Saturday, August 31, 2013

JUST MINCHIN (on Opinion, Agreement, and Rhetoric)

In a performance linked here, of which an animated version was sent to me provocatively by a couple of minchievous friends, Tim Minchin argues entertainingly that reality is evidence-based. By evidence I take him to mean that which exists independently of ourselves and our opinions, and whose objective existence can be verified; something which all right-minded people accept, but which is carelessly ignored by deluded Creationists, pseudo-scientific astrologers, predatory faith healers, sloppy thinkers like the character Storm in the narrative… and of course me. Minchin makes his case engagingly, with a clever, salty, rhyming monologue, a domestic setting, and (most importantly) an enthusiastic audience. Here it is.

Persuasive?  Undoubtedly.  Objective? Surely not!  My friends, Mr. Minchin’s argument, or at least his art, has no clothes! He is the unabashed refutation of everything he so cleverly professes to believe. Not to be labeled an airhead like Storm, I must now attempt to refute him, and it's with the art of persuasion - which Minchin employs so well - that I must begin.

And let’s start at the very beginning. The ancient Greeks, you will recall, had a word for this art - rhetoric - and there was a then-popular school of philosophy, the Sophists, who practiced it. Socrates seems to have really had it in for these guys, managing to give sophistry a bad name that's stuck to it ever since.  Plato has him arguing that the art of persuasion is hollow, concerned with form rather than substance, the province of the confidence trickster and the charlatan,  whose wily way with words could convince even the erudite back then that black was white – surely the very antithesis of truth.  

That the Sophists got away with their sophistry, we may now say, was because there was as yet no discipline of science, no methodology to categorically tell you what was what. Myth had the weight of fact, and the world was essentially magical. Protagoras consequently was having little difficulty persuading his listeners that Man was "the measure of all things". Of underlying structure nothing was known. All was surface appeal. In such a world slick talk could get you far, and just as people today will pay handsomely for a good scientific education, so people back then paid big bucks to the likes of Protagoras and Gorgias to teach them the art of persuasion. Someone clearly had to put his foot down.

Enter Plato and a nascent science - the looming certainty of an objective world, in which up would henceforth be up, and down down; the world of mass, energy, and velocity; a world not of whatever you want, but of hard facts, in stark and unyielding opposition to mushy, passionate, willful, insubordinate you. You would henceforth be, like the fallen Adam and Eve, separate from Creation - a viewpoint from which it could all be measured, to be sure, but the measuring of which put you - the fickle and unmeasurable measurer - permanently in your place, subordinate to the real world you measured. As Minchin disingenuously puts it, "I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon."  Minchin? As if!  

But let’s stick with the Sophists just a bit longer.  In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates places them eighth in a social hierarchy of nine; one rung above the hated tyrants. Elsewhere he calls rhetoric a “knack”, a trick, and not an art at all. Now the Greek word for art was techne – from which we get our technology. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to practical ends. The operation of science in the real world was, at least to the Greeks, an art. To put science on a firm footing the art of the Sophists had to be excised from our collective consciousness.  Minchin may trumpet the positive results of that appalling lobotomy, but the negative repercussions of the resulting philosophy – that of pure objectivity, with nothing to balance it - are coming back to bite us.

Sophism hadn't always been in such bad graces. On the contrary, it had begun promisingly enough with the concept of arete.  Arete is usually translated as virtue, but this wimpy word mostly reflects the decline of the Sophists’ popularity in the age of Plato. A far better translation is excellence. The Sophists were originally in pursuit of all-round excellence: the man who could write and recite poetry, tell a good tale, excel in sports, display skill in horsemanship and exhibit prowess and bravery in battle. Rhetoric was a part of that discipline, all of which flowed naturally from a life far from superficial and false, but rather one that was by the standards of those days true, a life lived from the heart, the source of all that was Good, which, in pre-Socratic Greece, was the source of everything. 

