Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who do you trust?

In a post called "Living Questions" at Speculum Criticum Traditionis, philosopher-blogger Skholiast uses 9/11—more precisely, typical conversation around the causes of the 9/11 attacks—as an example of how philosophy comes into play in the world (I paraphrase violently). He briefly sets up a cast of characters who might discuss the causes of 9/11—one believes the official story, another believes it was an inside job, a third believes it was a "chickens coming home to roost" sort of situation, given the history of extensive American activity in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is what he says:
But, you may say, the nature of 9/11 is a historical, not a philosophical question. Likewise, one could say that the question of “whether (or why) global warming is happening,” is a climatological question; that the question of what will be the likely fallout of government intervention (or lack thereof) on behalf of teetering banks, insurance companies, and brokerage firms is an economic question; or that the question of whether to buy from a grocery store or a farmers’ market is a nutritional question, perhaps informed by your own private budgetary considerations.

But all of these questions also come down to philosophical premises, and have philosophical ramifications. And, most importantly, the act of asking them and disputing them contains in that moment the opening to philosophical comportment. In fact, the conversation won’t even start to make any progress beyond “that’s-what-you-think,” until we do get to the philosophy—either by backing up or moving forward. "Who do you trust?" is an example of the sort of philosophy I mean. (It is exactly the sort of question Socrates asked; if you go to a specialist for shipbuilding or carpentry or cooking, why not for moral advice? But what makes a specialist and how do you know one?) If I am shown two different accounts of how and a building falls “into its own footprint,” then unless I am myself an engineering expert in demolition, I have to make a choice: do I believe expert A., upon whom Ted relies and who says that a building could well collapse straight down after being hit by a plane; or expert B., whom Dan cites to the effect that the only buildings that fall that way are those that are brought down by controlled explosives? What is it that disposes me to believe one or the other? And can I evaluate that disposition from outside?
I'm grateful for this argument and for this example in particular. I say that because I've engaged in this very line of thinking myself: though readers will not be surprised to learn that I essentially believe in the "roosting chickens" explanation (put very crudely), and that I do not believe 9/11 was an inside job, I nonetheless have occasionally found myself wandering onto certain websites that purport to present expert testimony on, say, the physics of demolition and realizing that I had no basis for deciding the matter. My concern here, of course, is not 9/11 per se, nor is it his, but rather this matter of trust. In particular, trust in the context of our highly technocratic capitalist society.

Consider the following sentence: "You're entitled to your own opinion; you're not entitled to your own facts." I've noticed different versions of this statement popping up in a variety of contexts, most commonly in arguments against the anti-vaccination movement and against the climate change denial crowd. (I have more sympathy with the former than with the latter, but I'm not going to go into my reasons here.) I myself have said much the same thing in political arguments. Of course, it rarely gets me anywhere. And as I've noticed that my arguments rarely get me anywhere (assuming those cases when I've been my most coherent and least defensive, and being as charitable as possible toward my interlocutors; it's not helpful going through life thinking everyone else is an idiot, even when they're wrong), I've often wondered how it is that we come to know and understand things, how it is we become open to certain ways of looking at the world. If my understanding of political matters has more basis in fact, more basis in actuality, than, say, my father's, what has given me this access? How do I know I'm not simply deluded? And hasn't my understanding not just deepened but in many respects changed substantially over the years as I've struggled with it all? And how do I judge my sources? How do I come to trust them? How do I know?

Several years ago, I attended a talk given by Noam Chomsky in Washington, DC. One of the organizers of the event spoke beforehand and told us how, many years prior, he'd read Chomsky's early book For Reasons of State. The book had made him angry. He didn't believe it! He took it upon himself to look up every source that Chomsky cited, and to his astonishment, he discovered that they all checked out. Now, each of us could do the same, of course. I've read numerous Chomsky books, and I admit that I've long since stopped checking sources, though in truth I never checked many of them to begin with. In fact, looking back, it turned out I was perfectly primed for Chomsky's line of argument, and I found the simple message he was getting across impossible to miss (though miss it is exactly what most liberal critics do, to say nothing of the Right). And whenever I came across what looked like damning criticisms (you all know the familiar complaints), I'd look into those. The criticisms never held any water (though, to be sure, they have persisted and become reified in the liberal imagination). Over time, book after book, essay after essay, I have come to trust Noam Chomsky. This is not to say I always agree with him. Trust is not about agreement. No, with Chomsky, I trust that I am not being lied to, that I am not reading or hearing bullshit.

