Review: Explaining Postmodernism

 

Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault

Postmodernism a popular subject these days. What is it? What is its history? There are a number of books on the subject — just key ‘postmodernism’ into an amazon search. I have read only one of them, this one, published in 2010. Hicks has written a great introduction here to both philosophical history and present implications. Here is a LINK to the book on Amazon. The subject ties into my recent essay REALISM and ANTIREALISM. Postmodernism is a final descent, very much the logical (or illogical) end point to Antirealist madness!

Not often I get to say of a non-fiction book that I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when I reached the end. Except for a sense of the movement’s nihilism, I didn’t know much about Postmodernism, but Dr. Hicks has covered the ground. He begins with a broad brush of what postmodernism stands for metaphysically (anti-realism), epistemologically (skepticism), ethically (collectivism in the social, educational and political sphere) and aesthetically (the meaninglessness of art and criticism). One gets the impression that he knows the subject well. His attention to detail is that of the scholar and even the true believer, but he hints slyly at the movement’s absurdity even here. From his review he goes backwards and traces the roots of the movement beginning with Kant’s response to the Enlightenment in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church, and up through Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Nietzsche, Marx, and then Heidegger to the later 20th century with Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. There are many other voices mentioned along the way (Kierkegaard plays a role as does Freud). Besides philosophers he traces political movements of the left and the right in opposition to the Enlightenment’s development of capitalism resting on individualism.

In the last chapter HIcks returns to Postmodernism proper and its absurdity from the metaphysical and epistemological to the political and aesthetic. In 200 hundred years every political and social consequence of anti-Enlightenment philosophy, every prediction and political hope has singularly failed. Postmodernism is the response to this failure by philosophers who come to the conclusion that if the foundation and development of the anti-Enlightenment movement over 200 years is rotten the only thing left to do, besides admit that you are wrong, is attack and destroy what the Enlightenment produced. Even Nietzsche (who Hicks returns to illustratively at the end) presciently suggests that one can take anti-realism and nihilism too far leaving the postmodernists to “quote Nietzsche less and Rousseau more”. Not only is Postmodernism nihilistic, it is destructively so, the bitter fruits of jealousy over the failure of collectivist anti-realism and seeming political, economic, and social success of Enlightenment realism, rationalism, and individualism.

An excellent review, through, scholarly, and easy to read. I find Hick’s style both serious and humerous at the same time. Superb!

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Welcome to Ruminations! A writing exercise combining various present hobbies (cigars and rum) along side that which keeps me intellectually exercised, philosophy. Somewhere on your screen is a MENU. The menu consists of categories and articles under them. You can use these to navigate to articles of interest. In the interest of convenience however, I present here a list of the categories as links you can use. If you click on a link you will see all the articles under that category. They are always arranged in reverse date order (latest on top). Some articles are multi-part. If you see a “part II” scroll a bit further down to find the part I.

 

Categories:

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Philosophy: Mostly metaphysics and epistemology in the English analytic tradition. The starting point is presently fleshed out in my books (presently 3 in number) described in this philosophy subcategory my books. As of May 2017 a new subcategory here is my book reviews published on Amazon. These are the text to the reviews themselves, not Amazon links. However each review does link to the book reviewed on Amazon. I’ve posted many reviews to Amazon and I will get to posting them here over time.

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Cigar Reviews: One of my present hobbies (I have had many). There are many reviews here focused mostly on affordable cigars (under $10). There are a surprising number of very excellent cigars in the single digit price range.

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General Cigar Articles: About cigars and associated products. Covers “care and feeding” of a cigar collection.

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Rum Reviews: A hobby enhancing my enjoyment of cigars. Many reviews.

 

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Bourbon Reviews: A couple of reviews here.

 

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A few non-rum related pairing options. Some of these I haven’t touched in years.

General Spirit Articles: Pairing drink with cigars.

Hope you enjoy. I continue to add to the blog in all categories. Hope you will like and/or comment.

January 25, 2017

The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism

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Compatibilism is a philosophical attempt to rescue personal responsibility from determinism. The idea, now fashionable in scientific and philosophical circles that, thanks to an ultimately deterministic macro-universe, libertarian free will is an illusion. The libertarian part is important because compatibilists are so named precisely because they claim that we can be responsible for our acts even in the absence of our capacity as agent to initiate novel physical chains of events (through control of our bodies which are indisputably physical). Initiation is the key here. As Lowe points out (“Personal Agency” 2004) when I elect to raise my arm it is my brain and its physical connection to physical nerves, the nerves to muscles, etc. that actually controls the physical motion of my arm. That is the micro motions of my arm, the exact speed with which it goes up, exactly how high, and at exactly what angle, etc are all controlled by a physical chain of multiple events in my nervous system coupled with the capabilities of my muscles. What I do as an agent is initiate this process by choosing to raise my arm in a general sense with such and such a force, in so and so direction, etc. In order to be libertarian, that choice has to be theoretically prior to any physical causation. I might raise my arm because I want to ask a question of a lecturer, but that reason is not the cause of my arm’s going up because I could just as easily have chosen not to ask a question at that moment. Nor does any activity in my brain outside my conscious control force me to raise (or not raise) my arm. For libertarianism to be real then, there must be some agent who has the power to “initiate physics”. It is exactly this power that is denied these days by a large number of scientists and philosophers.

