Saturday, December 27, 2014

Your Controversy Means Nothing

Your "controversy" means nothing.

Not just because I don't care. Not just because we're going to waste the next half an hour -- with you bowdlerizing John Stuart Mill, and me intentionally misquoting Emerson or somebody because you haven't read him and are powerless to stop me -- but because this entire discussion is pointless. Don't care what we're talking about: philosophy, poetry, politics... it's all absolutely, truly, quite literally pointless. Because you're not going to say anything original, and if I do happen to arrive at something new and interesting you're just going to misinterpret it as the orthodox bull shit that you're expecting me to say. People have probably been arguing about whatever it is for centuries, and at least one of us is no Socrates. So why, then, are we arguing? Possibly because abstract discussions like this provide a convenient conduit for our mutual hatred, but I'm not going to bring that up because you'd probably think it was cheating.

Speaking of cheating:

I'd like to point out that I have no particular problem with it. Rhetoric -- whatever poor deluded Aristotle thought -- is all about cheating, but the type you're engaging in is generally considered bad form. First, saying a thing louder does not affect the structure or content of what you've just said. Nor does repeating it. (Hint: rearranging the dependent clauses and using some dressier synonyms to reiterate your original statement is still repeating yourself.)

This stuff happens though. I get it. We're human. In the heat of the moment I might call your mother a sodden pile of misfiring neurons, seemingly incapable of motility, coherent speech or self-awareness, or really of anything more advanced than reproducing increasingly warped replicas of herself. Or I might do it in cold blood later using a transparent evasion like this. Point is: I don't take it personally, I hope you don't either. What I do mind, very much, is that every time I attempt to prune your "thesis" down to a consistent and manageable size you expand on it and each conflation, factual error, or logical flaw sprouts a new dandelion, or two new heads --- whichever hackneyed metaphor you prefer, I'm trying to keep it on your register.

You have, in short, abandoned the ritual forms of debate, but let's just say that Nature did not equip you to be the brilliant, more-flaunting rebel you imagine yourself to be. In fact I seem to remember having this exact same argument, or riffs on it, with various members of your tribe. The tragedy of all this is that each time you open your mouth I will (foolishly) assume that you are making the most logical form of your argument and try skip to the part where I point out the underlying rift in our various worldviews, from which all our disagreements flow. Because if both our arguments are rational (an unfounded assumption, which I'm willing to make for the sake of the argument, and my continued sanity) the only way we can disagree is if our premises/logical priors are different. You, however, are dead set on attacking the limbs and outward flourishes, instead of recognizing that the vast majority of disagreements come about because our central beliefs about the nature of the universe are violently opposed. I don't see why. Is it maybe because none of us can handle being friends with someone who thinks we're wrong, and so we try to surround ourselves with people who think exactly the same things, in exactly the same ways and use exactly the same jargon and even speech patterns as we do? (Bonus points if they look like you too.)

Realistically, it's not as if I can expect you to change your mind, so the only way to get past this and get you to shut up is to make you look like a fool. Which is, I understand, frowned upon in polite company. We're assuming -- again, without a lot of basis in reality -- that we're actually in polite company. Let's pretend though, that for a moment clear-headed, non-egoistic rationality has made a rare incursion into the social sphere, and I can then explain to you why this isn't working:

First, your argument is probably based on a premise which you present as generally assumed by most right-thinking people, but on closer examination fails to line up with what people actually think or do. This is pretty much the definition of "contentious."

Secondly, even if a thing is generally assumed, an appeal to authority, or even consensus, is the worst possible way to win me over to your line of thinking (short of broiling me over a fire and forcing me to recant.) Even if most people agree with you, this is no guarantee that you're right. True, if there's reason to believe a thing, all else being equal, people will believe it. This seems reasonable to believe. However, this doesn't mean rule out false positives, doesn't preclude people jumping on a likely-looking bandwagon and it doesn't mean that all of everyone's reasons are based on evidence. If delusion in one area is the only way you can keep a little finger hooked around the rest of reality, then yes, it 'makes sense' to be delusional. Still, bayesian implication aside, if you have a majority, you've got might, which due to transitivity makes right.

