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Monday, December 18, 2017


Jerry Fresia’s recent contribution to the comments about Trump raised in my mind once again a question about which I have brooded on and off for many years.  To put it as pretentiously as I can, How do we know anything about the world?  I do not have in mind Descartes-style doubts of the cogito, ergo sum variety.  I mean more mundane matters.  Let me explain.

I know that a portion of Eggbeaters [whites only eggs in a cardboard container] in a frying pan on my electric stove takes some while to start to cook.  I know that because I make an Eggbeater omelet every morning for breakfast [along with half an orange and a piece of multi-grain toast with nothing on it.]  But how do I know that Betsy DeVos is the U. S. Secretary of Education?  Indeed, how do I know that there is a Department of Education with a Secretary?  Hell, how do I know there is a United States with a government in which there are Cabinet Secretaries?  I have never visited the Department of Education, although I have [I think] been to Washington, D.C.  I have certainly never met or even seen in person someone purporting to be Betsy DeVos, and if I had, I would have had no way of ascertaining directly that she [or he  -- who knows?] is the Secretary of Education.  I have actually met someone whom I was told was the head of a Department of Education, but that was in South Africa [or so I was told – it might have been Nebraska for all I knew.]

I am being silly, right?  Facetious.  But not really.  My point is that some of what I think I know I know on the basis of direct experience, like where the bathroom is in my apartment.  But almost everything I know about the world I learned by reading about it or hearing someone on television talking about it or hearing about it from someone I do not know personally and for whose trustworthiness therefore I cannot really testify.  There have been times and places [or so I have read] in which most of what people knew they knew by way of personal experience:  which plants are edible and which are not, how much work it takes to fell a tree, when it is wise to plant a field of wheat, how to skin a seal.  But this is not one of those times and places and I am not one of those people.  I am entirely reliant for almost all of my knowledge of the world on a vast accumulation of what other people say.

One of the pieces to which Jerry links reports tests that show that the quantity of data supposedly obtained from the DNC could not have been the result of a hack because the time in which it was said to have been hacked is too short for that size file.  The authors of the piece, who report having performed a series of tests, say that only a direct download from the DNC computers could have done the job.  Hence, they conclude, the DNC site was not hacked by Russians [or anyone else, presumably.]

This is fascinating, although I do not quite see how it undermines the claim that the Russians mucked about with our election.  But never mind that.  Just as I have no direct knowledge at all of the people who claim that the DNC was hacked, so I have no direct knowledge of the people who wrote that article.  Nor, I take it, does Jerry or anyone else reading this blog.

So, what is one to believe?  Is it possible that an organ of the government could simply be lying to us?  Presumably yes.  After all, look at the lies about WMD in Iraq.  But were there WMD in Iraq, after all?  Indeed, is there an Iraq?  Are there any nuclear weapons at all in the world, or is that just a fireside story to scare little children?  I was alive when the United States nuclear bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Rather, I was alive when it is said that the United States did.  I also sat in front of an old black and white TV set with rabbit ears and watched Ruby shoot Oswald.  Or at least, that is what I am told I saw.  But then, I also sat in front of a [different] black and white set with rabbit ears and watched a man walk on the moon.  And we all know what some people think about that claim.

George Orwell [Eric Blair] wrote a chilling book about a state whose government undermines the distinction between truth and fiction.  It doesn’t really matter whether there was really a George Orwell, because the chilling lessons of that book remain even if it turns out that it was typed by monkeys banging randomly on typewriters.  But could our grasp of the world be threatened by a deliberate effort to mislead us about even the most elementary political facts?

Well, someone just all but disappeared me from Wikipedia.  One more edit and I will vanish from The Cloud as though I had never existed.  It gives one pause.


Charles Pigden said...

On these topics I recommend
1) Coady, C.A.J. (1992) Testimony OUP
2) Coady, David (2012) What to Believe Now, Wiley-Blackwell
These are excellent books. The two Coadys are father and son. They have intelligent and well-argued opinions and differ from one another in interesting ways. Coady senior draws on other philosophers who have discussed testimony, particularly Thomas Reid.

Anonymous said...

You still have hope, Professor. Imagine you lived long enough to see both father and mother disrespected. Imagine an elderly and beloved father made to feel unwanted by a cruel for-profit system of medical rationing. Imagine an elderly mother who had loved her children more than her own life, who lived long enough to be disrespected by her daughters, daughters who she had to depend upon on account of her age, daughters whose kindness consisted in providing food more expensive than the average, but nothing else--no love, no tenderness. Because those two daughters were incapable of more. You do not know such a fate. You should breathe deeply, and continue to blog and find pleasure in your life. And do not play games with despair.

