Weekend reading in ethics, featuring Marie Kondo

Nihilanand - anti-natalism

Here are three pieces that have been open in my browser for a few days now, while I kept postponing the urge to write something substantial about each of them. Instead, I’ll simply present them for your consideration, with a paragraph or two on selected areas of possible interest.

First, Bruce Schneier on blockchains, and how it’s debatable that they live up to what many consider one of their key promises: to “displace, reshape, or eliminate trust“. Schneier is an American cryptographer who has written extensively on security issues (his work on airport “security theater” is well-worth reading), and he certainly speaks with authority, even if you might not agree with his analysis.

Continue reading “Weekend reading in ethics, featuring Marie Kondo”

The Tyranny of Opinion – Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford

The post title refers to Russell Blackford’s most recent book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism. Blackford is an annoyingly prolific writer, who has published numerous works of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as having edited at least 5 volumes of essays that I’m aware of.

By way of disclosure, I also regard him as a friend, and he was kind enough to write a blurb for my and Caleb Lack’s 2016 book, Critical Reasoning, Science and Pseudoscience. Despite these connections, this note on the book is unsolicited, and entirely sincere.

Continue reading “The Tyranny of Opinion – Russell Blackford”

Social media, and productive discourse on Twitter

xkcd emotion comic social media

A friend of mine once remarked that we can either have democracy or the Internet, but not both. Even if the point is perhaps overstated, interactions on social media, and omnipresent clickbait, certainly contribute to the perception that there’s far more noise than signal on the Internet.

While it’s certainly possible to have productive conversations on social media, those seem – in my experience at least – to have become increasingly rare. Charlie Brooker once listed Twitter as his top pick in the category of video games (in the 2013 show How Videogames Changed the World), and it’s easy to see his point – the platform should perhaps simply be thought of as entertainment rather than as an opportunity for an exchange of ideas. Continue reading “Social media, and productive discourse on Twitter”

Twitter, where obnoxious guests can gatecrash any party

twitter-bird-white-on-blueOne of the alleged sorts of “troll” that has been taxonomised on the Interwebs is the “tone troll” – someone who, lacking an argument, counters their opponent’s claims through pointing out that said opponent is being obnoxious, rude, or shrill (etc.). While I agree that tone can’t invalidate an argument, it certainly can make the argument difficult to hear. Also, it can make the speaker come across as either a reasonable person or not, depending on what sort of tone they employ.

There’s the risk of a false choice here, in other words, in that some invocations of the idea of tone trolling like to suggest that tone should never be relevant, and others like to suggest that we should never be rude or aggressive. The truth lies somewhere in between, as is so often the case. Ideally, we’d be such high-minded creatures that we’d be able to hear the argument, and assess it on its own merits, regardless of tone. And ideally, we’d perhaps be able to restrain ourselves from being rude or aggressive, except in truly exceptional circumstances.

(Of course, the problem with rude or aggressive folk is sometimes exactly that they think most situations are exceptional, and that you are exactly that sort of idiot that they should be able to yell at, most of the time.)

The false choice obscures the fact that tone matters on a psychological and political level, regardless of the truth or falsity of what someone might be saying. Consider an analogy, outside of social media and the web: when considering our circle of friends, or when drawing up a guest list for a party, I’d think it a common experience for all of us to know of someone who, while interesting, is a boorish character.

Perhaps they are too self-important, too loud, too sweary, etc. And perhaps they simply don’t fit the context under consideration, in that while you might invite them to one sort of party, you wouldn’t invite them to another sort (the loud, drunken occasion for dance, versus the dinner table, for example).

There’s no logical obstacle that I can see for wanting your Facebook or Twitter conversations, and your website comment spaces, to have a certain character. You might imagine yourself to be part of some sort of libertine Internet community, where people can do as they please, or perhaps you’re on a particular space because you value interesting – and even potentially civil – discussion with people you’ve never met in (physical) person.

