What We Can and Cannot Know
What We Can Know
Famous seventeenth century philosopher Descartes set out to discover what we can know with some certainty. He was familiar with the study of geometry because he taught it and wrote about it. He understood how it started with small number of known propositons and worked its way in tiny steps to a vast number of less obvious ones. We assume that he wished to take the techniques of geometry and apply them to other realms of knowledge. When one considers his philosophical writing, among what remains most useful today is his advocacy of starting with a very solidly known propostion or group of propositions and reasoning from known to known. It may be compared to crossing a creek by hopping from one dry stone to the next. Science has taken Descartes’ advice and it has made much progress working the same way. It can be a painstakingly slow method, but it is a reliable one.
In his most famous work, Descartes starts out by distrusting his senses. As we worked out earlier, senses are unreliable. They depend on unreliable perceptions and even less reliable interpretations that are shaped by language, culture, and belief. But it is worse than that. One can fall asleep and dream. Or, as Descartes argues, one could be deceived by a demon. In any case, Descartes imagines that anything one senses might actually be a product of the imagination. If that is so, what is left? Only cogitation. Descarte’s thinks he thinks. And he concludes from this that he exists. Cogito ergo sum.
It’s not much, but it is a start - that this one thing is knowable with a pretty high level of certainty. Sadly, with but a single known proposition, not much deductive philosophy can ensue. So with this we know as much as we can from the mere act of thinking. By thinking we learn to think that we think. We imagine so because we cannot imagine the products of another’s dreams having dreams themselves.
Descartes’ work echoes work of previous philosophers in many ways. One way is a profound skepticism about what we know. There are reasons why such a skepticism may be unwarranted, especially if one is a practical person just trying to get along in the world. But there are reasons for skepticism that are profoundly useful. What if there are things we assume to be true that are sometimes or always false? It would be useful to know this. But our cultures and languages tend to blind us to these problems because the conceptual blind spots are embedded in them. Skepticism, by systematically denying sacred assumptions embedded in what we do, think, and say, will sometimes root out problems in ways other methods cannot. So the practical reason for Descartes’ exercise is to get us to a point where we are capable of discarding ideas and assumptions that we accept implicitly, not because they are correct or useful but because we have taken them as givens from authorities who may have been in other ways trustworthy.
One of the philosophical traditions Descartes appears to be following is the tradition of denying the external world. Until the rise of the empiricists in England, the Continental approach to philosophy was all there was, and this was part of that tradition We will take Descartes’ word for it that there is no convincing proof for an outside world based in logic. But let us try an empirical approach.
Let us suppose one were a philosopher who wished to use an empirical approach to discover if there were an outside world. How would one proceed? One would first start by realizing that a contrapositive proof would work nicely. Imagine that there is not an outside world and if that position becomes impossible to maintain, one must accept that there is an outside world. One might stop eating. Food, after all, might be imaginary. One might stop drinking, fluid might be imaginary. The fastest means, of course, would be to stop breathing. So hold your breath.
Now for so long as a philosopher can hold her breath she can succeed in denying an outside world. But the moment she ceases to hold her breath she implicitly assents to the fact that the exchange of air in the lungs is necessary. And if this exchange is necessary, it puts the air on the same level of existence as the being that requires it. But, one might argue “What if my senses decieve me? What if I only imagine that I breathe or do not breathe?” There is only one response. “Hold your breath until you are convinced otherwise.” It is not a very elegant body of reasoning, but the persuasive effect can be quite strong. Either one is persuaded that there is an external world, or one loses consciousness, stops thinking, and resumes breathing. And, by such an outcome, one learns that the assumption that there is an external world, if philosophically less robust than Descartes’ argument regarding thinking, is empirically more so.
We will admit that this is more a scientific proof than it is a philosophical one. There are dangers in confusing one with the other. Furthermore, there may be compelling reasons to deny the external world. There is a whole branch of mysticism based on doing just that. Siddhartha, for instance, argued that all pain, sadness, dissatisfaction arose from human attachment to physical things. And the practice that he established, which came to be known as Buddhism, had as a central tenet the discipline of meditation aimed at denying the existence of the material world. It achieves mental quiescence by methods that move thought from the material world to other worlds. The goal of the practice is to escape the displeasures of the world by nirvana, or non-existence. Not many of Buddhism’s practitioners achieve this, but those few who do succeed realize, perhaps, what empirical philosophers might fail to do in attempting to deny an external world. Still, so long as we are convinced that we are happier eating and reproducing than we are simply dematerializing, there is something to be said for acknowledging a material existence.
Those of us who exist short of nirvana are left with two certainties. By thinking, we can be convinced that we think, and almost as convinced that we exist. By denying the existence of the external world we can prove its existence empirically. We have arrived at the two banks of the Humean stream: the one bank is “matters of fact” and the other is “relationships of ideas.” It doesn’t help us much. But it is something.
The Rise of Empirical Science and its Disaffections
A person who studies science and then reads Aristotle might be struck with two antithetical responses. The first is a jaw-dropping surprise at how far Aristotle got using casual observation and the Socratic method. His work really was not surpassed until the English had been studying Greek for a few centuries and inventing their own empirical philosophy. Aristotle is a great example of how one can push knowledge to its limits by working inside some logical framework. But his work is also a perfect example how one can sometimes drive well outside its operational bounds in the absence of experiment. Today’s scientist can be amazed at how completly wrong some of his concepts are.
As we mentioned above, Aristotle did science in a way we view today as being odd. He thought carefully about the world he observed. He imagined that his powers of observation were sufficient to deduce all of the relevant scientific relationships. We make observations today, too, and we think about them carefully. But today our methods of observing the world and of deducing scientific knowledge is purposefully controlled so that any obeservations we do make have some hope of having good predictive value.
It was the English who established both a new way of doing philosophy and a new way of doing science, one that acknowledged the outside world and sought to understand it through systematic observation. One early philosopher of this flavor was William of Ockham, known for “Occam’s Razor.” His observation goes to the heart of making models by which we interpret data. Loosely interpreted, he advises descriptive models be as general and as parsimonious as possible. They must explain as much as possible with the smallest possible expression - one using the least number of terms. This remains a primary standard against which all predictive models are judged. It is the standard for the Agatha Christie murder mystery just as it is for the scientific model.
It was Roger Bacon in 13th century England who proposed learning by controlled observation. He was the first prominent English philosopher to perform controlled experiments, and his methods of inquiry became the standards that inform science today. Controlled observation seems like an obvious notion now, but it overturned a more than a thousand years of scholastic practice that focussed almost exclusively on more informal observation and intense cogitation. At least until the turn of the twentieth century, the continental methods dealt more rigorously with the model-making side of things, while English methods tended to be a bit more experimental. A rich interplay between these two sorts of approaches led to much progress, in the eighteenth and ninteenth century.
Once again, we see the two banks of the stream. On one bank, the bank of fact, stands Bacon advocating experimental observation. On the opposite bank, the bank of “relationships of ideas” we see Occam advocating interpretive methods that are simultaneously compact and robust. They stand near each other in sense, in geography, and in time. These ideas taken together establish the birth of both empirical philosophy and empirical science.
It was not, however, until Newton’s work on motion and on gravitation that this new method would prove its full worth. Newton’s work is a kind of crown jewel of science because it answers a question that all men before him had asked when they observed the heavens: How does it all work? Newton, with a very tiny, very general set of equations - one for gravitational force and one for what he calls centrifugal force ( an artifact of the acceleration that arisis from circular motion ) - describes the motions of all observed heavenly bodies. And apples. The work is practically defines what Occcam’s Razor is and does. And it describes some of the most painstakingly taken data taken to that time, measurements of planetary motion.
In order to describe these motions accurately Newton invents a new mathematical language that today we know as calculus. Calculus is a language that lives in the “relationship of ideas” and so, too, does Newton’s description of gravitation, expressed in mathematical terms. Had Newton only invented calculus, he would be considered a towering genius; for calculus has proven to be of immense use in solving a host of physical problems. But his description of gravitation also led directly to much more profound and quantitative understanding of electrical and magnetic phenomena and to the understanding of heat transfer in solids.
In short, Newton’s work transformed our understanding of the universe. Before Newton, the heavens were chaotic and so was the earth. Everything was chaos. But as people’s minds grew accustomed to Newton’s point of view, the universe itself became well ordered. It was understood that all of matter behaved precisely according to universal rules. And it only made sense that if one could understand those rules, one could know everything.
It was the precise measure of time that allowed much of Newton’s work on motion. And it was therefore the precise measure of time that allowed him to create his model of gravitation. The clock was rather new, and it still had the mystique of being somehow special, almost magical. And so it was predictable that the clock should eventually be used as a point of comparison, or a paradigm for a mechanical universe.
Newton’s laws allowed one to predict the motions of heavenly bodies just like clockwork. In the case of heavenly bodies, if one knew at one point in time precisely where they were located and precisely their velocity (or all the things that affected this ) one could calculate where each heavenly body had been in the past and where it would be at any moment in the future. Like clockwork. This tempted the notion that everything in the universe behaved the same way. If we could derive all of the governing equations that determine everything about the universe and one could know its state with high accuracy at one point in time, then one ought to be able to treat all physical phenomenon throughout the universe in the same manner. One writes the equations, solves them, knows everything. This idea has been central to or at least not far from the motivation of all scientific pursuits since Newton’s. It is a kind of a “dream of knowing.”
Newton’s work changed the way Europeans saw the universe. And it changed the way Europeans saw man. An early example is Hobbes’ view of society in Leviathan. He imagines society to run like clockwork. He imagines a man to be a kind of cog in a societal wheel. This, at least is the underpinning of the work - it goes on to develop another metaphor that serves the purpose of the work better and the ends of man perhaps less well. But Hobbes is the first to apply a kind of Newtonian determinism to societal forces, and it is the start of a trend. By the time of the French Revolution, empiricists imagine the body to be nothing but a complex biological machine. It is a view that pervades science and popular culture to this day.
There are a number of compelling reasons to imagine that the universe is deterministic, and that by studying it more cleverly we shall come to know it better. Not the least of these reasons is that studying to know it better allows us to create a richer living environment; more stuff, less work. And this allows us to practice the arts, where man has traditionally found most meaning. Science, by providing for our physical needs allows us, sometimes, to be more ourselves.
But there are some compelling reasons to imagine otherwise, as well. The romantics imagined that reducing man to the status of a biological machine served man’s psychological needs badly. Mary Shelly conjures up a vision of science, represented by Dr. Frankenstein, being overcome by its less than human creation, a monster without empathy. It is a scathing rejection of science’s relentless reductionism. And appropriately, it hits home.
