Thoughts on Discursive Modes and Critical Thinking

I have been a guest lecturer twice now for an undergraduate critical-thinking class at University of Wyoming, and these are among the notes I gave out, minus the last paragraph, which is a late addition.

Critical thinking requires understanding of logical fallacies and the scientific method, of the dialectical process, and induction and deduction. However, logic is not the only mode of human interaction; it’s not even the usual one.

When I was working on my English degree, my critical theory professor made a statement that helped me crystallize my objections to the whole deconstruction project he was encouraging: “All categorical statements are political.” Is this true? Is it false? Is it true only from a certain perspective? My rejoinder to him was, “Including that one!” But what I might have said is that his statement begged the question, that is, assumed its premise as its conclusion, and so was logically unsound in argument; after all, if all statements were political, then his statement could not merely be an objective statement of fact. Or I might have said, “No, there are other modes of discourse than the negotiation of power. In the objective mode, which includes science, we follow rules to minimize the influence of political motivation. And there is also a mode of Meaning, of art and myth, and it is likewise nonpolitical. ‘All categorical statements are political’ only makes sense if you are in the mode of power negotiation, where we promote some facts and downplay others in order to empower people, who may or may not use the power — the respect, the money — for the purpose they were entrusted with it. ‘All categorical statements are political’ suggests the truth is always subordinate to its uses.”

This may sound fancy, so let’s get to first principles. I’m saying that art, science, and politics really are different concepts. The way we recognize and defend them is by viewing them as modes, or a mindset toward a goal, like pure discovery, power sharing, or enjoying a performance. These are not the same goals. We can’t be sure that another person actually holds to a given mindset, but their communication behaviors tend to go along with the pursuit of a goal. In the political mode, we make arguments for sharing power. We might say, “Save the snail darter!” To help the poor snail darter, we must marshal resources and give them to the people who will carry out the proposed action. In a game or a religious ritual, we follow certain practices or obey certain rules, with the goal of having a fun experience or a deep emotional one. In the objective mode, we try to minimize political and aesthetic motivation that clouds our judgment, and so we avoid making arguments based on logical fallacies, and we test our assumptions and put them at risk of being wrong.

Had my professor said, “All categorical statements are made within a political context, and thus may be seized upon for political use,” his statement would have been more logical. As it was, he wasn’t teaching, from my point of view; he was indoctrinating, trying to infect us with a cynical mindset.

To be fair, he might have meant “political” in a different sense. He might have just meant “political” to mean “social construction,” or consensus reality as opposed to material reality. But I think that’s an abuse of the word “politics,” which is really about power negotiation. Not everything that exists only by social agreement, like Santa Claus, for instance, is a product and tool of persuasion or domination. And a strong clue that he didn’t interpret “politics” in this wider, consensus-reality sense is that he found the Tao Te Ching to be completely incomprehensible and could not make sense of the premise that language is a useful fiction that helps us engage with a world that really exists beyond social construction and resists our categories, not because all our categories are political, but because they are limited. I discussed with him the opening stanza, which states: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” All acts of creation involve separation. The most ancient myths tend to begin with the language-mediated fracturing of a unity, the simultaneous birth of darkness and light, or sky and earth. In naming these things, we somewhat arbitrarily cut them off from the underlying reality of what they are; that’s what abstraction does: it allows us to manipulate things as objects, but it does not really capture those things. As I said to my daughter when she was very young, “There is no two of anything in the real world.” This fracturing of the unity does not capture the underlying reality. That part he could get. However, the Tao beyond words is reality, and it really exists, and there are ways beyond arbitrary power-negotiation to align with it, if not capture it, according to essentialist philosophy.

A famous science fiction writer known to me and [the class professor] once tweeted that she hated “essentialism.” I cringed at this. “Essentialism” is the philosophy of both Plato and the Tao Te Ching, and it’s the working assumption, or mode – if not the actual belief – of every scientist worthy of the name: the reality that science is trying to probe is not an intersubjective one; it’s not a social construction; it really exists, or at least that’s the attitude we need to adopt to do it, and I think the results speak for themselves. Saying that we only encounter it indirectly through our uniquely human senses and sensibilities is not to say that it’s not really there. Yes, we have things that exist only by human agreement, like money, and other people’s gods, and corporate brands, and the music of Justin Bieber, but those too must ultimately align with the potentials of an underlying physical reality. (Or maybe they don’t; maybe there is a virtual-machine reality created by the human mind abstracted away from the physical world. This is a philosophical position, either way. We don’t need to pick one to do critical thinking; we just need to be aware of the different perspectives, and adopt the one proper to the job we’re setting out to do.)