If you’re of the latter sort, and you (politely) point out that that’s the sort of conversation you prefer, then people who ignore that request or signal are surely simply rude, lacking in certain basic social graces? And (here’s the conservative bit, I guess) surely that is still something we’d like to describe as wrong? Even in this world of virtual people and micro-opinions on Twitter, surely having basic manners can still be a thing?

Instead, it sometimes seems the case that on Twitter, you can gatecrash any party, and be as boorish a guest as you like. At some point you might be asked to leave, sure – but by the time that happens, you’ll often already have compromised the party for the rest of us. I’m not talking about simply seeing people in your timeline that annoy you – you’re of course free to unfollow, and thus not see that which annoys you. I’m talking more about the people who butt into your conversations with others, or who simply butt in, to say their piece, giving little thought to whether what they are saying is at all relevant to you.

One can ignore these interjections, yes. But a) that’s a (minimal, to be sure) burden I shouldn’t have to endure. I could ignore them, but I shouldn’t have to. More and more, it seems to me that we define our moral standards by reference to the lowest common denominator. So, people troll you on Twitter – toughen up! So, you encounter sexist abuse – come on, they aren’t serious! Despite the fact that we can sometimes be oversensitive, the fact remains that the basic wrongness lies with the troll or the rude gatecrasher – regardless of what we do to cope with them, they can’t be allowed to forget that we’d like them to learn some manners.

There was an (a) up there. The (b) is about how persistent they can be. It’s sometimes not just one interjection when you and someone else are talking about something, but an incessant expressing of a view on a conversation that you’re both not part of, and where you’ve been given every indication (in this case, consisting of the indication that nobody has replied to you, ever) that you should gracefully exit, closing the door behind you.

During a quite therapeutic rant with a friend over private message the other day, he confessed that Twitter was radicalising him, in that the endless stream of often vacuous pronouncements on things sometimes makes one want to disagree on principle, even if you’d ordinarily be inclined to sympathy with the cause or issue. This is simply because the sentiment you’re rebelling against is expressed in such a mindless or reactionary way, and so often by the same people.

In South Africa, it’s often around racial politics, and party politics, where a chorus of knees jerk at every instance of the Democratic Alliance doing something which (could, at an uninformed stretch of the imagination) be construed as exclusively anti-poor (thus, anti-black), with no prospect of it being part of some longer-term strategy that might or might not be defensible, in the minds of people who have spend many hours/days/weeks debating it. Likewise, a chorus of knees jerk at every instance of the ANC doing something which fits (however spuriously) a narrative of corruption or incompetence.

A larger problem, and not the point of this post, is that the deck is stacked against one set of critics, of course, in that criticising the DA is relatively safe, in that you can’t easily be accused of racism. So, a whole cottage industry of banal criticism has sprung up, where indignant opinionistas turn their postmodern attentions to the latest sins committed by the demonic DA.

The critics are often right – but they are never told that (or when) they are wrong, because to do so opens you up to various accusations (chief among these, the charge of racism) that make it easy for the opinionista to slide off the hook. And because these opinionistas are too rarely told that they are wrong, they have little opportunity to improve their arguments, and confirmation bias rules supreme.

So as you can see, Twitter is perhaps radicalizing me also, but perhaps also inducing a sort of bemused smugness, which doesn’t seem very healthy either. I had meant to offer some examples of the sorts of Twitter folk that I’m now starting to block, rather than ignore, but this post has gone on long enough. So I’ll get to that in future, and in the meanwhile, point you to something that makes similar points to those I had intended to make, namely Daniel Fincke talking about how he enforces civility on Facebook.

Dawkins, Muslims and trolling on Twitter

I had intended to write a post on Richard Dawkins’ most recent provocations on Twitter, which he kicked off with

RDbut a couple of people have gotten there before me – particularly Nelson Jones, who seems to have read my mind. As Jones points out, Trinity College has more Nobels than the Chinese, or than women, or any number of groups you might care to name (regardless of how carefully or accurately those groups were defined).

