Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: April, 2012

Elephantine Culture

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The bigger hatred makes you feel, the smaller you are.


Okay, time to wax clinical, I think. So the cartoon looks something like this…

The social interdependence of humans means that the social standing of individuals possesses far more survival value than the theoretical standing of their beliefs. Since it’s far better to belong to present coalitions than to be right about absent facts, the machinery of the latter is placed at the disposal of the former. This is the drum I’ve been beating for years now, as well as Haidt’s thesis.

As we’ve witnessed first-hand, the machinery of belonging operates in ways that can be quite ugly. Shaming, scapegoating, denigrating, and bullying seem to be the most natural and readily available communicative modes—schoolyard stuff I’m sure all of us have suffered (and employed) in our childhood.

Despite all the bad press these methods generally receive, people employing them think they are entirely justified, either regardless of the harm that results or (in the case of ‘trolls’) because of it. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, given the existential stakes of inter-group competition in human prehistory. The idea is that some version of the ‘false-negative selection bias’ is at work here: it’s better to jump at thousand shadows than to miss one killer. Evolution often favours the quick and dirty over the slow and scrupulous. It doesn’t matter if innocents are punished, so long as the dragnet reliably catches genuine competitors. You can see the same evolutionary principle at work in PTSD, where the low resolution of the ‘quick and dirty’ fear system regularly mistakes innocuous stimuli for potentially lethal threats.

It really is quite remarkable, if you think about it. It’s no surprise that the perceived facts of the matter make no difference, since each party in the dispute duly believes that it has cornered the truth. The surprising and alarming thing is the way even obvious second order claims find themselves batted aside. So, even though it’s obviously the case that all parties could be wrong, arguments that turn on appeals to this fact have no more immediate impact than those that argue contrary facts.

I say ‘immediate impact’ because I find it very interesting the way Vox felt compelled to return after a year or so, convinced he had arguments that could demolish this second order case. This might hold for ACM and her party as well, but I know my every attempt to make this second order argument was either buried under red herrings or ignored outright. Vacuous dismissal, personal attack, accusations of communicative malfeasance—anything but a simple acknowledgement that, yes, they could be wrong. It really is quite extraordinary—and alarming.

One of Haidt’s recurring themes in The Righteous Mind is the injunction to step outside of the moral circuits we find ourselves caught up in—to avoid, as much as possible, becoming embroiled. The book’s raison d’etre, after all, is to find some way of resolving America’s political impasse. It’s a classic Enlightenment approach: before you can solve a problem, you must first learn what that problem is.

So what is Haidt’s solution? Not much more than a vague call for institutional ‘decompartmentalization.’ ‘Compartmentalization,’ as those weary souls who have weathered my rants against the literary establishment know, is what I call the process of ‘belief and value-grouping’ enabled by information technology. It’s the whole reason I opened TPB to Vox and ACM in the first place: an attempt to cut against the psycho-technological grain, to reach out–if only to ponder the blisters on our fingers!

The idea is that information technology, far from being a communicative panacea, is deeply mixed bag, especially given the consumer ‘belief culture’ it finds itself expressed in. Just think of Fox News. Rupert Murdoch’s genius lay in realizing the way belonging trumps being right, and that ‘facts’ (group specific values and beliefs) were simply a market like any other. Beliefs and values are in the process of being branded and commodified in a manner and on a scale without historical precedent. Call it the ‘birds-of-a-feather effect’: absent any geographical or material constraint, people will generally gravitate toward groups that confirm their values and beliefs.

This is why I see Haidt’s conclusions, not to mention our first hand experiences here, so damn depressing. Haidt isolates, for instance, Newt Gingrich’s 1995 demand that Republican representatives not move their families to Washington as a crucial turning point in the collapse of political civility and cooperation in Washington. It’s far more difficult to hate the father of your kid’s best friend than it is the stranger across the aisle.

The more difficult it is to sort us from them the more difficult it becomes to maintain an adversarial coalition mindset. You listen to the father of your kid’s best friend. And thinking back, this rings true of many of the most profitable political debates I’ve had: they all began in the absence of any clear-cut political identifications. (The biggest error I made picking ACM as a left-wing counterpart of Vox was the fact that I had an obvious axe to grind—which is to say, the way I came in ‘pre-identified’ as one of the ‘evil them.’). What we need to do, Haidt is suggesting, is redesign our political institutions so as to complicate the kinds of identifications made by their members.

This seems simple enough. Segregation is the problem, the lack of common identifications and the meaningful interdependencies that give rise to them (Vox’s boxes are anything but the cure he imagines them to be!). And this totally makes sense, given that our cognitive egocentrism is likely the evolutionary product of daily, existential interdependence. Our self-serving biases are the product of a high-pressure social atmosphere, one where concession and compromise are inescapable facts of daily existence.

And this is what I find so depressing! Industrialization had already sucked much of the social air out of the human room by relocating material dependency beyond the pale of identification. We live in an age where strangers make all the implements of our survival, a time when we can shut down all interpersonal contact whatsoever, and still survive. But the degree to which we needed to socialize, we were still pretty much stranded with the people—along with the attitudes—that chance and geography served up to us. The social atmosphere was thin, but it was still an atmosphere, still a check on the violence and radicality of our values and beliefs.