So we approach a fundamental problem about science : what is it for? Science and scientific knowledge are by definition about the factual world. They are about what is materially real, what materially exists. This allows us some amount of mastery of that material world, and this mastery allows, at least for some time, a comfortable standard of living. Mastery of the material world can allow us more, too. To the extent that we can understand our own actions, atitudes, behaviors, propensities, aptitudes, desires, sources of satisfaction, relational needs, social connections, societal problems, and so on by employing empirical methods, we need to do this; because while the process is painfully slow, and the results are frequently different from what we imagine, the process tells us important things about our lives. And they are things that we need to know.
Humans are fundamentally social, relational. While it may be that our chief dissatisfactions are material problems, our chief sources of satisfaction arise from interactions with others. Science has recently proven this. And the purely reductionistic point of view that characterized enlightenment science manages to deftly dodge this fact by understanding man as a collection of parts. Not only does it separate the whole man from his society, but it separates his nose from his face, his tongue from his mouth, his liver from his spleen. This is a necessary part of understanding man as a material object, but the relationships between the parts will often explain much more than the individual parts themselves. One cannot know everything about a liver when it exists isolation from all the other organs, floating in a preservative bath. The same is true of a human considered outside society. The process cannot end with reductionism.
It is the mystical arts that have the longest history of studying the sources of human affection and disaffection. It is the mystical arts that hew most closely to describing sources of happiness. One hypothesis for this we work out in a brief essay on mysticism and language. In it we suggest that mysticsm is well described as a kind of open puzzlement. And that its satisfaction sometimes lies in this state itself, and sometimes in the solution of puzzles. This state of being is a requirement for the early acquisition of language; without it, language would be too difficult to learn. This is a hypothesis that science might be able to validate. But that validation would not be sufficient to create the same sense of satisfaction as a puzzle well solved.
Solving puzzles brings a sense of joy. I remember my own sense of joy when, in the middle of a first year physics midterm I realized why tides were high twice a day rather than once a day. I will not ruin the fun for those who wish to work it out, but the hint I needed was that the earth and moon, in their dance, rotate around a common point that is not at the center of the earth, but is about 1000 miles beneath the earth’s surface. Feyman’s lectures on physics provides further hints. It helps to keep in mind the fundamental equilibrium problem that Newton was trying to solve when he invented the idea of gravitation. I remember getting more joy from solving this puzzle than from all the Christmas presents I have gotten, put together. This suggests that sometimes we do science not so much for the rewards of the discovery as for the rewards of discovering. The act of doing science - of working out an explanatory model for some phenomenon - is actually quite a satisfying thing. It is, in my own view of mysticism, a kind of mystical experience. And, in fact, Buddhist practice prescribes koans which are little puzzles whose solution provides the same sort of satisfaction.
My own advice is this: The subject of science is the material world. If we want answers about the material world we must turn to science. The world of spirituality is about our sense of well-being. To the extent that this is affected by the material world - our external conditions, the chemistries of our brains, and soon - again we must turn to science for help. But our satisfactions are relational and mystical. If we are to live lives of joy and satisfaction, we need to live lives that soar far above the reductionistic views of enlightenment scientists.
In a material sense, it is what we know that matters. In a spiritual sense, it is what we do not know that keeps us interested. One does not use a sledgehammer to sew sutures; nor catgut to drive railroad spikes. It is essential that, when we consider issues of science and spirituality we make good distinctions.
What We Know We Cannot Know
The twentieth century dawned in Europe in a hopeful way. In physics, all the important problems had been solved; only a few loose ends remained to be cleaned up. Chemistry had been transformed from a black art to a science. And between Darwin and Mendell, all of the forces in biology seemed to be well understood. The head of the US patent office had, not long before, proposed closing it because “everything that would be invented had been.” Railways and steamers moved cargo and people in unprecedented comfort and ease. And Bertrand Russell, a prominent mathematician worked on a set theory of everything. It was halcyon days for the world of knowledge.
Then all hell broke loose.
At roughly the same point in history:
1) Quantum physics supplanted classical physics in the study of atomic phenomena
2) Goedel’s theorem doomed Russell’s work to either incompleteness or incoherence
3) Fluid flow problems proved the existence of a world that could be described completely using mathematics, but whose behavior was indeterminate.
Each of these items limits what can be known. And each operates in a different domain of knowledge, attacking our sense of knowability at different levels.
Quantum physics presents several ‘knowledge’ problems. One of the more troubling is a view of the world that raises questions about our understanding of the notions of cause and effect. It is unclear whether these questions arise more from the state of the universe - one in which time is not meaningful for certain kinds of processes - or whether they arise from some misapprehension we have about the very nature of cause and effect.
The most easily understood of the problems raised by quantum phyics is the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle. It is a principle that deals with empirical measurements involving electrons and other tiny particles. It says, in mathematical language, that the more precisely you would measure the position of an electron, the more you must alter its velocity. And vice versa. The practical upshot is that one cannot measure, with arbitrary precision, both an electron’s position and its velocity. If the electron were the next bus I could know either how close it was to the stop before mine, or how fast it was travelling. But I could not measure both to an arbitrary accuracy. There is a theoretical limit to how much time I can hope to shave from my wait at the bus stop. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle then, tells us something about the limits we encounter in mensuration. It tells us that not only can we never simulteously know the state of every particle in the universe, but we cannot do so for one particle. It is like saying “we have a clock with lots of hands and some hands are pointing up and some hands are pointing down, but most of the hands we cannot see.”
If one generalizes this principle a bit, it means that one cannot measure a system without affecting its state. In systems that are very large and very robust, this is frequently not the sort of problem that it is in quantum physics. A vague awareness of the problem and a wise choice of measurement techniques will frequently be more than enough to allow a useful measurement of macroscopic quantities.
But not all macroscopic systems are that robust. There is a West Wing episode in which a pollster is tasked with finding out what voters would think if they learned their President had MS. Now, if several thousand people got a call asking that question, and if several of them communicated it to someone else, it would not be long before the poll would start a rumor that the president had MS. In other words, the act of measuring would cause a change in the system. Pollsters are aware of this and some, I am led to understand, exploit it to mislead voters.
It is notable that in quantum physics one is dealing with the states of a small collection of particles of matter and in elections one is doing essentially the same thing. It is not intuitively obvious that quantum physics would give us insights into societal behavior, but in this case it does. And it means that measurements of societal beliefs can change those same beliefs. In both cases, we are presented with a fundamental problem of mensuration.
The uncertainty principle dealt with problems of measuring. It is an idea that deals with the fundamental limits on controlled experiments. It limits what we can know of “fact.” But there exist problems of knowability within the world of “relationaships of ideas.” Goedel, a contemporary of Einstein, and a friend, worked out a novel proof. It said that any formal system sufficiently powerful to prove all true propositions within that system, must be capable also of proving false ones as well. Or, put another way, if one excluded from a formal system the capacity of proving false propositions, that system would be incapable of proving all true ones. Either way one looked at it, if one created a formal system to describe something of interest, one could not perfectly enumerate all true and all false propositions.
The form of Goedel’s proof suggested that the problem lay in self-referential propositions such as “this proposition is true” and “this propositon is false” and “All Cretins are liars. I should know; I am one.” It is possible that Goedel’s theorem demonstrates a kind of singularity in mathematics and that its repercussions do not reach very far. It may be that what is unknowable in mathematics is so small as to be insignificant. Goedel’s proof may be a trivial proof in the sense that it may apply to a tiny and insignificant nugget of propositional knowledge. But the simple existence of a proof succeeds in demonstrating that even if we confine ourselves to the world of “relationships of ideas” there are limits to where our models might take us. That is a profound insight.
Men of towering intellect who saw these first two knowledge problems were less troubled by them than they were by the third. Von Karman studied quantum physics before turning to fluid mechanics and he was more troubled by the lack of “knowability” in the latter.
Fluid systems can be described with an extremely high level of accuracy using the Navier-Stokes equations. These equations account for all of the forces that are exerted on fluids, and describe fluid motions completely. They are taken to be correct. And in all known formal senses thay are so.
But the first problem with fluid systems is that there are stable systems that admit multiple solutions. The classic is a toroidal convective cell. An annular space - it is shaped like a doughnut - is fitted with an inner wall that is heated and that rotates. If one makes the space tall enough, several doughnut shaped convection cells will form. The fluids in the apparatus self organize into doughnut shaped flows, flowing upward at the center, outward at the top, downward on the outside and inward on the bottom. But under identical conditions, the number of such doughnut shaped cells that form naturally and stably is indeterminate. In one experiment it may be 3. In another, using identical conditions it may be 4. There is no way of knowing in advance of doing the experiment. Nobody can predict exactly how many will form. Here, we have a problem that we can describe with almost perfet mathematical accuracy using reliable mathematical tools, but we know that we cannot know the answer. We know what can happen. We know what cannot happen. We know what is likely to happen. And what is unlikely. But we cannot know what will happen.
More vexing still is the phenomenon of “turbulence.” Fluids flowing along a solid boundary will flow smoothly for some distance. Then, wierd things happen. Patches of fluid lift up off the surface and form whirling dervishes above it. This is the transition from laminar to turbulent flow. One can predict where along the surface it is likely to start; but once it has started, there is no analytical way to predict the motion of the fluid. Nor is there a way to predict it with arbitrary accuracy using numerical models. One can predict average behavior, but not actual instantaneous behavior at a point.
This all sounds very abstract, but the equations that describe this turbulent flow are the ones that describe the motion of air in weather. Weather prediction relies on being able to predict the fluid motions of air. And it fails to do so in a robust way over long time intervals because of some of these problems. The good news is that the effect is not huge. This means that one can predict weather with suitable accuracy for some number of days. And past that point one can still use methods that are more stable to produce guesses that are, on average, helpful.
Still, as a practical matter, weather is not knowable far into the future. And there are very good reasons to believe that it cannot be. Small perturbations can lead to significant differences in a distant location at a distant point in time. The effect is sometimes known as the “butterfly effect” because in some sense, a butterfly’s motions in Guatemala may produce changes of state that ripple through the system changing whether there is a thunderstorm in St Louis half a year or a year later.
The turbulent flow model is an example of a system that can be described mathematically with very high precision but whose mathematical formulation cannot be solved exactly, or analytically within mathematics. It can, however be solved approximately. But the form of the equation is such that small inaccuracies accumulate and cause the calculated solution to diverge from the real world phenomena it is predicting. This happens with a huge number of problems.
So we have seen how quantum physics predicted a theoretical limit to what we can measure about the physical world. We have seen how mathematics itself tells us that it cannot tell us everything. And we have seen how real world systems demonstrate behaviors that defy prediction using mathematical tools that are approrpriately suited to describing them. With these examples we have seriously bounded the grand vision of a completely predictable mechanical universe. We know that our knowledge is limited. But we cannot be sure from these examples whether this is a serious practical limitation or just an interesting thing to know. But we do know that the vision of the mechanical universe is a doomed artifact of history. We need to be able to adapt its strengths without falling prey to its weaknesses.