But Chomsky is only an example of what I'm talking about. I bring him up primarily to address anecdotally the matter of sources. We are supposed to think for ourselves. We could look everything up. We could, each one of us, check out every single citation, research every single point, explore every single subject of importance to us in detail. We could do this, but we would never get anywhere. The world is big. Our lives are complicated, intertwined, impacted heavily by myriad systems, governments, institutions, media. We have many decisions to make, large and small. We are bombarded by an immense amount of information, and yet we are expected to make sense of it all—we are expected to employ our reason and some elusive and illusory "common sense". Frankly there is not enough time. We have to deal with most of it without checking. We have to take a lot of what we know on faith. We have to trust. I submit that our trust has been deeply violated. I submit further that the violation of this trust is largely at the hands of those institutions we were supposed to trust most. Government. Education. Science.

In his book The Threat to Reason, Daniel Hind argues that, contra the shrill liberal whingeing about the threat to "civilization" allegedly posed by religious fanaticism, the true threat to reason, in the best sense of the Enlightenment tradition, is what he calls "Occult Enlightenment". To brutally simplify his argument, this is to say that modern science, in many ways the embodiment of the best the Enlightenment tradition has had to offer, with all its obvious successes, on balance is in service to the maintenance and deepening of power. As Hind puts it, this Occult Enlightenment, or "military-industrial Enlightenment", "is a machine for absorbing information and radiating deception. Within it, the history of Enlightenment, its methods, even the enlightened attitude towards knowledge, serve the purposes of domination." And this service to domination is detectable, if not always obvious. We pick up on it. We are expected to put our trust in experts, and we usually do. But that trust has been eroded. In varying degrees we may maintain it, but it is fragile. Science is in service to power, but it's also utopian. Science seeks to improve on the world, and at its best, it would improve the world for all, not just a few. But even this seeking is within a framework that is often at odds with how life goes about its business. Often modern science has, quite unscientifically, made assumptions about the world, and in league with power (beholden to power, to capital), it has re-made the world. And scientific expertize is highly rarefied, far beyond the reach of average people, whose lives are unavoidably lived in that re-made world, lives deeply impacted by technocratic applications of modern science, for relative good and for ill. It should not be surprising that technology is experienced as a kind of magic and that the knowledge and expertize behind it is experienced as mysterious and occult. (Hell, as I have observed many times in the past, even—especially?—liberals and technocrats look on technological change as mysterious and somehow natural, agentless, automatic.) As such, it contributes to the lack of autonomy people feel they have over their own lives. . .

I've written a bit more than I intended, while at the same time I could go on and on, expanding on various points, etc, but I'm not going to do that right now. And I don't really have any closing thoughts that would effectively tie everything together. Consider this, then, further exploration, until next time, into the recurring topics of trust and autonomy. . .


skholiast said...

thanks for the link. I am very interested in how discussions can be navigated when the stakes get high, and in particular in the kind of awareness of oneself that can be jump-started (or on the other hand, entirely squashed) in just such encounters. We've all had the experience-- or maybe we haven't, that would explain a thing or two-- of a good friend who "disagrees with us about everything." My guess is that the "everything" in question is quite restricted, actually, and yet there is clearly something about the disagreements that seems, in such cases, to be essential to who we are in these encounters.

I'm quite struck by your point that technological change is experienced as a kind of natural phenomenon. Do we feel entitled to it by now? Or is it a kind of superstition, a constant scrutinizing of the weather for auguries of the will of the gods?

Unknown said...

Both your points are absolutely spot on.

It's very peculiar to find oneself having to trust the words of experts, who - in their own work - don't trust the words of anyone.

I seem to have discovered your excellent blog at a particularly slow moment. I hope you're planning to continue writing.

Richard said...

Hi Andy. Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you like the blog.

You're right that this has been a slow moment here, though posting has always been fairly erratic. Rest assured, I plan to continue writing. I have several entries in the works, but I can't say precisely when they'll appear.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Chomsky reader, but as a Chomsky reader how accurate do you think this article is on Chomsky and Herman's assessment of the massacre at Huế (link: It seems troubling.

Richard said...

Not very. It happens that I've read the book that writer is discussing. It's far more worth your time than his right wing blather. Of course, I haven't read all the sources he uses to damn Chomsky & Herman. But's interesting that he seems utterly confident of their reliability. Why is that, I wonder? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's because they feed into his pre-existing worldview on communism. On the other hand, you'll find a variety of different sources, often US government sources, cited by Chomsky & Herman.

Poking around the rest of the guy's does not inspire confidence (or trust) either.

Richard said...

the rest of the guy's site, that is.... in fact, the proliferation on the site of names like Oliver Kamm, David Horowitz, and Alan Dershowitz should be all you need to know about this guy's ability to recognize reliable evidence and arguments.