Tag: Epistemology

Subjectivity is Bad When Technology Reigns

We might even say that in Technopoly precise knowledge is preferred to truthful knowledge but that in any case Technopoly wishes to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, 158

It’s interesting that he claims that subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Postman  doesn’t seem to be claiming that we don’t engage in subjectivity. In fact, the opposite may be true in 21st-century America. Rather, it is the truth within subjective claims which become unacceptable. In other words, we don’t like that our claims about truth have no objective backing, so we co-opt scientific language to make it seem like we do. This is a common problem in sociological and psychological claims.

Information without Meaning

In the Information Age (the one in which we are living now), it’s really easy to assume that more information is always better. More information means being more informed, which should theoretically make us better citizens, better friends, better human beings. It should lead to increased knowledge, and to having a more coherent picture of reality.

As the amount of information available to us grows every moment, however, I think it’s safe to say that access to more information has not led to these outcomes. More information, somehow, makes us feel less informed. It also seems to lead to less coherent and cohesive understandings of what the world is like, and what it should be like.

Neil Postman makes this argument in Technopoly:

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions, but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose (69-70).

In other words, we live in an age where the overarching cultural assumption is that more information leads to progress — scientific progress, human progress, economic progress, etc. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The glut of information that overwhelms our senses on a day to day basis leads us to question whether we know anything at all. And because of that, it leads to a lack of a unified theory about what human beings are and what human beings are meant to be.

In this kind of a situation, information becomes its own end, and a not a means to some other end, which it ought to be. Postman again:

To the question, “What problem does the information solve?” the answer is usually “How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.” This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to access information. For what purpose  or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask (61, emphasis added).

When reading this yesterday, my first thought was that, in some ways, the way information seems to act of its own accord in society to grow for its own sake is similar to the way capital (money) acts of its own accord within capitalism. Within capitalism, money always optimizes for the growth of money. Within what Postman calls “technopoly,” information optimizes for its own growth.

Without some overarching system in place that allows us to set information or money up as a means to some actual end, both of these become devourers of our time, attention, and ultimately our lives.

Twitter and the Shape of Our Knowledge

From Yascha Mounk’s piece at The Atlantic, “The Problem Isn’t Twitter. It’s That You Care About Twitter.”:

Being active on Twitter has practically become part of the job description for some of the most influential people in the country. Any politician, journalist, or CEO who does not engage with social media gives up a precious chance to shape the conversation. And any public or semipublic figure who fails to monitor what is happening on the platform risks missing attacks or accusations that can quickly find their way into the headlines of national newspapers and the chyrons of cable-news shows.

Obligation breeds habit and habit addiction. The most active Twitter users I know check the platform as soon as they wake up to see what they missed. Throughout the day, they seize on the little interstices of time they have available to them—on the way to work, or in between meetings—to follow each new development in that day’s controversies. Even in the evening, when they are settling down to dinner, they cheer attacks against their enemies, or quietly fume over the mean tweet some anonymous user sent their way. Minutes before they finally drift off to sleep, they check their notifications one last time.

I’ve been off Twitter for a while now. My posts still go to a Twitter account, @cdbaca, but I do not have access to the username and password, because I know the dangers of Twitter for my own personal well-being. But I’m not here to toot my own horn about my digital habits. I have enough other bad habits that prove I am no internet saint.

This piece at The Atlantic made me think of Neil Postman’s claim that new technologies bear new epistemologies. In other words, the technology that we use make us all think differently about two things: (1) what we can know and (2) how we know those things. In Technopoly, he writes,

new technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. (20)

Postman was no technophobe — he’s just relatively hesitant about the uncritical use of new technology that’s so prevalent in our society. We should be wary, in other words, of uncritical engagement with technology, because the use of technology often (always?) comes with its own way of framing how we picture the world. The same is true for language, which is maybe the postmodern insight.

Twitter is really interesting in this regard, and I think — I hope — that some of us are coming to our senses about the way that heavy Twitter use forms our sense of what we can know and how we know it. Limiting ourselves to short, pithy sentences that attempt to convey religious, political, philosophical, or existential meaning will absolutely have an effect on how we view those spheres of human life.

And ultimately, I wonder if that means that we ought to extend Postman’s thought about the effects of new technology. New technologies don’t just bear new epistemologies; after we accept that new epistemology (or framework of knowledge), we are led towards a new metaphysics (what reality really is), and ultimately a new way of understanding values (aesthetics and ethics).

Knowledge is Not Equal to Possession

To know what a human soul is, what this means, is still a long way from beginning to gain one’s soul in patience, and it is a knowledge that exhibits its difference from that gaining inasmuch as it does indeed grow in impatience. And even though this knowledge may have its significance, it often deceived a person the very same way the world does, in that he thought he possessed it, whereas it was his knowledge that possessed him.

Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, “To Gain One’s Soul in Patience”

SK here is reflecting on Luke 21:19: “In your patience you will gain your souls.” (Side note: this is the weird Scripture reference in That Thing You Do! when Guy asks his uncle when the records they just recorded will be made. He responds “Luke 21:19,” and the bass player simply responds by quoting the verse (in what I think is KJV) — “In your patience possess ye your souls”)

Whether Kierkegaard and I seem to have the same concerns about knowledge, or whether reading him has formed how I personally think about knowledge and its temptations, I do not know. This particular discourse was difficult to read, but the gist of it was simple. He reflects on the fact that we gain our souls in patience. For SK, it is the act of being patient itself that is the way in which we gain our souls. The “in” here is key for him — he doesn’t think it is “through” or “by” patience, for that would indicate that we can practice patience, gain our soul, and then be done with patience. No, quite the opposite. It is, in some ways, the act of patience wherein our souls are gained.

Near the end of the discourse, he flips over to those who come at this discussion by asking what a soul is in the first place (which is where the quote above comes from). The question of knowledge is simply another way of being impatient for SK. And, in some ways, it’s an even more devious form of impatience, because it covers itself up by being distanced and seeming wise by asking the question. Those who ask such questions are simply delaying the requirement of the verse itself. It’s another way of attempting to turn what should be subjective knowledge into objective knowledge.

This is probably the ultimate temptation for academics like myself. I want knowledge, and as much of it as possible, before making a decision about how I ought to live. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in some cases, the doing is the knowing.

Remarks on Knowledge from Kierkegaard in the Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard’s infamous claim, that “Subjectivity is truth” is, in my opinion, commonly misunderstood. As we all know, my thesis was on this very concept — that Kierkegaard basically argues that there are more ways of knowing things (specifically, ethical and religious truths) than simply having head-knowledge of them (roughly defined, via Kierkegaard, as either strict or loose objectivity).

In my thesis, I focused on Kierkegaard’s books written by the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. This pseudonym seemed to be meant to address the philosophical problems (especially as it relates to knowledge and faith) that surround religious faith. What I didn’t realize is that he addresses these concerns elsewhere — under his own name! Throughout the course of the first half of his writing career, he published like crazy, both under pseudonyms and his own name. The writings under his own name mostly included what he called “upbuilding discourses”: short religiously-themed tracts that were reflections on scriptural passages. Theoretically — although there is some debate about this — the writings under his own name were meant to be understood as Kierkegaard’s own. The pseudonyms did not necessarily function this way. To facilitate dialogue and play the Devil’s advocate in philosophical and artistic circles, Kierkegaard often wrote in favor of mutually exclusive philosophical positions.

But, that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. I’m writing now because, as I was reading through one of the discourses (“Strengthening in the Inner Being”), I found a couple of short paragraphs on knowledge that struck me. Bear with me for a moment, as Kierkegaard’s notoriously clunky writing comes out in full force here:

Through every deeper reflection that makes him older than the moment and lets him grasp the eternal, a person assures himself that he has an actual relation to a world, and that consequently this relation cannot be mere knowledge about this world and about himself as a part of it, since such knowledge is no relation, simply because in this knowledge he himself is indifferent toward this world and this world is indifferent through his knowledge of it. Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world… only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.

This concern is not calmed by a more detailed or a more comprehensive knowledge;  it craves another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed

Clunky, right? I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. What I see going on here is Kierkegaard riffing (in the middle of what could be thought of as a pseudo-sermon) on what “counts” as knowledge. When a person deeply reflects on the world, and attempts to “grasp the eternal,” this creates a strange situation where a person is “indifferent” to the world, and the world is “indifferent” to the person. In other words, head-knowledge of something in some ways separates us from the thing we are trying to know. We objectivize the thing we are trying to know, and therefore cannot truly know it. And pursuit of a more comprehensive knowledge of that thing that we are trying to know doesn’t mitigate this problem. My knowledge, for it to really be knowledge, must translate into action.

Basically, I can be reflective on the world all I want. I can try to know it, objectify it, understand it. But until I subjectively know that thing that I want to know — by experience or by action — I don’t truly know it at all. How many of us walk around all day “knowing” that God exists (or doesn’t exist), knowing that the Bible is true, that Jesus is Lord, etc., etc., but do not consciously live in that reality? And if we don’t live in that reality, we do not ultimately know those things as true.

Who’s Afraid of “Relativism”?