No longer. Now, stranded with the bland injunction ‘to believe’ and stamped with the false conviction that having an opinion is all it takes to be a ‘critical thinker,’ we can float and gravitate toward whatever values and attitudes ‘just feel right,’ utterly ignorant of any rational criteria whatsoever, let alone any knowledge of our tragic dispositions to be duped. Now the worst of us can call and call, do everything they can to appeal to what’s worst in us. Since we are hardwired to be self-exculpating and other-denigrating, these kinds of attitudes exert a gravitational attraction almost inversely proportional to their rational warrant.

We can now effortlessly join communities were bigotry is simply ‘common sense,’ where punishing perceived out-group competitors on the basis of nothing more than an ill-will and a hunger for celebrity can double as ‘good clean fun.’

Compartmentalization is the theory that the internet, by removing the geographical brakes on cognitive egocentrism, will lead to an increasingly ‘elephantine’ culture, one that is ever more fractious, extreme, and irrational. In the United States, for instance, the worst case scenario would be that the present political polarization will eventually generate genuinely disastrous economic consequences, which will lead to even more polarization, and thence to a complete breakdown of democratic institutions.

Since I’m not a psychologist, all I can do is appeal to those of you who are. It would be interesting, I think, to run experiments on the patterns of groupishness that arise given different communicative logistics. Over the past few weeks there’s been more than a few times where I’ve found myself wondering how old my interlocutors were, thinking that the willingness to adopt, let alone tolerate, abusive and irrational modes of social discourse was simply the product of some kind of generational sea change in communicative expectations.

How do the attitudes of a group evolve when extremists are given a voice? How do they evolve when communicative logistics force or incentivize collaborative activity with out-group competitors? What, for that matter, is the base rate for ‘ideological mutation’ in various kinds of groups?

The list of potential questions go on and on. As do the worries.

So this One Time, at Hate Camp…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Being the enemy of your enemy doesn’t make you your friend.


Anybody notice how the partisans of ACM and Vox were so careful to avoid one another? As far as I know, they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s existence in their own playpens, let alone here.

Let’s begin with ACM. The idea is that I represent misogyny in my books, not because I’m critical of it, but because I like it. The evidence for this claim seems to boil down to the fact that I am male who represents misogynistic cultures in his books. Any argument I raise to the contrary is labelled ‘mansplaining’ (with little, if any regard to what Sady Doyle means by the term). I can’t help but think my sin is really one of calling ACM out.

She has to be a fraud, doesn’t she?

I introduce her to Theo Beale, the prolific and well known Vox Day, someone who vigourously promotes views like this, who is in fact the very antagonist she wants me to be (or at this point, needs) and still, she only has eyes for me.

The question is why this is the case. Why would ACM and Vox so studiously avoid each other?

This got me thinking about trolls, and how they’re exclusively interested in earnest interlocutors. One of the things that has always puzzled me about this fracas is the way the Hate Camp is so bent on perceptions of my ‘emotional distress,’ the idea that they are ‘getting to me,’ or causing me real emotional anguish. And I realized, these are people who want to hurt people they deem ‘immoral.’ They want, quite simply, someone to punish – or a ‘punching bag,’ as ACM has it.

Now this is more than a little troubling. But it does explain why they have no patience for nuance or debate. It’s hard to hurt people when their guilt is aired as an open question. If they’re innocent, then you being so bent on hurting them says some pretty nasty things about you.

Think about it. ACM is utterly incapable of acknowledging that she has made any mistakes, as are any of the partisans of the Hate Camp. Why? Because the violence of their condemnations entail (for most people) emotional distress. Acknowledging they could be mistaken would be tantamount to acknowledging that they could be hurting innocent people. Their careers. Their reputations. Their emotional well-being.

Any reference to lists like this is bound to make the Hate Camp itch, bound to make them come back to the well time and again. Given what we know about moral outrage and human cognition, it would be nothing short of a miracle if ACM hasn’t made more mistakes than otherwise. So the question I would pose to her is simply, ‘Given that you’re just as error prone as the rest of us, how many innocent people do you think you have harmed with your insults and accusations?’

Odds are, you won’t be seeing an answer to that question. But who knows? Maybe she has ‘super-intelligence’ like Vox!

Passing moral judgement on a person, especially in public, is a very serious thing. If you’re wrong, then you’re the bad guy. So you quite simply have to be right. If you don’t have the argumentative tools to silence dissent, you go on a hate-mongering campaign—you try to inflict even more harm, scare people, friend or foe, into minding you. If you do have the argumentative tools, you begin gaming every ambiguity you can, and cherry-picking like there is no tomorrow.

You just gotta be right! Otherwise, you just fucked up huge

Which is why, I humbly submit, that TPB has become that pesky chicken bone the Hate Camp just can’t seem to swallow. Vox feels it. So does ACM. That’s why they both came back. The more names they call me, the more they make my point. I mean, really, my argument against them boils down to ‘How do you know?’ I could be twice as full of shit as they are, three times – more! – and still my point stands. I could bite all their bullets: “Yes, ACM, I’m a feces-clad-serial-masturbator…” “Yes, Vox, I’m pseudo-intellectual retard with homosexual tendencies…”

“But I was, um, like just wondering, given, you know, that you say such hateful stuff and all, um, How can you be so sure?”

Moral certainty is required to punish people.

Which begs the question: why not punish Vox? Why not attack someone who pretty much exemplifies all the things they claim to hate? At least in his case they don’t run the risk of becoming the bad guy!