So to do critical thinking, we need logic, objectivity, experiment, falsification, and statistics. But we also need to understand that there are modes of artistic expression and reception, and of power negotiation. And we need to understand that a mode is not a domain of study, since it applies to all domains; and it is not individual objects, because all three of these major modes can be applied to any object. Is the Nazi flag a political statement? Is it a work of art? Can it be physically analyzed or its abstract effects studied quantitatively, even its effects on human cognition? “Yes” to all three, of course, but not at the same time, not in the same discursive mode.

Propaganda can be art, but not when it’s being propaganda.

It’s useful to recognize some further categories to organize critical thinking. A discursive mode is not the same as a process, a discipline, or a category of truth. However, it can map loosely to one of these. Rather, it corresponds to one of the three classic writing modes of exposition, narration and description, and persuasion. However, any one of these writing genres is not necessarily a pure expression of a mode, just characterized by the dominant one. What’s the dominant mode in the humanities? In STEM? In a debate class?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson teaches categories of truth that loosely map to the modes. He talks about objective truth, personal truth, and political truth. By “political” truth, I think he actually means intersubjective truth, where my professor likely did not, but like I said, I think this is an abuse of the word. Politics is about power-negotiation. Words, numbers, and corporate brands may have political uses, but these intersubjective constructs are not inherently political. “Personal truth,” I assume, is what he’d mean by religion, but religion apart from its myth element is about marshaling people and invariably has a political component. All the same, if his categories of truth are useful to you, use them. They are not the same as a discursive mode in the sense I’m describing though. A mode is a mindset, ultimately, and so unknowable (confidently inferring another person’s mindset is the psychological fallacy, identified by philosopher William James 150 years ago), so I tend to think of a discursive mode as a set of behaviors consistent with a dominant communication goal: to have an emotional experience, to dominate, or to learn. This can be equivocal, so really you can only confidently perceive the mode you’re in, and try to pursue interactions consistent with it, in talking to other people, and to be effective, you must read the room and figure out when the dominant mode everyone else is in might not be the one you’re pursuing. Trying to be logical in a hopelessly political situation is bound to be frustrating.

Conflating modes is absurd. Having a scientific debate about Creationism is absurd. That’s not to say that Creationism is wrong. I may think that, but that’s not my point. I mean that in the logical, scientific mode it’s not relevant, because it’s a religious and aesthetic proposition, not a falsifiable, testable, scientific one. Richard Dawkins mires himself in absurdity when he debates Creationism. Maybe there’s some use in his doing so; maybe showing the absurdity is somehow constructive. But don’t fool yourselves that it’s scientific. It’s really aesthetics seeking an audience by political persuasion.

The Roadrunner and the Coyote in the old Looney Tunes cartoons seem to be in different modes. The coyote is in the political mode, the mode of survival and domination; the roadrunner is messing with him, in an aesthetic mode of play. Likewise with Bugs Bunny and his antagonists like Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

You can think of a mode as the mental orientation of certain characters. Mr. Spock is a paragon of the objective mode. When he applies logic to an aesthetic situation, there’s humorous irony in the conflation of modes, just as with the Chuck Jones cartoons. McCoy is more emotional and aesthetically motivated. Kirk is a decisive man of action, a leader and politician.

But Star Trek characters aren’t quite stereotyped enough to represent the modes. Spock is really not a robot; he is merely disciplined, and at times that discipline breaks down. But consider an actual robot. All it knows if whether its inputs compute. It does not understand an aesthetic emotional experience, and it does not understand political motivation except in terms of its effects that can become further inputs, or objects for logical operation. It represents the objective mode. For the aesthetic mode, consider a child who does not understand Mommy and Daddy’s political battles, that only knows Mommy and Daddy are unhappy and that the environment in his or her home is emotionally unsatisfying, that there isn’t enough love. The machine comes by and holds Mommy and Daddy to rigorous logic, by which they must step out of their emotional state; they calm down. Our stereotyped child doesn’t understand logic, only emotional effects, so it observes “Logic is love!” (Or maybe hate, if Daddy’s relentless logical pose frustrates Mommy to tears, or vice versa.)

