Monday, February 14, 2005

Absolute vs. Relative Bullshit

There are two absolutely fascinating articles in the NYT Arts & Leisure section today (usually not so much). One is about Harry O. Frankfurt's recent book called On Bullshit, the title of which, of course, the Times coyly rendered as [bull] throughout the article. The other is a discussion of Rebecca Goldstein's new book about Kurt Goedel. (Quick; go read them before the links rot or you have to pay.)

The article about Frankfurt made me wish I'd worked with him as a graduate student or something, and not just because he apparently invokes Wittgenstein; he did the kind of philosophy I'd always wanted to do, and I'd've tried to go to Princeton to work with him if I'd known he existed. That is, he was and is interested in real people's real lives, and, at least from the article, he seems to have a sense that that's important philosophical work. I always thought so, too, which is why I ended up doing political theory and ended up doing it in the grounded way I did it; the purely analytical versions of the world (like game theory and economics) always seemed to me to remove the very essence of humanity. That is, formal modeling of whatever type tends to remove the messiness that is a fundamental characteristic of human life in order to (supposedly) get at some "purer" structure that somehow is supposed to undergird the messiness. Thus, if we can assume that humans are primarily motivated by profit, for example, then we have a much neater world. I always thought that was intellectually dishonest, but, given that my department was full of game theorists, that wasn't a wise public position to take.

In any case, Frankfurt's work
points out [bullshit] is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth.

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."

The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what he says," Mr. Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to [bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."

And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull] is one in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are." It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.

The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance. "All that is solid," as Marx once wrote, "melts into air."

And, really, this is a profound observation, especially if you believe, as I pretty much do, that nearly all advertising is bullshit. If you look around, what you mostly see is advertising. Walk down the street and try to count just how many brand names you see--and I don't even mean the names of stores and restaurants. That is, we are inundated with bullshit constantly. Bullshit is what makes our media possible--every radio and television station and newspaper relies on it. (Please don't give me the example of public television/radio: the "sponsors" and "donors" want you to believe that they're nice, friendly, compassionate corporations who really truly believe in the Good of the People.) Sometimes it's reined in--the FDA at least occasionally limits what pharmaceutical manufacturers can say about their products, for example--but the watchdog functions of government are being put to sleep by the manufacturers and their lobbyists. There used to be something called the "fairness doctrine," but that's gone, too. And the right wing Wurlitzer has convinced many people that there's a "liberal' bias in the media, when, in fact, what any good journalist should be doing is finding facts and reporting them. Unfortunately, when the occasional journalist does that, s/he is accused of being "liberal" if the facts don't fit the Republican plan to take over every last aspect of your life, in order that you can support rich people and their habits. (Not that I'm opinionated about this or anything.)

The book about Goedel (sorry, I don't know the html for an umlaut and I'm too lazy to look it up) is interesting because Goldstein is turning us away from our usual way of thinking about Goedel (and Einstein and Heisenberg). (The article starts off: "Relatively. Incompleteness. Uncertainty. Is there a more powerful modern Trinity?") That is, rather than focusing on what Goedel's incompleteness theorem excludes, she apparently focuses more on what it includes.
Before Gödel's incompleteness theorem was published in 1931, it was believed that not only was everything proven by mathematics true, but also that within its conceptual universe everything true could be proven. Mathematics is thus complete: nothing true is beyond its reach. Gödel shattered that dream. He showed that there were true statements in certain mathematical systems that could not be proven. And he did this with astonishing sleight of hand, producing a mathematical assertion that was both true and unprovable.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of his theorem and the possibilities that opened up from Gödel's extraordinary methods, in which he discovered a way for mathematics to talk about itself. (Ms. Goldstein compares it to a painting that could also explain the principles of aesthetics.)

The theorem has generally been understood negatively because it asserts that there are limits to mathematics' powers. It shows that certain formal systems cannot accomplish what their creators hoped.

But what if the theorem is interpreted to reveal something positive: not proving a limitation but disclosing a possibility? Instead of "You can't prove everything," it would say: "This is what can be done: you can discover other kinds of truths. They may be beyond your mathematical formalisms, but they are nevertheless indubitable."

