The Crash of Truth: A Critical Review of Post-Truth by Lee C. Mcintyre
Lee Mcintyre is a philosopher of science at Boston University, and author of Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behaviour. I read Post-truth on the basis of Fareed Zakaria’s enthusiastic endorsement on CNN’s GPS, so I fully expected to like it more than I ultimately did. It does an admirable job scouting the cognitive ecology of post-truth, but because it fails to understand that ecology in ecological terms, the dynamic itself remains obscured. The best Mcintyre can do is assemble and interrogate the usual suspects. As a result, his case ultimately devolves into what amounts to yet another ingroup appeal.
As perhaps, we should expect, given the actual nature of the problem.
Mcintyre begins with a transcript of an interview where CNN’s Alisyn Camerota presses Newt Gingrich at the 2016 Republican convention on Trump’s assertions regarding crime:
GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.
CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.
GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians.
There’s a terror you feel in days like these. I felt that terror most recently, I think, watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisting that the out-going National Security Advisor, General H. R. McMaster, had declared that no one had been tougher on Russia than Trump after a journalist had quoted him saying almost exactly otherwise. I had been walking through the living-room and the exchange stopped me in my tracks. Never in my life had I ever witnessed a Whitehouse Official so fecklessly, so obviously, contradict what everyone in the room had just heard. It reminded me of the psychotic episodes I witnessed as a young man working tobacco with a friend who suffered schizophrenia—only this was a social psychosis. Nothing was wrong with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Rather than lying in malfunctioning neural machinery, this discrepancy lay in malfunctioning social machinery. She could say what she said because she knew that statements appearing incoherent to those knowing what H. R. McMaster had actually said would not appear as such to those ignorant of or indifferent to what he had actually said. She knew, in other words, that even though the journalists in the room saw this:
given the information available to their perspective, the audience that really mattered would see this:
which is to say, something rendered coherent for neglecting that information.
The task Mcintyre sets himself in this brief treatise is to explain how such a thing could have come to pass, to explain, not how a sitting President could lie, but how he could lie without consequences. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserts that H. R. McMaster’s claim that the Administration is not doing enough is actually the claim that no Administration has done more she’s relying on innumerable background facts that simply did not obtain a mere generation ago. The social machinery of truth-telling has fundamentally changed. If we look at the sideways picture of Disney’s faux New York skyline as the ‘deep information view,’ and the head-on picture as the ‘shallow information view,’ the question becomes one of how she could trust that her audience, despite the availability of deep information, would nevertheless affirm the illusion of coherence provided by the shallow information view. As Mcintyre writes, “what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is being challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance.” Sanders, you could say, is availing herself of new mechanisms, ones antagonistic to the traditional mechanisms of communicating the semantic authority of deep information. Somehow, someway, the communication of deep information has ceased to command the kinds of general assent it once did. It’s almost preposterous on the face of it: in attributing Trump’s claims to McMaster, Sanders is gambling that somehow, either by dint of corruption, delusion, or neglect, her false claim will discharge functions ideally belonging to truthful claims, such as informing subsequent behaviour. For whatever reason, the circumstances once preventing such mass dissociations of deep and shallow information ecologies have yielded to circumstances that no longer do.
Mcintyre provides a chapter by chapter account of those new circumstances. For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll skip his initial chapter, which he devotes to defining ‘post-truth,’ and return to it in the end.
He provides clear, pithy outlines of the history of the tobacco industry’s seminal decision to argue the science, to wage what amounts to an organized disinformation campaign. He describes the ways resource companies adapted these tactics to scramble the message and undermine the authority of climate science. And by ‘disinformation,’ he means this literally, given “that even while ExxonMobil was spending money to obfuscate the facts about climate change, they were making plans to explore new drilling opportunities in the Arctic once the polar ice cap had melted.” This part of the story is pretty well-known, I think, but Mcintyre tells the tale in a way that pricks the numbness of familiarity, reminding us of the boggling scale of what these campaigns achieved: generating a political/cultural alliance that is—not simply bent on—hastening untold misery and global economic loss in the name of short term parochial economic gain.
He gives a curiously (given his background) two-dimensional sketch of the role cognitive bias plays in the problem, focusing primarily on cognitive dissonance, our need to minimize cognitive discrepancies, and the backfire effect, how counter-arguments actually strengthen, as opposed to mitigate, commitment to positions. (I would recommend Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion for a more thorough consideration of the dynamics involved). He discusses research showing the profound ways that social identification, even cued by things so flimsy as coloured wristbands, profoundly transforms our moral determinations. But he underestimates, I think, the profound nature of what Dan Kahan and his colleagues call the “Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons,” the individual rationality of espousing irrational collective claims. There’s so much research directly pertinent to his thesis that he passes over in silence, especially that belonging to ecological rationality.