Meanwhile, a stereotyped cynical political sociopath does not understand emotional connection or transcendence, and uses logic only as a tool for personal advantage. Logic and emotional appeal are merely vehicles for power. The truth has no value in itself, only how it can be used for power. (In my slides, I use the “sore loser” as the speaker for the political mode. Maybe you can help me come up with better mascots.)

Critical thinking demands we understand all three orientations and work productively — which often means consistently — within them.

Don’t get confused about the difference between discursive modes and processes. Engineering and the craft of art both are activities that involve us variously in the discursive modes at different points in the process. For them, it’s constructive to observe what are often called open and closed modes, which are really cognitive orientations, corresponding to primitive modes of exploration and prey stalking. They are the modes of metaphor-play on the one hand and editing and making choices on the other. But what I want to emphasize as important to critical thinking are the modes of knowledge sharing: science, art (that is, religion, play, meaning), and politics.

Finally, don’t confuse mode awareness with compartmentalization, which is a kind of hypocritical inconsistency. Your aesthetic and logical operations don’t have to be in conflict with each other. Your misgivings and enthusiasms can drive your quest for facts while, at the same time, you remain aware that scientific propositions are value-neutral and the motivations for testing them are irrelevant to whether they’re true. If you are arguing facts with someone invested in a conspiracy theory, pull them into the logical mode where the motivations of the supposed conspirators are irrelevant to the truth of individual facts. However, logically arguing the merits of a conspiracy itself with someone invested in it is a losing game. Conspiracy theorists are transfixed by the inevitable shadows in our picture of the world where sinister forces might hide. When you shine some light on the situation, they just maintain focus on what isn’t yet known and try to present it as evidence, but trying to make what is not known a positive argument is the logical fallacy called “argument from ignorance,” in other words, no argument at all.

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A Bayesian Approach to Better Logic

You probably have noticed that I say the same things over and over again. I’m well aware, but I try to say them in different ways. I’ve written many times about how discourse at any given time follows a mode that is either objective, religio-aesthetic, or political. A mode is form of conduct consistent with a given mindset, but that does not mean that the people engaged in the mode actually have the mindset, and to suppose they do is not logically rigorous. For example, a scientist may be passionately arguing the evidence because his reputation is on the line (that is, he’s politically motivated), but as long as he argues according to the strictures of scientific debate, he’s not in a political mode. A given conversation might range back and forth or vacillate quickly between modes, but those trained in a certain mode can hold to it. Politics easily dominates a conversation because everything we do has some motivation behind it. Again, though, that does not vitiate the idea — or the potential of observing — the mode itself.

So one thing that confuses people when I talk about the religio-aesthetic mode is my summing it up as the mode of irrational human truth, of art broadly defined and of religious feeling. It doesn’t sit well with people generally to think of art as either irrational or nonpolitical. Well, the mode of defining things is the objective mode, and it’s difficult to interpret one mode in terms of another. But here’s what might help. We have evolved emotional, intuitive thought-heuristics for survival. We can use logic to guide these intuitions but the intuitions themselves follow a different process than abstract logic does. They were, after all, evolved to line up emotions with the goals of survival, and the “right” answer there is survival, which just happened to be rational enough times that the very concept of rationality could carve out a space for itself. But what’s an example of this problem of evolved intuition not actually being rational? Well, a friend of mine brought this up in the context of applying Bayes’ Theorem to intuition, and sent me a link to a video similar to the following, which I think is a tad more accessible than the one he actually sent:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrK7X_XlGB8

The religio-aesthetic mode is about exploring the direct experience of evolved heuristics, and the truth it puts you in touch with is a _human_ truth that cannot be fully appreciated from the logical mode; it’s an answer to logically unanswerable questions, at the level of feeling: What’s the meaning of life? Why is love better than hate? Does a song move me? What is the value of a scary movie? We can attempt to answer these questions logically from premises we come up with, but that’s objective-mode stuff. Religio-aesthetic mode stuff is about feeling the answer. And since we are emotional creatures, it’s really impossible for us to participate in the logical mode without feeling the correctness of a logical proposition. But while emotion is essential to the process of logic at the level of motivation and a feeling of understanding (you know that little dopamine hit when the lights go on and you finally really get something you’ve been taught?), logic itself works whether you’re doing it or a computer is doing it, and so far, our computers feel neither smugness for the correct calculations nor chagrin at their errors… as far as we know. [I’ll follow up with another post with another link my friend gave me on the issue of motivation and Bayes’ Theorem.]

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Age of Monsters, Available in Ebook and Trade Paperback

My teen romance about roleplaying gamers in 1980s Portland, Oregon, is live at Amazon.