In this, Gödel was elevating the nature of the world, rather than celebrating powers of the mind. There were indeed timeless truths. The mind would discover them not by following the futile methodologies of formal systems, but by taking astonishing leaps, making unusual connections, revealing hidden meanings.

The reason this is fascinating to me is because Wittgenstein embarked on a similar process, about a decade before Goedel. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was an attempt by Wittgenstein to apply principles of logic and mathematics to language. The seven major propositions of the Tractatus end with one of the most famous lines in philosophy: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Wittgenstein finished his work and then left philosophy. He spent some time teaching schoolchildren (and, thereby, seeing how they learn), and, in my opinion, decided that he'd gotten it wrong in the Tractatus. You might say (and I don't know if this claim would hold up) that the Tractatus was his version of the "positive" part of Goedel, what we "can" say, or, at least, what we can "prove" in the logical or formal or perhaps even scientific sense of proof. What Wittgenstein realized, I think, is that we say an awful lot, all the time, that we can't describe in the formal ways that he (and, earlier, Bertrand Russell) wanted to describe them, that the rules shifted too much, even as the rules enabled the participants to communicate a tremendous amount of information and to do it reliably and well.

Let me try an example to illuminate. Oftentimes, if you try to convince people with a logical argument, you bore them or alienate them. If you can make your same argument with a joke, somehow, then you've won them over without having to go through (or before going through) the logical version of what you're saying. This is particularly true of arguments that have a political aspect to them (or, especially, feminist, I've noticed). If they laugh, then they "get" it, and explaning what, in fact, they got will be much easier than if you start out with the explanation.

Anyway, I've probably lost most of you by now, but Wittgenstein is a particular favorite of mine, and these articles made me think of him. Maybe I'll tie things together better later.

thanks to Mithras for a way to get permanent NYT links. I couldn't get one yet for the second article, but I'll add it when I can.


Blogger Ann said...

Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention. I'm not totally sure about the Wittgenstein stuff, but some off-the-top thoughts on the bullshit stuff:

It isn't only products, it's lifestyles, it's tastes and fashions, it's beliefs and opinions and war and love and life and death--in short, just about everything. I don't think it's avoidable when you have groups of more than (arbitrarily) ten people to have some form or another of this kind of bullshit, and I'd argue that it's gotten worse as communication, basically, Marshall McLuhan's "media" (which includes roads and the alphabet as well as telephones and the Internet), has improved and been globalized.

The problem is, as the article puts it, that a "culture rife with [bull] is one in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are.'" Which is where thoughtfulness (my champion of a concept) comes in. A society that doesn't ask questions of everybody about everything, and all the time (not on an individual basis, of course)--one that is, indeed, persuaded to dismiss them--

I saw an episode of "The Ashlee Simpson Show" recently and was absolutely amazed at how she said exactly the right things, all the time. Regardless of how she actually felt about something, she'd sort of dial up an appropriate emotion, a few words. It was pretty weird. Then there's a friend of mine, who saw the Mona Lisa in person and spent ten minutes trying to figure out what to do about it. She didn't react; she just thought and thought about how one is supposed to react. Both these examples reflect the way in which we've been bullshitted so much--we've been bullshitted about bullshitting, even--that we've lost access to spontaneity and truth.

Or perhaps we're worried because we've simply lost the truth, period. Maybe my friend was struggling to admit that she felt nothing upon seeing the Mona Lisa. If you can feel nothing about things that are supposed to be intensely meaningful, then what do you have left? Who are you?

This is what the article was getting at in this sentence: "The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance." I find it to be an absolutely terrifying sensation, because what follows institutions and leaders and events and ethics is human emotion.

Gah! OK, enough of this hyperreality nonsense. I'm going to go do something that requires intense focus on my corporeality.

11:09 PM  
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I was assuming that you were heading to the gym--until I saw the time-stamp!

I think your point about losing access to spontaneity and truth is extremely important and accurate, and exactly what's troubling about the pervasiveness of bullshit.

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