Richard Beck is doing some interesting work over at Experimental Theology right now regarding the metaphysical grounding of ethical truths. Basically, he’s making the argument that all of our ethical reasoning (and, I think it could be argued, reasoning in general) requires “metaphysical” (or “axiomatic”) truths. I.e., truths that we take as given, or, as Plantinga might say, “properly basic.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time making this argument in the philosophy course I’m teaching. The basic idea is this — regarding religion, morality, knowledge, and so on: at some point, we hit a brick wall. We can reason and reason and reason all the way down to try to understand the most rational course of action, or what we can know about how we ought to act. However, at the bottom of all of our reasoning is what I call the “brick wall” — the thing that stops us from being able to reason anymore, where we simply must take certain truths about the world for granted. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these truths are beyond rational evaluation; only that there is little that evidence or reason can provide when attempting to evaluate those claims about how the world really is. Thus, the brick wall.

Anyway, Beck writes of Euclidean geometry as an example of a system that begins with “self-evident” truths, from which reason can depart to determine other truths:

First, the entire logical system cannot get to work without axioms provided as inputs, as fuel for the logical machine. This illustrates something that I argue holds in exactly the same way for ethical and moral reasoning: Reason alone is not enough. Reason is just an analytical, logical, computational capacity. Reason can suss out fallacies and help you weigh options, but reason can’t tell you what is right or wrong independently of how you value various goods when they come into conflict. In the same way that reason without axioms can’t lead you to a geometrical truth, reason alone cannot tell you what is right or wrong independently of values. Reason is just a computational tool, but it’s a tool that needs raw materials to work with.

Two things. First, I think his point that reason is basically a “computational” function is an incredible image. We ought to trust that reason (in its purer, logical forms) can give us access to certain truths — but it can only do so within a system that has given rules about what the world is already like. Further, humans cannot be purely rational creatures — in fact, that’s undesirable! Second, Beck’s paragraph here brought to mind James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, where Smith addresses the notion that the concept of “relativism” may not be as scary as some Christians have been led to believe. To say relativism is at least partially true, for Smith, is to say that our rationality is contingent on claims about the world that we have taken to be true outside of the realm of rationality.

Embracing contingency does not entail embracing ‘liberalism’: in fact, to the contrary, it is when we deny our contingency that we are thereby licensed to deny our dependence and hence assume the position where we are arbitrators of truth. We then spurn our dependence on tradition and assume a stance of ‘objective’ knowledge whereby we can dismiss aspects of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as benighted and unenlightened. (35)

We all “take” the world to be a certain way, prior to our use of reason to determine other truths about the world. The problem is when we assume that our use of reason is what got us to how we “take” the world to be in the first place.

Ford, Kavanaugh, and Our Relentless Need to Be Entertained

In his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent and ultimate rise of television gave birth to a new epistemology in Western discourse (he wrote this in the 1980s). This claim is more than simply “the medium is the message,” as we have often heard. It is deeper than that — rather than television simply being our new mode of communication and forming the kinds of things that we discuss, television (that is, the combination of images and sound that makes up what we know as television) forms the very basis of what we can know and how we know as a society. Television (and, it could be argued, later iterations of it, including the internet, social media, YouTube, music streaming, etc.), with its focus on fantastic images that stimulate the brain bends our societal discourse towards entertainment.

In such a society, where television and its iterations are entirely inseparable from social fabric, every other sphere of human discourse will ultimately be viewed and understood through the lens of entertainment. Our news, our politics, our religion, our economic choices — all of them will eventually be filtered through the lens of visual and audible stimulation. As various programs and content compete with each other for attention, those which are most visually stimulating will naturally shape what we know and how we know, because our brains are essentially lazy, and impulsively value stimulation over difficult mental labor.

The even bigger challenges now are that our modes of discourse have shrunk in meaning and quality in the last decade. A YouTube video that is longer than five minutes is probably not worth our time. A blog post over 500 words is difficult to follow. Twitter, with its (now) 280 character limit, seems to set our natural attention span.

I wondered about this last week during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. For ten hours, our nation sat and watched — first Dr. Fords testimony of her experience, and then Kavanaugh’s attempted rebuttal. But what did our comments about that hearing focus on? Kavanaugh’s angry, partisan responses when questioned heavily. Dr. Ford’s harrowing recounting of her experience that night. Lindsey Graham’s outrage at the alleged mistreatment of an upstanding civil servant. What was not clear was that this trial was truly about discovering the truth about what happened that night. Sure, that was the veneer of the hearing, the “why” this hearing was happening. Just under the surface, however, our desire for a partisan battle over the soul of our country roiled. The entire hearing came across like a courtroom scene in a movie — the anticipation of seeing Dr. Ford walk in the room, the emotional buildup to her story, the recesses and breaks that functioned like commercial breaks to build anticipation for the next scene, the righteously angry Judge Kavanaugh, the side-room deals being made between Flake and other senators, and on and on and on.