Traditional versus social media
If Mcintyre’s consideration of the cognitive science left me dissatisfied, I thoroughly enjoyed his consideration of media’s contribution to the problem of post-truth. He reminds us that the existence of entities, like Fox News, disguising advocacy as disinterested reporting, is the historical norm, not the rule. Disinterested journalistic reporting was more the result how AP, which served papers grinding different political axes, required stories expressing as little overt bias as possible. Rather than seize upon this ecological insight (more on this below), he narrates the gradual rise of television news from small, money-losing network endeavours, to money-making enterprises culminating in CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the return of ‘yellow journalism.’
He provides a sobering assessment of the eclipse of traditional media, and the historically unprecedented rise of social media. Here, more than anywhere else, we find Mcintyre taking steps toward a genuine cognitive ecological understanding of the problem:
“In the past, perhaps our cognitive biases were ameliorated by our interactions with others. It is ironic to think that in today’s media deluge, we could perhaps be more isolated from contrary opinion than when our ancestors were forced to live and work among other members of their tribe, village, or community, who had to interact with one another to get information.”
Since his understanding of the problem is primarily normative, however, he fails to see how cognitive reflexes that misfire in experimental contexts, and so strike observers as normative breakdowns, actually facilitate problem-solving in ancestral contexts. What he notes as ‘ironic’ should strike him (and everyone else) as astounding, as one of the doors that any adequate explanation of post-truth must kick down. But it is heartening, I have to say, to see these ideas begin to penetrate more and more brainpans. Despite the insufficiency of his theoretical tools, Mcintyre glimpses something of the way cognitive technology has impacted human cognitive ecology: “Indeed,” he writes, “what a perfect storm for the exploitation of our ignorance and cognitive biases by those with an agenda to put forward.” But even if the ‘perfect storm’ metaphor captures the complex relational nature of what’s happened, it implies that we find ourselves suffering a spot of bad luck, and nothing more.
At last he turns to the role postmodernism has played in all this: this is the only chapter where I smelled a ‘legacy effect,’ the sense that the author is trying to shoe-horn some independently published material.
He acknowledges that ‘postmodernism’ is hopelessly overdetermined, but he thinks two theses consistently rise above the noise: the first is that “there is no such thing as objective truth,” and the second is “that any profession of truth is nothing more than a reflection of the political ideology of the person who is making it.”
To his credit, he’s quick to pile on the caveats, to acknowledge the need to critique both the possibility of absolute truth as well as the social power of scientific truth-claims. Because of this, it quickly becomes apparent that his target isn’t so much ‘postmodernism’ as it is social constructivism, the thesis that ‘truth-telling,’ far from connecting us to reality, bullies us into affirming interest serving constructs. This, as it turns out, is the best way to think post-truth “[i]n its purest form” as “when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie.”
In other words, for Mcintyre, post-truth is the consequence of too many people believing in social constructivism—or in other words, presuming the wrong theory of truth. His approach to the question of post-truth is that of a traditional philosopher: if the failure is one of correspondence, then the blame has to lie with anti-correspondence theories of truth. The reason Sarah Huckabee Sanders could lie about McMaster’s final speech turns on (among other things) the wide-spread theoretical belief that there is no such thing as ‘objective truth,’ that it’s power plays all the way down.
Thus the (rather thick) irony of citing Daniel Dennett—an interpretivist!—stating that “what the postmodernists did was truly evil” so far as they bear responsibility “for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.”
The sin of the postmodern left has very, very little to do with generating semantically irresponsible theories—Dennett’s own positions are actually a good deal more radical in this regard! When it comes to the competing narratives involving ‘meaning of’ questions and answers, Dennett knows we have no choice but to advert to the ‘dramatic idiom’ of intentionality. If the problem were one of providing theoretical ammunition then Dennett is as much a part of the problem as Baudrillard.
And yet Mcintyre caps Dennett’s assertion by asking, “Is there more direct evidence than this?” Not a shining moment, dialectically speaking.
I agree with him that tools have been lifted from postmodernists, but they have been lifted from pragmatists (Dennett’s ilk) as well. Talk of ‘stances’ and ‘language games’ is also rife on the right! And I should know. What’s happening now is the consequence of a trend that I’ve been battling since the turn of the millennium. All my novels constitute self-conscious attempts to short-circuit the conditions responsible for ‘post-truth.’ And I’ve spent thousands of hours trolling the alt-Right (before they were called such) trying to figure out what was going on. The longest online debate I ever had was with a fundamentalist Christian who belonged to a group using Thomas Kuhn to justify their belief in the literal truth of Genesis.
Which brings us, as promised, back to the book’s beginning, the chapter that I skipped, where, in the course of refining his definition of post-truth, Mcintyre acknowledges that no one knows what the hell truth is:
“It is important at this point to give at least a minimal definition of truth. Perhaps the most famous is that of Aristotle, who said: ‘to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not, that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and what of is not that it is not, is true.’ Naturally, philosophers have fought for centuries over whether this sort of “correspondence” view is correct, whereby we judge the truth of a statement only by how well it fits reality. Other prominent conceptions of truth (coherentist, pragmatist, semantic) reflect a diversity of opinion among philosophers about the proper theory of truth, even while—as a value—there seems little dispute that truth is important.”