Socrates, according to Plato, turned all that on its head. He called reason, truth and knowledge objective realities, placing them above mere senses, appearance, and opinion, which he considered relative truths. That hierarchy is with us still. Today the only context in which we hear the word rhetoric is in association with the pejorative epithet empty. Rhetoric - thanks to Socrates and, especially, that obsessive classifier, Aristotle - is still associated with baseless passion and bombast, the kind of shallow persuasion that appeals to the ignorant, stirring the emotions, but lacking substance; with a thick coating of surface appeal, but void of underlying structure: empty rhetoric.

Minchin’s Storm narrative, however, is blatantly rhetorical. What, therefore, one has to ask, is rhetoric still doing in our enlightened age? You may point out that this is art, and so he’s free to say what he likes – to entertain us is enough. But surely this would be to capitulate to the Platonic objection that art is mere decoration, and rhetoric a cheap trick to dress nonsense up as knowledge.  Minchin’s isn’t a circus act, or art for art’s sake. He’s defending “reality” against a felt threat: the re-encroachment of wishy-washy subjectivity. This is art in the service of its Platonic master, materialist science.  

Is the long-discredited, non-art of rhetoric then justified if used in support of truth, of the “facts”? Is there after all good rhetoric as well as bad? Is this, if you like, a case of “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”?  This, as it turns out, is exactly correct, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There is a difference, let us admit, between intellectual and pre-intellectual ignorance.  While the former might be called a lack of familiarity with the facts (whatever they may be), the latter fails altogether to acknowledge the validity of what contradicts its will.  This, however, turns out to be more a quantitative than a qualitative difference; willful ignorance and encyclopedic knowledge are on a sliding scale, and the latter can be as blind as the former when its cherished beliefs are threatened.

“Science” says Minchin “adjusts its views based on what’s observed.” Though true, this needs qualification. What scientists observe is conditioned by what scientists already believe. What we see is already driven by our predisposition to see it. There is an infinite amount of evidence available on every issue. We select what we look at based on our interest. We ignore whatever at present lacks value to us. The mere accumulation of raw data is in itself meaningless. Supposed scientific neutrality will not yield interpretation. On the contrary, neutrality leaves things as they are. It does not select. It does not take sides. The truly disinterested observer, if such a person existed, would make no sense of anything. 

“Faith denies observation to preserve belief,” he continues.  That science doesn’t also involve faith is a highly contentious issue, but here goes: to the extent that it’s based on assumptions it, too, is base on faith. The laws of physics are supposedly the bedrock of reality, yet no testable theory has yet been devised to explain them, and the subject is therefore, predictably, off-limits. The speed of light has been accepted as an immutable law, yet for years now it has been observed to change. However, scientists routinely and often deliberately ignore observed results such as this when they spoil the elegance of their own previously existing theories: when plotting a curve through data points any irregularity in the data points is judged random variation and ignored. Different beliefs – whether scientific or otherwise – lead to a different selection of facts. When it’s our own selection we call it objective; when it’s the other guy, we call it cherry-picking. 

So what’s going on here? Rhetoric is alive and well, because it remains the essential signpost of shared feeling pointing us in the direction of the accepted truth, in the present case bolstering our common sense by dignifying it with the popular label “objectivity”. Without persuasion we would be collectively rudderless, each wandering off on his own, unique course, unable to communicate with anyone else. Facts (what’s observed) do not speak for themselves. They are - always - what we make of them. Left to our own devices different people, scientists included, would make (note that word) different sense out of the data of experience. The result would be a veritable Tower of Babel. 

What Minchin calls self-evident and objective is a level of shared belief of sufficient duration that we no longer question it. ('Duration', 'durability', and 'endure' all come from the Indo-European root dru, from which we also get the word true. The truth is such not because it’s objective, but because in our experience it lasts, or – in the case of science and technology - works.)

In Minchin’s Storm argument what do we know – absolutely, irrefutably, objectively – that mere opinion holders don’t? He disses Storm’s contention that knowledge is mere opinion by suggesting that she try exiting her 2nd floor apartment through the window.  Even she, we instantly recognize, will hesitate, and we in turn leap readily to the conclusion that this proves the objectivity of knowledge. But we can equally argue that it remains Storm’s opinion that it would be foolhardy to leap from her second floor window.  She did not need to pass O-level Physics to appreciate this!  And nor, for that matter, did we. Why are fifty or even a thousand consenting opinions more objective than one? They aren’t.  They just make their agreed “object” seem more likely. The strength of the argument is in the numbers. We are powerfully persuaded by virtue of our participation in a group consensus. This is itself not objective evidence, but it’s the best thing we’ve got, and, mostly, it does the job.  

