by Marc Piane
“The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will.” – Michel Foucault
I was reading an essay about Michel Foucault the other day. The piece talks about his idea that the definition of a madman changes based on the context of the society that individual is in. In thinking about this, I would contend that this extends to any label. This is partly why I had my rant about -isms in last month’s issue. I’ve also heard multiple calls for moving towards or away from some ideal. My question in this though is, who’s ideal? Society is a collection of ideas. These ideas have the ability to change in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. If the definitions of societal labels change based on the society, but societies are also changing, can there be a such thing as an ideal? I also think we are getting myopic in our consumption of information. By this, society is a collection of ideas, but not everyone in that society is privy to the same set of ideas and some of the ideas we are exposed to are either intentionally or unintentionally manipulated. Due to these factors I think we see further and deeper division.
Information is an interesting thing. It is living, breathing, and evolving. It Is also malleable. We, as individuals, have instant access to more information than that at any other point in human history. In fact, we carry a device in our pockets with access to all the information in human history. This can be overwhelming for sure. I think though that we are making it easier for our information to be manipulated. First, we have the knowledge of all humanity in our pockets yet we use this magical device to argue with strangers and cite sources that are minimally vetted and support our already entrenched ideas. Confirmation bias. Second, with so much information, it is important that we seek out multiple sources and consider the biases of those sources and do our best to vet them. In my mind this is one of the most important elements of thinking critically. Third, thinking hurts and really examining the bias of a source and personal biases when coming at information hurts even more. I contend though that we are actually helping people who want to manipulate the information we consume by avoiding that pain.
There is a massive amount of social psychology involved in marketing. I am in no way qualified to speak on this, but I am aware it is there. That means basically that really, really smart people are manipulating, or helping to develop algorithms that influence, the information we see. This is not necessarily with nefarious intentions. It is in the best interest of companies to target advertising to maximize the effect of an ad dollar. It also makes our web experience more satisfying if the things we have show up in Google searches are the things that are catered to us. The other side of this though is that the information we see has been filtered and not everyone sees the same information.
A digression. So there is no question the last month has been wacky. Following the election I’ve had several people ask for my thoughts about it as a philosopher. A couple things about that sentence give me pause. First, I didn’t think anyone actually gave a shit what I thought. Second, I got called a philosopher several times in one week and I don’t think it was ever meant as an insult. Third, and maybe most important, why we are looking to philosophy for answers? The working definition I have in my head for philosophy is the exploration of questions that cannot be proven empirically. For me philosophy explores methods of inquiry rather than providing hard and fast answers. I also look at it as an in depth look into the human condition. In pondering it, I am going to postulate why philosophy might give actually be the perfect discipline to look at this.
One of the things that I think was so difficult for people to digest as the election results came in was that they ran absolutely counter to everything they believed to be true. This may be that the data they were given was in some way flawed. This may be that what they had believed to be true about the world was not. This may be that they were given false information. This may also be that the way we are consuming has changed such that traditional polling methods no longer yield reliable data. These ideas are all limited by the scope of an individual’s experience. This is why I think we look to a mode of thought that does not require empirical proof and encourages us to ask questions. Critical thinking has been the aim of philosophy from the Existentialists and the whole “existence precedes essence”/”you alone are responsible for you” thing, all the way back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the skeptics in Ancient Greece and runs throughout human history. It feels as though the data failed us and to some extent it did. So we ask questions. When we think about what it means to lack empirical evidence though, the mind immediate jumps to, “so philosophy is basically bullshit.” To some extent that notion is absolutely on point. So then we return to the question “why look to philosophy?”
I think one of the things that philosophy also allows us to do is step outside of ourselves. I’ve talked before about the idea that our understanding of reality is shaped by experience. There is even tons of evidence that physical connections in our brains are influenced by experience. To me this is where it comes full circle. We have massive amount of information. That information, or at least the stuff we see online, is filtered. Much of it (all?) is biased in some way. Social media is even set up so that we ourselves can cater what we see by subscribing, liking, friending, blocking, or unfriending. Through this all though we are limiting the scope of experience. By limiting our scope of experience we are limiting the number or reality tunnels we can intersect with. The commonly used vernacular is “bubble.” I prefer “reality tunnel” (Robert Anton’s Wilson’s term) because it sounds cooler. In the end we are limiting the information that we can use to think critically. When we think critically it doesn’t mean that there are no answers to the questions we ask; just no one answer, no right answer, no answer that doesn’t warrant reevaluation, and no answer immune to change.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have strong beliefs. Quite to the contrary. I think expanding your scope of experience can actually make your beliefs even stronger by being better informed. I do believe that retreating into a “comfort zone” of like-minded individuals, rejecting other ideas, and limiting information exposure isn’t good. It is a defense mechanism, but one that creates a myopia and is ultimately unhealthy. We need to eat carrots even though chocolate is what we are craving.