Saturday, September 28, 2013

Godwin's Law, Descartes' hypocrisy, and the trouble with Ayn Rand

Anyone who as spent any time on messageboards--from the old days of Usenet to the current world of comment threads on everything across the 'net--is likely familiar with Godwin's Law. The "law" was postulated by one Mike Godwin in 1990. Simply put, the law states that in any online discussion, there is the possibility of someone comparing Hitler and/or the Nazis to some aspect (or some person) of the discussion; the longer the discussion goes, the greater the probability of such a comparison. Here is Godwin's original version of the law (which is even more simply put):
I developed Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
It is of course not an actual law, but empirical evidence suggests it was--and still is--quite accurate. Godwin himself thought he might actually limit the frequency of such comparisons by articulating this law and seeding it throughout the net. That didn't really happen. The Nazi and Hitler comparisons continued, only with the added bonus of someone "calling a Godwin." And that, in and of itself, is not actually a good thing in my opinion. For sometimes--depending on the discussion--such comparisons can be entirely appropriate. But the calling of a Godwin has the effect of stifling legitimate discussion on such matters.

So what we have now--in the current state of affairs in messageboard world--is a still-extant high probability of Hitler and Nazi comparisons in a sufficiently long discussion, coupled with a pronounced lack of ability to make such a comparison even when it might be valid. How can any argument survive such a cacophony of caterwauling: "you Godwinned the thread," "nice Godwin," "Godwin, Godwin, Godwin," etc? Thus rather than being simply an observation,  much less being a means of curbing bad behavior, Godwin's Law is either an empty invocation of the now-obvious or a means of silencing the opposition. And not just any sort of means, but an illegitimate means.

Anther very common tool used to silence the opposition in serious messageboard discussions--and indeed, also in real life--is the mighty Spear of Hypocrisy. Those who hurl it are quick to point out how the ideas expressed by someone (usually a famous someone) are apparently inconsistent with how they live or had lived (in the case of dead someones) their lives. The essential thrust is that because they did not follow a course of action consistent with their avowed ideas, philosophies, or ideologies those ideas must therefore be invalid.

These kinds of deflections are so common as to be almost a given in any kind of discussion involving politics, economics, or the like. A related theme is the "if you're so smart, how come you aren't rich?" fallacy, though this tends to be a much more personal kind of deflection, directly targeting a person on "the other side" of a discussion (yeah, I know, it's more of an argument than a discussion). But the hypocrisy angle is, I think, far more robust as it does not require personal knowledge of actual participants.

History is replete with thinkers, philosophers, and politicians who lived by the mantra "do as I say, not as I do," there's no doubt about that. But it is a little much to expect people to eschew all things inconsistent with their own expressed ideals. Consider many of the Framers. We look to them, their words and ideas, for inspiration and support, when to comes to concepts like freedom, rights, liberty, and the scope of government. But many of these men were themselves slave-owners or at least supportive of the idea of slavery. When they speak of freedom in its most ideal sense, there is hypocrisy here, there just is. Yet that hypocrisy doesn't mean their words have no value, no meaning. It just means they were not perfect, themselves (far from it, like most of us).

But nowhere is such hypocrisy so apparent--and so readily forgotten--as in the ideas and actions of René Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy" much beloved by the intelligentsia of the world, from the seventeenth century onward. "I think therefore I am," the backstop of the navel-gazing liberal elites' worldview.

Descartes had a great deal to say about everything (and to be fair, much of what he says is very much worth reading, worth exploring). One of the things he spoke about in great length was the human soul or mind. He argued that this was what set man apart from the beasts. According to Descartes, animals were mere automatons, whose actions were the product of instincts and reflexes, alone. They possessed no actual consciousness, no emotions. They were simply complicated machines, nothing more. And make no mistake, this divergent nature between man and animal is a fundamental element of Descartes entire philosophy, when it comes to the nature of man, of how the mind works.

Today, Descartes' obvious mistakes in this regard are merely forgiven or just overlooked. But what is rarely mentioned is the fact that Descartes, himself, enjoyed the company of a pet dog. He named this dog Monsieur Grat; he went for walks with him, played with him, and indeed was with Monsieur Grat almost constantly (a significant point, given Descartes' penchant for solitude).

The problem is, this mistake--the idea that animals are nothing but automatons--is one that is easily disproved by empirical evidence, by simple observation. Just watching the interactions between pups, kittens, or even ducklings is all one needs to do to confirm the counter-idea, that animals do think, do have feelings, do have unique personalities, do have minds, and are not just automatons. Descartes' wrong-headed conclusions were a consequence of his reasoning, reasoning that ignored reality and thus arrived at these nonsensical "facts." Thus, one can't help but wonder if this pattern permeates all of Descartes's thinking, if he ignores reality in favor of what he wants to be true. Which of course suggests that Descartes' revolutionary new approach to philosophy, to understanding and truth, was nothing of the sort.

The more general point, however, is the manner in which Descartes is treated, how his glaring errors are now received. Again, his own behavior--which runs counter to his conclusions--is ignored, he is given a pass. And the pattern of his thoughts, which might easily be analyzed as shallow, along with the conclusions he draws are rarely criticized in full. He gets a lot of credit just for trying (which I guess makes him the perfect philosopher for the modern world).

Which brings us to Ayn Rand, who I recently talked about in a similar context:
I'm not usually given to quoting Ayn Rand, not because I find her objectionable (I don't) but because the mere mention of her name tends to summon hoards of literary jackals, eager to justify their own flimsy egos by expressing their extreme distaste for Rand as both a writer and a person. Not unsurprisingly, they rarely have any actual specific objections in this regard; it's mostly just an exercise in unsupported allegations, misrepresentations, and ad hominem attacks.
Ayn Rand's writings--of both the fiction and non-fiction sorts--are significant in the history of both literature and philosophy (from moral philosophy to political philosophy). She is still widely read (far more so than Descartes) and continues to have a profound impact on current issues. But when she is discussed--on the internet or in real life--one can be sure that she will be criticized heavily. Her philosophy will be called "repugnant," "shallow," "self-serving," "vicious," and a host of other things. Her writing style will be criticized for its shortcomings. In a recent online discussion, one person termed it "clumsy, clunky, and juvenile." And she, herself, will be called names, be labeled a "horrible person," and the like.

All of this criticism is generated--by and large--from a simple basis: Rand's view of rational self-interest as the guiding maxim for life, her pronounced opposition to the idea of altruism as a moral standard. One can of course find fault with this, believe Rand has simply got it wrong, but it is a philosophical argument, neither demonstrable nor indemonstrable via empirical evidence. Yet, from this one issue, the entirety of Rand's ideas are criticized and ridiculed by those who disagree with what she has written (or, as is often the case, what they only believe she has written).

Compare her to Descartes in this regard: the latter supplants his reason for empirical evidence, but is given a pass on this error, is heralded still as the "father of modern philosophy." The former offers an idea some find distasteful, and from that basis alone, she is marginalized as a philosopher.

At the same time, Rand's skill as a writer and her personal life are targeted, used to prove nothing, but merely to obfuscate discussions and silence her defenders. Which of course hearkens back to Godwin's Law. We could easily posit a similar rule for discussions involving Rand: as the number of participants increases, the probability of it devolving into criticisms of Rand's writing style and actual life goes to one. The number of participants needed for this to happen? My guess is that the number is around three.

Cheers, all.

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