Yes, what he said was “a fact”, and in fact true. On Twitter, a few people have reminded me of this when I accused Dawkins of dickishness in the Tweet embedded above. I know that it’s a fact – but there are two ways of making the point that this isn’t the only relevant thing in this case. The one way is to say that facts aren’t all that matter – that there is a world of politics, and emotion, and strategy that might mean it’s sensible to point out certain facts at certain times, in certain contexts.

The other way of making the point is to agree that facts are all that matter, and to say that therefore, Dawkins should be wary of letting utterly predictable reactions get in the way of people seeing the facts that he’s attempting to highlight. As Jones writes, something in Islam (and this could easily be true for any other religion too) has gotten in the way of there being proportional representation of Muslims amongst Nobel Prize winners (and a number of other equally arbitrary metrics).

What that something is, is an interesting question – as is the question of whether atheists are disproportionately well-represented. But you can ask that question in less or more abrasive ways, and asking them in the way that Dawkins did will almost certainly result in making fewer, not more, people think about what the answer might be.

I’m not making the claim that it’s always wrong to ask questions abrasively – I’m making the claim that it’s disingenuous to say “I’m simply pointing out a fact”, or “everyone is over-reacting” when you have various options for how to express something, and you choose the one which a) doesn’t do any better a job of making the point and b) is likely to provoke more than alternatives would.

Twitter is not the place for nuanced debate. We (in general) broadcast, entertain, and often provoke. Dawkins is doing all of those, and he surely knows it. I don’t object, as I’ve said many times – it’s not a strategy that I want to employ for myself, but we need people to act as the lightning-rods. But that doesn’t mean it’s impermissible to ever say hold on, even on your strategy, that message is going to be lost in the quite predictable outrage. If people aren’t listening, you can’t do anything to budge their beliefs.

Read the Jones piece, as well as this one by Nesrine Malik. As Jones rightly points out, this is a pattern for Dawkins, and even (especially?) those of us who support his goals should be able to see how characteristic it is:

Dawkins’ well-honed technique (it often amounts to trolling) is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is “Your a dick”) and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object.

Another example from earlier this year compelled me to respond, because it seemed to indicate quite plainly how Dawkins’ Twitter behaviour is often more about provoking, than facilitating debate:

In case it’s not clear to you what’s going on there, Continental and Analytic (to use the traditional, and contested, definitions) are different approaches to academic philosophy. It’s a summary term of a style of philosophy practiced in those regions, like (as my tweet highlighted) French vs. Greek food. These are both different routes to getting fed, and the styles of philosophy are similarly both routes to understanding the world. There is no necessary distinction between them, though – and therefore, nothing to deride by asking “what sort of a search for truth is region-specific?”

But absurdly, social media are so intemperate that we only seem to have two options in response to Tweets like the one that the post begins with: either to denounce Dawkins as an Islamophobe, or to support him vociferously, telling anyone who criticises him that what he says “is a fact” and that everyone is “over-reacting”. The middle-ground is, as ever, squeezed out of the picture – because on social media, we’re all shouting, all the time.

And I suppose it’s quite reasonable to worry about who might hear you, if you’re saying something like “hold on, it’s not that simple”?

Caroline Criado-Perez, #ReportAbuse and Twitter

In a 2010 column on abusive comments posted below online articles, I wrote:

As Theodore Dalrymple reminds us in his “Thank you for not expressing yourself”, “The immediacy of the response which the internet makes possible also means that people are able to vent their spleen in a way which was not possible, or likely, before. The putting of pen to paper, to say nothing of the act of posting the resultant letter, requires more deliberation than sitting at a computer and firing off an angry e-mail or posting on a website.”