If you are not interested in Dungeons & Dragons, Portland, teen romance, or vampires, werewolves, giants, or cannibal hags — both terrestrial and aquatic — this will probably not be for you. But if it might be, then I recommend it. Despite all the frustration it’s caused me, it still inspires me. Thanks to Richard Garfield, Pete Adkison, Jesper Myrfors, Jonathan Tweet, Loren Rosson III, Skaff Elias, and Bryan Costanich for the generous blurbs, Catska for the beautiful cover, and everyone else who helped my effort to revise it and pushed me to get it done!

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Shying Away from Meaning

I promised my best friend a couple weeks ago that I’d stop posting on Facebook and get back to writing fiction. And then something happened, and I felt I had to write about it, but I just couldn’t, and instead I did the last two posts to approach what I had to write about.

And it didn’t help.

Two weeks ago, we had a tragedy in town that has upset me like few others that haven’t affected me personally, though it’s a near miss, given that my sister has been close to the people involved. To get some relief from contemplating it, I watched the documentary My Octopus Teacher, and I saw some things clearly that had been only on the periphery of my thought and understanding for most of my life.

The octopus is a very strange product of evolution, an exception that proves general rules. Most creatures with a wide-dispersal strategy for reproduction have a small energy budget for intelligence: fish, mosquitoes, snails. Intelligence is so costly that it’s generally associated with modest broods and parental care of offspring. But nature loaded the octopus with intelligence and amazing dexterity and camouflage ability, along with a short life and no parental support after birth. The male dies after mating. The female dies a short time after hatching her eggs, which can number in the hundreds of thousands.

While most predators teach their young to hunt, among other survival skills, the world itself teaches the octopus, and it’s an instruction marked by huge attrition. Those that survive to maturity are intelligent, playful innocents. And even for them, life is a game that’s soon over, with no transmission of knowledge, and little companionship. You might say, they’re just animals, and oblivious, and the idea of their intelligence and innocence is a silly projection.

Right?

I can’t answer with confidence. It’s clear for the filmmaker who spent every day of a year with an octopus, the creature was sentient. His tears at the end of the movie are disturbing. We can scarcely enter his experience, even though he’s done a good job of sharing it, and he has far more authority than anyone else over it. If he is right to cry over his octopus, which he is according to my reckoning, then he’s revealed a larger and stranger world than the one that most of us inhabit. Can you really empathize with an octopus and meet it where it lives? That’s not really the point, is it? He encountered more of himself in the octopus than he had anticipated. He unlocked more of his own potential, and shared some of it. (“Humans are the only animals that matter,” a conservative friend said to me, and this is true, and that which _matters to us_, matters, especially if it challenges us to grow. So conservation is our duty. We are impoverished if we shirk it.)

I promised in an earlier post to explain how the theory of evolution underlies my own sense of meaning, where for many people it threatens to smash their faith. On one level, I really don’t have a choice. There’s no doubting the model. It’s ironclad. There are people who reject it, and there are people who understand it. That may seem dogmatic if you’ve been taught there’s any real controversy, but no, if you have, you’ve been misled, and when I make this binary pronouncement, it’s just the same thing one might observe about physics, or math, or chemistry.

Evolution is a fact, and a challenge for anyone looking to nature for the intervention of God. Christians hold that God gave us freewill, and beyond that we have nature through which we glimpse the lineaments of supernature and by which God directs us toward meaning. He dishes out his miracles sparingly, but he does intercede… or so goes the teaching.

I don’t know. I suspect all texts regarding miracles are figurative. A world that has such wondrous and tragic creatures as the octopus must be one where nature is free to probe out any possibility, any beautiful or horrible thing that might offer a chance at survival or express the shaping force of pain and death. Evolution is biology groping into any conceivable niche, creating new niches, parasitizing, seducing, dominating, cooperating. What is human love and pain and search for meaning to this blind, amoral process?

Well, meaning is central to our survival, physically and emotionally. How can a meaningless process give rise to a human creature — and maybe other creatures — with needs like that? Because it can, that’s why. It was possible, and it happened, and it is preeminent. And its manifest possibility is the thin wedge between a vast, uncaring universe, and one that’s filled with terrible purpose.