Well, because, quite simply, he can’t be punished

And why is that? Because, in a strange sense, he’s one of them. He too belongs to the Hate Camp, albeit the one that hates them.

It’s like two rabid dogs, bent on spreading their particular brand of hate-rabies… They would be wasting their time on each other, and they both know it.

Stop for a second. Try to imagine a debate between the two…

[Sorry… had to take… a short break… to recover my wind…]

Honest debates are the ones where you trade cockpits, fly each other’s hopes and ideas around for a while. The only way to do this is set aside your hate, and to acknowledge from the outset that you could be wrong. But these guys aren’t interested in trading cockpits, they just want to break in, either pilot you to some hostile nation, or fly you straight into the ground.

Hate is a one way emotion. It locks doors to better kick other doors in. Vox and ACM don’t bother with each other because they know all about the dead bolts. They implicitly recognize that they have no interest whatsoever in openly discussing or debating anything whatsoever

This is Hate Camp for real, people. No victims, no fun.

Cross-eyed Crosshair Crossfire…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Not even God can argue with a shrug, which is why he created the universe to resemble one.


Crazy days on TPB! On the one hand I find myself once again arguing against Vox, an extremely popular ‘libertarian’ blogger, who calls me ‘Wangsty’ (among other things) and believes bigoted rubbish like this:

Logic dictates that women must be encouraged to bear and raise subsequent generations. 50 years of experience indicates that there is no loss to society and substantial benefit from ensuring that the law and social structures support that role while hindering alternative roles. Granted, this does assume that societal survival is a positive objective.

While Acrackedmoon, a self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ troll (and the only person to have called me more names than Vox!) decides to diagnose my moral and psychological defects through, er, ‘highly motivated’ readings of my books…

Mr Bakker, you are disgusting. It’s not even that you are edgy or avant-garde. You’re just disgusting in a sad, banal way; reading this is like catching you masturbating to rape porn surrounded by wads of used tissue. Possibly your masturbating aid is your own steaming feces. And, not quite content with being found out (and feeling no shame, for that matter), you record it and upload it to youtube, and share around the link. Bakker is the piglet with the explosive diarrhea that’s very, very proud of the shit he’s just excreted. And he wants us all to smell it. Possibly follow his lead and taste it too.

Does it make me weird that I almost feel… I dunno, honoured?

Aside from pointing out that ACM missed her calling as a cherrypicker, I do need to correct her on one point: Three Pound Brain does not ‘pretend’ to be about battling misogyny, it’s about the fact that our brains only weigh three pounds and how this becomes painfully obvious when we look at the myriad bigotries that some of us are actually proud to display. TPB, ACM, is about you! And Vox.

And me. And, well, everybody who has a three pound brain.

Misogyny is simply a symptom of how stupid and self-serving we all are. As is racism. As is any outlook that lumps people into pejorative categories (like ‘neckbeards’), that urges or insinuates hatred of people based on simplistic identifications.

Our brains, given that they only weigh three pounds, are built to economize, so they continually over-simplify. In a sense, we’re simplification machines. They are also built to self-promote and to other-denigrate, which is to say, to place themselves on pedestals (the way I am now) and to dig holes for perceived competitors (the way I am now). They are, in other words, social machines as well.

Now this is a problem for all of us as a species, especially given the strange and perhaps tumultuous days to come. But, the same way everyone you know has pretty much all the inclinations everyone has only with the levels cranked high and low, for some people the personality EQ is way out of whack. We’re all allergic to social complexity, but some people just can’t stand it. We’re all inclined to dislike those who disagree or challenge us, but some people feel compelled to hate.

And sometimes, when everything seems fucked up, we find these extremists attractive—insightful, funny, courageous, what-have you. Why? Because they seem to give voice to our own inclinations. They make it easy to give in to our need for certainty and simplicity. They promise you things like racial harmony through racial purity, make traditional chauvinisms sound reasonable, or they savage things that challenge or complicate, while giving some inner dislike or fear or dissatisfaction a booming, hateful voice—because few things seem to empower quite so much as hate.

All Three Pound Brain does is remind people they have three pound brains. The fact that so many of those simple, hateful things feel so right (me awesome, they scum!) is the result of your brain being—as a matter of scientific fact—a self-promoting simplification machine. (One of the easiest ways to detect whether someone is having problems with their social complexity tolerance levels, I like to think, is the tendency to call perceived social competitors names).

I remember thinking Haidt’s metaphor of ‘the rider and the elephant’ cheesy when I first heard it a few years back, but reading The Righteous Mind has turned me around. Psychologists have been busy the last few years sorting those cognitive processes that are automatic from those that are genuinely deliberative—and as it turns out, the vast bulk of our determinations (especially when they are moral) belong to the automatic category. The more we learn about the deliberative side, the more it seems to have the job of socially promoting our automatic judgements, rather than explaining our own motivations (which largely remain invisible to us). Thus the automatic elephant and the deliberative rider. The first passes arbitrary judgment, and the second pretends there was a fair trial.

As Haidt writes:

the rider acts as spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons for justifying whatever it is the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm. (46)

The amount of research supporting this ‘post hoc rationalization model’ is fast becoming mountainous. And it certainly explains why all my attempts to change anyone’s mind about me (because, no, I’m not a misogynist) or about the proper role of women (because, no, the state should not coerce them into assuming their ‘reproductive duty’) have probably made me more of a laughingstock than anything!