This, I believe, captures the essence of when it is permissible rather than gratuitously offensive to resort to abuse: Would you have said the same things in an old-fashioned letter to the editor? Would you say the same thing to the columnist in person, if you were to meet him at a dinner party? If yes, I say go ahead. But if not, perhaps you should do yourself and all of us a favour, and simply shut up.

But there’s no chance, or a vanishingly small chance, that the trolls will do us that favour. After all, their purpose is to (at least) provoke and offend, and telling them to shut up will do little but invite them to send some abuse your way. So what can we do?

imagesThousands of people have now signed a petition for Twitter to introduce a “report abuse” button, where this petition was precipitated by the numerous rape threats that Caroline Criado-Perez received after her campaign to have more women feature on UK banknotes. Notung has highlighted some of the issues in a recent post on SkepticInk, and I agree with his skepticism regarding implementing such a reporting mechanism efficiently.

For all the properly abusive Tweets and Internet comments that people somehow think it appropriate to send, this reporting mechanism will surely be exploited by those who want to simply censor things/people they don’t like – or just for mischief (think 4Chan or similar). So whatever else happens, I’d hope for there to be a human or team of humans assessing reports of abuse – carefully – before implementing any bannings or account terminations.

But it’s not as simply as a mere free speech issue for me, because asking the victims of abuse to simply “deal with it” doesn’t acknowledge the fact that some of us are more equipped to deal with abuse than others are – and that those who are less equipped to deal with abuse tend to attract more of it (getting a reaction being, after all, part of the point of being a troll).

It’s also not as simple as saying “don’t feed the trolls”, partly because that smacks a little of victim-blaming, and also because – thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and a postmodern rejection of authority – everyone thinks that they are an expert on everything, and aren’t afraid to express their views, no matter how ill-considered those views might be. There’s seems to be an intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, which results in a default stance of dogmatism and hostility on many corners of the Internet.

Furthermore, as Notung points out, an unintended consequence of a “report abuse” button might be that those who are calling for the button get reported for abuse themselves. Not only because some “social justice warriors” can be rather brutal (in terms of using abusive language) in response to anyone who questions their point of view, thus perhaps meriting being reported, but also simply in retribution for perceived slights. (I don’t mean to generalise about social justice warriors, by the way. I’m referring to the subset of those concerned with social justice issues that appear to be ideologues, brooking little or no dissent).

Like Notung, I don’t have any answers here. But my two suggestions are:

  1. That more jurisdictions think carefully about implementing legal frameworks that are updated for the digital age, where every abusive twit has access to the means to cause distress to people like Criado-Perez. New Zealand is currently investigating how to go about this, and I think it’s important to work from first principles here. Existing laws on libel, defamation and the like would usually not take 21st-Century communicative possibilities into account, but if we did so, it might well be possible to eliminate much of the abuse without threatening free speech unduly.
  2. That we continue playing what part we can in discouraging trolls. I’ve written extensively about this before, in these two columns as well as numerous others – and a persistent fear for me is that if we don’t continue actively trying to provide quality content and commentary, blocking and banning trolls on our respective websites, the environment will become unattractive enough that some folk won’t even bother to read, let alone comment. Yes, the Internet is a free-speech zone, and should remain so – but you don’t have an obligation to allow any content on your corner of it. Just like you’d kick an abusive ass out of your house, do so on your blog, or your Twitter feed.

Brands vs. personal identity on Twitter

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Should people be suspended for having a terrible sense of humour? Or were Lance Witten and McIntosh Polela suspended because of terrible judgement instead? Both their own, in terms of what they found humorous, as well as on the part of their respective employers, who allowed themselves to be forced into action by the moralistic masses on social media.

Terrible judgement seems the more likely option, but it’s perhaps not only Polela and Witten who are guilty of it. They know that they are public figures, and they know that this makes them a target for the sort of finger wagging we seldom direct at our own behaviour. But do we – and their employers – have to enforce groupthink, or can we separate the brand from the individual?