So this is lesson one: nature is free to realize its possibilities. Don’t look there for God’s mercy or lack thereof, unless you are really prepared for a challenge that will take you into your own depths, outside any help from other people, and from which you may not return with anything like your old faith. My once-Catholic fishing buddy — my father’s childhood friend — who was a medic in Vietnam was basically done with churchgoing after the war: “There was no God in charge of what was happening there,” he said.

My own father expressed regret a couple of times that he had not undergone the rite of passage that our mutual friend had. Shortly after Dad died, I said to our friend, “I told him he was crazy to regret not going to war. What do you think?”

“Well, Robert, your old man said the same thing to me when I got back.”

“And?”

He laughed. “I told him he was crazy.”

Which brings me to lesson two, that puzzling line from The Lord’s Prayer “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” How strange. God does not lead us into temptation, according to any teaching of the Church I know of, but these are supposed to be the words of Christ Himself.

I now read it thusly: “Do not saddle me with such challenges that I cannot keep my faith. In humility I accept that some things may be beyond me. (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)” Three young ladies died suddenly in a car crash the week before last, and one of them I had seen often, though I didn’t really know her. I’d met her at my sister’s probably at least once, certainly at the lunch table at the high school where I play games and discuss computer programming with students, probably walking with one of the young ladies in town I knew to be her friend, my niece maybe, or my neighbor’s daughter. I recognized her picture in the paper, but could not exactly place her. Rather than making her death impersonal, though, the uncertainty of how I recognize her has made her loss ubiquitous: she had been part of this town’s welcoming environment and, like all the most important things, easy to take for granted. I don’t know why contemplating her is so poignant for me. I only have guesses: my heart goes out to her mother, who, like me, raised a one-and-only and invests all her love in her, and so I easily inhabit the idea of her loss. Or maybe it’s the young woman herself, who, it turns out, valued writing as I do, and was a very talented essayist. Or maybe it’s sympathy for my sister, who must feel this even more keenly.

Before leading Kaddish for the dead, the rabbi at the young lady’s outdoor memorial observed, “God has a lot to answer for.” And this is wise and appropriate. Her mother implored us not to forget her daughter, and I won’t. At some level, my fixation on her is my own choice; to let go of it too soon would be to abdicate the responsibility — the dreadful honor — of acknowledging a world that’s bigger than me, where I simply do not have control.

Evolution is a fact. Immortal young people, the children of too many of my friends and acquaintances, die suddenly. A tough free-diver is moved to tears by a dead octopus. And no trite sayings or memes will address this terrible burden we each have, to make sense of it without pretending it’s something it’s not. No amount of philosophical or political argument will let us escape our reckoning. I’ve distracted myself too much with Facebook, to avoid confrontation with meaning. Don’t be like me. Don’t tempt meaning to pursue you while you waste your time in senseless logical argument. A meaningful life is not comfortable for long. A grownup holds not just to faith but to honest doubt.

Okay, Rob, I’m done.

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Lies, Prevarication, and Modes of Discourse

“That’s a lie!”

Have you ever heard that in a serious science debate? If you have, the debate has crossed over from objective discussion to inference of intent. In the logical mode, there is no such thing as a lie, just assertions that can be tested as factually correct or incorrect.

I’ve recounted the following anecdote so many times that I’m bored of it, but I realize that grasping my perspective on politics, art, and science is much easier if you know it.

My satori moment with critical theory arrived when the professor said, “All categorical statements are political.” Suddenly I had a deep emotional awareness of being in the wrong class. I stood up and said, “Including that one!” (Well, maybe I didn’t stand up. I can’t remember.)

Boy was he pissed off!

I quit the class soon after. I’d learned everything I needed to learn from that professor.

No, not all categorical statements are political, unless you are looking for their political potential. There is a disinterested mode of scientific inquiry. Is science political? Again, it’s political if you are looking for its political potential. How about art/religion/meaning? Again, it’s political if you are looking for its political potential. There is a different way to receive art; it’s not just a political tool.

What I should have said to the professor is this: “You’ve set up a paradox here, because not everything is indoctrination and persuasion for negotiating power. There’s a disinterested, curious mode of fact production. With the observation ‘All categorical statements are political,’ do you intend to make a statement of fact, or are you trying to indoctrinate us into a certain political perspective? It can’t be a statement of fact, right? Because then the statement would be self-contradicting. When you’re in the political mode, it is consistent to say that all categorical statements are political, but if you are being a real teacher, you operate outside that mode, and therefore the statement is absurd.”

This is the heart of the lying, sneaky-bastard dragon that I hope to slay.

Don’t lie. Don’t lie to other people. Don’t lie to yourself.