In this brief essay, we started out with the notion of certainty. We developed two propositions about which we can be pretty certain; one in the field “relationships of ideas” and one in the field of “fact.” We gave reasons why propositions beyond these are more speculative. Then we briefly developed the conditions that gave rise to the Newtonian revolution, and touched on some of its dissatisfactions. Finally, we discussed some fundamental limits of knowledge. The hope is to develop a sense of what we mean when we say “know.” We intend to develop the sense that when we say “know” we say it in a guarded and functional sense. We say it only to allow ourselves to act. And when we act, we must do so subject the awareness that we risk error, even in cases where we know quite a bit.
The proper relationship between knowledge and action will be the subject of a subsequent piece.
Sensation, Perception, & Interpretation
Decisions about what to believe and how to act are informed by knowledge. The quality of these decisions impacts our lives as individuals and as a society. Bad decisions about beliefs and actions create unhappy societies. Good decisions about beliefs and actions help create happy societies. Knowledge informs good decisions. But almost all decisions must be made on the basis of incomplete knowledge. A blind person who understands the limitations associated with blindness is equipped to act more wisely than a blind person who, used to seeing, keeps on pretending that he can see when he really cannot. It is not knowledge alone that we need, but an understanding of where our blindspots are. We need to understand what we do know, what we do not, what we can and cannot know. And we need to understand how to act accordingly.
What do we know? How do we know it? Wherein lies our certainty? What we propose to argue here is that when we say “know” we mean “presume to know” or “know on the basis of certain assumptions that we trust.” And that many of the assumptions that we trust are not necessarily trustworthy. Yet we trust them because the alternative requires more investigatory and reasoning power than most of us have the time or energy to employ. To make matters worse, we have come to understand that certain things are ultimately unknowable. We have to make do on partial knowledge, no matter how smart or well-informed we might be. So we make decisions with what we have. This is often the most suitable course of action, but it presumes that we are open to change; we do not simply keep on making the same bad mistakes over and over in the face of compelling evidence that we are doing just that. Not if there is a better alternative.
Our goal here is to develop a framework about knowledge. We wil work first develop the ideas on which our definition of knowledge rests. We will define knowledge. We will talk about what we can know with some certainty. Then we will look at a brief history of knowledge. In it we will discover that there are a number of things we know we cannot know. Finally, we will touch on the issue of making decisions in the absence of adequate knowledge. It’s a topic that could not be completely treated in a huge encyclopedic volume of work; but we will give it a few meager paragraphs.
Real vs Ideal - Two Banks of the River Unknown
Plato firmly fixed the notion of two parallel universes within our culture: the real, material universe; and the ethereal, ideal universe. There was much merit in the idea because it suggested a mental representation of the real and it suggested that this representation is not identical to the real. Furthermore, it suggested that when a man created a thing, he was inspired by some ideal for that thing. Today we might call that a design. Plato’s idea had problems though. He imagined an ideal bed. In his model, all beds were failed approximatons of some singular ideal bed. All beds in Plato’s take on things fall short of ideal bedness. It may be true that all beds are less than ideal, but not for the reason Plato assumed. His notion is rendered nonsense if one imagines that each sleeper has subtly different needs. Ideal comfort derives from different needs in sleeping surface. Ideal decoration qualtiies derive from different tastes and decorating environments. The idea of a single ideal bed is nonsense. A similar sort of argument goes for blue as an instantiation of blueness.
Hume understood both the strengths and the weaknesses of Plato’s two notions. He proposed two similar categories. One he called fact. Fact deals with matter. Consider a golden dubloon. It has mass, and size, and shape. These things are facts about this material object, he suggested. They are independently verifiable. Distinct from matters of fact are “relationahips of ideas.” A triangle is defined as planar closed figure with three straight edges. The triangle is a relationship of ideas. It relates the ideas of line and plane to the figure triangle. Go look in nature, and you will find no real triangles. You might find representations of triangles, but the triangle is an idealization, an idea.
The triangle is a figure from geometry, and geometry is one of the ideal examples of a pursuit that exists entirely in the “relationship of ideas.” There are applications of geometry to navigation, design, surveying, and so on; but geometry itself lives in the world of “relationships of ideas.” Geometry is an abstraction. And when it is applied to other problems involving real, factual things, it can be seen as being representational of those things. If one has a plot plan for a lot upon which one is to build a house, one employs a surveyor to make sure that an expensive construction project is not compromised by virtue of having some part of the construction be on another’s property. Geometry is an abstract tool brought to bear on this very concrete, factual problem.
Geometry is but one of a large number of tools in the relationship of ideas. All of logic lives there. So, too does algebra, trigonometry, calculus, set theory, group theory, topology, and a vast array of other things that start with “why” and end in “y.”
We can look at this world of relationships and imagine that another yet another way of looking at it is by thinking about what happens inside our brains. The processes in our brains are all carried out by creating relationships. There is not a single neuron for “car.” There is an area of the brain that represents the word car. And an area of the brain that represents some visual ideas about car. And there may be some bits of the brain that connect these ideas to car-related ideas; color, horsepower, gas mileage, fast, fun ride, or outta gas, broken. The brain uses a sprawling relational system to represent the ideas that are integral to and closely associated with car. In other words, with our own brains, the car is expressed as a relationship of ideas. It is a different sort from a mathematical function, perhaps, but it is definitely a relationship.
One of the reasons Hume’s notions seem strange and foreign to us is that we rarely are called upon to make the distinctions he makes. But it is a necessary starting point in considering knowledge. The reason is that our mental images and abstractions of the physical world depend at least in part upon sensation, perception, and interpretation. Our ideas about the world depend upon interaction with the world through sensation. The way the ideas organize in our minds may be mediated by language, culture, education, and other factors. But fundamentally, knowledge is a kind of mental representation of fact. It is a kind of bridge that spans the gap between the ideal and the real. And the better the knowledge, the more robust and durable is that bridge.
Plunge your hands in a basin of icewater. What happens? Your hands feel cold. Why? The technical reason has to do with the low temperature of the water and with water’s superior ability to carry heat from the surface of your skin. It transports heat energy through the skin, via conduction, and this loss of heat lowers the temperature of the hands. Before long, the hands feel cold, uncomfortable.
The sensation of cold is a “pure” sensation. That is, there is very little mental moderation or abstraction of the sense. There are two good reasons for this. One is that it is evidently not difficult to accomplish, the sensation of cold. All sorts of reactions change speed with temperature, so making good thermal sensation is not a difficult trick for biology to accomplish. The second reason is that it is quite useful to eliminate interpretation of cold because interpretation is subject to mistake, and thermal challenges are frequently mortal challenges in nature. Thus the sensation of heat and cold are unmoderated sensations.
Two people may sit in the same room. One may be hot, the other cold. This demonstrates that the sensation of being hot or cold is a kind of relationship between the person sensing the environment and the environment itself. The perception of being warm or cold is a subjective one. It is based on one’s own perceptions. These, in turn will be determined by one’s metabolic state, one’s clothing, the sort of environment to which one is accustomed. People who live in northern climates and spend time outdoors may frequently find an environment warm that people used to tropical climates will find cold, because of adaptations to their respective environments.
The feeling of thermal comfort is a judgment about the thermal environment. It is subjective, but never wrong. Propositions such as “this room is cold” do not evaluate to “true” in any meaningful sense. I might know that I feel cold in this room. You might know that you feel warm in this room. Is the room too warm? Is the room too cold? Is this a meaningful way to think of it? Or is the question “what is the best means of making everyone comfortable?” That question has nothing to do with the truth of any propositions about the room’s temperature. We introduce this question because when making propositions about real world facts, the notions of â€œtrueâ€ and â€˜falseâ€ are frequently unhelpful. True and false are notions of logic that belong to “relationships of ideas” not to fact. It is a discussion taken up later.
Taste behaves much like the sensation of warmth and coldness. We have four simple tastes and most of the chemical substances that stimulate taste sensation stimulate only one of the four sensory receptors. And it is so in everyone. Some people taste things more intensely than others, owing to the fact that they have more taste buds. But sensations of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness are directly wired into our brains. And because there is no overlap in their sensory range, there is no conceptualizing required to report one of these sensations.
There are compelling reasons for this; the four fundamental flavors serve four fundamentally different functions. Sweet informs the body of digestibility of vegetable matter, available energy. Salt informs the body of a vital compound whose balance in body chemistry is of paramount importance and whose availability in some environments is low. Sour seems to be associated with certain special nutrients such as vitamine C. Bitterâ€™s function is to prevent us from eating the wrong plant matter; most poisonous plant alkaloids have bitter flavors. The argument for bitter, then, is much like the argument for cold sensation. It is a sense that requires little interpretation and is linked closely to avoiding hazards that threaten survival.
The fundamental flavors in taste are simple, but taste involves smell. And smell is highly complex. There are evidently at least sixteen or twenty five fundamental smells, with the whole language of odor built upon that. So when one eats food one experiences all the odors, all the tastes, and the textures as well. The fact that we have food experts suggests that this system is complex and can create highly nuanced effects. It may not take a great deal of interpretation to detect the single valued inputs, but it might take a considerable amount of attention to grasp all of the interrelationships between the inputs. That can require a goodly bit of interpretation.
Almost all of our sensation requires some interpretation. This interpretation is sometimes performed automatically by the nervous system as an integral part of sensation, and it is sometimes performed at some higher conceptual level.
Color sensation provides some very interesting insights into the interactions between sensation, perception, and interpretation. Lignt is made up of pnotons, and each photon has a characteristic wavelength. Photons that we perceive as red have wavelengths close to 600 nm. Those we percieve as green have wavelengths close to 540 nm. Those we perceive as blue have wavelengths close to 450 nm. Surfaces that reflect or emit photons soley in these wavelengths will appear to be that color.
Our eyes have specialized color receptors tuned to each of these three primary colors. Red light stimulates red receptors, but it does not stimulate green or blue ones, for instance. Yellow light stimulates both green and red receptors. Aqua light stimulates both blue and green receptors.
It is no great surprise, then, that every known culture has words for colors. But it is a surprise that the words vary from culture to culture. Some cultures have no word for yellow. Most have no word for orange. In some cultures blue and green have the same word. In others aqua is identified either as blue or green. And even many native English speakers will be hard pressed to distinguish puce from fuchsia or ochre from sienna.