In case you don’t know what these two did to deserve suspension (in the eyes of their employers, at least), Polela made a joke about prison rape on Twitter after Molemo “Jub Jub” Maarohanye was sentenced to prison for murder, and Witten made a joke (also on Twitter) about people “dying to see Linkin Park”.

Given that prison rape is reportedly a significant problem in South African jails, and that Florentina Heaven-Popa died after scaffolding collapsed on her and others at the Cape Town Linkin Park concert last week, these jokes were certainly in very poor taste.

However, having poor taste is something that’s only directly relevant to people who work in fashion, food, or whatever areas involve being an authority on discerning what the most desirable product on offer might be in a given situation. Suspending someone for having poor taste in humour – for saying something that many would find offensive – makes the statement that we must all have the same values, and that dissenting from those values is not permissible.

It also makes the statement that we (as a company) don’t trust our customers to be able to distinguish between our employees as people and the company as a whole. This is where one has to consider the possibility that their respective employers are also guilty of poor judgement, in that they’ve played a part in letting hyperbole win, and in helping to feed an appetite for sensation that we should instead be doing our best to quell.

One reason that social media policies are necessary is that people seem incapable of realising that what you say on Twitter or Facebook can reflect negatively on your employers. Another reason that social media policies are necessary is because employers are willing to bow to the demands of the pitchfork-wielding public, who make threats of boycotts over every perceived slight. And then, forget about it the next week, when some new offence is paraded in front of them through a hyperbolic headline.

Seriously – how often have you heard of someone who was not killed “execution style”? When last was a person or a report “criticised” or “challenged” rather than “slammed”? And why can’t eNCA have the option of saying, “Lance Witten might be a tosspot, sure, and he really shouldn’t have made that joke. So ‘unfriend’ him if you like, but he works for us as a sports anchor, and he’s good enough at that that we see no reason to suspend him”.

They can’t have that option because we don’t allow them that option. Our thirst for sensation, and our inability to separate the various roles that people perform in professional and private lives, makes it impossible for a company to say that perfection is an unreasonable standard to expect from our employees, and that there are other ways of distancing yourself from comments or from employees than by suspending or firing those employees.

All that we are doing is satisfying the desire for some public flogging, after all. The idea that anyone learns any sort of lesson here (besides the lesson of “keep your views to yourself”) is implausible. Because we always forget, and because all that’s necessary to speed up our forgetting is a brief period of suspension, a public apology, and some new distraction – which is usefully always around the corner.

And so it goes, again and again, and the main loser is our sense of perspective. Yes, jokes can be offensive. But Witten, Polela – or you, or me – won’t stop making offensive jokes, or come to agree with each other on which jokes are permissible or not as a result of suspensions like these. We’ll just tell the same jokes, more privately, while our public spaces become more homogenised, and thus (one suspects the thinking goes) “safer”.

Companies must, of necessity, have an interest in their brand and how the market perceives it. This would certainly entail avoiding any real scandals, especially those perpetrated by senior figures in that company. But if reputational harm comes to implicate every tweet of every employee, there’s little chance of preserving reputation.

It’s become a truism to say that the brand and the person can’t be separated – but that isn’t necessarily because it’s true. One possible social media policy doesn’t seem to attract the attention it seems to deserve, and it would go something like this:

Our company values are x. While we try to hire people who share those values, there are also other job requirements that sometimes have an equal or higher priority. So, unless informed otherwise, please assume that individuals are responsible for their own comments on social media, and that none of their comments should be understood as expressing the company’s views.

We don’t believe that we are the best judges of what should be a universal morality. We respect our customers enough to want to avoid the paternalism of assuming that they are incapable of telling difference between individual employees and us. And finally, we respect our customers too much to think that they need our protection from things they might find offensive.  Have a nice day.

Postscript: Via 6000, here’s an example of sanity prevailing in this area. The Christian whose case is discussed in the article is of course a homophobe and a bigot, and that’s not good. But he’s allowed to be those things, especially on his own time.