He provides a minimal definition with one hand—truth as correspondence—which he immediately admits is merely speculative! Truth, he’s admitting, is both indispensable and inscrutable. And yet this inscrutability, he thinks, need not hobble the attempt to understand post-truth: “For now, however, the question at hand is not whether we have the proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth.”
In other words, we don’t need to know what is being subverted to agree that it is being subverted. But this goes without saying; the question is whether we need to know what is being subverted to explain what Mcintyre is purporting to explain, namely, how truth is being subverted. How do we determine what’s gone wrong with truth when we don’t even know what truth is?
Mcintyre begins Post-truth, in other words, by admitting that no canonical formulation of his explanandum exists, that it remains a matter of mere speculation. Truth remains one of humanity’s confounding questions.
But if truth is in question, then shouldn’t the blame fall upon those who question truth? Perhaps the problem isn’t this or that philosophy so much as philosophy itself. We see as much at so many turns in Mcintyre’s account:
“Why not doubt the mainstream news or embrace a conspiracy theory? Indeed, if news is just political expression, why not make it up? Whose facts should be dominant? Whose perspective is the right one? Thus is postmodernism the godfather of post-truth.”
Certainly, the latter two questions belong to philosophy as whole, and not postmodernism in particular. To that extent, the two former questions—so far as they follow from the latter—have to be seen as falling out of philosophy in general, and not just some ‘philosophical bad apples.’
But does it make sense to blame philosophy, to suggest we should have never questioned the nature of truth? Of course not.
The real question, the one that I think any serious attempt to understand post-truth needs to reckon, is the one Mcintyre breezes by in the first chapter: Why do we find truth so difficult to understand?
On the one hand, truth seems to be crashing. On the other, we have yet to take a step beyond Aristotle when it comes to answering the question of the nature of truth. The latter is the primary obstacle, since the only way to truly understand the nature of the crash is to understand the nature of truth. Could the crash and the inscrutability of truth be related? Could post-truth somehow turn on our inability to explain truth?
Truth lies murdered in the Calais Coach, and Mcintyre has assembled all the suspects: denialism, cognitive biases, traditional and social media, and (though he knows it not) philosophy. He knows all of them had some part to play, either directly, or as accessories, but the Calais Coach remains locked—his crime scene is a black box. He doesn’t even have a body!
For me, however, post-truth is a prediction come to pass—a manifestation of what I’ve long called the ‘semantic apocalypse.’ Far from a perfect storm of suspects coming together in unlikely ways to murder ‘all of factual reality,’ it is an inevitable consequence of our rapidly transforming cognitive ecologies.
Biologically speaking, human communication and cooperation represent astounding evolutionary achievements. Human cognition is the most complicated thing human cognition has ever encountered: only now are we beginning to reverse-engineer its nature, and to use that knowledge to engineer unprecedented cognitive artifacts. We know that cognition is structurally and dynamically composite, heavily reliant on heuristic specialization to solve its social and natural environments. The astronomical complexity of human cognition means that sociocognition and metacognition are especially reliant on composite, source-insensitive systems, devices turning on available cues that correlate, given that various hidden regularities obtain, with specific outcomes. Despite being legion, we manage to synchronize with our fellows and our environments without the least awareness of the cognitive machinery responsible.
We suffer medial neglect, a systematic insensitivity to our own nature—a nature that includes this insensitivity. Like every other organism on this planet we cognize without cognizing the concurrent act of cognition. Well, almost like every other organism. Where other species utterly depend on the reliability of their cognitive capacities, have no way of repairing failures in various enabling—medial—systems, we do have recourse. Despite our blindness to the machinery of human cognition, we’ve developed a number of different ways to nudge that machinery—whack the TV set, you could say.
Truth-talk is one of those ways. Truth-talk allows us to minimize communicative discrepancies absent, once again, sensitivity to the complexities involved. Truth-talk provides a way to circumvent medial neglect, to resolve problems belonging to the enabling dimension of cognition despite our systematic insensitivity to the facts of that dimension. When medial issues—problems pertaining to cognitive function—arise, truth-talk allows for the metabolically inexpensive recovery of social and environmental synchronization. Incompatible claims can be sorted, at least so far as our ancestors required in prehistoric cognitive ecologies. The tribe can be healed, despite its profound ignorance of natures.
To say human cognition is heuristic is to say it is ecologically dependent, that it requires the neglected regularities underwriting the utility of our cues remain intact. Overthrow those regularities, and you overthrow human cognition. So, where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between retinal signals and environments while hunting, we have to remove our VR goggles before raiding the fridge. Where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between the text on the page or the voice in our ear and the existence of a fellow human, we have to worry about chatbots and ‘conversational user interfaces.’ Where our ancestors could automatically depend on the systematic relationship between their ingroup peers and the environments they reported, we need to search Wikipedia—trust strangers. More generally, where our ancestors could trust the general reliability (and therefore general irrelevance) of their cognitive reflexes, we find ourselves confronted with an ever growing and complicating set of circumstances where our reflexes can no longer be trusted to solve social problems.
