Syllogisms, nihilism, and politics

I am concerned that philosophy may be in for some bad press after the recent coverage of Jared Loughner’s syllogisms and nihilism.  There was an interview with his philosophy instructor in Slate here and the NYT ran a piece on his nihilistic philosophy.  It’s described as a “belief in nothing,” which isn’t how I would have put it (since you can’t believe in nothing).  I would have said that it is a belief that there is nothing that is meaningful in and of itself.  For more discussion, see the Philosophy Pages definition or The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy search for nihilism.  The first item from this search has to do with Moral Skepticism, which seems most on target to me.   Later in the NYT article there is also a discussion of Loughner toying with something that sounds a bit like the inverted spectrum argument and his mistaking dreams for reality.  I am wondering how my teaching of Descartes’s Meditations is going to go this spring.  I think there might be more general support for the view frequently expressed whenever I teach the First Meditation that, as Mr, Gutierrez is quoted as saying in the NYT article “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.”  But in fact they do, but within a very bounded framework, which is what is missing when philosophical reasoning blurs into unreason. 

One definition of “nihilism” (the one from Philosophy Pages) notes that it is “the denial of the possibility of making useful distinctions among things.”  I think that we may well be living in a nihilistic time in that sense.  What I mean is that the distinction between what is reasonable and what is not are badly blurred.  So, while “normal” people do not mistake their dreams for waking experience on a regular basis, someone might “talk about that stuff” and learn something in the process.  Exercising reason involves making these important distinctions and this brings me to the exercise of reason in relation to the events in Tucson and the subsequent political responses to those events.  There is much to say here but I am just going to focus on one issue for the moment.

Did the increasingly non-rational political rhetoric of the last decade cause the shooting in Tucson this past weekend? No. The causal chain is not one that could stand scrutiny. The causal links cannot be clearly articulated. But Sarah Palin and others are now arguing that there is nothing wrong with that political rhetoric and that those who have drawn a connection are off-base, or worse, they are committing “blood libel”. (As reported by Michael Shear in the NYT blog “The Caucus”.) In making this claim, she continues to engage in a particular brand of politics that gives rise to the idea that there is a causal connection between the current political discourse in the United States and the events of Saturday.

What do I mean? The standards of rational political discussion have disappeared. Loughner’s insane syllogisms bear a resemblance and here is how. He has the trappings of reason in the form of valid arguments (arguments which if the premises are true, then the conclusion would follow with certainty) but, of course, his premises are not true and so no true nor even meaningful conclusion follows from them. What passes for acceptable arguments in the political arena are arguments that bear more than a passing resemblance to Loughner’s. The premises he use are couched in metaphorical language that is difficult to interpret. If we cannot interpret it, we cannot figure out what sort of evidence would be required to determine if the claim is true. So, not only are the premises not true, but the use of language is not even geared towards the assessment of truth. Compare, for example, Sarah Palin’s statement in the video posted on her Facebook page: “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.” When the implied argument is fleshed out, it goes something like this: Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that incites the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. (To do so would be reprehensible. Journalists and pundits did manufacture a blood libel that incites the very hatred and violence thy purport to condemn.) Therefore, their behavior is reprehensible. Did they manufacture a blood libel? Literally, no and so what she is saying is literally false. But, of course, we are not meant to take what she is saying literally. We are intended to interpret what she says as a metaphor. What they did was “like” a blood libel. But in what way? Is it really? We can’t assess the truth of the claim and so can’t determine whether we should draw the conclusion. We are thrown off reason and so can only respond from emotion. What do we feel? In general, if we like Sarah Palin we are going to feel she is right. There are no objective criteria for determining if we should accept her conclusion or not and because she has shifted the conversation away from the realm of rational discourse the fallback is our previously held political commitments and alignments. And here is the problem with the rhetoric of the extremist. It drives us away from reason and it is only through the use of reason that a democratic society can guide itself away from a kind of tribalist positionality to a state that works for its citizens because those citizens have a means of interacting with, conversing with, and negotiating with each other.

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