At first blush, it seems simple. We all sense the same colors; but we categorize them differently. Our language establishes the categorical tags. Our cultural practices establish the categorical definitions and boundaries of those definitions. A language that fails to distinguish blue from green, for instance, is unlikely to have a special word for aqua. People who have no reason to distinguish between twenty eight earthtones will never bother distinguishing sienna from ocher, not because they are physically incapable of making the distinction, but because it is not required.
I remember as a schoolboy standing on a promontory at the Cape of Good Hope, overlooking the point at which the Atlantic Ocean touched the Indian Ocean. I was certain that the deep blue of the Atlantic was blue. But I remember thinking that the Indian Ocean was green. I distinctly remember that it was almost impossible to distinguish one from the other, so if the Indian Ocean actually was a different color, it was a subtle aqua tint of blue. By green standards, it had nothing to do with green.
Some recent articles in Science News suggest that how we physically perceive color depends to some degree on our acculturation. There is some interaction between what we learn about color categorization and what our apparent capacities are at distinguishing colors, even when the factor of language has been removed. Probably we are required to make careful distinctions the boundaries of color categories, but make less careful distinctions near the center of color regions. Once we have a lifetime of practice doing this, our brains may simply be trained to ignore certain information to the point that we cannot perceive it anymore.
This is quite telling. It suggests a profoundly deep interaction between what we are capable of perceiving and how we are acculturated. This is a topic we will take up one or two more times.
A topic we have already mentioned is the distinction between asserting that a thing is a certain way, and asserting what is perceived. Imagine a stone. It is shiny and it is orangy brown. In some languages it might be called rust colored. In others, orange. In still others, brown. Languages that only have primary colors and black might call it black. Now, imagine we illuminate the stone under ultraviolet light. Under this light, it emits an eerie green glow. What color is the stone? One can set up careful measurements and define precisely the spectral intensity of the photons emitted and reflected from the surface under any sort of illumination. In a scientific sense we can define the color of the stone with incredible accuracy. But the act of summarizing all of this information as a single color risks losing most of the information. The only reason this would be acceptable is if most decisions people make are not critically dependent upon color.
The same cannot be said about other sorts of visual data. A visual scene may be composed of tens or hundreds of megabytes of data, but the visual system has already begun abstracting that data by the time the visual signal has reached the visual cortex. The signal has already been processed to supply information about edges and lines, regions of high contrast, regions of order, and of confusion. In digital photography terms, it has been compressed. But in the terms of our discussion, it has been abstracted. And the abstraction rules will typically be to identify objects and place abstract tokens for them at various places in the visual field. If we are highly artistic sorts, the tokens might reasonably well represent the actual objects. If we are intuitive sorts, the tokens might not represent many of the salient visual features of the object.
This is a salient point. The visual system, unless it is hard pressed by its user, does not represent very much of a visual field literally. It identifies areas in the field and fills them in with rule-based representations. The lollypop tree is not what a child literally sees. But it may be a fair representation of what she perceives. No child who looks at a lollypop tree and a real one would confuse the two, it is just that the child’s mind represents the tree as an abstract and simple object, not as a complex three dimensional one with gazillions of limbs and leaves. The depiction is a depiction not of what the child sees but of how that visual perception is represented in the mind.
The visual system is constantly called upon to take hugely massive amounts of data and reduce what is seen to what is meaningful. And the only was to do that is to throw out most of what is there, to decide what is of interest, and to represent that as parsimoniously as possible.
That this happens is clear from stories of people who were born without vision, lived for roughly two decades blind, but then had sight restored. There have been only a few such cases, but what happens is not what one might first assumes would happen. The assumption is that once a person is equipped with all the requisite organs, sight becomes normal and vision becomes normal. What actually happens is slightly different. At first the visual world seems rich, colorful interesting. And this impression is extremely attractive and entertaining. But people who have been blind all their lives have committed much of the regions of the brain that is usually used to interpret visual data over to other tasks. So images, for all their powerful attractions are overwhelming. They present too much information. The brain tries to process it all. And the person becomes weary. In the end, vision becomes an interesting curiousity, but it does not become a dependable sense. And the reason is that the information is not being appropriately abstracted and ignored.
Because it is called upon to process so much information so quickly, the visual system takes a lot of shortcuts. Each of these is subject to some mode of trickery. Michael Bach has spent a good deal of time cataloguing tricks that exploit deficiencies in visual perception and he presents his findings in this catalogue of optical illusions.
Sound data is inherently smaller than visual data, by two or so orders of magnitude. Yet it still constitutes a challenge to the perceptive mind. Again, the methods that the aural system uses resemble some of those of the visual system. Sounds are automatically filtered and recognized noises are frequently replaced with representative tokens. A trained musician might have a highly refined sense of sound and may have very robust ways of hearing and representing sounds within her mind. A person who has never heard a violin, however, may have difficulty distinguishing the sound of one from another; they would be represented in his mind the same way.
Because speech is so important, humans have single neurons that fire when a particular phoneme is heard. All the filtering and processing that takes place before this point may then be discarded and ignored, provided other aural clues such as pitch and tone and clues about emphasis have been registered as well. In short, language processing discards most of the sonic signal. It replaces that with reconstructive rules, rules that capture all that the listener perceives. If that person is a trained actor, the nuances of accent and stress may be accurately registered. If the person is a counsellor, nuances about emotional condition may also be registered. But in all of these cases, it is an abstraction of the signal that is stored in the mind.
Interpretation is a mental act that takes perceptions and organizes them in ways that are potentially useful to some purpose. An interpretive process in the mind may assemble a collection of perceived edges in a visual field and produce the output “snake” or “lion” or “pizza” or “homework.” What happens next may depend upon other interpretations lurking in the mind. If hunger is one of them, then pizza may have special meaning. If an important social engagement is pressing, then homework may have special meaning. If one is at a zoo, then lion may have a different meaning than if one is walking alone on a narrow path across the grassy African plain.
Interpretation is a difficult subject because it occurs in so many contexts. And it crosses perceptive bounds. For example; an infant when given a plastic cube the size of an orange may look at it, feel all of its sides, put it in his mouth and taste it, and so on. The cube is represented in his mind by sensations of sight and touch. And the mind corellates those sensations. Correlated sensations have special powers on the mind. When we see and hear something, we remember much more effectively than when we only see or only hear. Some factor about simultaneity of sensation impresses the mind in a distinct way.
There is reason to believe that language enables the process of making sense of correlated sensory input. Helen Keller noted that the world seemed an impenetrable tangle of sensations until she learned her first word, water. Then she suddenly had an insatiable thirst for language, because it untangled that sensory jumble. Language allows us to create simple tokens that represent complex things. And this is precisely what we are equipped to do in visual and aural processing.
Language, however, allows us to tokenize things that are not purely sensory. It allows us to tokenize ideas, relationships, actions, and so on. It is reasonable to assume that language we learn first is most closely related to objects and sensations. My own informal study of French suggests that all I can remember of the language is stuff that strikes me as being really important. “Je suis fatigue,” translates idiomatically to “Oh, I’m feeling kinda tired.” And “Il peu,” translates literally to “It stinks” or idomatically to “Eeew!” Thirty or fifty hours of sitting in front of “French in Action” and that’s what I can remember. But in both cases it is because the action of the actors in saying these things perfectly matched the sense of the language. The lingual tokens attached to my memory because the communicated in French what I already percieved.
Perhaps most amazing to me is the ability of animals to sense, perceive, and interpret three dimensional data in real time. Consider the housefly. It has a brain that is probably too tiny to skewer with a sewing needle, yet in real time it percieves a threat, readies, and flies at the very last minute along a trajectory that frequently saves its life. It does not learn this behavior from thousands of hours of flight training. It is born with all of these capacities, it lives for some days, and it dies. How is it that the common housefly is so able to perceive the three dimensional world and motions that threaten it?
There is, of course, the evolutionary answer. Animals, almost all of them, either eat other animals or are eaten by them. Every animal, or one of its close evolutionary ancestors, was predator or prey. And every animal that spends much time above the ground relies to some extent on visual acuity to survive. Site and the ability to sense motion are survival necessities for animals.
Another part of the answer might be found in a paper by Smith et al. in Gazzaniga’s Neurosciences (1990.) They did research on young children. They sat them in front of computer screens and they showed them images of things moving. The moving objects were simple objects, triangles or circles or squares, perhaps. They purposefully did not resemble animals or people. When the objects were stationary the children attributed to them the qualities of inanimate objects. When the objects moved in simple oscillitor motion like that of a pendulum or a tree waving in the wind, the children also imagined that the objects were inanimate. But when the objects moved in other ways, the children attributed to them qualities of animate objects.
If we think about the snake-charmer whose charm to the snake has less to do with his clever music than it does to his carefully choreographed harmonic oscillaion, we imagine that the snake interprets motion as does the fly. And we also imagine that if nature has solved the problem of motion so effectively and compactly in the fly there is hardly any reason why the same problem may not be solved as compactly in other animals. The response of young children to motion, in fact, suggests this very thing.
If we imagine that humans carry a tiny knot of neurons that interpret the three dimensional world and the motions in it using approximately the same information as the fly, then much can be explained. A person is walking in the woods. His visual system detects a motion. The little flyspeck of an interpretive system interprets the motion as that of an animal and sends out a big, loud alarm. But the visual signal is interpreted in other parts of the brain in other ways. And on the basis of their analysis, there is nothing there; no recognizable animal to account for the motion.
What happens next? The brain has produced conflicting interpretations of a sensory event. One interpretation is that there is an animate motion, cause for alarm. Another interpretation is that there is no animal to account for it. One conclusion would be that the motion was caused by an invisible animate force. What is the term we use for invisible animate forces? A spirit. Another possibility, is for one to construct a fictitious animal to account for the motion. A third possiblity is, lacking an explanation for the sensation, one ignores the data.
Interestingly, all of these responses seem to have history in human interpretation. It is also interesting that, as the practice of monotheistic religion spread and as the ideas of the enlightenement became engrained in European culture, sightings of spirits and mythical animals became ever less frequent. The seventeenth century witch trials dealt a kind of death blow to the whole notion.
It would seem that ever since then, we see differently. Our culture prevents us from inventing the same sorts of mythical figures that our mind once served up. To some degree this is what knowledge does. Proper knowledge of the world around us changes our perceptions and it changes our intepretations of our perceptions. This is the purpose of knowledge, to help us interpret our perceptions in the most useful ways possible. It starts with making the most useful categorical assignments, proceeds by noticing useful relationships among categories, and by making useful distinctions within categories. And it is sometimes refined by application of carefully crafted mathematical models, diagrams, or other sorts of descriptive models.
At this point we have discussed how the mind is engaged in sensing the external world and how it organizes the sensory information in compact and robust ways. The details of the process are not all well known, but what is important to understand is that a great deal of abstraction takes place. And, as a result, most of what we see and hear, taste, touch, and smell, is lost forever. We have only a vague impression that captures some tiny fraction of the original information.