The tribe, it seems, cannot be healed.
And, unfortunately, this is the very problem we should expect given the technical (tactical and technological) radicalization of human cognitive ecology.* Philosophy, and now, cognitive science, provide the communicative tactics required to neutralize (or ‘threshold’) truth-talk. Cognitive technologies, meanwhile, continually complicate the once direct systematic relationships between our suites of cognitive reflexes and our social and natural environments. The internet doesn’t simply render the sum of human knowledge available, it also renders the sum of human rationalization available as well. The curious and the informed, meanwhile, no longer need suffer the company of the incurious and the uninformed, and vice versa. The presumptive moral superiority of the former stands revealed: and in ever greater numbers the latter counter-identify, with a violence aggravated by phenomena such as the ‘online disinhibition effect.’ (One thing Mcintyre never pauses to consider is the degree to which he and his ilk are hated, despised, so much so as to see partners in traditional foreign adversaries, and to think lies and slander simply redress lies and slander). Populations begin spontaneously self-selecting. Big data identifies the vulnerable, who are showered with sociocognitive cues—atrocity tales to threaten, caricatures to amuse—engineered to provoke ingroup identification and outgroup alienation. In addition to ‘backfiring,’ counter-arguments are perceived as weapons, evidence of outgroup contempt for you and your own. And as the cognitive tactics become ever more adept at manipulating our biases, ever more scientifically informed, and as the cognitive technology becomes ever more sophisticated, ever more destructive of our ancestral cognitive habitat, the break between the two groups, we should expect, will only become more, not less, profound.
None of this is intuitive, of course. Medial neglect means reflection is source blind, and so inclined to conceive things in super-ecological terms. Thus the value of the prop building analogy I posed at the beginning.
Disney’s massive Manhattan anamorph depends on the viewer’s perspectival position within the installation to assure the occlusion of incompatible information. The degrees of cognitive freedom this position possesses—basically, how far one can wander this way and that—depends on the size and sophistication of the anamorph. The stability of illusion, in other words, entirely depends on the viewer: the deeper one investigates, the less stable the anamorph becomes. Their dependence on cognitive ‘sweet spots’ is their signature vulnerability.
The cognitive fragility of the anamorph, however, resides in the fact that we can move, while it cannot. Overcoming this fragility, then, either requires 1) de-animating observation, 2) complicating the anamorph, or 3) animating the anamorph. The problem we face can be understood as the problem of adaptive cognitive anamorphosis, the way cognitive science, in combination with cognitive technology, enables the de-animation of information consumers by gaming sociocognitive cues, while both complicating and animating the artifactual anamorphic information they consume.
Once a certain threshold is crossed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie without shame or apology on national television. We don’t know what we don’t know. Mcintyre references the notorious Dunning-Kruger effect, the way cognitive incompetence correlates with incompetent assessments of competence, but the underlying mechanism is more basic: cognitive systems lacking access to information function independent of that information. Medial neglect assures we take the sufficiency of our perspectives for granted absent information indicating insufficiency or ‘medial misalignment.’ Trusting our biology and community is automatic. Perhaps we refuse to move, to even consider the information belonging to:
But if we do move, the anamorph, thanks to cognitive technology, adapts, the prop-facades grow prop sides, and the deep (globally synchronized) information presented above, has to compete with ‘faux deep’ information. The question becomes one of who has been systematically deceived—a question that ingroup biases have already answered in illusion’s favour. We can return to our less inquisitive peers and assure them they were right all along.
What is ‘post-truth’? Insofar as it names anything it refers to diminishing capacity of globally, versus locally, synchronized claims to drive public discourse. It’s almost as if, via technology, nature is retooling itself to conceal itself by creating adaptive ‘faux realities.’ It’s all artifactual, all biologically ‘constructed’: the question is whether our cognitive predicament facilitates global (or deep) synchronization geared to what happens to be the case, or facilitates local (or shallow) synchronization geared to ingroup expectations and hidden political and commercial interests.
There’s no contest between spooky correspondence and spooky construction. There’s no ‘assertion of ideological supremacy,’ just cognitive critters (us) stranded in a rapidly transforming cognitive ecology that has become too sophisticated to see, and too powerful to credit. Post-truth, in other words, is an inevitable consequence of scientific progress, particularly as it pertains to cognitive technologies.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie without shame or apology on national television because Trump was able to lure millions of Americans across a radically transformed (and transforming) anamorphic threshold. And we should find this terrifying. Most doomed democracies elect their executioner. In his The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power, Benjamin Carter Hett blames the success of Nazism on the “reality deficit” suffered by the German people. “Hostility to reality,” he writes, “translated into contempt for politics, or, rather, desire for a politics that was somehow not political: a thing that can never be” (14). But where Germany in the 1930’s had every reason to despise the real, “a lost war that had cost the nation almost two million of her sons, a widely unpopular revolution, a seemingly unjust peace settlement, and economic chaos accompanied by huge social and technological change” (13), America finds itself suffering only the latter. The difference lies in the way the latter allows for the cultivation and exploitation of this hostility in an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity. In the German case, the reality itself drove the populace to embrace atavistic political fantasies. Thanks to technology, we can now achieve the same effect using only human cognitive shortcomings and corporate greed.