Because of this, if you're unlucky enough to be in a minority you have to fight two battles. You have to make the case that there even is a debate and that you're not just being stupid, then you need to actually win the debate. As a result, if you're going to have heterodox views, you often have to know more than everyone else. By which I mean: if you're going to make the case that we should worship Baal, or that Wittgenstein was actually a time-travelling manifestation of a multi-dimensional entity who liked to troll humans, be my guest, but you're going to need to find a lot of evidence. ...and honestly, though the universe is both rich and strange, most things just don't seem interesting enough to devote your life to. Which both explains why most of us don't spend our careers becoming experts in cuneiform and also (sadly) why your average person has no interest in how their phone or gravity works.

At the same time I don't need to be a climatologist, an economist, or even all that clever to see that carbon credits have enormous potential for abuse. It's pretty obvious what with how a lot of people are greedy bastards. Naturally, the most sensible thing to do when you're a greedy bastard is to hijack other people's altruism and make yourself unassailable. Attacking carbon credits means you don't love the planet etc. This is obvious (to my mind) error, but for some reason people respond to that sort of thing.

Note that the argument I'm making here is not the same as the "I can imagine it happening so it probably has" line.  No, in political science you have these sort of corruption attractors. The point is not that I know which companies or people are going to find ways to extract rents -- legally or illegally, ethically or unethically -- from a bad policy, but that someone eventually will. Because: history. It's more an ecological argument than a mechanistic one, and it's one with significant evidence behind it (philosophically, induction sucks, but it's kind of the best thing we've got.)  On average, people are going to spot an opportunity for corruption and on average I'm going to being right. Plus, the average and the total effects are all that matter when you're discussing policy.

Speaking of which, it does not matter how short I am, I will find some way to knock you on your ass if you give me another anecdote. Anecdotes are absolutely *insert long string of profanity* useless. They help no one. They mean nothing. Don't tell me how you know someone who reacted badly to a medication. I don't want to hear how badly a tax "hike"/"reform" affected your uncle. It's not important what some professor of yours thought. Yes, they are part of the data set, but don't take them out of context. Anecdotes give the abstract a human face. That's nice, to the extent that it arouses our sympathy, and empathy, and makes us better people, but good journalists, lawyers and politicians are exquisitely, excruciatingly aware of how vulnerable the anecdote makes people to emotional manipulation. So either you're not aware of what you're doing, which is genuinely frightening, or you are, which pisses me off. So stop it.

Sure, if you have no other data, a large collection of anecdotes may help you to begin gathering evidence, and I would even go so far as to say that they might help you act in a better-than-random fashion, but if you don't have anything better than a random third-hand comment on something we should be out there collecting data, not sitting here arguing.

For that matter, we could be doing anything more useful than arguing. But we're not going to do that either are we? Because the reason we argue is not to change things, but to feel like we're doing something, to feel like we're aware and that we care.

I don't need to prove to you that I'm a thinking adult who reads the news and took an undergraduate philosophy class. Maybe you do. Good for you. Find someone else to talk to.

Because if I actually start talking we're going to end this conversation with you thinking I'm a prejudiced idiot and me thinking that you're a unimaginative barbarian, but the good news is that it won't change anything. Because there are other people running the world, and the effect of our personal philosophies on humanity's total utility approaches zero.  I'm not talking about cabals and international conferences and whether some ballot gets counted or not. You're drifting along currents of an ocean of convention, instinct and other being's appetites. What, are you actually going to suggest that people are less conformist when it comes to important things? Have you looked at politics recently?

So while you retain the illusion of political/social/moral efficacy I recognize that the my opportunities for change are painfully limited (and while you may not sense my barely contained rage about this let me assure you this is not complacency or even resignation, merely my assessment of the available data.) While it might make your evanescent life more pleasant to feel like an considerate, ethical, effective person, your results indicate that you are just as useless as I am, but you're in denial.

There are a lot of reasons for it. One is that it's just too soul-crushing to admit that most of what most people do is entirely vapid and useless. Another is that even if you want to do something meaningful you are fighting inertia. Also entropy. And a couple of other physic-y things. My point is that if you want to bang your head against several other billion people, a few millennia of tradition and infinite ignorance go ahead. Really. I mean it, go ahead: it sometimes works.

Of course, chances are that if you're an average person with average abilities in an average place and time, you're not going to be successful. But hey, I'm not going to try to stop you, hell, I might even join you. I do feel compelled to point out though that there's almost always backlash. I believe it is possible to change the world. It's just terrifyingly, vivisect-you-and-watch-someone-eat-your-heart-while-you're-standing-there-trying-not-to-bat-an-eyelash hard. So no, I don't blame you for not doing anything. I don't blame most people.

..but if you're not going to do that, just shut up and drink your hipster beer.

Edit: I feel much, much better now.