“Why do you bother?” has to be one of the most frequent questions I encounter here at TPB. Every one of us has encountered fringe people with fringe opinions over the years. We all have the experience of looking someone in the eye and realizing that it quite simply does not matter what you say. So what do we do?

Nod and smile and slink away.

What could be more obvious? Especially when it comes to the web, where you have to work to communicate in the first place, let alone deal with all the tone-problems posed by text, or the volatility of the online disinhibition effect.

So why do I bother? A right-wing bigot on the one hand, and a left-wing hatemonger on the other. You gotta know I ain’t going to change their minds. And since my own positions are so wank and deflationary, there’s precious little chance they’re going to change mine.

My whole life I’ve been pinched between worlds. I grew up poor, in one of those rural houses set far enough back from the road that no one could hear the laughing, let alone the screaming and shouting. I loved books, but learned very quickly to keep them on the down-low. I remember thinking that university would set me free, that there, at least, I wouldn’t have to be secretive or defensive about my passions. My first year English Literature class cured me of that idealistic nonsense. Conan, apparently, has no place in serious literary discussions.

So I spent the next several years trying to be ‘serious,’ to have ‘serious’ interests I could share with other ‘serious’ people. Rather than resenting the denigration of my tastes—not to mention my class—I did what most everyone does, at first: I made fun of who I was, simply because that’s the price of human admission when you find yourself outside looking in. Aside from dress and accent and belief, you socially identify yourself by the things you love and hate. Thus all the advertisements on our T-shirts. ‘Identity claims,’ psychologists call them. So I ran down fantasy, cracked jokes about my D&D days, said things like, “Can you believe I was so retarded?” I did what I’m sure so very many lapsed fantasy fans have done, consciously or unconsciously. I bought into the ‘Myth of Literature.’

But what I didn’t do was swap out my friends. As a result, I found myself playing hypocrite in both worlds, not so much changing my tune as amending it, as if I were a vase with multiple motifs that could be turned this way or that to flatter the tastes of whoever seemed to count at any given moment. It would be graduate school that cured me of this particular disease: whatever desire I had to be ‘serious’ literally died within the first few weeks of my MA program. I became cynical in the modern sense, and devoted myself to mastering the game of taking and being taken seriously (in hothouse academic subcultures).

And this didn’t sit well either. After tumbling off a half dozen philosophical bandwagons, I came to the realization that it was almost all rationalization, people beginning with inklings or full blown conclusions, then cherry-picking whatever they needed to sound smart. This was certainly what I had been doing. How else could I have been so convinced at each turn, unless I was fooling myself somehow?

Then I began reading cognitive psychology. I was teaching this pop culture class, but I was so disgusted with semiotics that I decided to toss the assigned text in the trash, and to look at culture as a kind of evolutionary and psychological prosthesis. Two things came out of that class. The first was Neuropath (where I tried, among other things, to depict a nihilistic future – one I think we’re hurtling toward now – where biological imperatives replace moral ones (so leading to a mass normalization of  the pornographic culture  that ACM so perceptively takes as evidence of my misogyny!)). The second was my conversion to cynicism in a more ancient sense.

I was, and still am, absolutely astounded that I could spend all the years I had studying philosophy without encountering any real, empirical research on human cognition. I suppose it makes institutional sense in retrospect, given what those findings seem to entail (namely, that the ancient Skeptics were right all along), but I still find the sheer magnitude of the hypocrisy boggling. On the one hand, we have good reason to believe that humans are theoretical incompetents through and through, and on the other, we have this institution devoted to the study of human theory and theoretical competence that wants no part of it.

Hypocrisy. Everywhere I look, this is what I see. Especially when I find myself looking in the mirror. I feel it now, writing this… Really, when it comes down to it, I’m just covering my own ass here, aren’t I?

Of course I am. But at the same time, I know the information technology revolution is just underway, as are revolutions in a broad spectrum of scientific fields. The kinds of crazy changes we’ve witnessed in just the past couple decades are just ramping up. Our tools are about to become more powerful and more pervasive than we can imagine, and humanity, meanwhile, is stranded with the same old, horribly maladapted paleolithic psychology—one designed to dupe us into thinking we know things that we plainly do not.

My whole career is bent around the notion of spreading the hypocritical word—hypocritically. Since the social trend seems to be one of segmentation, ever closer fits between transmitters and receivers, I self-consciously decided to engage people with diametrically opposing views, particularly those possessing what I think is the greatest threat of all, moral certainty.

So with my books, I look at genres as specialty channels, as ways to engage audiences with views different than my own. Within those books, I always try to tweak the reader’s moral sensibilities, to show—not the ‘proper’ moral ‘answer’—but the complexities that so often undermine the apparent simplicity of our moral intuitions. Faith and gender, as it happens, are two of my preferred saws.

And with this site, Three Pound Brain, I try to periodically spark debates with those who, like Vox and ACM, I think entertain particularly troubling views. People who can’t laugh at themselves. People who are continually pointing fingers at others, condemning, blaming… People, in short, who trust their own illusory sense of moral superiority too much to be trusted. I do so, not with the intention of ‘converting’ people, but of simply making as many people as possible aware of the complexities that afflict all subject matters, and the infirmities that—as a matter of empirical fact—own our three pound brains.