Buckle up. No matter what happens to Trump, the social dysfunction he expresses belongs to the very structure of our civilization. Competition for the market he’s identified is only going to intensify.
This is the most terrifying aspect of the future for me.
Exactly. How do you make democracy work in such circumstances?
You ditch democracy and implement quantum computing background care-taking AGI. Opinion needs to be taken out of the social engineering equation altogether, for the very reasons you identify.
From the comments to a previous post:
Michael, that is a spiffy quote and I’m gonna steal it. Or attribute it so that it propagates. Hang on let me put on my memetic engineering hat…
“You can combine Brave New World and 1984 into a soft totalitarianism that might actually be better than liberal democracy.”
Hmm… no… too ugly
“You can combine Brave New World and 1984 into a soft totalitarianism that might actually be better than liberal democracy.”
Nope, too dopey.
“You can combine Brave New World and 1984 into a soft totalitarianism that might actually be better than liberal democracy.”
– William Gibson
Thank you, Jorge.
I accept tips in dogecoin.
It opens up a world of possibilities. I look forward to the surprises and novelty post-truth will continue to bring to the world.
Ha. Lets see how you think about that when violence erupts before your front door, or the front door of your loved ones.
Nice. I especially love the description of how what began as a crusade for info-justice devolved into business interests.
yep, for me this is just more of the same old propaganda, the recent digi-altering of video and the like does raise some new issues but we’ve yet to really see how that all shakes out.
What’s the same? Aside from certain consequences, that is… The ‘becoming print’ of video/audio is part and parcel of what I’m calling adaptive anamorphosis, here. The dynamics are very different.
the general themes/tactics and the results have been all too familiar, we’ll see what difference the e-innovations make (in addition to radio/tv which remain the big drivers)
Ours has been a long and contentious history of internal divisions/struggle and moments of forced from on high (feds) unity like with the world wars which often later only heightened tensions.
“According to FBI statistics, the United States experienced more than 2,500 domestic bombings in just 18 months in 1971 and 1972”
something we’ve been exporting via various means for most of our modern days.
I linked this on Reddit, and it got 10000 hits and hundreds of comments over the course of a Sunday afternoon. The comments are fascinating, and speak directly to the issues raised within the piece.
I’m really impressed with the garnering of engagement there. Wow. You’re definitely hitting some salient notes.
TPB Podcast ;)!
heh the podcast seems inevitable, possible first guest:
Is the argument basically that Germany embraced a terrible illusion to escape a terrible reality, while America is embracing a terrible illusion to escape a terrible illusion?
No. That reality largely cued reactionary tribalism among millions of pre-WWII Germans, and that corporate interest is largely cuing reactionary tribalism among millions of contemporary Americans. Nothing commands attention quite so effectively as fear and hate.
I get the fear and hate thing, but I thought you were saying something more interesting, that our cognitive technologies enabled by scientific advance are themselves the cause of the hostility here rather than more classical economic and social failures of a post-WWI world. That led to tribalism. But here fear and hate, I thought you were saying, is being generated by very different constructs, ones far more insidious because they are far more malleable and better able to hide their mechanisms. Corporate interests appears tribal but the tribe cannot see that (and it clearly is using our ancestral weaknesses against us). At least the German response was truly tribal, an act made out of desperation to survive—these conditions are not present here but are now being manufactured to appear that way.
I guess I need to read your post again.
I think your comment was spot on, Scott should read it a second time! :] ‘that corporate interest is largely cuing reactionary tribalism among millions of contemporary Americans.’ = a corporate interest is creating a terrible illusion for Americans to embrace a terrible illusion to escape it, just as you say.
Right, Callan, that’s how I interpreted it. I think my original comment was maybe too short and ambiguous.
Reading my comment again, I don’t like the way I said “but I thought [Scott was] saying something more interesting,” that’s something a jerk like me would say.
Apologies for that, Scott.
You’d have to reach pretty deep into the bag to offend me, Joseph. I’m always interested in where people thinking I’m overlooking something crucial/interesting!
I know you aren’t scared of polemic and your skin is much thicker than mine. The latter is what I lack.
I’m at your blog more these days because I’m finally reading a book you’ve recommended for years, “Consciousness and the Brain” by Dehaene.