I think compatibilism has problems on several levels but before I get to them let’s look at what compatibilism says. The basic idea here is that if some act of mine is not coerced by an external agent, then I remain responsible for it even if in the end the act was foreordained by some prior set of physical events ending in my brain and thus the act itself. If someone puts a gun to my wife’s head and threatens to kill her if I do not rob a bank, then I am not responsible in any full sense for robbing the bank. If on the other hand there is no gun to my wife’s (or my) head then I am responsible for robbing the bank even if that act was not a libertarian choice but rather the culmination of prior physical causes, that is brain activity. Notice however the key requirement for agent coercion in the compatibalist view. Suppose I am far from home, tired, cold, and have no money. I choose to break into what appears to be an unoccupied house merely to get warm and spend the night. Surely I am responsible for that act. Now imagine that it isn’t tiredness that drives me but a hurricane from which I wish (naturally enough) to take shelter, so I break into the same unoccupied house. Neither act involves agent coercion and any court would find me guilty of breaking and entering in either case. In the latter case, the court might forgive my act because it would be reasonable for me to believe that by remaining outside the hurricane threatened my life. But I remain responsible for the act. By contrast if a man (an agent) put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me if I did not break into that house I would not be judged responsible for it.

So lets have a look at this… If I am coerced into doing something under threat of death from another agent then I am clearly not responsible for that doing in any normal sense. But given the assumption that libertarian free will is an illusion, why does agency coercion make a difference? Presumably if not coerced I would not rob the bank, but what about the agent who coerced me? Supposing he was not himself coerced into putting a gun to my head, a court would say he was responsible for that act. But since libertarian free will is an illusion, his behavior was determined in some sense by his brain in someway over which he had no prior control. Indeed even if I was not coerced, I too had no choice in the matter because my behavior also was determined, if not by coercion then by events in my brain and their causes and their causes and so on all the way back to the big bang — or at the very least to my birth.

The difference between the gun to my head and the hurricane is that in the latter case we might presume I had some alternative than breaking and entering. A hurricane might kill me, but then it might not. But the same thing cannot be said concerning brain events. The universe may not be an agent, but its deterministic imposition is even more sure in its result than a gun to my head. I might, after all, fight off an armed man, but I cannot fight off the causal outcome of a brain state over whose particulars, the result of a long chain of events, are beyond my control.

In effect I am an automaton differing from a more conventional automaton only in degree and not in kind. Even today we can build highly adaptive automatons so our appearance of adaptiveness is hardly a counter argument. The difference is only that the conventional automaton’s fixed state, its starting state, goes back only as far as when it was first turned on. Mine goes back at least to my birth, and if we take the metaphysical implications of the sort of determinism we are talking about seriously, all the way back to the big bang.

Returning more directly to compatibilism, besides the matter of prior determination, by a coercing agent or the universe, there is the problem it presents for the notion of agency itself. Libertarian free will is dismissed on the grounds that there is nothing in physics that supports it. But the same can and has been said about mind, consciousness in general, and the experience of agency, our subjective awareness of a self that appears to have an internal arena (consciousness) and the power of libertarian free will. There is nothing in physics that supports those either! If purely physical processes can cause to emerge a subjective that appears from the experiential inside to be non-material, there is nothing in physics that would permit that epiphenomenal entity to have any downward effect on physics. Physics might recognize an utterly illusory agent (although the ontological status of illusions is problematic), but the illusion cannot be permitted to effect a change in physics. If it could, then any such effect might in fact be the freely chosen act of an ontologically genuine (given that an illusion cannot cause physics) agent, the very notion rejected as being impossible.

How can an agent coerce me if the agent is an illusion and cannot affect physics? A man with a gun to my head is merely another automaton. Of course I will follow instructions and rob the bank because an additional layer of coercion has been added to that which determines my choices anyway. If there had been no gun to my head I would not rob the bank, but that course too would be the outcome of a deterministic chain. There is nothing in physics that prevents the behavior of one automaton from becoming part of the input to which another automaton adapts but either way, there is no agent acting, only a zombie (albeit a complex zombie) body, so the relation of agency to compatibilism is incoherent. Without libertarian free will the agent is no different from the hurricane. By denying libertarian free will and resting compatibilism on the presence or absence of a coercive agent, philosophers are resting a doctrine of responsibility on a redundant illusion. I am coerced by circumstances no matter what I do and no matter if there is an “agent-automaton” present or not.

If libertarian free will is genuine then we are already responsible; we are agents of our will and must own our acts. We don’t need compatibilism. But if libertarian free will is an illusion, no compatibilism will recover our responsibility because (1) the very notion of “agency” becomes problematic, and (2) even if the agent notion were somehow coherent, its behavior is determined at some level with or without the presence of a “coercing agent”.

Blog Introduction

IMG_20150413_131239A new blog! As though you didn’t have enough to read… But this is a beginning, an educational experience for me, and perhaps, given some content also for you.

My goal here to start is to learn to post, learn to access my post, and then learn to share my post with a social network like Google+. In addition I’m going to learn how to add pictures and links. My first articles will be about cigars, rums, and cigar pairings, but eventually there will be other topics as well. Follow along and see what I learn…

I am Matthew Rapaport, father, grandfather, and writer. For most of my professional life I’ve worked producing custom enterprise software for large corporations. I’ve worked around a lot of databases, and in earlier times of my career served as data base analyst (DBA) as well as custom software developer mostly moving data to and from various databases and between companies. It’s getting harder to find a job now. Most large companies don’t want customized enterprise software any longer preferring packaged products.

Besides programming, I’ve also worked as a lab technician, non-profit developer (that’s code for fund-raiser), software trainer, and cook, the last now a hobby I’ve carried with me since childhood. Finally, and perhaps deepest down, I’m also a writer. John Wiley published one of my books way back in 2001 (“Computer Mediated Communications”) which was obsolete the day it was published as the public and commercial Internet completely eclipsed everything that went before. More recently I’ve published two philosophy books via Amazon Kindle and am currently working on a third. Maybe I’ll try fiction next!

I’m no longer married. My kids hate me for that. But I’m doing my best living with my girlfriend of 8 years now in a suburb near the West Coast of the U.S. just south of San Francisco.