Jerry Fresia said...

Russia probably did muck around in our elections in someway but everything I read, FB ads, "bots," suggests it was negligible, inconsequential, and meagre compared to what the US and others do.

But here is where I think the left needs to pay attention. From the twitter world this morning:

Glenn Greenwald‏
Congress asks for docs to see if there's connection between Jill Stein's campaign & Russia. There's zero evidence there is. Yet the mere Congressional inquiry has instantly prompted declarations of guilt & treason like this. Just please don't call the climate McCarthyite:

Max Blumenthal
Led by Dianne Feinstein, Democrats are exploiting Russiagate to eliminate the political opposition to their left. The innuendo spread against Stein and the Green Party contains all the classical elements of McCarthyism.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

That campaign against Jill Stein is really ugly, especially when it comes from the Democratic establishment. It is hard to believe that they are so low, so sordid, so
lacking in basic decency. Then again, it's increasing less hard to believe....

Ed Barreras said...

I will still vote for the Democrats, as they are the only party that can put an end to the monumental plunder that is about to take place with this obscene tax bill.

I have no idea if an investigation into Stein is warranted. But I do know that Stein once proclaimed Hillary Clinton “too big to jail” in the email scandal. Maybe people who live in glass houses shouldn’t bemoan the evils of proclaiming one’s political opponents guilty without evidence.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

You have a country run by a group of greedy plutocrats, now extra empowered by Trump's tax cuts and in that situation, why would supposed progressives (the comment above mentions Dianne Feinstein) bother to bother Jill Stein, who seems the epitome of a well-intentioned do-gooder, someone so intent on turning her life into a good cause that even I feel a bit uncomfortable around her?

Maybe Putin passed Jill Stein a few dollars, maybe she was given lots of extra coverage on Russia TV. Who cares?

I believe that this is one of Professor Wolff's "which side are you on?" questions.

Ed Barreras said...

S. Wallerstein,

You ask why Democrats on the Senate committee would open an investigation into Stein when the Republicans are just on the cusp of enacting an obscene transfer of wealth to rich. The answer, to me, seems striaghtforward. It’s because what they’ve been tasked with has nothing to do with taxes or government spending. How does it follow that because this horrid bill is working its way to the president’s desk, the Democrats on the Senate committee should therefore walk away from their appointed duties?

If Putin passed Jill Stein “a few dollars” that would be a clear violation of federal election laws. Let’s be consistent in applying our standards: what do you suppose would happen if it came to light that the Israeli government directly contributed to the Clinton campaign. People on the Left wouldn’t be saying “who cares?” Glenn Greenwald would be screaming from the top of his lungs that no one is above the law.

Is Jill Stein a selfless do-gooder? My view is that if she were, she would have done the Green Party a real service and focused her campaign’s attention on big cities in blue states, where she could have racked up much bigger numbers than she did and added to the party’s base. Instead, where did she do most of her campaigning? In swing states, where she knew very well that she stood a good chance of being the spoiler for the Democrat. I’ll say it again: the progressive wing of the party had its chance with Sanders; he lost, but at least he did the wise and rational thing by backing the only candidate who stood a chance of stopping that disgusting creature whom we’re now stuck with.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by this being a “which side are you on?” moment. If you mean that in light of this latest revelation about Stein being investigated, we have to draw a line in the sand and vow never to support the Democrats again, then no, I’m not on board with you.

More pernicious, to me, are the people, supposedly on the Left, who are now in lock-step with the hard right in trying to discredit the Mueller investigation (the investigation is irretrievably biased and tainted, its conclusions can’t be trusted, it’s a plot being hatched by anti-Russia fanatics, etc.). All indications are that the current occupant of the White House is preparing to fire Mueller, thereby declaring himself King and not president, and you have propagandists on Fox News helping him along by calling for Third-World style purges of law enforcement. What a shame it is that some on the Left can’t see that this is the real threat to our democracy.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed Barreras,

No, by "which side are you on?", I do not mean that you should vow to never support the Democrats again. As you may or may not recall, I supported Professor Wolff in his efforts to get people to vote for Hillary Clinton and in the recent Chilean election, I voted for Alejandro Guillier (center-left) in the run-off after having voted for Beatriz Sanchez (left) in the first round.