You’ve also made the suggestion many times that people often evaluate BBT outside of its actual arguments. From reading some comments and blogs, this looks pretty accurate. It’s taken too long, but I’ve always wanted to read more about the scientific work that supports BBT. As you’ve said before, too, many critics will ignore that and by doing so, miss the chance to challenge BBT’s foundations. How can one only look at the conclusion of an argument without doing the work of examining its premises?
I was only quibbling with your expression, Joseph, ’embracing a terrible illusion to escape a terrible illusion.’ I should have been more specific. The funny thing is that it’s got me thinking about the mechanics of your description versus the mechanics of my alternative, and the way simply adding the term ‘illusion’ unleashes a strange indeterminacy in my thesis, the way it has them embracing the very thing they need to escape. It illustrates wonderfully, I think, the way applications of intentional cognition tend to crash into paradox at this level of analysis. But to answer your question, yes “our cognitive technologies enabled by scientific advance are themselves the cause of the hostility here rather than more classical economic and social failures of a post-WWI world” is a fair description of my argument.
Yes, good point. “Illusion” doesn’t really do justice to the idea of rationality working at different levels, different ecologies, deep or shallow, and the grades between them. As you put it, “It’s all artifactual, all biologically ‘constructed’.” Both illusion and scientific knowledge are artifacts, constructs, but, if I am understanding you (and I’ve been reading Kahan, et al, per your suggestion), illusion and knowledge are constructs that are at work in different ecologies. If I am understanding Kahan correctly, there is a rationality when individuals attempt to conform to the cultural group they belong to, which has an adaptive and psychological usefulness, and is much more than a simple, ghostly illusion. These faux realities have all too real effects on the members of that group. And other groups. Also, in this case, the planet’s ecosystems that all organisms depend on no matter what your cultural identity is.
Or, to put it another way, Hitler had a vast infrastructure to exploit, one already producing profound misery and fear, but now cognitive technologies are being used by power seeking power to short-circuit even that and directly create either the illusion of fear-provoking stuff (like terrifying caravans of immigrants; a Russia that is dangerous but already brought to heel) or directly create and nurture large-scale terrors (climate change) all while insulating the local, surface meaning by undermining, as you you put it so well, the traditional semantic authority of deep information.
But, again, I might be misreading you.
Sorry, but as far as I can tell, there are relatively few “facts” about climate change. There are many attempts to create predictive models based on a limited history of measurement. There are disinformation campaigns on both sides of the climate change issue, imho. And characterizing “dissent” as “denial” makes it clear that this is not a simple issue of noble truth-seeking scientists vs. ignoble truth-suppressing corporations. It’s all advocacy. It’s all an attempt to control public policy.
Do you agree that co2 levels have been rocketing upward? Do you agree that co2 is a greenhouse gas? Do you agree that humans are dumping enormous amounts of co2 into the atmosphere? Do you agree that corporations, by law, are mandated to prioritize shareholder value? Do you think 98% of climate scientists are lying to line their own pockets? Do you think general relativity or evolution or quantum mechanics or so on are ‘mere advocacy’?
How many times in your life have you admitted you were wrong on some substantive policy issue?
“How many times in your life have you admitted you were wrong on some substantive policy issue?”
indeed, and how many times has one stopped to say that’s a really complicated issue that I know almost nothing about, before forming (let alone sharing) an opinion?
This is the thing I think they need to hammer in school (but likely never will): the need to take an experimental mindset to policy issues. I try to keep track of my own turnarounds, personally. It makes me irritating company when hanging with my hyper-liberal friends.
don’t think they can teach it (more specifically that most people can learn it) , runs right into the teeth of cog-biases, i’m always taken back by how unscientific (in the sense as you say of experimental mindset) scientists/MDs/etc are about matters beyond their narrow professional practices (and even in relation to their own practices, reminds me of the work about how unphilosophical philosophers are in their non-work (or really in their off the page) lives …
Click to access reflective%20practitioner%20-%20schon.pdf
“…where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between the text on the page or the voice in our ear and the existence of a fellow human, we have to worry about chatbots and ‘conversational user interfaces.’ ”
And thus it follows that there is a 99% chance “modernmusicmatters” is a bot.
With enough training, even the worldborn can see the skinspies.
There was a time when I thought the creation of a functional democracy in Iraq was possible. I was as wrong as an octopus wanting to go for a walk about that one.
You could say the question now is whether the maintenance of a functional democracy anywhere is possible in the near future. We have no idea how much it depends on the geo-commuicative bottlenecks characterizing our parents’ ecologies.
Counterfeit facts are like counterfeit money. If enough people (or bots) print enough counterfeit facts eventually we will be unable to trust or accept any facts, just as enough counterfeit banknotes will convince people not to accept any currency. Even the people who can tell the real from the fake will be stuck. Since nobody else will accept their real currency or real facts they are back to barter like everybody else. Sadly, the internet has given each of us our own fact printing press. Every idiot in the world is a Federal Reserve unto himself.
Great analogy. Trump can be seen as an extended Black Tuesday…
Well, you are insisting there are few facts – source?