You’re only 1% if you don’t Tweet

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears that we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via mediums like Twitter.

As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via their mobile phones, gets to have their say.

However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.

Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140 character limit, the attention economy, and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline, or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory if they were spelled out in an op-ed.

But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing their vote, changing their bank, or saving some endangered iguana.

Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly-disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers, and nobody ever needs to apologise.

While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were Tweeted and re-Tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.

Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.

The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.

The thing about Tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people I pay attention to – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of Tweets are in 1st-language English.

We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.

But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our Tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.

We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less.

Tuning out (and in)

Since Sunday morning, the Doctor and I have slowly been making our way from the Chesapeake Bay to New Bern, North Carolina, in a boat ably piloted by the pater familias. I must confess that I was worried about sporadic Internet access – not only dreading a backlog of emails to digest and respond to, but also knowing that I would be missing out on all sorts of interesting chatter on Twitter.

But being away from the Internet – and perhaps especially from Twitter – can be a good thing. Now that I’m catching up on a few day’s worth of timeline in a few hours, I can see that I might have become involved in various wars, in ways that might later be regretted. The forced remove conduces to slower consideration.

It also starkly reveals how little there is worth paying attention to – among the gems of insightful links and stimulating conversations, there is still so much wasted time, and so many pointless moments of narcissism on a platform like Twitter. And of course, we can all be guilty of those, and I know I sometimes am – but we should try to make those funny, at least, so that some value can be extracted from them.

The one thing I regret having missed is the conversation around Business Day’s publishing the 2008 Sunday Times report, which occupied many SA Twitter timelines on June 15. If you know nothing about this story, read this (see links to earlier articles at the bottom), this and this (especially this last one, where the editor of Business Day, Peter Bruce, summarises why BD published the report, and his views on the controversy that resulted from doing so).

Sure, I can read all the virtual column-inches now, but the conversation has now slowed – the real-time exchanging of views between interested parties has concluded, and opinions are most likely entrenched. You get a chance to influence what people think, and have them influence what you think, on a platform such as Twitter, and this often happens before the columns, op-eds and articles are written. And we don’t often go back to revise our views, especially once we have committed them to ‘paper’. So these conversations are a pity to miss, and one clear advantage that the social web has over books and paper.

But despite having missed a few such conversations, it has been wonderful to get a chance to do some serious reading. If you’re interested in the conversation around what effects social media and the Internet are having on us, read Jaron Lanier’s wonderfully contrarian You are not a gadget. If you are interested in debates around personhood – what makes you you, and are you the same you as you were 20 years ago – Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick is very good.

Both sorts of interacting (ie. the immediate and the traditional) with words, and with ideas, are valuable. We shouldn’t neglect or demonize either of them – but rather make sure we take full advantage of both. But having said that, until our small boating crew gets back to terra firma next weekend, I quite look forward to reading a few more books.

Supernaturalism and threats to reason

Note: While a few paragraphs towards the end of this are verbatim repeats (or slight edits) of content from a previous post, I considered the repetition justifiable as this post attempts to make a broader point, using the same example.

One way to divide nature – at least human nature – at its joints is to observe that the ordinary person’s approach to epistemology is that of either naturalism or supernaturalism.

Naturalism, in broad summary, holds that epistemology is closely connected to natural science. There is an increasing tendency amongst naturalists to hold that social sciences which do not verify their findings through results in the natural sciences are at best placeholders for an eventual, more mature, position which does incorporate the findings of the natural sciences, or, at worst, are epistemologically useless.

Cognitive science, as well as more general research in the fields of decision-science and heuristics of decision-making, allows us to understand far more about what people believe, and why, than we could previously understand. Despite this, much activity in social science proceeds as if these scientific revolutions are not occurring around them, and that that we are still somehow adding value by theorising about culture, literature or individual psychology. Continue reading “Supernaturalism and threats to reason”