Monday, March 20, 2006

What is the epistemology of the most influential person who is unaware of the meaning of the term?

I was reading the letters in response to Slavoj Zizek's intriguing op-ed in the New York Times, when an insight on the Bush administration dawned on me. The first letter-writer, apparently a reverend, pulled up the boring old canard that of course atheists can be just as atrocity-prone as religious fanatics (wow, quite a stirring defense of the faith sir), because look at the Nazis and the Soviets! To which the all-too obvious reply is, it is not religion that enables people to regard their fellow mankind as sub-human, and to act like sub-humans themselves - it is dogmatism.

The Nazis and Soviets were just as dogmatic as the Catholic and Protestants of the thirty-years' war, as the witch-burning Puritans, as the disgustingly anti-Semitic Ferdinand and Isabella and Martin Luther, as the Wahhabists and Taliban and al Qaeda, as the Iranian clergy-fascists and purely Orwellian cult of the Dear Leader of Pyongyang. The Nazis and Soviets happened to be ruled by dogmas without traditionally religious themes, but that is just surface gloss.

The core of all dogmatism, that each of those societies and leaders of societies hold in common, is emotional-instinctual epistemology. They decide what to believe is true based on what instinctually and emotionally feels true. They are societies built on truthiness.

At the opposite of dogmatism, is the reliance on rational epistemology: deciding what to believe is true based only on what you can reason out in your mind, based on systematically gathered observational evidence, actively working to contradict and re-test assumptions and ideas, with an awareness of the trickiness of human perception and the tremendous capacity of the human mind to fool itself and to want to fool itself. Rational epistemology is the root of science, of law, and of democracy. It is a lot tougher than instinctual epistemology, because the latter is our natural state, while the former requires education, cleverness, devotion to curiosity, and hard work.

Once you accept your epistemology, everything else falls into place. Having chosen one option, you perceive and understand the world according to a set of arbitrarily accepted axioms initially selected for their emotional appeal, and compartmentalize away or simply deny or ignore all objective evidence that does not confirm your axioms, though you seize upon and proclaim the truth of any selective evidence you can interpret to support your pre-set beliefs.

Or having chosen the other option, you engage in a continual feedback loop of learning more about the world around you, and using your increasing understanding to continue to learn still more, you are able to tolerate ambiguity and learn from your mistakes, you are intellectually honest and humble in the face of all that still remains to be discovered. Rational epistemists will always have the intellectual humility to acknowledge the absence of claims to absolute authority and the potential validity of unfamiliar observations and experiences related by others; and to use reason to pursue the truth together. Yes: actual, objective truth. Which is why there is no such thing as American and Arabic and Japanese and African physics and biology (despite the navel-lint-picking of the (emotional-instinctual-epistemological) Strong program). There is only physics and biology.

(This also despite my law school mentor, who taught that there is no truth, there are only arguments. Shows what comes from not starting with a physics degree I guess.)

Part of the fallout of this is that, because the initially seized-upon assumptions of the instinctual epistemists are arbitrarily selected or imposed, instinctual epistemists are doomed forever to remain in insoluable conflict with one another.

It seems like the political fault lines in America have split generally along that rift between the epistemologically rational and the epistemologically instinctual. That is a far more relevant picture for today's political divide than the tired old hag of left and right. There is certainly no shortage of emotional-irrational epistemists on today's left - but the modern Republican party has enforced and achieved an astonishingly pure hegemony of emotional-irrational epistemology, in which reason-based epistemology is emphatically unwelcome.

This is true despite a variety of emotional-instinctual epistemologies working side-by-side within the modern GOP establishment; not only the fundamentalist Christian epistemological group, but also the Reaganomics trickle-down fundamentalist believers, the anti-science "intelligent design" and "global-warming-is-a-conspiracy" fundamentalist believers; the simple "liberals(or)gays-are-the-source-of-evil" hate-driven fundamentalist believers; etc.

As for what type Bush is, I think that's a trick question. This is just my impression, but I don't think he really has core beliefs of his own; I think his pride in leadership by delegation extends to delegating decisions on what basic assumptions to base his worldview on. I think that's the only explanation for his strange transformation from moderate, easy-going governor; that was just due to his temporary absorption of the worldviews of the lieutenants he happened to surround himself with in Austin. His very different nature after becoming president was a reflection of the very different nature of the people he surrounded himself with in Washington: mainly Cheney and Rumsfeld, although he had enough room to internalize all the modern GOP emotional-instinctual epistemologies listed above.

The proper question then is, what flavor is Cheney and Rumsfeld's epistemology, which they also imbue onto Bush as his primary mindset. I used to have sort of an impression that they have a rational epistemology. Then in the last few days, I read Zizek's essay and the letters responding to it, and Don Rumsfeld's defense of the good Iraq war. Then it came to me: Cheney and Rumsfeld's epistemology is emotional-instinctual after all, based on axiomatic internalization of Leo Strauss. That’s why they are perfectly certain that they are always right, that they know better than everyone else; that their own ideas about how many troops to send in to Iraq or what the reception would be like or how to rebuild the country were infallible to the point that all contradictory experts' ideas were worthless. That’s why they see themselves as the heroes of a struggle to defeat the very concept of terror and rid the world of evil, and why they believe in the need for an all-powerful executive, for a disregard of “quaint” concepts of constitutional rights, and for an absolute right to govern in secrecy – all despite a wealth of contradictory evidence and despite any obstacle of existing law. The axiomatic, irrational Straussian worldview is the root cause of the antidemocratic thrust of this administration.

Of course, it’s just a hypothesis; we need more objective evidence to rationally evaluate the idea…

(* As for Rumsfeld's column in the Post, I found myself agreeing with much of it: the rationale for a free and democratic Iraq is as compelling today as it was three years ago. I remain deeply disappointed by the Michael Moore wing of administration critics who ignore the fact of atrocity and terror as a way of life for twenty million Iraqis before we invaded. No matter how many phones have been tapped, America today is a land of tremendous freedom and dignity compared with the truly atrocious Iraq under Saddam. The problem with Rumsfeld's column is I don't believe it represents what he really believes - otherwise they would not have distorted the evidence to make the case for war; they would not have ignored the well-attested need to go in with two and a half times as many troops; they would not have flushed away five years' worth of expert State Department planning for rebuilding the country; and above all, they would not have permitted, and apparently encouraged, the savage abuse of detainees - which was not only despicable, but strategically stupid, in surrendering the claim to clear moral superiority to the previous regime and in inspiring ordinary Iraqis to hatred against the occupation. If we had had leaders who avoided each of those mistakes and did the invasion right, Iraq would be peaceful and prosperous right now with almost no U.S. troops remaining.)

UPDATE: Eugene Robinson is one of many, I'm sure, who is also busy wondering about Cheney and Rumsfeld's perception of reality.

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