What would it take to prove climate change to you?
Sure it’s a control issue, because to not drive off the cliff requires controlling the steering wheel and turning it away from the cliff. Generally it seems like people who don’t accept climate change are more about them feeling some sort of control is going to be taken from them and they wont have it!
So some ambiguous thing comes up and then people insist they should get to take some control from your life. Hardly surprising you reject it, really.
I think Jorge’s right. Modernmusicmatters is probably a bot.
Have you clicked on his name to research that? It’s just as much easy to use ‘it’s a bot’ as a way of ignoring things. I’d say that of course, ’cause I’m a bot too…
Fair enough, Callan. Jim Goeddel might be a real person. Hopefully he’ll stop by again. I’ll have to click his name link from somewhere outside work and see what happens. Bot? You’re more than a bot. I think you’re at least a replicant.
Hey, if you want to further rile up the reddit hivemind, review your fellow Canuck’s little 12-rule manifesto.
If you say even the slightest nice word, it might summon the vengeful spirit of acrackedmoon/Benjanun Sriduangkaew which I’m sure will act as wonderful clickbait.
Speaking of which, reddit/r/literature sent me a PM saying I had been banned from the board for posting “Killing Bartleby.” I’ve requested ‘more information’ per reddit’s policy, but two weeks later, still nothing.
As the song goes, clowns to the left, jokers to the right. 😉
They banned you for posting “Killing Bartleby” ? That’s absurd. That piece was great, and is exactly the type of thing I like to see on r/literature (and here, too, I love it when you write about fiction).
On the r/literature sidebar, under general rules:
“No self-promotion. Do not share unpublished fiction or non-fiction you’ve written.”
As for why they have that policy, I don’t know, but that’s probably why you got banned.
Some subreddits are obnoxiously moderated.
Example: r/latestagecapitalism has all sorts of stupid rules, and even though I enjoy their memes, the “safe space” bullshit and hypersensititivity to anything that might even slightly depict capitalism as anything other than absolute evil is not tolerated, so I don’t frequent it often.
Does that mean if one of us post a link to it there, it is okay because it wont be self promotion? I messaged the mods and got the usual ‘We don’t discuss with third parties’ – ie, we have fuck all transparency, but we’ll act as if that’s so normal as not to be questioned.
Got this final message from u/DiggDejected , one of r/literatures mods ‘You don’t know when to give up, do you? We aren’t going to discuss this with you. If our rules seem difficult to understand to you, this might not be the best subreddit for you.’ after I asked them to pass along to Scott which actual rule was broken.
Maybe he just assumed I was asking to be told and wont tell me, but is sending the message through to Scott now. That would be fair.
But if it isn’t being sent through, why do I have the image in my head that those who would preside over literature would be people who ponder and consider and chew over something told to them, while what is actually the case is so shrill? How many positions of power (petty or otherwise) do I imaginatively populate with Dumbledore/Gandalf like wiseness?
I have to wonder though, is it all tech illusion? After Trump got elected, I saw some interviews by an Australian journalist and the people seemed worried about their job stability and unemployment. It seems like if job stability is the overflowing basin then voting for Hilary would be just mopping the floor to them, – ie, doing the same thing (maintaining the status quo) but expecting a different result. With a two party system, to avoid an insanity they had to vote for an insanity.
The days of job security and rising wages in modern economies are over for reasons over which governments have no control. So long as the Democrats and Republicans are the only choices we have and voting is the only voice we have American politics can’t help but be insane. It’s one thing to say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, but what about when that one thing is the only thing you can do?
Then it’s doom. I don’t know how anyone can definitely know the government has no control over job security and rising wages without just as much being able to see a solution to it or being able to see what emotional commitments are blocking the way and being able to describe them.
There are enough variables to potentially enact change – more in the ‘planting trees you wont live to walk in the shade of’ change though, most likely. Not exciting enough? Doom it is, then.
I shouldn’t have said governments have no control over job security and rising wages. I should have said governments are on the side of the corporations, who are against rising wages and job security for non-management/non-professional employees. Either way, voting seems kind of futile. I think one of the reasons voting tribal identity makes sense is precisely because voting economic interest no longer makes sense.
In the old days the tv set was a very heavy three dimensional object with vacuum tube circuits that actually generated high levels of heat. We knew the TV was just a median between us and the reality which the news was conveying to us or we were not tricked by the slickness of it all. Now we have an essentially light weight HDTV or iPhone we hold in our hand. The ability to seamlessly integrate technology into our neural mechanisms is the end result of “progress”.
What changed it all was the profit motive and of course TV Park Avenue advertising. Ironic that old Ed McMahon is advertising the beer below. That amusement park ferris wheel and rides symbolizes our neural machinery which they began to play with even back then.
feudalism is the new conservatism:
I’ve had a wary eye on these characters for a while now: a number of my posts have been linked to the Dark Enlightenment subreddit: meaning these guys see anything undermining the rationalizations of democratic processes as tools to be used. Talk about desperate!
how low can they go….
we are just starting to even really get a grasp on what’s going on let alone what the impacts might be.