And man o’ man do I get raked over the coals! But, then, as the Chinese proverb says, He who asks questions is a fool for a moment, but he who asks no questions is a fool for life. Someone’s gotta be extreme about doubt.

Don’t they?

Fantasy and the Home of the Spirit

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“He was a modern man, and the world of our ancestors was no longer the home of his spirit and his heart but his historical object.”

– Wilhelm Dilthey


(Another guest-blogger post by Roger Eichorn.  Now with 50% less philosophy!)

What makes fantasy fantasy?

I doubt there’s any single satisfactory answer to this question.  It seems to me that ‘fantasy’ is, to use a Wittgensteinian phrase, a ‘family resemblance’ concept: it signifies a cluster of distinct (yet related) features or qualities that works of fiction can exemplify in a variety of ways.  If that’s right, then we shouldn’t try to force the pegs of ‘round’ fantasy and ‘square’ fantasy and ‘triangular’ fantasy into any one definitional hole.

Now, back in 2003 and 2004, I attended the Blue Heaven writers’ workshop run by Charles Coleman Finlay.  Blue Heaven is exclusively for workshopping speculative-fiction novels: over the years, it’s midwived such books as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe, and Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest.  One of my fellow attendees back in ’03 and ’04 was Benjamin Rosenbaum.

I forget which year it was, but I remember Ben proposing, one lazy afternoon around the dining-room table, what we might call a ‘phenomenological’ definition of fantasy: rather than thinking of fantasy in terms of features or qualities exemplified by texts, we ought to think of it in terms of the experience produced by reading.  (Unfortunately, I forget what Ben proposed as the ‘experiential criteria’ of fantasy.)  I objected that the phenomenological-definition approach must fail, because it would relativize the concept of fantasy so much as it render it meaningless: if fantasy were defined in terms of evoking experience E in reader R, then we would have to accept that, if R’s reading of Lord of the Rings failed to produce E, then it’s true that, in R’s case, Lord of the Rings would fail to qualify as fantasy.  Call this the ‘paradigm’ worry: Lord of the Rings is the very paradigm of fantasy novels—that is, it’s practically definitional of what fantasy is; thus, we shouldn’t accept any definition of fantasy that would allow for the possibility that Lord of the Rings ends up not being a fantasy novel.

Ben agreed with me, and I still think the argument is convincing.  Even so, Ben’s phenomenological or experiential conception of genre has stuck with me all these years.  I think there’s something profoundly right about it, even if it fails to provide us with definitions.  What I want to suggest here is that there’s an interesting parallel between certain paradigmatically definitional features of fantasy and one sort of experience fantasy can provides for its readers.

A common feature of fantasy novels can be captured in terms of Weber’s distinction between ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ worlds.  The world as revealed to us by natural science is thoroughly disenchanted: stripped of purpose, meaning, and agency—stripped of personhood.  Pre-scientific worldviews tend(ed) to fall somewhere along the ‘enchantment continuum’ between, say, hard-nosed Protestantism and full-blown pantheism.  As Bakker is fond of pointing out, the ‘world’ of Lord of the Rings is, in terms of its fundamental metaphysical structure, virtually identical to the ‘world’ of the Hebrew Bible or (less contentiously, though with no greater truth) the ‘world’ of Norse mythology.  Indeed, it is even tempting to offer up this feature of fantasy as definitional.  (The commonly heard claim that no story lacking magic can qualify as fantasy is a version of this view, I think.).

Another, more loaded way of thinking about Weber’s enchanted/disenchanted distinction is in terms of the difference between the world showing up for us as our ‘home’ and the world showing up for us as merely an ‘object’ (or collection of objects); the difference between the forest as ‘sacred grove’ and the forest as timber.  I have in mind here Hegel’s story about how the world shows up for Perception as opposed to how it shows up for Understanding.  For Perception, which is the ‘form of consciousness’ in which ‘commonsense realism’ finds its natural home, the world is a world of things-with-properties: the world, in other words, is what it appears to us to be.  The way we see the world (literally) is true, and therefore we can find ourselves at home in that world.  For the Understanding, however, the world as it truly is is something other than what we see, something other than that ‘world’ in which we live, move, and have our being: it is some sort of supersensible Beyond.  In the twenty-first century, the obvious example is the ‘world’ of quantum mechanics.  The world as revealed by science—by the rationalistic Understanding—is not only disenchanted; it is also—or perhaps therefore—profoundly alien to us: it dismembers the commonsense world of Perception; it transforms our Home into a mere Object, leaving us stranded, homeless, in a world in which we’ve lost ourselves, a world in which we fail to find ourselves peering back at us.

Restated in these terms, then, a common feature of fantasy novels is that they depict world-as-home, not world-as-object.  It seems to me that this feature is paralleled by an experience that the best fantasy novels provide us with.

The best fantasy novels, in my view, are homes, not mere objects.  Sharp, psychologically astute ‘literary’ novels can be fascinating objects, but by and large they don’t provide readers with a world.  It’s this ‘world-disclosing’ potential of fantasy that explains, I think, why those of us who have learned to read and love fantasy often find ourselves returning again and again to the same fantasy book or series.  We may discover in the books new psychological or thematic nuances, just as we might if we were to re-read a modern ‘literary’ novel—and this might be part of the enjoyment of re-reading—but it seems to me that that’s secondary to the urge to revisit a world, as opposed to reexamining an object.