What is Knowledge
The river of the unknown is bounded on two banks. On one bank is fact. It is solid and discoverable, but unknown. On the opposite bank is is the mind, the relationships of ideas within it. Connecting these extremes is a bridge. Its main structure is sensation and perception. But these are narrow and slippery, hazardous for foot traffic. Intepretation is the road deck and railing. It allows enough traffic between both sides that the facts may be ascertained correctly, and that they are appropriate to the need at hand. The completed bridge, including both terminals and the traffic it carries constitutes knowledge.
The mind is a representational machine. It represents the world in an abstract form using relationships. Some representations of the world are more accurate than others. Artists, for instance, may be much more skilled at abstracting overall shapes and relevant details about the world, they are trained to make distinctions about what we see that most people do not. Physicists look at falling objects differently than people who have not studied physics. Expert mechanics understand the nuances of automobile design, the sorts of things that fail, and the symptoms of failure very well. They have detailed mental models. Our representations of the world reflect our level of knowledge in a particular area of expertise.
In a very real sense, then, knowledge about the real world is a proper correspondence between the actual way the world is and our mental models of it. Similarly, knowledge about the abstract world is a proper correspondence between the way we manipulate objects and relationships in an abstract world, and the way the abstract world is constructed.
In chess, for instance, nothing about the game is about the pieces. Everything is about the relationships of position. Set up a chess board with a position from an actual chess game. Show it quickly to a novice and to an expert. Then have each reconstruct the positions of the pieces. The novice will get much of it wrong. The chess master will get most of it right. Now, try the same thing by putting the pieces on the board in a random way. The novice will get much of it wrong. So, too will the chess master. Why? because in the first case his experience of the game allows him to percieve the relationships between the pieces. He remember these relationships and uses them to reconstruct the position of the board. But when there is not real game, the relationships are nonsensical. He must remember in a different way, the same way as the novice. So, in the practice of chess, knowledge or expertise involves a detailed understanding of the positional relationships. This is what good players learn.
1) A useful representation within the mind of a fact.
2) Represetational and relational models for abstracting, intepreting, and responding to sensory data.
These are not exclusive; the first item is a kind of simplified subset of the second.
There are a lot of interesting observations that can be made about knowledge defined in this way. One observation is that the notions of true and false are not very helpful. Knowledge is better understood in terms of how useful it is. Take, for example, the notion that the earth is spherical. This knowledge would have proven of some use to astronomers and cartographers long before it was generally known, but it really became of great relevance once there was interest and motivation to promote trade between Europe and Asia in the absence of secure land routes. The idea that the earth is spherical, at that point, became highly relevant in a way it had not previously been. It was useful knowledge. But to the average land owner, a person or a household, the inaccuracies of representing land boundaries on a flat piece of paper present no problems whatsoever.
Cast into the terms that Hume used, knowledge of the fact, factual knowledge is a proper or useful correspondence between fact and our mental representation of it - the relationships of ideas that represent it in our minds. If we represent fact badly in our minds, we act on it badly. If we interpret a lion as a pizza or mistake our wife for a hat, ill consequences can ensue. Our minds must be capable of making these distinctions clearly. Much of learning is, therefore, about making useful distinctions.
Some kinds of problems are solved by means other than distinctions. Some are solved by generalization or synthesis. Such methods can be powerful because they can unify a vast number of seemingly disparate phenomena into a single line of analysis and study. We will talk about the work Newton did on gravitation a little later. His work is among the world’s most shining examples of synthesis.
So far we have introduced the two extremes that are connected by the bridge of knowledge and we have shed some small amount of light on the way these extremes are connected by sensation, perception, and interpretation. In the next segment we will take a whirlwind tour of knowledge with the hope of seeing some examples of things that work and of things that do not.
Mr Reagan chided people who had any criticism at all about America, its culture, or its past. If you don’t like it, he suggested “Vote with your feet.” Get the hell outta Dodge. Vamoose. Scram. This stuff makes for great campaign rhetoric because it succeeds in energizing the boosters while silencing the critics. And suddenly one need not address issues because issues are problems. And it is unpatriotic to talk about problems. In the wake of such speech running for office is reduced to proving that one is more patriotic than the next guy. Most of the recent failures in government can be traced to this meme. And Reagan was not the first to resort to it. It is old as the vote itself.
In a very literal sense the story ends there. But in a more figurative one it is being lived out in a different question. And on a much greater scale.
Mr Bush, who insists on doing everything on a grander scale than his recent prececessors, has taken it to a new height. No. Bush has not said “Vote with your feet.” But what he has done is to claim all of space. And he has suggested that we ought to go to Mars. Fair enough. Nothing bad about that. There is something noble in inspiring people to do what has not before been done. I think going to Mars is a good idea. And I imagine that if we plan carefully we will find that making such a trip teaches us important things about ourselves and our planet and will force us to be inventive as we have never done before.
NASA is the governmental agency from which the idea sprang. And it will be the agency tasked with making the plans for the mission. Before the Bush administration, NASA was a sort of autonomous arm of the federal government. It was funded by federal money, but its policies, practices, and programs were seen as being apolitical. That appears to be changing.
The part of NASA that does the “go to Mars” stuff is fully funded this year as it was last year. But Bush has slashed the budget for the arm of NASA that supports meteorological observation and instrumentation. The story recalls one a year or two back in which the White House was accused of politicizing NASA, telling its scientists that they could not talk about global warming. Now, it would seem, NASA scientists who supported global warming science are finally being punished by the Bush administration for their complicity in an evil plot to destroy the profits of the oil and gas industry. The the wing of NASA that puts instruments into the sky to predict weather, evidently, is responsible for giving credence to this foul theory through the evil use of science. That’s right. They measure temperatures of water and air, and use that not just to predict when and where the next Katrina will strike, they use those same measurements to support the scientific theory of global warming. Can you imagine the evil of it all?
So how does the Bush administration eliminate the problem? End global warming as we know it by cutting the funding for the sensors that could be used to prove it. Punish the people who do the science by putting them out on the street. That is evidently the Bush approach. What happens when the Antarctic Ice slides into the ocean, putting all of Florida beneath more than 200 feet of ocean water? Vote with your feet: Move to Mars.
This, found at Crooks and Liars is another pearl in a string of pronouncements by Cheney that presumes that He knows precisely what al Qaeda is thinking:
Cheney said Pelosi and other Democrats were pushing a policy in Iraq that would “validate the al Qaeda strategy.” “I think if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we’ll do is validate the al Qaeda strategy,” Cheney told ABC News.
So, Mr. Cheney, you know what al Qaeda’s strategy is. And you are worried about it. Evidently a trillion dollars spent to get rid of that handful of pesky varmints was not well spent. They all escaped. Too bad. But the good news appears to be that even if we don’t know who they are, or where they are, we know precisely what they intend to do and how they will do it. Or rather, YOU know it Mr. Cheney. So, Mr Cheney, why don’t you tell us precisely what al Qaeda’s strategy is and how you know it so intimately.
Some months ago Cheney claimed that if Democrats were returned to power in Washington al Qaeda would strike again. And he said it with the kind of certainty and conviction that made one wonder. Does al Qaeda copy Cheney on their e-mail? Is he invited to their organizational meetings. Perhaps they meet in his office. Or in a dark room in the basement of the West Wing. Or maybe Cheney is omniscient. Perhaps Cheney really is God. This would explain, too, why his daughter Mary could be both a virgin and pregnant. The third possiblity is that Cheney is just making it up in order to maintain control.
What do you think?
He said that there were no cases in which the habeas corpus could be used by foreign nationals held at an overseas military base and that the constitution â€œdoes not confer rights on aliens without property or presence within the United States.â€
This is the language of judge Randolf Raymond quoted in a recent NYT story about the latest round in the habeus corpus melee. It is an extract of the language of the court’s 2-1 decision allowing habeus corpus to be suspended in accordance with the Military Commissions act. The argument put forward by the Bush administration and reflected in the act is that American bases exist on foreign soil and therefore are not part of the United States. Because they are not part of the United States, then they are not subject to US law.
Equality Under the Law
The objections to this fall under two general areas. One is the fundamental notion of equality under the law. The whole of the US Constitution assumes equality under the law. And when a number of states failed to exercise the same, the fourteenth ammendment codified it. That ammendment gives the idea specific legal force, but it is not the full expression of the ideal. The ideal presumes that all people are subject to the law and all are protected by it. Period.
Equality under the law is the fundamental premise that distinguishes rule by law from rule by force. When nations with just laws live under this premise, a kind of fundamental peace pervades society. When nations either fail to honor this principle or have laws that are manifestly unjust, the social order is maintained only by force. Increasing levels of injustice tend to cause increasing levels of unrest and increasing levels of suppression. The consequence is that if one wishes for the success of democracy, one must work for equality under the law and for just law.
But equality under the law extends only so far as the legal bounds of society. It does not extend to people who are not American citizens and who are living outside of the US, its states, territories, and protected operational zones. This is not because such people are undeserving of fair and just treatment under US law, but because of the practical exigencies of extending such treatments to them. It is a reflection of the real fact that they fall under the administrative auspices of a legitimate foreign power.
The Constitution supports the ideal and properly protects who it can, while properly respecting the sovereignty of other nations. This implies that where the US government has autonomy to act, even on foreign soil, it does so as if it were on American soil. It is axiomatic that it extends Constitutional laws and ideals. By this logic, it is impossible for the Congress to pass a law that passes Constitutional muster while creating a class of people unprotected by habeus corpus. This, if we understand it correctly, was the argument of the dissenting justice.
To argue differently leads to all sorts of logical difficulties. Imagine that a group of American civilians are contracted to work on military bases or other US properties on foreign soil. Now suppose one breaks US law. Surely they will be prosecuted under US law, given the same protections as if they lived in the US. They will be treated as if they were US citizens living in the US. How could one argue for fundamentally different treatment of Americans serving in Japan and Spain? It would lead to chaos.
If, however, Americans do the same illegal act outside of this protected zone, they are subject to local authority. The US may negotiate with local authories on their behalf; and it probably will and should, especially if an illegal act stems from a problem of an American comprehending a unique local law. Similarly, if locals enter the zone as locals to work in an American embassy, they are treated according to local law. And if a local enters in order to seek asylum, his claim is accepted only with legitimate cause. Such enclaves tempt confusion; but the rules are carefully designed to avoid it. And the reason they avoid it is because confusion leads to arbitrariness. And arbitrariness in law leads to abuses.
