Division By Zero

by rsbakker


If we want to know what truth consists in, perhaps we should ask what it is we are building up and tearing down when we make cases for and against the truth.

Like so many others, I found myself riveted by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. (My money is on Ford, not simply because I found her testimony compelling, but because her story implicates someone doomed to corroborate Kavanaugh—not the kind of detail you would expect to find in a partisan hit job). Aside from the unsettling realization that mainstream Senate Republicans—as well as Kavanaugh himself!—had adopted Trump’s ‘post-truth’ playbook, what struck me was the precarious way Rachel Mitchell’s questions were poised between ‘victim blaming’ and simple ‘fact finding.’ Had Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her? Right from the beginning, Mitchell began asking questions regarding the provenance and circumstances of her accusation, the implication being that she had been coached by partisan handlers. (As it turns out, she wasn’t). But she was also careful to map the limits of Ford’s memory of the event, the insinuation being that her cognitive capacities could not be trusted. (The problem with this approach, as it turns out, was that Ford, as a psychologist, knows quite a bit about the cognitive capacities at issue, and so was able to identify those limits as precisely the kind of limits one should expect in cases such as hers).

Victim blaming is so instinctive, so common, that we often have difficulty recognizing it as such. Accusing our accusers is a go-to human strategy for managing interpersonal conflict. People are credulous. In the absence of information to the contrary, ‘warning flags,’ we simply take assertions for granted, we trust that everything neglected, everything from cognitive capacity to motivation to circumstances, is irrelevant to the reliability of the claim. Human cognitive reliability, it turns out, depends on a tremendous number of physical factors, which is why impugning the reliability of claims is so dreadfully easy. At one point, Mitchell even insinuates (citing Geiselman and Fisher) that Ford compromised her story by communicating it absent specially trained trauma interviewers. Mitchell goes so far, in other words, to suggest the very format of the ongoing Senate hearing had impacted the reliability of her account. (This is where I thought her downright insidious (especially given her use of humour at this turn), but as it turns out, she was probably being too subtle given that many see this as Mitchell criticizing the Senate proceedings).

When the Republicans finally ditched Mitchell’s plane somewhere in the Atlantic, the attacks ranged the whole of constitutive and circumstantial relevance space (apropos the semantic apocalypse, we are fast approaching the point where crude topographies of this space can be mapped and algorithms developed to exploit it), a Quixotic charge of old white men that had to raise the hackles of even the most conservative women. Cognition requires we neglect countless constitutive and circumstantial factors. Neglect insures that more information is always required to flag potential constitutive and circumstantial confounds. Thus, the spectacle of old men competing for Fox News clips, each of them insisting on the relevance of something pertaining to the production of her claims. We’re not disputing something happened, but how do you know it was Brett? 36 years! Multiple denials!

From the outset, the Republicans had made a calculation: to cue moral outrage at the Democrats, and thus ingroup solidarity among conservatives, regardless of gender. From the outset they understood the peril of cuing outrage against male politicians and ingroup solidarity among women. Having Rachel Mitchell question her prevented cuing competing identifications, not to mention the politically disastrous scripts falling out of them. The Democratic strategy, of course, was to cue both channels, lending them, I think, an intrinsic advantage. (The Republican charge that the Democrats are engineering these accusations for the purposes of political advantage are false, but there’s little doubt that they are gaming them, and as the semantic apocalypse deepens, I think we should expect the production of reputation destroying realities to become big business). If ‘trust’ is understood as the degree to which we do not, blindly or otherwise, interrogate constitutive and circumstantial factors relevant to the claims of others, the enormous importance of group affiliation becomes obvious. Think of the amount of energy expended these past days, all bent on preventing or protecting the default: that Kristine Blasey Ford speaks true. Group identity cues trust, which is to say, spares us the expense of such interrogations.

