Saturday, June 28, 2008

Calibrating our filters

In discussing our futile attempts to build islands, I suggested that they're the result of a foolish pursuit of purity. If we acknowledge that creating purity involves removing pollutants, particulates and the like, what is it we're trying to get rid of?

That's easy: bullshit.

The illusion of purity presumes that we can create bullshit-free zones -- a new club, political party, church, community, Internet forum or whatever -- which is, of course, impossible.

We might think we're creating purity, but what we're really doing is trading one form of bullshit for another. Republican bullshit for libertarian, public for private, Catholic for Protestant. Your bullshit for mine.

This morning I revisited On Bullshit, the popular 2005 essay by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. I offer here the essay's last three paragraphs.
"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled -- whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others -- to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

"The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These 'antirealist' doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of
correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

"But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things,and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial -- notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."

In an age in which we're inundated by information, opinion and ideology, On Bullshit should be required reading. Obviously, Prof. Frankfurt's words can help us calibrate the filters we use to process what we take in -- and perhaps temper our delusions about the islands we try to create.

Most important, we'll see that his perspective is invaluable in recognizing our own bullshit.