And please, for the love of God, don’t lie to the students you’re entrusted to teach.



In the discussion that attended my posting this on Facebook, one person observed that I always make politics the villain. He also claimed that politics and lies could not be separated.

No, I said, they can be separated.

Here’s the problem. If I say John deserves a raise and then someone says that Bob deserves a raise in the same argument, we may have a struggle. It can be equally true that Bob deserves a raise. However, when the topic is John, in the political mode, it may be functionally dishonest to bring up Bob, because it assumes a premise that isn’t at issue.

That’s how facts compete in the political mode. That’s how All Lives Matter becomes dishonest even as it is a morally correct assertion. Slogans are generally dishonest like this. They are only honest if you share the premise. There is no rule in politics that you can’t state the premise and so be honest. It’s just rarely done. Steel-manning is honest. It supplies a working premise to your opponent, but that premise may still be weak and therefore a logical or moral loser.

You could argue that steel-manning takes us out of the political mode into the logical one, so I guess, yes, to make politics honest, you must stop doing politics. Politics is the poker game and then we need the logical showdown to see who had the stronger hand after all, based on shared moral and factual premises. There is a perspective that makes politics dishonest, and that’s where we assume the politicking never stops.

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All Us Zombies

Lucius and I had a disagreement about zombies. I thought they had become popular for some deep psychological reason. He thought zombies were just a fad perpetuated by unimaginative hacks.

Granted that there are many valid ways to look at what zombies represent, I still think I was right.

Zombies primarily symbolize a deep misgiving we have about the power of bad ideas and the mind-body split. If we look at zombies politically, both Democrats and Republicans can get strong confirmation bias that they symbolize the other team. But we need to get outside the political mode to see the underlying issue: zombies represent bad ideas that won’t die.

Zombies (generally) represent a hopeless view of those infected with bad ideas: the best you can do is avoid them, or shoot them in the head (the locus of infection that animates the zombie).

Who gets infected with bad ideas? People. Warfare can be seen as the attempt to kill ideas or at least limit their power, by killing people. Of course, it’s not the dead who keep coming back to life; it’s the idea that infects them that won’t stay down. But when you have begun to look at people as merely the vector of a bad idea, whether they’re mindless resurrected people or people units with the same zombie traits, it doesn’t really matter. 28 Days Later is a zombie movie, even though the infection isn’t supernatural and the killed zombies stay dead — the point is that what looks superficially like a human is basically dead to us and yet still a threat.

To liberals, people infected with fascism are the main zombie threat (as opposed to those infected with the more general “authoritarianism”). After WWII, academics on the left worked hard to define, isolate, and produce a cure for fascist ideas. They cast a baleful eye at Nietzsche, Heidegger, Darwin, and classical philosophy. “We have decided the people aren’t the problem. We’ve tried killing them. Other fascist zombies just take their place.”

Unfortunately, they turned to linguistics as the antidote. “Maybe ideas don’t live in human minds,” someone suggested. “Maybe ideas live in _language_.”

“Is this true?” others asked.

“Eh, who gives a crap? It’s a _good_ idea. Let’s run with it, and not worry about the biology that might be involved. That stuff’s too hard, anyway, and wrong… probably… maybe. What’s truth, anyway? We’ll make our own truth.”

So neoliberal language manipulation was born, with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, it’s based on an error. Ideas are discovered, not invented. They are ultimately true in reference to an underlying reality that actually exists outside social construction and pushes back against falsehood. You cannot kill ideas by destroying them with language tricks. You only delay their articulation, and that of the better ideas that might actually be effective against them. (Ever wonder why critical theory papers aren’t written in plain language? It’s not because they’re written in rigorous technical language.) The best approach to creating a strongly articulated framework of propositions is killing bad ideas with falsifiable good ideas, which means science when we’re talking about the realm of facts (as opposed to the important but irrational realm of Meaning, of “What makes life worth living?”), so science really comes in for the stink-eye too.

If you’ve ever wondered why conservatives distrust liberals from an academic perspective, this is it. We can say #notallliberals, but only if we understand and fight the misguided attack on articulated knowledge that undermines (neo)liberalism. The magic spell against zombies that redefines previously serviceable terms like “privilege” and “racism” to kill their old meanings just doesn’t work.

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Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day! Today, I don’t narrowly celebrate the liberation of the US colonies from Britain; I celebrate freedom itself.