The best fantasy novels are not just windows onto enchanted worlds; they also provide us with the experience of returning home.

Over Easy versus Hard Embroiled…

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Reason is the distance between any two idiocies, as ascertained by either of those idiocies.


Apologies all for my inconsistent posting and reply regime over the past few weeks. I went on a short vacation, which always has the effect of bumping me out of the ruts of routine that make working on TPB effortless. I’ve continued spending my mornings, as usual, working on The Unholy Consult, which is proving to be quite a bugger. I’ve decided I need to find some way to scale back my expectations, because I am suffering a classic case of “But-it-must-be-perfect disease,” or BMPD, as clinicians call it. I’m not sure I’ve spent so much time rewriting since The Darkness That Comes Before.

Like many psychological maladies, becoming aware of this particular condition actually aggravates the condition – especially in this case, because the fact is, IT MUST BE PERFECT! Like, fer real. But I am gaining a step or two here and there, which means it must be finished at some point. Part of the problem with this slow progress, I’m finding, is that I’m getting too many little ideas that my unconscious demands that I shoehorn in. The book will be big… in addition to perfect.

After lunch, I’ve been jetting back from the coffee shop to work on my second obsession, which has been writing something half-ass publishable on the theory of consciousness I’ve been mulling for the past 13 years. If you remember, this was the idea that dummied by dissertation way back when, and then made my head explode this past winter. Apparently, the sheer intuitive force of the idea was enough deflect the jetstream some thousand miles to the north, and so drag out the first dreary weeks of November over the entirety of winter.

This is just to say I’ve lost the ability to make anything resembling rational second-order claims regarding the thing. For those of you who enjoy the deep, deep wank, you can find it here… Comments from anyone are welcome, but I’m especially interested in hearing from those with any psychology/neuroscience or philosophy of mind background. This thing freaks me out.

Also, lacking any real routine, I’ve found myself bouncing here and there on the web, skirmishing with the sometimes bizarre and apparently deathless permutations of my Requires Only That You Hate blog war. Aside for the predictable reasons (vanity, public-perception anxiety, etc.) one of the big things that has motivated me to speak out has been the way Peter Watts has been taken to task, not so much for daring to defend me, but for calling ACM (aka, “The Dude”) a ‘rabid animal.’

So Cathrynne Valente, for instance, recently became embroiled, lumping Peter in with the very real misogynists who piled on Sady Doyle for her feminist critique of George back when A Game of Thrones first broke out on HBO. John Scalzi picked her piece up on his blog, resulting in a raucous and troubling debate he quickly decided to shut down. I made a reply bemoaning the fact that Peter’s position has essentially been flattened into him calling ACM a ‘rabid animal’ – my stomach is clenching in shame more at the thought of this than at anything ACM or her troll cohorts have said!

In the course of these brief engagements, I found myself rewarded with a few more perplexities along the lines of ‘females fearing sexual violence on TPB’ and ‘culturally insulting nomads.’ Nick Mamatas, for instance, declaring that ACM demonstrated exemplary standards because, though she only read 6 pages of The Darkness, her ‘content analysis’ of that interview she quotes provides ample grounds of convicting me of misogyny (and that I’m arguing in ‘bad faith’ for not seeing as much). Or that me simply disagreeing with Cat’s assessment of Peter means that I condone the hateful things that women often encounter on the web – in other words, makes me a misogynist!

I should note though, as impenetrable as I find Nick’s reasoning, he at least has actually tried to answer the questions I posed – and that makes him unique, as far as I know. (My debate with him is still hanging – as difficult as I find his reasoning, his ‘heart filled with good will,’ as he calls it, doesn’t feel all that conducive to constructive debate. It gets hard being accused of bad faith every other line!)

The most bizarre thing is that I’ve been plowing through Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind at the same time, and I will be damned if he isn’t describing all of this to a tee. It’s becoming creepy, really. You realize that ‘reason’ literally has no role to play in these debates, that it really is all about side-taking and other forms of social signalling. Even after all this time, I’m still getting the ‘you should be ashamed’ counter ‘argument.’

Of course, this could be me and my misogynistic confirmation bias at work, but I like to think that asking people what their criteria are is pretty neutral, as is asking people to clarify their inferential leaps. I dunno. But I’m inclined to think I don’t have my head up any particular self-serving or ideological ass on this one.

The amazing thing is how it’s taken on a life all of its own, and seems to have sparked real enmities and divisions between a number of different figures in the SFF community. And that’s what bums me out the most. Because even though it demonstrates the very thing I’ve been bellyaching about all along – the way these tactics short-circuit our ability to reasonably disagree, as well as fuel belief polarization and antagonistic social identifications – no one really gives a flying fuck! No one. I’ve yet to see a single reference to this fact anywhere… and after how many months of thumping this particular tub?

We are all embroiled.

I don’t really frequent the con circuit anymore. But I’ve already decided that the next time I do, I’m going to pretend that none of this happened. The web is a weird place, and the famous ‘online disinhibition effect’ induces people of all stripes to type some pretty harsh things. It may be real, but it’s not quite natural, and so for my part, I will try my best to go about my business grudge free.

But in the meantime, I’ll persist with my questions, regardless of gender or idealogy. I’m not sure I really have any reputation left to lose at this point!

Any TPBers going to WorldCon?

by reichorn

Hey all!  This is Roger again.

