physical theories, a truth doesn’t become a falsity in its same context; it is only when the truth is examined through a different circumstance that, in light of the new circumstance, the truth no longer applies. It would sound like alethic relativism, except that in the example of physics, there are three or so set systems or rubrics from which to evaluate truth-values, instead of the complete toss-up commonly theorized by global relativism, in which there are as many systems as there are individuals or methods of viewing a given system.

The most obvious opposition would be that though we use these distinct theories to describe our reality based on our early place in scientific progression, we don’t assume they are necessarily correct; a final, accurate picture of the nuanced intricacies of the universe is singular and still beyond our experimental comprehension. In which case, parallel to the idea of circumstantiality, there is a vagueness whose truths are still humanly inaccessible (the idea that there is a definite but forever unknowable quality to outwardly-vague systems of speaking or discernment has been defended as epistemicism). This doesn’t get us anywhere closer to truth, however, and for practical purposes it’s as if to say truth is a convention of any given, temporary system of thought: a social construct.

That there is a discoverable and definite system of truth is still hoped for by theoretical physicists. The popular, almost celebrity theory — that one-dimensional oscillating “strings” make up fundamental particles — has most of the platform, as compared to the alternative loop quantum gravity. However, much criticism directed at string theory centers on its nonempirical evidence (perhaps epitomized in the polemic “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that chastises the theory for a purported lack of testability). The use of nonempirical arguments is very controversial in 21st-century science, but they could possibly shed light on truth; in any way we may be forced to accept this consequence of not having the adequate technology to make observations, or retire particle physics altogether.

Now, how concerned should we be with what occurs on a quantum level, as applicable to our own lives? This is relevant for truth as well as our conception of free will. The answer is that the quantum level is just as true as the functional human level, and dismissing it as less valuable or irrelevant is absurd. Not only are special relativity and quantum mechanics necessary for much of our modern technology, they speculate about the very processes that comprise all experience and function and moreover, what it’s like to exist.

I noted at the beginning that mechanics is the most obvious example of a circumstantiality of truth. At this moment I’m unsure of others. But here would not consist of an example of circumstantiality: at a ski resort, someone traveling up the lift might say they were high. However, to the skier already at the top of the mountain, the person in the lift is low and they are high. So we might say the truth is a matter of either of their circumstances; this is not the case however, because in either situation the quality that is being examined for truthfulness (high, low) is a relative quality, and this will be for every example of the sort. A claim we might expose to Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics (e.g., the body is moving forward) is subject to criteria concerning momentum, space-time, reference point, locality, and a whole conglomerate of standards to evaluate what’s actually happening. In this sense it takes on a less subjective tone than what is high or low, which can, like the first point about global relativity, be examined by a myriad of individual viewpoints. (Also, from an outsider context, high and low are meaningless.) High and low are dependent on their correlatives, and also dependent on scale for their truth; quantum mechanics without any other size would still have truth, and general relativity without any other size would still have truth, and so on.

So, what does all this mean? It’s support for the idea that truth can be evaluated through different systems, and not just like using the tools of sociology, or psychology, or feminist theory, or Marxist history to read and analyze the same event in different interpretations; physics is a physical science, and its truths are not contingent on lived humanity. The circumstantiality of truth on the scientific level might have some consequences for objectivity and vagueness, allow exploration into what the conditions of truth are, and could be formed into a rubric for evaluating all truth and falsity; all that is work for another day though. Right now, all it tells us is sometimes Marvel can say meaningful things in philosophy.

[Update (6/28/2017): I no longer believe much of what I wrote here, having learned much since.]