Think of truth as merely the degree to which we can take constitutive and circumstantial factors for granted relative to behavioural feedback. Truth is where neglect, brute insensitivity to otherwise relevant constitutive and circumstantial factors, does not matter. Kristine Blasey Ford ‘speaks true,’ therefore, when she speaks as one who endured the violence described, nothing more or less. (The disquotational parallel is no coincidence here, I think: what disquotation captures is the primary function of truth talk, to troubleshoot issues involving constitutive and circumstantial factors). If we can take constitutive and circumstantial factors for granted, then third-party investigations of her claims should raise no flags. Our trust should be vindicated.

But there’s a catch. Even when we investigate constitutive and circumstantial factors, we continue to neglect a great many of them as such, relying instead on a variety of heuristic work-arounds. The inaccessibility of the constitutive and circumstantial means we have to troubleshoot constitutive and circumstantial problems absent any reference to their high-dimensional reality. The question of truth, far from a question regarding what can be taken for granted relative to behavioural feedback, becomes a question of whatever happens to be available for deliberative troubleshooting: typically, the claim-maker, the claim, and the world. As a result, we have no idea just what we’re doing when embroiled in spectacles such as Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing. Everyone is left guessing, groping. The nature of the breakdowns eludes us entirely.

If a claim regards something existent, an undiscovered species of possum, say, the easiest way to verify the truth of the claim is to simply go out and ‘see for yourself’: so far as our capacities and circumstances remain irrelevant and we see the possum, the claim is true. The absence of empirical discrepancies between cognitive systems allows those cognitive systems to continue neglecting their constitution and circumstances, to rely upon other brains the way we rely upon our own: blindly. Call this ‘default synchronization’: the constitutive and circumstantial coincidence required for cooperative behaviour regarding things like new species of possum. Seeing, as the saying goes, is believing.

This, as it turns out, is one of the few ways truth can overcome trust.

If, however, a claim regards something only indirectly accessible, an ‘alleged event’ or a ‘scientific theory,’ say, we have to rely on its consistency with whatever is relevant and accessible, ‘evidence.’ And when that evidence consists of reports, more claims, then the threat is always that our original problem will simply metastasize, and the interrogation of constitutive and circumstantial factors will be multiplied to more and more claims. Both sides frame the claims of the other side as artifacts, manipulations, while they view their own claims as windows, glimpses of truth (or failing that, self-defensive artifacts in service of that truth). The claims of both are equally artifactual, of course, both equally the product of biology and environment. The difference consists only in that behaviour can remain entirely insensitive to the artifactuality of the true claim without running aground. Just as with vision. The window works so well as a figure for truth because visual cognition likewise neglects its constitutive dimension. Visual cognition provides experience with a tremendous amount of information, going so far as to index its reliability (with blur, darkness, glare, and so on), while providing nary a whiff of the machinations responsible. (You could say the so-called ‘view from nowhere’ is literal to the extent ‘nowhere’ references neglect of the constitutive and circumstantial conditions of our view.)

To call attention to constitutive and circumstantial problems is to ‘muddy the waters,’ to scotch the illusion of transparency, and so conserve in-group solidarity. We evolved to manipulate the orientations of isomorphic systems, to husband and herd the constitutive and circumstantial coincidence of those we trust according to how far we trust them. (Representationalism merely adapts and schematizes this basic capacity, thus saddling the whole of cognition with, among other things, the problem of ‘transparency,’ which is to say, an ontologization of constitutive and circumstantial neglect). We reason with one another. Neglect assures that we do so blindly, without the least second-order inkling of what is actually going on. If ‘reason’ is a lesser tool, a neurolinguistic means of policing discrepancies—effecting ‘noise reduction’—within ingroups, as it pretty clearly seems to be in instances such as these, then the ‘rationality’ of something like the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings requires some minimal coincidence, some tendency to identify with as opposed to against, and so to either neglect or overlook the same things. A spontaneous ‘kumbaya’ moment, or something… something information technology is rendering all but impossible.

Either that or some kind of ‘transparency event,’ a Burning of the Reichstag, only in the context of Kavanaugh’s or Ford’s life, something powerful enough to cue trans-group identification.

Or what amounts to the same thing: a common truth.