I celebrate you who manage to find education in school, and God in the Church or the Temple, despite those preaching conformity, literalism, learned dependence, and xenophobia. I celebrate those who, with humility, wisdom, and courage, strive to connect others to their own best ways of seeing and their own joy.

Freedom and tyranny are all around us, and can be found through the same doors. Let’s not stake our quest for facts on our aesthetics. Let’s not mistake what is for what ought to be, or for what exists in the world for what exists in a realm of perfected truth. Let’s help each other find his or her unique freedom, or get out of each other’s way.

The popular quote from Corinthians is meaningless to me without the qualification from Ursula Le Guin.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” –1 Corinthians 13:11

“The creative adult is the child who survived…. An adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.” –Ursula Le Guin

Many adults are not children who survived intact. They are beaten, scared, and submissive to a task master installed in their minds.

Tolkien put it better than I could: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Lord, let me learn something new today about freedom. Let me better connect with other people while strengthening my connection with myself. Again: Happy Independence Day!

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Epistemological Modes and the Dialectical Process

“An enlightened person seeks convergence in their thinking, not compartmentalization. They’re always looking toward the next synthesis.” So this seems to be the argument people are making against recognizing that science, politics, and art are separate modes — or attitudes — on a topic. Is this a thesis-antithesis situation? Can we make a synthesis?

Yes. The apparent contradiction is not real. Dialectic and dilatory are not the same thing. Making a synthesis and never defining the thesis are not the same thing. You cannot make a coherent thesis until you identify the mode in which you are operating. How do we square your idea of God with mine? We can’t do it by dominating the other person. We can’t do it through logic unless sharing the discoveries of logic opens us up to shared emotional experience. We experience God in the aesthetic mode. If we are there and open to each other’s humanity, we can pursue understanding and convergence.

If we are in the political mode, the mode of policy-making and persuasion once we’ve made up our own minds, then we cannot attempt a synthesis with someone still in the mode of questioning and discovery, unless we back out of the political mode.

If we are in the political mode, we cannot form a synthesis with the aesthetic mode. “The Nazi flag is pretty!” “How monstrous, it’s a symbol of genocidal hate!” These statements must be resolved with awareness of their respective modes.

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A Covid False Dichotomy

I wrote this on Facebook on May 17th, but it’s still mostly relevant six weeks later.



I’m more interested in suggesting how we think about this pandemic than what we should think. I see a lot of people sharing what we should think. Here’s how I think about it.

1.) Our goal should be to minimize death and suffering. So if we can agree on that premise, then we’re good to go on; otherwise, we need to get clarity here.

2.) If we’re good with the idea of minimizing death and suffering, we need to weigh the death and suffering of the virus itself against the death and suffering that results from lockdown measures.

3.) We have more options than complete anarchy versus lockdown enforced through martial law. However, our options change depending on the scenario we find ourselves in.

Is it possible to contain and eliminate the virus like the world did with SARS? Probably not. Is it possible to maintain the rate of infection to a low-enough level that we do not overburden our healthcare infrastructure. Probably so. Will we have a vaccine within a year? No. Will we have a vaccine soon enough that we can afford to pay people to stay home in the meantime? Highly doubtful. Is it worth extending the lockdown to give us time to ramp up testing and contact tracing? It might be if Americans would cooperate with contact-tracing.

So here’s where Trump and his progeny have been less than useless. The timelines of their confident predictions do not match up rationally with the policy they advocate. If we’re going to end this with a vaccine within the year, as Trump has suggested, or if this is going to go away after November 3, as Eric has suggested, then the most rational way to minimize death, suffering, _and_ economic impact is by paying a livable wage to everyone deemed a nonessential worker so that they can stay home, while we organize lockdown at the national level. Our national infrastructure includes the brain trust and carefully built machinery of small business. If we can support it but we don’t, the longterm economic cost will be unnecessarily high.

The federal government could _try_ to save lives by putting all nonessential workers on paid furlough until the end of the year and then see where we’re at. but it probably won’t, because it seems few people believe the expenditure will ultimately save lives or reduce suffering.

So what do we do? We act rationally within the uncertainty boundaries of our data and our reading of the political landscape. Of course, doing that requires strong, decisive leadership.