So the argument that US bases on foreign soil constitute foreign spaces requiring or amenable to special laws makes no sense. But there is a purpose to be served in arguing this nonsensical position; to set precedence in making law arbitrary. It is consistent with a large group of attacks on the Constitution and its philosophical raison d’etre. In other words, the reason for making the case as the administration is doing is in order to create arbitrary classes of people. It is an expression of the Gonzales Doctrine that the rights granted by the Constitution only apply to whom the executive allows such. And this makes a complete mockery of the Constitution and all the people who fought for it before or since.
When ‘Foreign Soil’ is US Territory
The issue of foreign soil and applicable law is muddied even farther in the case of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. To understand the issue, one must understand something of the history of the base.
Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. is a patch of land on the island that is today’s nation of Cuba. It was leased by the US from Spain in the wake of the Spanish-American war, more than 100 years ago. Cuba does not recognize US autonomy there. In other words, Guantanamo Bay constitutes a kind of “taking by force” from Cuba. Cuba claims the soil upon which the base stands, but it has been unwilling to enter a war with the US to take it back. Guantanamo Bay is, therefore, territory captured by force or by threat of force from Cuba. And as captured US territory, it is subject to US law, certainly it is subject to US Constitutional protections.
The administration has tried to argue that it is ‘foreign soil.’ But foreign soil is only soil that one acknowledges as belonging to a legitimate and existential governing foreign power. The US denies that the Guantanamo Bay belongs to the existing government of Cuba or to any other existing foreign government. And by denying this, it denies its status as ‘foreign soil.’ So by simply occupying it in defiance of local government, the US asserts its territorial rights to it and makes it de facto US territory.
To argue otherwise is nonsense. It cannot be ‘foreign soil’ for judicial purposes, but ‘US soi’l for the convenience of US military forces as the administration evidently argued with success in this case.
How can one argue simultaneously that the soil is Cuban soil and that Cuba has no right to administer it? It is nonsense. If it were any other spot in the world where sovereign nations grant US authority to administer under US law, US law must hold as condition of the grant. In fact, if such a body of land were administered outside the bounds of the US Constitution and of US law, it would constitute a malformed entity, one outside the bounds of law. But even the administration does not want Guantanamo Bay to lie outside the bounds of the US law. It wants it to be administered as US territory. But it wants to do so with special provisions that defy the Constitution.
By denying Cuban authority that would have the US vacate the Naval Base, the US is fundamentally making and defending a territorial claim. A guest who has outstayed his welcome ceases to be a guest once he has been invited to leave. He may be thown out by force because his stay constitutes an illegal claim of territory. So it is with Guantanamo Bay. Except in this case there is no cop bigger and more powerful than the unwelcome guest.
The logic of the ruling defies both of these two important arguments. While the minority opinion is faithful to the idea that underlies the Constitution, the idea that all people are equal before the law, the majority opinion ignores this subtle point. There is not one body of law for one group and another body of law for another: there cannot be if one cherishes rule of law. The ruling also fails to acknowledge that the territorial status of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base cannot be simultaneously two things. While it is occupied by the US Navy against the will of Cuba, it is taken US territory, not Cuban soil. It is a de facto US enclave in Cuba. Were it otherwise, there would be no Naval Base.
We find it disingenuous of the Bush Administration to argue that “we are bringing democracy to the middle east” while simultaneously working to undermine democracy’s most fundamental tenet, equality under the law. If the administration knew the first thing about democracy and cared a whit for it, it would defend it in this case by shredding the Military Commissions act and denouncing it as an attack on democratic principles. We are not holding our breath.
A couple of enterprising guys with some knowledge of statistics, some programming skills, and a bit of time on their hands have built a little tool called Gender Genie that will tell you your gender. That, one is tempted to think, is its purpose judged by some of the very accomplished writers who gather here. But actually, the purpose is to guess at the gender of a third person, unknown writer. Sometimes that is different.
Several talented writers at Making Light submitted snippets of fiction that they had written, intending them to be from a masculine or a feminine viewpoint. They discovered that Gender Genie thought so too. I am not a talented, published writer, but I submitted two snippets. In one I was writing very much as myself. In another - if I am to take Gender Genie’s word for it - I had subconsciously taken on the point of view of the female character in Broadcast News. The first identified me as a male. the second as a female. A short snippet from a blog written by a woman it identified, just barely, as being written by a man. A longer snippet farther into the piece it decisively identified as being written by a woman. In short, it sometimes works. It works for certain kinds of writing.
Quite a number of women at Making Light objected, though. One said she had an editor who told her once that she “wrote like a man.” This little machine told her the same thing. Her tone was that of amusement or of being baffled. Another simply objected that the stupid machine somehow had neglected to take into consideration that the writer, could, in fact, bear babies. And that was something no man could do. But this confuses writing style and gynecology to an extent that well outstrips the intention or the reasonable use of Gender Genie.
It was curious. There were a few men who were flattered for having learned the skill of writing from a feminine point of view. And there were at least several women who were astonished or insulted that their writing - unbeknownst to themselves - had made them men.
To assess what this program is doing to us, we might understand a little more about how it works and, therefore, what it tells us. If it works as it pretends to do, it relies on counting the frequency of occurrance of certain words. The words it supposedly counts are ones we typically ignore; articles, conjunctions, prepositions, and so on. It counts words that would seem to have the least likelyhood of conjuring up notions of gender. Other languages such as French and German have masculine and feminine articles that implicitly ascribe masculine and feminine qualities to the nouns they associate with. The cat, for instance, is feminine; the dog is masculine, in both languages. But in English, articles are nominally gender-neutral. So how does this program make “the” masculine and “and” feminine? Evidently, the statistical evaluation of a vast number of pieces of work has allowed these authors to infer just this.
To build such a program a statistician would choose a word and test it in various forms of writing by a large number of male and female writers to see if there were a statistical difference in how it was used. In this case, counting seems to have been the primary method of making this decision. In principle, one population might, on average, use certain very commonly used words more frequently than the other population. Take a big enough sample, and you will frequently find that males and females who are not highly trained in the “standard” style choose words differently. Or they write sentences according to different patterns which, in turn, necessitate different words. Score enough of such words, and one can make a judgment with some statistical accuracy. Of course what the program does not do is analyze and report variance. One is not informed clearly the probability that a passage conforms to a masculine or feminine practice. But it does score masculine and feminine words separately; and one can infer from how close the scoring is how gender-neutral it finds the work.
One thing to take away from the comments of a number of successful female writers and editors at Making Light is that the kind of “standard English” that is used in the publishing world is evidently not gender neutral. The standard evidently conforms to masculine usage patterns.
So what are we to make of the objections? When women adapt to a world once defined by men and do so by taking on the same values and using the same practices, how ought we object? Given that there are qualities men more typically give expression to that are good, and that there are qualities women more typically give expression to that are at least as good, how do we view processes that move women onto men’s turf in the absence of processes that move men onto women’s turf. Or are there such processes? If so, what are they? To what extent has the process of empowering women succeeded in one arena while failing the other? And is there hope of reaching the goal of gender equality if we value only male qualities?
Who would have thought that by counting how often we use “of” in our prose we might get back to one of the most fundamental and difficult problems people have faced in defining how society works and ought to work - the role of gender?
What was the Authorization to Use Force in Iraq And did it constitute a declaration of war under Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution?
â€”The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order toâ€”
(1) defend the national security of the United States against
the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council
resolutions regarding Iraq.
Why Iraq Action Fails Provisions of the Resolution
Let us first take a look at the war on Iraq in light of these two provisions. There is no part of the invasion of Iraq that constitutes enforcement of relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions. Iraq we know now with absolute certainty was complying with those resolutions, particularly the ones dealing with weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, every single objective intelligence analyst was convinced that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was materially complying with the relevant UN resolutions. Nor did the UN as a body back the invasion. It was by no measure an “enforcement action” of the UN that caused or justified the invasion.
If there is a case to be made that Bush’s action is consistent with the Authorization to Use Force, it must be found in the first provision. There were two primary issues against which the action can be judged.
1) The administration claim that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction
2) The administration claim that Iraq had either some specific connection to terrorists or some vague connection to terrorist activity.
Were either of these items true, then one might possibly be able to make the case that the war on Iraq had some connection with the first provision authorizing force. But both are false. And we have learned since January 1st 2007 that it is impossible to believe that the Bush administration could have reasonably believed otherwise. In order to make its case it had to fabricate evidence. It had to depend on a tiny number of sources that were known to be unreliable. It had to use evidence that could not be corroborated. It had to ignore what was known and believe unproven postulates and rumors that it found convenient to its cause.
In other words. It is impossible to take seriously the claim that the Bush administration actually believed that there was a connection between Iraq and the twin tower events. It is impossible to take seriously the claim tha the Bush administration actually believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In both cases it either relied on parties who were neither disinterested, nor reliable, and who had special relationships with the administration - relationaships that would predispose them to tell the administration what they wished to hear. Sometimes it appears to have relied mostly on administration officials themselves - the ones most keenly advocating the conflict. This is precisely how intellegence is not done, if one has even the most casual interest in getting at the truth.
If the administration knew that both the weapons of mass destruction premise and the terrorist premise werre false, we see that then its action would knowingly violate the Authorization to Use Force. The administration would be knowingly and willfully acting without Authorization. And there is growing evidence that this is exactly what happened.
We will admit this is a sketchy treatment of the topic. It deserves much better treatment. I hope someone much more talented than I am takes it on.
A different approach is to start with Article 1 Section 8 and ask “When a president of the US launches a full-scale invasion on a nation that has done absolutely nothing provocative for a decade, is this consistent with either the language or the intent of the Constitution?” If the answer is “no” then either there is an unconstitutional law at work allowing the action, or there is an action that is illegal. Both, of course, could be true.
There is also the question, if a law allows a president to do something; and if that law is unconstitutional, what are the reasonable consequences of his actions?
When one considers the constitutional language here, one must remember its context. The writers of the Constitution understood that a standing army perpetually tempted a king to use force in foreign entanglements that may have suited his personal agenda while ill-serving the general commonwealth. Many of the framers were against the idea of having a standing army. And, in fact, it was not until a few decades into the twentieth century that America actually did have a permanent standing army.
A nation without a standing army, if it is to fight an external foe, must organize a special effort to do just this. And it was just this that the framers of the Constitution had in mind. Part of the mechanism by which one would organize this special effort was the declaration of war. The framer wanted Congress to agree to use force when it was required. They did not want Congress ceding the decision to the Executive.
To the extent that the Authorization to Use Force can be used as excuse for a wholesale invasion of a nation that has not attacked the US or its allies or its overseas interests, that Authorization must be unconstitutional. Such an interpretation is openly hostile to both the language and the intent of the framers who wrote it.