Your blog has talked a lot about education, and for some reason I think you and Scott Aaronson should be friends:
https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/ (Review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education)
There is a lot to be said for the idea of education as a virtue signaling mechanism, although if consciousness and conformity signaling is the source of the financial reward associated with a college degree then college might be the wrong place to teach students a skeptical, experimental approach to policy issues, or to life in general.
I’ve been reading Shtetl Optimized for the past few years. Great blog for anyone interested in quantum computing. If Aaronson’s opinion is good enough for Peter “I’m Secretly a Hitler Clone” Thiel to make funding decisions, then it’s good enough for me.
Ah for the good ole days! Just slightly post Darwin – 1875 to be exact.
I am my agent, see?
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Timothy McVeigh chose this poem as his final statement before being put to death for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
T’was Mandela’s favourite too…
He’s a smart guy…
maybe too smart. How can you take a long, complex process and break it into steps so simple that an extremely precise, extremely powerful toddler can do them?
It’s simple – the robots are allowed to build things in ways that are optimal to how they build things, and we adapt to what they build – because that’s what would be most efficient and only a Luddite would want otherwise.
Great post. Late to the party here and this is admittedly nitpicky, but a recent study has cast doubt on the frequency and significance of the backfire effect.
Does the study have a control?
“Also, direct questions seem to throw people through a loop because they’re framed like the truth.”
I don’t get what they mean by ‘framed like the truth’, but I’m reminded of Scott’s line ‘People hate questions!’. Now it’s an identifiable troll trait! :p
Reblogged this on synthetic zero and commented:
Terrifying post-truth interpretations from R.Scott Bakker. How do you make democracy work in such circumstances? You don’t. You ditch democracy and implement quantum computing background care-taker AGI. Opinion needs to be taken out of the social engineering equation altogether, for the very reasons Bakker continues to identify.
We sat through almost a decade of lies, obfuscation and false aggrandizement in the Obama administration; an entirely cynical and openly corrupt attempt to bring back the Clinton dynasty; the collapse of the formerly august CNN into gibbering conspiracy mongers…
But it is Fox News and Trump who augur the semantic apocalypse?
We agree on one thing. The divide will grow wider.
The difference lies in the way the latter allows for the cultivation and exploitation of this hostility in an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity.”
I don’t know Scott, I think the whole Pinker thesis on peace and decline of violence is massively overstated. From a historical point of view he is all over the place. Just to name one example, he lumps together all mongolian invasions as one event, even though they unfolded over a century more or less, but surgically separates first and second world war so that he can claim that the latter was not the bloodiest event in human history, by using the magic thinking of deaths in relative terms.
In addition Pinker conveniently sidesteps the whole issue of inequality which is literally corroding all western societies. The fact that in relation to past times we are wealthier is irrelevant, when the prospects of our progeny look dimmer compared to our experience.
It’s all about material forces which drive our thinking and not the other way round. The current socio-economic model is broken, people are upset about it to the point they were even willing to trust Trump as opposed to Clinton, who couldn’t even speak a few words about economic hardship and the hollowing out of the middle and lower classes.
Regarding the truth thing, it has never been simple or straightforward. In politics all fundamental concepts are essentially contested terms, my idea of justice, freedom, equality, democracy will never really match your idea of what these concepts mean. So it has been, so it is, so it will ever be.
Post-truth some commentators say, but we have been flexible with “truth” however one defines it for hundreds of years. Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize while during his term his country was on war every single day (c.f. to Afghanistan the forgotten slog of slogs). Of course technically the US was never at war, because it never went to the Congress to get a declaration of war as the constitution demands. And yet the post-truth is down to Trump.
Trump is the symptom and not the cause of the afflictions you try to explain.
Before him we had Bush junior and before that we had Reagan who was unfit to govern the most powerful state on this planet.
We have been living in a post-truth or flexi-truth world at best for ages, pretty much since the Sophists were teaching young Athenians how to get away with murder by cultivating their rhetorical skills.
We are only now beginning to become aware of the lies and delusions we have consciously cultivated over the decades.
[…] Lee McIntyre los expuso claramente cuando dijo; “El verdadero enemigo de la verdad no es la ignorancia, la duda o incluso la incredulidad. Es el conocimiento falso”. El es uno de los filósofos que han tratado de enmendarle la tarea, a los filósofos postmodernistas, los verdaderos culpables de darle sustento ideológicos a la post verdad, uno de ellos, Derrida, cuando afirmo que no existe tal cosa como “verdad objetiva” y que la experiencia de género y culturales además de lo político influyen en lo que es un hecho. […]
[…] article by far was R. Scott Bakker’s review of Post-Truth by Lee C. Mcintyre on his blog Three Pound Brain. Bakker uses the review to write a lengthy treatise himself, with sharp insights in how our brain […]