Monday, April 16, 2007

Theodicy

Throughout the coverage of the massacre in Virginia the one recurring theme is that we can not generalize about the cause, i.e., according to the pundits, every recent massacre must be analyzed independently without reference to any underlying similarities or possible facts that could help explain the reasons why yet another man chose to gun down innocent people in a mad rage.

Ironically, I believe this refusal to generalize is symptomatic of the underlying cause why such massacres occur but more on that later.

Of course, the typical "access to guns" and "glorification of violence" platitudes surface as always but these are not primaries but at best minor or consequences of the real cause.

First of all, guns have been around for a long time without frequent public massacres. Second, the glorification of violence in video games and movies is a consequence not a primary. Why weren't horror stories popular during the Enlightenment? Culture reflects the prevailing ideas of a society. For example, the madness of Weimar German culture reflected the nihilism and collectivism of 19th century German philosophy which ultimately led to Nazism. The culture did not cause it (http://www.amazon.com/Ominous-Parallels-Leonard-Peikoff/dp/0452011175/ref=pd_bbs_2/103-5956256-6364622?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1176775100&sr=8-2).

There is also a significant copy-cat effect influenced by modern media by I have access to this media, violent video games, and guns, but I do not copy-cat. There certainly is more to it.

The first question is despite the horror of such a crime the fact is that it is still relatively rare. Given the rarity of these rampages, is it really possible to make generalizations? My thesis is that the causes of this behavior are rampant and endemic and the "rampage" which is relatively rare is an acute manifestation of the underlying cause. For example, imagine that someone grows 100 pumpkins. Say the probability that one of the pumpkins happens to be freakishly large is 1% so the probability is 1 pumkin which would rarely result in a large pumkin. Now, imagine you grow 10,000 pumpkins. The probability of 1% applied to 10,000 is 100 pumkins. So, the probability is the same but the fact that you have so many more samples makes the actual incidences likely to be observed more frequently.

Similarly, if bad philosophy is rampant you will have more screwed up people. Not all of them will commit crimes much less insane massacres. But the more "samples" of bad out there, the more likely it is to observe the tails of the distribution.

So, what is this bad philosophy?

First, let's quote Professor Richard Rorty, a prominent American post-modern philosopher, Professor Emeritus at prestigious Stanford University:

"There is no truth, there is no such subject as philosophy, there are no objective standards by which to evaluate or criticize social and political practices. No matter what is done to the citizens of a country, therefore, they can have no objective grounds on which to protest."... "that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognize it if we do see it. "

..."that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form 'There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.'" (Richard Rorty's "Pragmatism and Philosophy" After Philosophy, ed. By Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), p.60.)

Now let's quote God:

"Thou shalt not kill."

So, the secular side represented by a Professor Emeritus at Stanford says there is nothing you can say ethically about a murderer, and the major alternative asserts without evidence or reason that you should not murder- I guess if you want into heaven or avoid hell or whatever.

This false alternative is best typified by the famous contention of Dostoevsky's character Ivan Karamazov that if God is dead, then everything is permitted or "everything is lawful."

And everyone is wondering why people are killing each other?

It's almost obvious why the modern philosophers view is not helpful, but the religious view does not help either, in fact, it is more destructive. If someone asserts that you should not kill because the pink elephants on Neptune said you shouldn't that is hardly likely to carry much weight in an advanced society. Furthermore, to the extent that the pink elephants have bad ideas (to go along with a good idea about not murdering) it will be destructive. The reference to truth without offering proof or fact (i.e., faith) is worse than saying there is no truth at all.

The rejection of reason and rational ethics by modern philosophers and religionists has resulted in the worship of mindlessness. What happens when an individual abandons his independent judgment? He turns to a group. This is the root of all collectivism which philosophically is the idea that your value and identity is determined by membership in a group, tribe, race, etc. It is the opposite of individualism and it can be seen everywhere today (and of course throughout history).

For example, it can be seen in gang violence. To what do these young men turn when they believe their mind is impotent to cope with reality? Membership in a gang gives them a feeling of power and control they lack when left to their own devices. It can be seen in multiculturalism which promotes the idea that membership in a group or ethnicity is all important (and that one culture is not better than another thanks again to post-modernism). It can be seen in the resurgence ofwhite supremacy and Nazism in Europe and America, the ethnic Balkan war, and the savage tribal wars throughout Africa. In religion, we see the mindlessness and collectivism of the fanatical Islamists in the mid-east who value only their duty and sacrifice to god and villify and threaten their mortal enemies: the Jews and the Americans and fly airplanes into buildings to mindlessly kill members of the enemy group. We see it in the ridiculous effort seeking reparations for slavery from the ancestors of the ancestors of those who held slaves as if an injustice done to one part of a collective can be made right by doling out "justice" to another part of the collective.