On the other hand, if we construe the Authorization to allow certain limited military acts that are carefully targeted, but not completely disruptive of a society and its government, we might find arguments by which such an Authorization would pass Constitutional muster. We will not spend much time on the point because it is not particularly relevant. The ongoing enforcement of the no-fly zone was one possible example of such action.
The moment we interpret the Authorization to allow Dubya’s invasion, the Authorization ceases to be Constitutional. And it should not take a Constitutional scholar to understand it. In short, any president who ends up invading a nation unprovoked and without a declaration of war from Congress must necessarily know that his action is a violation of a Constitutional principle. Either he acts against the law, or he acts consistent with an unconstitutional law. Either way, his act is unconstitutional.
This argument suggests that even if either of the premises of purpose were satisfied by fact of circumstance, a wholesale invasion would have been unconstitutional in the absence of a specific declaration of war by the Congress.
What is the proper response to a president who knowingly, openly, and flagrantly violates Constitutional principles? It is no longer an academic question. Nor is this the only issue of governance in this administration touched by the question. If Congress fails to react vigorously, clearly, unambiguously, all people who love liberty will be sorrier for it.
The best way to view the Authorization to Use Force in Iraq is as a “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Or a contract, if you will. It is, essentially, a document that says that Iraq has acted with intransigence and that negotiations absent the threat of force have failed to produce the required outcomes; and that Congress as a body does not have the will to prosecute the President for “high crimes and misdemeanors” if he uses force according to certain premises and guidelines.
We categorically reject agreements such as this. They have insidious effects. The main effect is to transfer power from one branch of the government to another. That is a dangerous precedent to set. It can have serious side effects. In this case, part of the reason for the insidious nature lies in the fact that the premises for the agreement were false and were known to be false by the administration. It made an agreement under false pretenses.
There are a number of ways in which the premises that underlie this document are false. Iraq had no connection with 9/11 and the administration knew it. There was a rumor that one of the alleged hijackers had met with an Iraqi government official. But this rumor has proven false. We know now (see below - Saddam Hussein, Terrorist Sympathizer) that Saddam had issued an edict prohibiting cooperation or contact between his government and members of terrorist groups. Iraq’s official policy was to avoid terrorists. And Saddam ran a pretty tight ship.
Furthemore, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and the administration knew it. The entire intelligence community told the administration this on multiple occasions and with considerable force. Making the story credible with the public required fabrications by the administration. And treasonous acts against those who threatened to desroy the credibility of those fabrications.
The thing about gentlemen’s agreements, is that they presume that both paries involved act honorably. They bind both parties only when both have acted in good faith. If one party never intended to act in good faith, the agreement is not binding on the second party.
A crucially vital part of acting in good faith is the requirement that the premises of the agreement are factual, to the best knowledge of both parties. But, in this case, the premises were not factual. They were base and baseless fabrications. And in some cases Administration officials were involved either in creating the fabrications or in bolstering them, as in the Valerie Plame case.
When gentlemen’s agreements are broken or when contracts are discovered to be worthless because one party never intended to deliver, there are traditionally serious penalties to be paid. And the reason for those penalties is that society runs on trust. Permit abuses of trust, and society stops functioning. Permit men to act dishonorably in the office of the president, and the same behavior will be copied everywhere.
If the presidency is to be a position of honor as well as one of power, it is absolutely essential that Congress acts to preserve the honor of that institution.
There is no question any longer that Bush’s actions were illegal. Nor is there question that his acts are unconstitutional. Nor is there a question that his acts threaten the very fabric of democracy by destroying trust.
There are sufficient reasons under the law to warrant his removal from office, which we have discussed at some length. There are extralegal reasons, too. The president is the figurehead of a nation. When he acts dishonorably and gets away with it, it sends the message that such behavior is tolerable. This is why Monicagate was treated so seriously - or at least why the politicians who voted for impeachment were not thown out by voters as they probably deserved to be. The president’s action lowered not just the actor himself but the institution of the presidency.
Fail to remove Bush, and the message will be that the virtue of speaking the truth in vital issues of public policy, does not matter. Fail to remove Bush and the temptation to govern by appealing to people’s darkest fears and by fabricating justifications for policy will become adopted as standard political practice. Once our society has bought that idea, democracy is dead, beyond recussitation. And government is doomed to govern badly: it will be blinded by its own self-deception.
Bush needs to be removed from his post not just because he broke laws and violated constitutional principles. He needs to be removed because his presence dishonors the presidency and threatens democracy.
By the time people vote, they have been given many reasons to choose one candidate over another. In a general election, for instance, the first thirty or forty percentage points of the population are nailed to a party in a way that almost no candidate can pry away. Some of this is due to the way people identify with the principles of a party or with what it has done or the candidates it has run in other races. The people in these groups are important to the outcome of elections less for what they do at the polls than for the fact that they show up, vote, and have their vote properly counted.
Most elections for president are not decided by the party faithful so much as they are decided by the 35% of voters who enter the process without party affiliation and without strong prejudice about which candidate they will vote for.
If one could propose a model that would explain which way this 35% was likely to swing and to explain how to predispose the party faithful to show up, it would be worthy of some further investigation. In light of this idea I offer for consideration of those much more systemmatic in testing hypotheses a fresh and completely untested hypothesis: The wooden man principle.
The wooden man principle posits that in a nationwide election in which there are two candidates, nominees of their two respective parties, the man who wins the election will be the one who looks less wooden.
We cannot be certain that the wooden man principle played any role in national elections before the televised debates of Kennedy vs Nixon. But it certainly did then. Interestingly, it is posited that Nixon won the radio debates but Kennedy won the television ones. This raises the question of why. The common wisdom here has to do with Kennedy’s natural good looks and with Nixon’s suderific excesses. I am not quite so sure of either of these specifics, but I think we might properly conclude from this observation that woodenness is a quality we assess from visual clues.
Two visual cues are readily apparent. One is body stiffness. Candidates that are too stiff tend to look “wooden.” Candidates with more fluid, natural motions tend to look natural. The second is facial expression. My own guess is that one could find six or ten meaningful categories here. I propose at the outset just one. I call it “reactivity.” It relates to how facial expressions correspespond to language, spoken and heard. Good correspondence is higher reactivity.
In the course of normal daily interactions, people smile and change expression as they interact with others. This process of changing expression is a natural part of verbal expression for most people. And it conveys a great deal of meaning, framing the words that people say. The face has over sixty separate muscles that can be used to create expressions, and it is capable of untold billions of seperate expressive states. Huge swathes of brain tissue are dedicated to perceiving and parsing these expressions. There are compelling social and evolutionary reasons for this, most of which we probably do not yet know or understand. Nevertheless, it is important.
When one sees a candidate whose face fails to be expressive in a way that is consonant with the words he is speaking, the natural reaction is to imagine that the candidate is being deceptive, or that he is hiding something. In other words, a candidate with a wooden espression undermines his own message.
Take the race of Bush vs Dukakis. Nobody has ever accused Bush (Sr) of being the most fluid candidate in the world; he is quite wooden. But Dukakis outdid him in this department quite decisively. And lost. Dukakis almost never cracked a smile. He rarely gestured. He was always measured, and never animated. Bush was quite understated, but he did these things, a tiny bit.
At the other end of the extreme is Clinton. Clinton was quite animated. He reacted strongly to questions and he never appeared very guarded. By the standard of reactivity it was hard to imagine that Clinton was deceiving. Clinton’s radiance did, however, present a different problem. There were those who took it as a sign of being disingenuous, slick. Clinton smiled so much that it was hard to imagine that it was not just an act. It was hard to imagine it was not just a salesman’s grin. This is not a smear without some merit; people do smile to hide other emotional states. And it is doubtless that Clinton engaged in this from time to time. In Clinton’s case he genuinely likes other people. He genuinely likes being in the spotlight. Most of the time the grin was a natural expression of his emotional state. And it won him a lot of votes. Not the grin per se, but the whole reactive gestalt.
Reagan was clearly quite reactive as well. I am not sure I ever saw him speak, except for his final televised speech at the Republican nominating convention in 1988. By then he was old and tired and fragile. But this confluence of weaknesses had conspired to make him personally less threatening. I still imagine that his agenda has sent America hurtling toward fascism and economic ruin; but Reagan in that speech charmed. He was as far from wooden as one can be on a podium.
One can evaluate other presidential races along the same lines. Dubya was a bit less wooden than Gore and Kerry. For these reasons it was possible to imagine that he won the elections that nominally put him in the White House. This is a close call, I could imagine arguing the opposite had Kerry or Gore been properly credited with the votes that were cast for them.
Candidates raised in the center of the country, and the south, tend to be less prone to the wooden man problem than men raised at its outer edges, particularly in the Puritan northeast where seriousness is considered a primary virtue.
I think we know what the issue is, but to really define it in a way that is suitable for more rigorous empirical treatment we would need a more rigorous definition of “wooden” or “reactive” It could be quite quantitative, like counting “smiles,” “grins,” “grimaces” and so on as a percentage of time vocalizing. Or it could be done by polling and getting people’s impressions about “trustworthiness” and whether a candidate “cares” about one’s own condition. A perfect model would quatitatively link these two measurable qualities together and explain how they affect the outcome of the election.
For all of my own political life I have been concerned that campaigns have failed to focus on issues. Issues are the heart of politics. And they are its lifeblood. A crucial presumption of the political election process is that candidates are people of good character who know the law and hold it in high regard in both fact and purpose.
But recent experience suggest to me that issues are completely irrelevant when a candidate possesses a character that fails in this regard. Elect a scoundrel who does not believe in constitutional principles and rule of law, then the issues cease to be of any importance whatsoever. The thing of importance is the restoration of rule of law. For while rule of law is suspended, the situation is desparate. (echoing Montesquieu) Issues no longer matter. They no longer exist in the democratic sense.
The wooden man principle is loosely related to this. People who worry that a candidate’s expression hides something are, in fact, worrying about things that are categorically similar to this problem. They worry that the wrong sort of expression hides a person very different from the words that emmanate from the same body.
In the case of Dubya, one might note that he was kept locked in the White House for the first five years of his reign. Then, when he was released to talk to people he fumbled and mumbled, misspoke and retracted quite a lot. This was not the Dubya of the first campaign. There are lots of ways of parsing this series of events. One way is to imagine that Dubya had no idea how his administration would progress until September of his first year in office. And that was when his senior advisors began to reveal to him the trajectory of his administration. Dubya is not a very facile liar. He really is not good at thinking one thing and saying another. This is how he won his first presidential election. He built trust on the basis of this quality. His mode of expression was open and conveyed to voters the idea that he was not hiding what he thought. But as president he has been called to speak things he knows are false. And he trips over his own words, backtracks, contradicts, fumbles, mumbles, hesitates, and so on with quite remarkable regularity. He leaves the impression of being incoherent, or he mumbles the same simple idea over and over again in differnent ways like a strange mantra.