Minchin uses another rhetorical device: while his own ridicule passes unchallenged and even approved of, he has Storm, the outsider, the minority, rashly denigrate the value of knowledge by saying that it’s “merely” opinion.  He then contrasts “mere” opinion with what the majority believes, and of course garners a roar of righteous indignation from the crowd against this presumptuous airhead. How dare she belittle general knowledge? Our outrage is an expression of majority beliefs sincerely held, but whether and to what degree these correspond to an objective reality is literally anyone’s guess.  That part we have always to take on trust. What we believe, whether based on hearsay or experience, is still opinion, despite our numerical and moral superiority, because no matter how confidently we posit the existence of an external Truth corresponding to our collective beliefs, it can only be corroborated through the same collective agreement, and in no other way. 

People fall down; they walk into walls. After the painful fact they conjure up theories – about hardness, density, gravity, etc - that systematize these experiences. Other people test these theories and pronounce them workable, or not. Schools are created, to pass on this received collective wisdom. Later, institutions have to be built to deal with the increasing complexity of these created systems, which coalesce and interlock into larger and larger entities. Experts are now required, not just to understand them, but to tell people what to believe.  Enter the world of authority: “The real world is far too complicated for the man in the street to comprehend.”  In the minefield of moral strictures that in the past came to bind a subject-directed world, that authority was religion, organized under a single, unquestioned leader (whether Emperor, Pope, or Mohammed). Today, in the flatland of objectivity that Minchin avowedly worships, it’s science, nominally organized by a bureaucracy, and the bigger the better.

And then of course there’s Minchin’s command of language. Gorgias (a Sophist contemporary of Protagoras) paid particular attention to the sounds of words, which, like poetry, could captivate an audience. He, in opposition to Plato, called rhetoric the king of all the sciences(!) and his legendary powers of persuasion had an almost preternatural effect on his listeners. He was apparently capable (rather like Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony), of persuading them to any course of action. Similarly, and despite our far greater sophistication, we marvel at Minchin's virtuosity. His retentive mind enables him to make a wider array of mental connections than we, his admiring audience, are probably capable of. We therefore feel privileged to swim in this generous verbal pond. He has created a reality we're inadequate to challenge.  We are, in a word, mesmerized.

Thus is established his authority; a sturdy platform from which – not unlike, say, the late Christopher Hitchens - he can fire almost at will. The stage, lighting, and seating in the auditorium are physical enhancements of that authority, his audiences rendered more willing, more eager participants thereby. The stage is set!  We swallow his words as audiences two and a half millennia ago swallowed those of Gorgias; as did even the followers of Jim Jones.  We happily follow this Pied Piper down the path he creates, as we willingly make the same connections. It's a joyride of collective affirmation. 

We trust our authorities because we count them more knowledgeable than ourselves, and because they are on our side. That is our dual faith. If they were fallible, or not on our side, how would we know?  “Trust, but verify” was a catchy slogan of George H. W. Bush, but trust is by definition where the buck stops, as far as our quest for truth is concerned.  Beyond a certain point in any investigation we deem it unnecessary, or impossible to go. At that point, we say, the truth is “self evident”.  What we may mean by this is that we have reached the landmined border of our belief system. Beyond that perimeter we dare not step, for fear of the moral damage our beliefs might then suffer. 

Speaking of flatland, what if Minchin and the majority had agreed that the world was flat, but Storm believed otherwise?  How would the lonely Storm have fared then? I think we can predict with some certainty that the result would be exactly the same – “Why don’t you try walking off the edge of the Earth, Storm?!” followed by general derision, followed by ostracism, followed by Storm again treated like the Mad Hatter, and confined metaphorically to a tea cup. From the superiority of our current experience we confidently label those flatlanders ignorant, but they were pointing to what was then irrefutable fact, just as we are today.  

But surely real science works differently; for one thing more methodically. The results prove it.  Back at the start Socratic dialogue introduced critique, the precursor of the scientific peer review. Dialogue put “mere” opinion to the test of logic:

Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.

Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?

Protagoras: Indeed I do.

Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.

Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates.

One in the eye for the Sophists? Minchin and my minchievous friends might like to think so, but what Socrates has exposed here is not actually a falsehood, but a paradox. The position of Socrates, that truth is independent of all observers, remains true for Socrates; and the position of Protagoras, that each viewpoint makes truth relative to the observer, remains true for Protagoras. The latter does not grant that the former is absolutely correct, only that he is "quite", i.e. relatively, correct. The two views therefore remain opposed to each other, with neither logically able to claim ascendancy. Dialogue alone is insufficient to establish truth in the face of persistent disagreement between the two parties concerned over their interpretation of the evidence.

How do they break this deadlock? Naturally, they must call in a third party - the tie-breaker in all questions from the selection of the next Nobel Prize winner to the existence of the Higgs boson; from 9/11 to global warming. Whichever side the third party now takes will gain the upper hand. If there are more voters and the vote is deadlocked then the question (whatever it is) will remain open - one of those unsolved conundrums that keep academics in gainful employment. If, however, a clear preponderance of voters can be persuaded - by appeals to experience, or authority, or common sense, or  money, or prestige, or patriotism, or duty, or self-preservation (not, however, to the bare facts, for it is their interpretation that is at issue) - to take one side then the question will be considered largely "solved". The minority will be ridiculed as fringe crackpots who stick stubbornly to outmoded ideas. With ridicule will come opprobrium. Their research funding will be reduced, then, if they remain unrepentant, stopped. No longer bringing credit to the institution they represent, their peers, concerned for their own reputations, will now be reluctant to review their work. Unpublishable, they will remain unhired, and sink into academic oblivion. In precisely this fashion is the accumulating, onward flow of knowledge perpetuated.  And it works!  It just isn’t objective.

This familiar chain of events brings unwanted attention to another Sophist contention: might is right.  Again, the materialists are outraged at this heresy, and again the outcome of the debate is a paradox: the majority loudly protests that might is not right, it’s “truth” that has prevailed, while of course the downtrodden minority insists (though not quite so audibly) that it is, and it hasn’t!

Socrates showed not that the Sophists were particularly stupid (he admitted at his trial that his dialogues made everyone uncomfortable), but that we are all caught by thought itself in an endless series of such paradoxes: absolute versus relative truth, free will versus determinism, value vs objectivity, mind vs matter, waves vs particles.  The Platonists saw paradox as a proof of sophist falsehood.  Today it remains anathema to materialist science, though familiar to quantum physics - an inescapable outcome of the thinking process; a process necessitating the positing of an external world independent from the thinker, a process itself called into being largely in response to the limitations and consequent excesses of its more ancient antithesis, sophism. By switching the focus of attention from the subject to the object Platonic philosophy merely exchanged one problem – the fantasy world of untrammelled ego - for another - the unbridled expansion of logic into the illogical.

But the ego is still with us, pulling the strings, though hidden now behind a curtain of rational denial.  Minchin points out that - 

Alternative medicine that’s been proved to work is called medicine.”


Every mystery ever solved turned out to be not magic.” 

I think Arthur Schopenhauer said it best:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

At the ridiculous phase no-one can yet tell what will become fact.  Please think about that a moment.  It often takes an outsider to point mankind in a new direction, and that’s where every true discovery takes us.  The mainstream has dug itself a deep channel, and a great deal of effort, pain, and sometimes even martyrdom may be needed to redirect it. Though more subtle in its methods than the Inquisition, the path of scientific progress has been marked at every turn by the ridicule and vilification of those of its pioneering practitioners who strayed too far from the orthodoxy of the Establishment.  The victims of the Inquisition knew what they were up against.  We, for the most part, do not: there is an almost universal belief among scientists whose work is ignored that, if their colleagues would only look at the evidence, their work would be vindicated.  This belief rests on precisely the kind of misunderstanding about the nature of truth and the way it is arrived at that I have been taking about here.  Facts do not speak for themselves.  Evidence is not like ripe fruit, waiting to be plucked.  Its configuration is dictated by the predispositions of the person looking at it.  If you are not predisposed to see it, you won’t.