The glorification of violence is a consequence of mindlessness. To the extent that someone believes there mind is impotent they will turn to brute force to get what they want. How many kids in the inner city right now are dreaming of becoming educated as doctors or scientists and saving the world through intellectual achievement versus those dreaming of owning a semi-automatic weapon to rob a store and kill rival gangmembers? I would put money on the latter.
What do the intellectual leaders offer? The Richard Rorty's and the abyss of post-modernism gets transmitted from the philosophy departments, to all the humanties, to journalism, to law, to science and so on until it ultimately gets reflected in art, literature, movies, comedy, etc. and ultimately politics.

Rather than stressing individual values, reason and achievement, the intellectuals stress group identity and victimhood as history and politics are all analyzed through the "lens" of race, gender, and sexuality.

At the primary educational level, note the educational trend of not grading students objectively according to standard criteria but grading them according to how hard they tried and other non-objective criteria purportedly to bolster their self-esteem. Children are therefore taught that there are no right or wrong answers and that nothing can be their fault. All that matters is how they feel about themselves.

So what happens in a society where kids are taught that their feelings are more important than their minds and that self-esteem is arbitrary and not derived from real achievement? What happens when these same kids immersed in today's post-modern culture come to believe that their mind is impotent and the group is all? What happens when the "group" frustrates or hurts their all important feelings? Can they fall back on their value as an individual or on the realization of their ability to achieve values independently of what others think or say? No, they lash out - at the group. Other people are not individuals but simply members of a collective. The co-workers, management, the establishment, society, the jocks, the Jews, the foreigners, the rich, the Bourgeois, the Americans - pick the group that has harmed you and lash out at it.

Gang wars, ethnic wars, religious wars, and now the "rampage", are all tragic manifestations of the same root cause - the rejection of reason, individualism, and rational belief in the sanctity and inviolability of every human life.

2 comments:

Jeremy said...

I remember well when Rorty presented to philosophy students and faculty at my college in the early 90's. I remember asking myself that, if Rorty is right, why study philosophy at all? How could a typical timid teenager who replies when faced with a philosophical or ethical problem , "can't know for sure, do whatever works", come up with the same conclusion as this philosophical rockstar who after years and years devoted to philosophy, pops out of his hole and screams, "I've got it!! deconstruction and pragmatism!!"; essentially the same conclusion as the teenager but housed in pages and pages of incomprehensible text that attempt to force you there. I felt lucky that I was surrounded by philosophy professors ranging from an Aristotelean scholar to a modern. I was lucky because my philosophy department didn't represent a single philosophy but rather represented what is good as well as erroneous in philosophy and forced me to make my own conclusions. The pursuit of philosophy/truth inevitibly leads to encounters with the absurd and truth and its pursuit would lose their urgency without them. And the most absurd notions of all propose that truth is not possible and meaningless to talk about. I think Rorty and post-moderns would have to declare that they failed as philosophers because they failed to find truth. Am I an archeologist because I dig holes? Or do I have to find something of archeological significance? If I search for truth and find nothing, should I feel proud and deserving of publication and praise? I'm happy, perhaps because I never entered the elitist east coast universities, that post-modernism was never taught in any of my philosophy classes.

Doug Reich said...

Well, consider yourself half lucky and be half proud that you were smart enough to see the dead end of postmodernism. The rest of the culture has apparently not been so fortunate.

As to your archaeology analogy they wouldn't they say "we can't really know what a hole is so why dig in one?"

I don't think you can escape postmodernism on a modern campus even if not put forward explicitly. It has touched every field in some way and I think it is really just an extreme extrapolation of skepticism. Fundamentally, Kantianism, Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the like are all just variations on the theme of "reason is invalid" or "problematic" in the jargon. They just seem to go slightly different places with it but all start there.

Rand (and perhaps Aristotle) seem to be the only philosophers that hold reason is absolute. Of course, Aristotle would not have put it in those terms, but I think is implied.