If this view of things proves correct, it suggests that to a rather significant degree the wooden man principle serves the purpose of the electoral process. It tends to encourage the success of candidates who are emotively engaged with the messages they give us on the campaign trail. This emotive connection will normally lead us to a correct conclusion about the person’s character. We can choose to accept or reject candidates, then, on the basis of not just what they tell us, but whether we perceive that they mean it. We are engaged in choosing not just on the basis of issues, but on the basis of character. Sadly, the wooden man principle tells us nothing about how a man chooses his advisors or about their character.
It would be wrong to say that the wooden man principle is highly reliable. We have certainly made bad choices because of it. Perhaps we have made bad choices despite it. It is nothing like perfect, and it falls pretty far short of being very good. Yet it is something.
There is a lot to complain about in American politics. It is broken in more ways than we will ever be able to count. But in this one way nature and television have conspired to give us some tiny help in making good choices. You Tube doesn’t hurt either.
When the commentary begins in the Middle East, in no way do I want to comfort and encourage the radical Muslims who want to destroy our country and who want to wipe the so-called infidels like myself and many of you from the face of the Earth. In no way do I want to aid and assist the Islamic jihadists who want the crescent and star to wave over the Capitol of the United States and over the White House of this country. I fear that radical Muslims who want to control the Middle East and ultimately the world would love to see “In God We Trust” stricken from our money and replaced with “In Muhammad We Trust
Thus spake the good and vigilant Mr Virgil Good. Amen.
Let us examine this holy writ with the respect it is due.
The first sentence suggests that radical muslims want to “destroy our country and … wipe out .. infidels from the face of the earth.” There is no question in my own mind that this, if it were true, would be cause for concern. I would agree that a reasonable person would wish to take reasonable action to mitigate the possibility of success of such an enterprise.
What are Mr. Goode’s objections? We will have to come back to that question.
“In no way do I wish to aid and assist Islamic Jihadists…” Well, Mr.Goode I am glad to hear, then, that you will be advocating modest and moderate middle east policy. I am glad to hear that you will be unconditionally opposed to bombing Iran. I am glad you were listening closely to Mr. Soroush (See “Bush Chuckled” below) when he told our president that bombing Iran with so much as a single bomb would do just that.
“I fear that radical muslims who want to control the mideast and ultimately the world would love to see ‘In God We Trust” stricken from our money.” Ah now, I believe we approach the heart of the matter; the dollar as holy artifact. The dollar as the ultimate symbol of the ultimate religion. The dollar as God of industry. The dollar as God of power. The dollar as God of patriarchy. The dollar that makes God of who controls it most.
But Mr Goode, it seems to me that you object too loudly. The dollar’s religious properties derive much less from the words printed on its face than it does from the attitudes we hold toward it, the things it can bring us, and the things we might do in order to hold ever more of those religious artifacts. In fact, Mr. Goode, isn’t it a kind of cruel hoax, that inscription on the dollar? Isn’t there a rather prominent philosopher who claimed that the more of those one holds, in fact, the less trust one is likely to have in God? Isn’t there a prominent philosopher who claimed that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a neeldle that it was for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom?
Perhaps, Mr Goode, if you were to look at that sea of poor brown-skinned people you would have us fear, and if you were to find among them a few who - like Augustine and the Grand Inquisitor - are willing to sacrifice the body to save the soul, you would see the difficult but necessary distinctions one must make between religion and politics. For the men you claim to fear appear to be afflicted with precisely the same confusions as you yourself evidently have - a confusion between religious practice and political practice.
Perhaps also you would perceive that if you really did care about the inscription on the dollar half as much as you cared for getting more of what more dollars might bring, you might find ways to bring some of those things to the very people about whom you fret and fume. In this way you would follow the mandate of the God whose name your currency bears, earn the goodwill of those who oppose you, and come closer to the God to which your god makes reference.
If you, Mr. Goode, were to minister to the needs of their bodies, you might find that they get just a little closer to seeing your God, and you might get just a little closer to seeing theirs. And that might help us understand that the difference between Islam and Christianity lies more in language and prejudice than it does in anything of deeper meaning. It might help us to understand that most of our presumed differences are unnecessary. And it might help us to understand that it is not so much the differences in names for God that we ought properly to worry about; it is the differences between fundamentalism and liberalism. It is the difference between a God of wicked intolerance and one of good will.
The former builds walls, the latter builds bridges. The former foments hate, the latter cultivates understanding. The former makes wars and wreaks devastation, the latter seeks peace and constructive harmony. The former strives for strict heirarchies, the latter seeks for and cultivates personal merit.
We return again to the first sentence. And we ask Mr. Goode what, precisely are his objections? Is it not Christianist fundamentalists who wish to do precisely the same thing to everyone else in America that Goode claims Islamists want to do? Is it not Malkin and Coulter and D’Souza who are claiming that liberals are fully responsible for the problems of fundamentalism in the middle east and ought to be eliminated?
If I, as an American, am not already a Christianist fundamentalist should I be more concerned about poor people half a world away who cannot buy a day’s worth of bread or about my Christianist fundamentalist neighbor who has a whole roomful of automatic weapons and a basement full of munitions? Should I worry more about a few mullahs who are trying to build a functional society out of starving and illiterate people or a crowd of wicked witches of eliminationalist rhetoric who spur fundamentalist Christianists to do to other Americans what fundamentalist Muslims would not and could not? Which of these two fears is more likely to represent some measure of threat to myself and my society, I wonder?
Put another way. Who was it that came after the Tutsies in Rwanda? Who was it that came after the Bosnians in the Balkans? Who is it that is challenging the Shia in Iraq? Who is it that is pillaging Darfur? It is always “the opposing tribe.” Why would one foment tribal hatred within a nation if one did not plan to exploit it? Perhaps, Mr. Goode, you would be so kind to address that question.
Mr.Goode, I am sorely tempted to think you are selling us a bogus bogeyman. Why should our world buy an Islamist bogeyman? Why should our nation trade away a small and reasonable fear for an inflated, implausible one? Especially if buying the latter must bring us to the brink of realizing the otherwise implausible former one? Why should we treat people in the way you advocate if, in fact, the effect is to create the very thing you claim to fear most? Could it be, Mr. Goode, that you sell us this fear more for what selling it brings you than for what it could ever threaten to bring to this nation? Could it be, Mr. Goode, that the currency of power is, in fact, the god you trust? Or the power of currency?
If so, Mr Goode, your position is perilous when viewed by an honest man, and by the God to which your currency supposedly refers, in any language.
Is this the new cry of an American Patriot I hear? Once, long ago, Patriots longed for liberty. It was liberty not just for themselves, but for all their friends, neighbors, business associates, and for people who lived on the other side of town, the other side of the state, the other side of the country. But today’s so-called patriot is concerned about fear. He is concerned about winning political wars at all costs to society. No matter how great. He fights a different fight than the one Patrick Henry fought. And he fights for a different cause.
This discussion is motivated by the following question.
“Why all this sabre-rattling over Iran?” We recently learned that Bush and Cheney clearly understand that bombing Iran will “radicalize 70 million Iranians for 30 years.” So either they intend to do just that. Or they intend to threaten acting in Iran in order to extract concessions. One might argue that they succeeded in the case of Korea. And if that was their purpose then we would see ships leaving the Persian Gulf. But we don’t. They could call off the dogs. But they haven’t. One might argue that they intend to negotiate with Iran; but negotiation requires diplomatic contact of some type at some level. This, the Bush administration has studiously avoided. It neither intends to negotiate with Iran nor does it intend to look as if it might ever negotiate with Iran.
Furthermore, the administration while persistently denying that it intends to “invade Iran” is using precisely the same kinds rhetoric to talk about Iran as it did to talk about Iraq. There is no question that the rhetoric is designed specifically to remind us of the rhetoric used to go to war in Iraq. My own guess is that it is targeted especially at liberals. Conservatives might be inclined to take the administration’s proclamations that they have no intention of making war on Iran at face value. But liberals will parse the contradictory language more carefully, give it more credence.
There are those who assume that every person inside the administration is dimmer than a burnt out nightlight. But that simply isn’t true. Furthermore, it is an impression both planted by and cultivated by the administration itself. So we must assume that they intend for us to underestimate them at every turn. We must assume that their success depends, in part, on our doing so.
So the question is: why would the administration do all in its power to make liberals believe that its intention was to invade and/or bomb Iran? We have argued in other places that it might intend to foment terrorism in order to have a real, material, enemy “other.” In such a case the goal of bombing would actually be to fan the flames of terrorist action. It is a real possibility.
What if, on the other hand, the administration does not intend to act? What if it intends to convince us beyond a shadow of a doubt that he intends to act, but does not intend to actually follow through? For what purpose would he push the bluff to its very limit? In reality, the truth could be some mixture of these two. It may intend to act only on some condition.
Let us suppose that certain members of the administration see their own political situation as being perilous. Hardly a day goes by without some little tidbit of information being aired that casts the decision to go to war in Iraq in a worse light ( see below. ) It is reasonable to imagine that a very bright and slightly paranoid person within the administration, when placed in this position, would work to create a strong negotiating position. The executive has proven that it is willing to act without full authorization of Congress in matters military. So what better way to get a good negotiating position than to threaten an unthinkable military act? A person in the Bush administration might think “the liberals imagine us to be raving lunatics, how do we exploit that to maximum gain?”
If one thinks like this then there is much to be gained if one were to threaten Iran convincingly. Threaten Iran as if there is absolutely no way anyone would believe you could be talked into backing down. Then, just before the bombs are released, play the “Give me immunity or give me nuclear war” card. Sounds crazy. But it is pathologically sane. It is pathologically sane in precisely the way all the rest of the Bush administration’s acts have been. And it is made all the more so because we have been imagining the administration incapable of such brilliant gambits.
As ever, I hope I have both overestimated the administration’s level of malice and intelligence, and that I have underestimated its level of incompetence. But I have persistently been arguing malice over incompetence for some time. And with each new revelation I am surprised by how wrong I have been: I keep discovering that I have been underestimating malice t and overestimating incompetence. No matter how hard I try, I come to find I am behind the curve.
I understand this is a mad idea. It pushes us much farther than we like to be pushed. But that is not enough to prove it wrong. If we are to beat this cabal, we must understand its means and its motives. Decrying the effects of its actions after the fct will not be enough. Once Iran is radicalized, there will be no punishment sufficient to atone for the damage done. We need to be prepared to imagine that the new cry of an “American Patriot” might be “Give me immunity or give me Nuclear War.” and we have to figure out in advance how to properly respond. We will have to be prepared to play a card that Cheney has not dealt us.
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