Can a rational person defend Trump? No. It’s clear that his ad hoc approach to this virus, consistent with a mindset of pathological self-interest, has been counterproductive. I’m not mentioning this primarily to campaign against Trump but as a point of basic reasoning: appealing to tribal divisions in order to make space for plausible deniability can only maximize the death and suffering: it ensures that the most counterproductive instincts of both left and right will hold sway. On the right, basic signs of social responsibility and science-based concern are rendered liberal call signs; the same for the left in regard to the right with any sane, context-based loosening of lockdown restrictions. Individual governors cannot set policy for half the country, so we normalize only the grossest, most prejudiced reactions.

So, again, what do we do? Individually, we can reject taking one side or the other of a false dichotomy. We can share ideas outside this narrative. Should the government force meatpackers back to work by denying them unemployment? On the one hand, we’ve got people being effectively conscripted into a dangerous fight. On the other, think of all that wasted meat!

Or come up with another hand. Why can’t we allow people in covid-compromised facilities to be treated as laid off, where they’ll still be obliged to seek employment elsewhere to receive benefits? Why can’t we have government-subsidized hazard pay to entice people to work the jobs deemed essential, at least until plant safety measures have proven effective over a reasonable period of time? Why do we go along with a simplistic freedom narrative that runs counter to the very idea of promoting individual choice in a free market?

Our void of national leadership will no doubt be filled with mandates imposed by the virus itself. Protect the people around you however you deem best, according to reason rather than partisanship. And if you think I’m being a hypocrite in regard to Trump, I get it, but I’m actually not attacking his behavior out of political allegiance or animus. If you can offer a simpler explanation, I’m open to it.

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Education Is the Job

When I was young, I had this idea of education preparing me for a career with established parameters, a kind of ready-made slot, and I really didn’t want to be slotted. “Writer” seemed like a good career, because it fit my aptitude, I admired good writing, and it seemed like a way to avoid getting stuck in other people’s expectations, which seemed a kind of hell to me.


I used to get very irritated with my fellow classmates who’d ask the teacher “How will we use this in the real world?” I saw they lacked imagination, and if they had to ask the question, then they’d forever be dependent on other people. The teacher invariably replied, “It depends what career you pursue.” This answer filled me with vague dread that I didn’t examine too closely. A better, yet still poor, answer would have been “It will give you options in what career to pursue.”


But the bounds of this discussion reflected outmoded thinking. It did not factor in technology.


Why did women’s education and feminism become a major force in the twentieth century? Because women suddenly realized they wanted more autonomy? No. Emphatically not. It happened because technology potentiated it, specifically medical technology that saved the lives of women and children during labor, and preserved the lives of children so that every woman did not have to have half a dozen children for population replacement. Secondarily, but maybe just as important, it was due to the advent of reliable birth control. Without those preconditions, feminism would always be constrained by biology. I don’t wish to debate feminism. I’m just using it as an example of how technology changes society and people’s options.


In the twenty-first century, the reason to pursue education is not to fit a career; it’s to enable you to adapt to an un-guessable future, to see opportunities, and to cobble together your own idiosyncratic career. “Career” is best viewed as an illusion. Everything now is education. You want to be a doctor? Best to consider “doctor” as a kind of educational track rather than a career track. Want to be an engineer? Are we talking about a kind of certification called “engineer” or are we talking about someone educated in certain kinds of engineering, and either way, is it something you get paid for? And art, music, and philosophy may be an indispensable component of that “engineering” education. All disciplines are really different modalities of a unified knowledge. Their separation is another illusion.


Then we have academic (or theoretical) and technical skills. These too are different modalities of the same thing, and I’d argue that if you are not a technician to some extent, creating products of use to other people, then your education is severely impoverished. Academic and technical training divorced from each other is like mouse input and keyboard input divorced from each other, or music theory and intuitive musicianship divorced from each other, or writing and editing divorced from each other: you may become proficient in one mode, but you will be exponentially more powerful if you combine them.


“How will we use this in the real world?” You’re in the real world, right now, even in grade school, high school, or college. There is education that the state pays for, there’s education you pay for, and there’s education you get paid for. That’s it. What kind of education do you want to pursue? The more education of all kinds you get, the more options you’ll have for different types of education later on — that is, the better you’ll be able to answer the question of what kind of education you want to pursue for leading a fulfilling life, which, in a capitalist society at least, will partly involve the issue of getting paid.


Nominally, I have been a writer, editor, programmer, CEO, and technology consultant, but what I really am is educated in a way that lets me move among those roles.
If you want to think about education leading to a job, you’re probably thinking the wrong way. Technology is redefining jobs too fast. For me, this was true even in the eighties, because I did not want to be slotted in a certain career.

But soon it will be true for everyone.

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