Television and its iterations have made such hearings nothing more than another form of entertainment, no different than ancient gladiatorial fights, wherein we can, without fear of recrimination, satisfy our thirst for blood and battle and the thrill of the fight. And after this week is over, and Kavanaugh is or isn’t confirmed as the next SCOTUS nominee, we’ll be itching for another.

“Be Still a Man”

So writes the philosopher David Hume, that (in)famous empiricist, after tearing apart our notions that we can “know” anything outside of our sense experience.

I find his stance fascinating. At the beginning of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he makes clear that his goal is to establish what we can know, and how we know it. In doing so, he defines mankind:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: but so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions.

Section 1.3, emphasis added

Hume sees his goal as relatively modest one. He is not interested in building up a system of knowledge and truth like Descartes. Rather, he is looking for the bare bones of human knowledge, giving us a springboard for exactly how and what we can know. For Hume, we know “impressions,” which are the content of our immediate experience, and “ideas,” the mental pictures that come from impressions. This means — generally speaking — that knowledge of the physical world (i.e., our direct observations) are relatively reliable. Relations between ideas are not necessarily knowable — especially, for Hume, cause and effect, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. The rest is simply not knowable with certainty.

That limits us significantly, and that’s exactly Hume’s point: we’re extremely finite, and it’s our inescapable position in the world.

All well and good, but that’s not what intrigues me about his point. What intrigues me is his personal attitude towards all of this. Where Descartes displays a heavy amount of obsession about building up a complex system which will give us certain knowledge about the world, Hume essentially says, “Nah, we really can’t know much at all. But don’t worry too much about it.” Later, in section 1.4, he writes:

Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: bt neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them… Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let our science be human…

Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Section 1.4

I disagree with Hume on some significant points. But of the philosophers that I admire most at the moment, I find that I am interested in those that force us to look back on ourselves, and point out the silliness of our abstract thinking. We ought to philosophize, we ought to discover, we ought to think critically and rationally. But in the midst of all that, and even more so, we ought to be human beings, living in the world.

What I’m Doing

All has been quiet here lately, and with good reason. I’m doing a lot of interesting things:

  1. I started teaching a high school philosophy class last week, which is a pure joy for me.
  2. I started actually writing my thesis a few weeks ago, and I’m a little over 3000 words in, and working on the next big sections. Hopefully I’ll be around 6-8000 words by the second week of September.
  3. I’ve been coaching a high school cross country team since August 1. Also a joy, but of a different sort.
  4. I’m prepping to teach a freshman orientation class at my university this fall.

All while doing my best to keep the centers of my life focused — just trying to be a present and loving father and husband. I fail a ton, but I’m working hard to make sure the work I do doesn’t hinder or suppress who I am.

This is a good, tiring, slightly overwhelming time for me. I get the sense that I’m moving in a direction that will be highly satisfying for me vocationally — we’ll see where I’m at by the end of 2018.

My other hope is that, while the blog will suffer a little over the coming months, that I pick it back up with full force once things settle down in late November. I love epistemology, but I imagine there will be other areas I want to explore in the future.

Successful Internalization

I don’t often get to verbalize concepts from my thesis. I mean, I do in writing, but I don’t often get to have verbal conversations where I’m explaining the concepts I’m exploring from start to finish. Last night, however, I got the chance to do so while talking to my mom. We discussed my plans for the philosophy class I’m teaching this semester (starting Monday!), and as I explained my hopes and plans for the class, I realized that my primary goal is the following:

I want to simply prepare the seniors taking this class to be courageous when tackling the most difficult questions about the world and humanity — the questions that philosophers and theologians and everyone else have been asking since at least a few thousand years ago. These are questions that are going to be dealt with in college philosophy courses, in their dorm rooms, internally, and on social media. It does no good for us to stick our head in the sand and give the high schoolers pat answers to these questions that no serious philosopher finds convincing or rational.

This purpose is largely driven by my own experience in college philosophy courses. None of my philosophy professors were seeking to destroy or unravel my faith — it just slowly happened over time because I had never been prepared to answer these questions well. Descartes’s problem of knowledge and certainty that he brings up in Meditations on First Philosophy is an important problem to explore, except when you don’t have someone that can walk you through that problem that you trust.

The same can be said for the problem of religious knowledge (the one that I’m addressing in my thesis). This is where the title of this post is coming from. I got the privilege last night of talking through why I think the way I do about religious knowledge now; especially regarding the separation of knowledge categories between objectivity and subjectivity, and why that split is important. The ease with which I explained the problem (and my/Kierkegaard’s proposed solution to the problem) indicated that I have at least successfully internalized that answer to the point of being able to explain it.

That’s a good feeling.