So WorldCon is in Chicago this year, about fifteen minutes from my apartment.  Anyone planning to attend?  If enough of you are, perhaps we could set up a Three-Pound Brain meet-up of some sort.  What do you think?  Not sure yet if the Big Guy is going to make it, but perhaps this could entice him to venture south of the border.


The Problem of the Infinite Spiral

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“And it is surely just silly to tell us, when we are trying to discover what knowledge is, that it is correct judgment accompanied by knowledge…”

— Plato, Theaetetus


This is my third post as a guest-blogger here at the TPB.  The usual spiel about me:  My name is Roger Eichorn.  I’m a friend of Scott’s, an aspiring fantasy novelist, and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago.

So I’ve spent the entirety of the past week laid up with the flu—a real beast, knocked me out cold (so to speak).  Whilst languishing in a medicated fog, unable to do any real philosophical work—I’m supposed to be (re-)reading both Hegel’s Phenomenology and Kant’s first Critique… let’s pause a moment to ponder that bit of insanity—I’ve been dwelling on my usual philosophical hang-ups: knowledge, justification, and truth.

Skepticism, in other words.

Through the fog, a number of nagging thoughts have come into focus for me.  For one, there’s the tension between these two facts: (1) philosophy students are always told that ‘knowledge’ (at least, properly reflective, respectable, philosophical knowledge) is ‘justified true belief.’  That is, the difference between merely believing something and knowing it is that, in the case of knowing, one possesses a justification that bridges the gap between ‘thought’ (belief) and ‘truth’ (the world); (2) Stewart Cohen’s observation that “[t]he acceptance of fallibilism in epistemology is virtually universal.”

Fallibilism is the view that, since we’re fallible beings, any of our beliefs might be wrong.  Fallibilists will maintain, then, that knowledge does not entail truth.  We can possess knowledge of x even if x is (turns out to be) false.  It does seem that fallibilism is widely accepted.  Why is it widely accepted?  Because it’s thought that ‘infallibilism’ cannot avoid skepticism.  One often hears that the ‘quest for certainty’ is outmoded, based as it is on an artificially inflated epistemic standard.  Knowledge does not require certainty; it deals rather with probabilities.

Why, then, are philosophy students still told that knowledge is ‘justified true belief’?  And why does the ‘justified true belief’ formulation still pop up so often in epistemological discussions?  For a fallibilist, knowledge is merely justified belief; it needn’t be true.

The answer to these questions, of course, is that philosophers don’t agree even on what they’re talking about when they talk about knowledge.  Now, I think—along with contextualists and Wittgensteinians—that it’s foolish to think that ‘knowledge’ is a univocal concept.  If we look at how the word is used, it’s easy enough to see that there are times that, when we attribute ‘knowledge’ to someone, we’re attributing to her merely justified belief.  For example:

– “You know what the weather’s gonna be like tomorrow?” – “Yeah.  It’s gonna rain.”

Knowledge about tomorrow’s weather might derive, say, from consulting  Might it turn out that it doesn’t rain tomorrow?  Of course.  What we mean when we ask someone, in this sort of context, if they know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, is something like: “Have you checked”  A fallibilist would say that consulting (or whatever) is not only a local standard by which we judge whether someone has knowledge about tomorrow’s weather; they would also say that consulting some such source makes it significantly more probable that their belief about tomorrow’s weather will turn out to be true. is (ceteris paribus) generally agreed to be reliable.

It’s different in other cases, though.  Take a much-discussed example: a lottery ticket.  The chances of any given lottery ticket turning out to be a winning ticket are miniscule.  Vanishingly small.  Yet, prior to the drawing, would we want to say, “I know this ticket won’t win”?  Well, I can imagine some circumstance in which we’d say something like that; what we’d mean is, “I find it impossible to believe that this ticket will win.”  The person who says that they know a lottery ticket won’t win is still likely to keep the ticket—because, after all, it just might be a winner!

The chances of being wrong are far higher than the chances of any given lottery ticket being a winner.  So appeals to probability aren’t sufficient to account for our knowledge-attribution practices.  Rather, I think we should simply accept that, in the one case, we treat ‘knowledge’ as ‘justified belief,’ while in the other, we treat it as ‘justified true belief.’

Now, I want to suggest that either conception of knowledge (fallibilist or infallibilist) falls prey to one of the fundamental challenges posed by Pyrrhonian skepticism (which I discussed in my previous two posts).  Let’s focus on fallibilist knowledge, since it’s the weaker of the two.

Knowledge, according to the fallibilist, is justified belief.  This means that one knows x just in case (i) one believes x, and (ii) x is justified.  But how are we to construe (ii)?  I want to suggest that there are three main ways to do so:

  • Non-epistemically = “I believe that x is justified.”
  • Externalistically = “X is justified” (without the subject knowing or believing that it is)
  • Epistemically = “I know that x is justified.”

The non-epistemic option is surely insufficient for knowledge.  It cannot be enough simply to believe that one’s belief is justified; it must be the case that one’s belief actually be justified.

The externalist view (which I discussed earlier) itself comes in two forms.

  • Uninformative = “X is justified, but no one knows how or why.”
  • Informative = “X is justified (though the subject is unaware of this fact) on the basis of y.”