"By which side are you on?" I mean that one does not attack others on the left when they commit venial sins and reserves one's firepower for attacking the right.

I certain hope that Mueller finds enough evidence against Trump to impeach both him and Pence.

LFC said...

@s wallerstein

I see that Pinera, the conservative, won the Chilean election.

I just read some of a Reuters piece about the apparent end of an era of women leaders in S. America. That, plus a general shift to the right, is unfortunate. I noticed a line in the piece about Pinera having criticized Bachelet's rather minimal (it sounded) changes to Chile's strict anti-abortion law.

(Link in next box)

LFC said...

s. wallerstein said...


I believe that the three women leaders in South America, Fernandez in Argentina, Rousseff in Brasil and Bachelet in Chile, is just a coincidence.

Piñera made some noise during the campaign about repealing the rather weak abortion laws passed during Bachelet government, but first of all, he doesn't have a majority in congress. Second, the minimal abortion laws are approved by the majority of the population according to the polls and Piñera guides himself by the polls. Piñera, as far as I can see, believes in nothing except his own success (being a winner) and his bank account: he is not especially conservative, but mimics rightwing views.

In fact, the story goes that in 1989, the first elections at the end of the dictatorship, Piñera, who had been a Christian Democrat all his life (the center in Chile), went to the Christian Democratic Party leadership, opened his checkbook and told them he wanted to run for senator from Santiago, the most populous senate district. They told him to wait in line since, unlike other Christian Democratic leaders, he had not fought against the Pinochet dictatorship. Piñera simply took his checkbook to Renovación Nacional (National Renewal) Party, a rightwing movement and got elected senator.

So I doubt that Piñera will risk a fall in the polls by trying to repeal the abortion laws. He is very pragmatic, completely unscrupulous, mentally very rapid but intellectually shallow. He speaks in pure slogans and cliché phrases and never publicly says what is on his mind, which, I suspect, is pure calculation.

Piñera is not a fascist and he is not Trump.

Anonymous said...

Well, you are one of the most pre-eminent American philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, and you haven't figured out how we know anything--really, right to the bottom. So what's philosophy (or philosophers) good for? I've been mulling these sorts of questions over since maybe 1970, and I'm still clueless about them. (Maybe the ancient skeptics were right.) But professional philosophers get paid to answer the big questions for us--yet they don't seem to succeed. What's a mere mortal to do? I am reminded of an (overheard) exchange in Stevenson's Treasure Island, which goes more or less like this: "'Wot's what?' repeated one of the buccaneers in a low growl. 'Ah, he'd be a lucky one as know'd that.'" Kant thought he had set us on the sure path of a science that would give us the truth (about some fundamental things)once and for all. But he was wrong about this--right? And if Kant was wrong about this, then how can anyone think that he (or she) can solve what Kant was unable to solve?--Fritz Poebel

LFC said...

@S wallerstein

Thank you for the additional, first-hand perspective.

s. wallerstein said...


A few more thoughts.

The political experts generally say that fear was the key factor in the run-off: more people voted in the run-off than they did in the first round in spite of the fact that there were eight candidates in the first round.

The fear is summed up in the word, "Chilezuela", a word coined by Piñera's campaign and used to frighten voters who did not vote in the first round into voting in the run-off for Piñera. The "Chilezuela" campaign occurred mainly in Facebook and twitter and claimed that if Guillier (as I said before, about as far left as Hillary Clinton) won, Chile would end up like Venezuela, with queues to buy bread, with crime out of control, without basic economic security.

The "Chilezuela" campaign was directed towards the so-called "emerging middle class", that is, families who 25 years ago or so, were poor (in Chilean terms) and due to the rapid economic growth of the past few decades, are now middle-class (in Chilean terms and maybe even in international terms): they now have a car, a smart phone,
a very very widescreen TV, brand-name clothes (levis, adidas, nike, etc.), all bought on credit. Their families may have traditionally voted for the left, but now
fearing that the left will bring economic chaos, they vote for the right.

In addition, all the wealthy and the upper middle class turned out to vote for Piñera.
As a commenter quipped, this time even the dogs in wealthy neighborhoods voted.

The emerging middle class is very individualistic (in the worst sense of the word), anomic, and has little, if any, community spirit. The left faces a huge, uphill battle to get them to see that we're all in it together.

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