Minchin himself asks a question at the end of his tirade which threatens to undermine his entire argument  -

Isn’t this enough? This unfathomable universe?  

Now, I feel, we’re getting near the crux of the matter.  If this universe is, after all, “unfathomable”, what potentials might it not contain?  What, in the final analysis, is the difference between mystery and magic?  The creativity of which Minchin is such an outstanding exponent is universally acknowledged to come from we know not where.  Great ideas just “pop into our heads”.  Afterwards we may rationalize their origins, but at the moment they occur they have the quality of magic.

There is a reason for this that lies beyond logic.   It is that creativity arises in the mind before the subjects and objects over which the West has battled for two and a half millennia.  Creativity is to be found neither in the subject, nor in any object.  It precedes all thought of subjects and objects, because it precedes all thought.   We are creative when we forget ourselves.  Minchin at his keyboard, or the scientist staring intently at or through his instruments , is in a state of absorbtion.  He is not concerned with himself, and from this may have arisen the misconception that he was in some sense “being objective”,  but he is, more accurately,  simply absent.  At the moment of creation neither subject nor object is anywhere to be found.  Both have coalesced into an indivisible, single thing.  The same occurs in the actor, the swordsman, the tennis champion, the lover. 

The act of creation brings forth the world of subjects (me) and objects (the world I observe). Within the creative fountainhead the paradoxes that arose with thought are temporarily laid to rest. I and my world are seen as identical, and all opposites are reconciled. Inside is also outside. Impenetrable darkness  becomes blinding light.  And perhaps  Shroedinger’s cat is both alive and dead, and both tortoise and rabbit win the race. 

And Minchin is at one and the same time an insignificant scrap of carbon, and the center of his admiring universe. Doubtless tongue-in-cheek, he calls his life “unimportant”.  A professed belief in objectivity demands this of him, because “the center” can only refer to something measurable, like the center of the Milky Way galaxy. According to this view the Earth is very insignificant indeed, and Tim Minchin less significant still.  But Tim doesn’t really believe this, and nor does anyone else.  My life is important!  Every sentient being operates from that unshakable premise.  The Sophists knew it.  But Minchin, like Plato, while himself living by the same precepts of excellence, dangerously denounces the importance of the individual from the pulpit he has himself built in order to share his unique views. 

Fun-loving, creative tightrope walker though he is, the gifted Mr. Minchin represents, for me, the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg, most of whose deadly mass lies hidden beneath a placid surface of unexamined assumptions. He scoffs at the “cheap, man-made myths” of religion, but the myth of objectivity with which he would replace them is entirely bereft of meaning of any kind. This myth (I’m beginning to sound like Storm!) is dehumanizing humanity, and denuding the planet.  “Don’t blame science,” you say? The wanton and insatiably greedy tampering that modern technology enables is part-and-parcel of its hidden hubris; pretending an absence of the ego that continues to drive us forward.  The morally unaccountable cleverness of science has turned our mother Earth into a playground for genetic engineers, and a mere commodity for multinational corporations. Our Machiavellian masters, in their age-old quest for absolute power, and with the means now apparently within their grasp, are working all-out to control our food supply, our weather, and our minds.

In conclusion, without the participation of the observer there is nothing to observe. Our universe, far from being an objective flatland, is entirely moral and arises only in and through the act of observation - more properly, participation.  The universe of which you are empirically the center is a quality event, forever unfolding.  You are inescapably the measure (if you prefer, measurer) of all things.  But no man is an island.  The agreement essential to social cohesion requires that some things be one way and not another. Agreeing to disagree merely shelves the dispute. The very demand for agreement underscores – no, proves - the objective neutrality of everything; nothing whatever of value can be deduced objectively.  We all see - we all value - the world differently. The causes of global warming, for example, are not arbitrary, but until we agree what they are they remain in limbo; in potential, as a quantum physicist would say. Having agreed, if we later decide they are something else, what then of the so-called “objective” facts we previously believed?  Thy will simply disappear, like the ephemera they are; as did the “fact” that the Earth was once flat.

And here’s a bonus for making it to the end of this post -