Now, the uninformative response is, well, uninformative.  It comes down to the claim that x might be justified in some way.  The informative response, though, turns ‘externalism’ into a kind of third-personal internalism: “Beatrice isn’t aware that her belief x is justified, but I can see that in fact it is.”  But now this informative ‘externalist’ response must itself be interpreted either non-epistemically or epistemically.  The non-epistemic interpretation—“I (merely) believe that Beatrice’s belief x is justified on the basis of y”—is surely not enough for knowledge.

So we’re left, at one level or another, with the epistemic interpretation of justification: “I know that x is justified.”  But now we’ve begged the question, for the question was: “What is knowledge?”  It is, as Plato pointed out long ago, silly to say that knowledge is belief plus knowledge.  For not only is this circular, it also opens onto an infinite regress, for our knowledge that x is justified would itself require a justification, as would that justification, and so on.  Circularity plus infinite regress yields what I’ve christened “the infinite spiral.”

Even fallibilist accounts of knowledge, then, fall prey to the Pyrrhonian skeptical dialectic.  In order to know something, you must already know something.

This is where the coherentist—or the Hegelian, for that matter—would step in with a complex account of how the hanging-together of our beliefs serves to justify them.  I suggested earlier that coherence theories cannot be theories of truth, since they serve, at best, merely to make beliefs more probable.  But if fallibilism is right, then knowledge simply is a matter of probabilities, in which case coherence may work as an account of fallibilistic knowledge.

Even if that’s right, it seems to me that such accounts are merely concessions to, rather than refutations of, skepticism.  To quote Stewart Cohen again:

The acceptance of fallibilism derives from the widely held view that what we seek in constructing a theory of knowledge is an account that squares with our strong intuition that we know many things…  [W]hile the entailment principle [i.e., the principle that knowledge entails truth] may look attractive in the abstract, it does not command the kind of assent sufficient to withstand the overwhelming case against it provided by our everyday intuitions concerning what we know.  Any residual worry associated with denying the principle is far outweighed by our common sense rejection of its skeptical consequences.

In other words, fallibilism begins by presupposing that skepticism must be wrong.  Since maintaining that knowledge is justified true belief seems to lead inexorably to skepticism, we must mean something else by ‘knowledge.’  To the extent that it is more than an acknowledgement that we sometimes use the word ‘knowledge’ to mean (merely) justified belief, fallibilism represents retreat and retrenchment, not the vanquishing of the dread enemy.  Furthermore, it utterly fails to account for the stronger sense of ‘knowledge’ that we also make use of and which is best captured by means of the entailment principle.

The larger worry here is that, by putting philosophy in the business of confirming our ‘commonsense intuitions,’ we risk reducing it to the role of sociocultural apologetics.  In science, hypotheses can be proven wrong.  But can our commonsense intuitions be proven wrong?  No, not qua commonsense intuitions.  And where do our commonsense intuitions come from?  An ounce of sensitivity to the historical or anthropological record is enough to make highly plausible the claim that they are, at least in a great many cases, cultural artifacts.

Yes, human beings think they ‘know’ all sorts of things.  But do we?  Well, as we’ve seen, that depends on what we mean by ‘know.’  Did the ancient slave-owning Greek know that he is inherently superior to his slaves?  In the fallibilist sense, yes, he did.  Just as we say that someone ‘knows’ what tomorrow’s weather is going to be like because she’s consulted, so the Greek slave-owner had a culturally sanctioned and accepted standard with reference to which his belief that he is inherently superior to his slaves was justified.

Of course, we’re going to want to say that these cases differ because actually is reliable regarding tomorrow’s weather, whereas myths or oracles (or whatever) are epistemically unreliable.  I agree, of course.  But notice that this response turns on an appeal to truth.  When we’re talking about knowledge, it is foolhardy to bracket out the question of what is and is not true–which is precisely what, at the end of the day, the fallibilist wants to do.

Moreover, the more general point is that philosophy should not be in the business of simply accepting our commonsense intuitions, of using them as an unmoving foundation.  In other words, philosophy should not be in the business of ‘rationally reconstructing’ our commonsense intuitions.  Why not?  Because  no doubt many such intuitions are wrong!  ‘Rational reconstruction’ becomes mere rationalization.

Such is the case, I want to argue, when it comes to our commonsense intuitions regarding what (or how much) we know.  Yes, we sometimes attribute knowledge to someone in a loose, or weak, sense.  But we also have a strong conception of knowledge, one we deploy—usually without being aware of it—all the time.  This strong conception is brought out by adding into the fallibilist conception of knowledge the standard account of belief (an account, by the way, that I think captures a ‘natural attitude,’ but which is not properly speaking an analysis of belief), namely, that to believe x is to believe that x is true.  This reintroduces ‘truth’ into the fallibilist picture, yielding the following.

A person knows x just in case (i) she believes that x is true, and (ii) x is justified.

The worry, in other words, is that people are naturally inclined to equate what they believe with what is true.  Fallibilism wants to introduce modesty into the picture by eschewing the ‘entailment principle,’ but the fact remains that without a thoroughgoing course of skeptical therapy, all belief is going to entail a belief in the truth of the belief.  If philosophy is rendered unable to illuminate for us how far we fall from our epistemic ideals, then it robs itself of what I take to be the source of its greatest potential benefit to human beings and the world.  It is precisely by being cured of the reflex to think our beliefs true—which often means: to be cured of the reflex to think in terms of knowing—in which lies the great transformative potential of a philosophical education.