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Saturday, September 14, 2019


I had intended to turn immediately to my Marx lecture this morning after my walk, but the discussion in the comments section proved too interesting, so let me say a bit about what, somewhat presumptuously, might be labeled popular epistemology.  In short, how do I know, indeed do I know, that 9/11 was the work of Al Qaeda terrorists seeking to strike a death blow to American Democracy?

I might think to begin by asking how I know that the twin towers were actually destroyed on September 11, 2001, but that would reveal a distressing credulity.  Clearly, I must first ask how I know that there ever were two tall buildings in lower Manhattan commonly referred to as the twin towers.  You think I jest, but I am serious.  How do I know that?  Indeed, do I know that?

I grew up in New York [well, Queens, which is not quite the same thing], and after leaving in 1950 for college, I returned in 1964 to teach at Columbia.  But Wikipedia says the World Trade Center was built in 1973 [if you can believe Wikipedia], and I left Columbia in 1971.  I never saw the twin towers in person, nor can I recall talking about them with anyone who saw them up close.  To be sure, I have seen pictures of them, but in some of those pictures King Kong is climbing up the side of one of them and then jumping to the other, so I am not sure I can rely entirely on those pictures.

Clearly, my belief in the existence of the twin towers depends on what in the old days was called the consensus gentium.  But that same consensus has it that the destruction of the buildings was the work of Al Qaeda, and I am a trifle puzzled how to know which bits of common knowledge to accept and which to reject.  I mean, I was alive when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, or at least when it is said he was assassinated.  I never met the man.  I went to college with his baby brother, Teddy, but I never met him either, so that is no help.  Maybe LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover spirited him away, put out the unlikely story that a loser named Lee Harvey Oswald shot him, and then kept him alive, wearing an iron mask, until he died during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  Stranger things have happened.

So I am reduced to assessing probabilities, since my personal knowledge is, speaking generally, inadequate even to establish decisively something as non-controversial as the existence of Iowa.  And I must say that it strikes me as implausible that Cheney and company arranged for a bunch of Taliban backed Saudis to slam some hi-jacked planes into two big buildings and the Pentagon so that they would have an excuse for attacking Iraq.  If that was the plan, why on earth didn’t they just recruit some Iraqis for the job?

More to the point, I have enjoyed enormously the contributions of Jerry Fresia to our on-going conversation, but I have never met Jerry, nor do I know personally anyone who has told me that he or she has.  I believe that Jerry is an accomplished artist with a doctorate from UMass, but maybe, in the immortal words of our glorious leader, he is a four hundred pound man in his mother’s basement.


howard said...

How do I know you're not a Kantian robot with no soul worth writing home about?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You will have to ask Alan Turing

Jon Rosenthal said...

When I was teaching high school physics, I would open the course with the question, "How do you know the world is round?". It turns out that most of the students took it on faith. The spherical nature the earth can be inferred from empirical evidence, but how do we know it's not just a put on? It looks pretty flat to me.

s. wallerstein said...

There are so many implausible elements to the theory that Bush and Cheney were behind 9-11.

So I'm Cheney. First of all, would I want one of the planes to crash into the Pentagon? I love the Pentagon. I'd send it to crash into Columbia University or some other hotbed of commie professors. I'll get almost same patriotic outrage from that and I'll kill off a few commies. Ok, maybe attack MIT to get rid of Chomsky.

Another big problem is that while mercenaries have no problem murdering 3000 people, they don't generally want to commit suicide. Can I get 19 mercenaries with suicidal tendencies? Or maybe with terminal cancer, willing to commit suicide if I pay 20 million dollars to each of their widows and children?

That gets complicated. So I have to find 19 fanatics who are planning to commit suicide and somehow manipulate them so that they attack targets which will outrage the Amerikan public enough to get them to back an invasion of Iraq, which is my real goal. However, my 19 fanatics hate the United States and so if they even have the slightest hint that I'm backing them, they're going to back out of things and attack another target, maybe a U.S. embassy somewhere, which might not cause enough outrage to get the public to support my invasion of Iraq.

It seems that unless there is lots of evidence to the contrary, the simplest and most probable explanation is that the 9-11 hijackers didn't have any connection to Cheney and Bush.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

It turns out you do know someone who has met Jerry. Our time at UMAS overlapped and I can attest to his existence in the period between 1977-81. As to his continued existence and painterly skills, a mutual friend, also a UMASS Ph.D. in Polisci whose time overlapped with myself and Jerry, tells me he is indeed a very accomplished artist. He is currently taking lessons from Jerry.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I never doubted it for moment. :)

Jerry Fresia said...

Doesn't this put pressure on "cogito?" Regarding the Twin Towers, if you had touched them, smelled them, walked around them looking up, and so forth, wouldn't that confirm their existence in your mind, as opposed to having the idea of the implanted in your mind all these years?

Jerry Fresia said...

s. wallerstein

Your hypothetical reasoning, I think, needs to be more subtle - as in: FDR, who may have been looking for ways to get the US into WWII, looked the other way as evidence mounted that Japan might attack somewhere in the Pacific - so some people say.

In parallel way - there is much evidence to suggest that Bush and Cheney knew something was coming but didn't respond in a proper fashion and even blocked efforts by people who were reasonably alarmed. Remember the President's Daily Brief in Aug '01 , "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US" that was prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency and the oft mentioned statement prepared by the Project for a New American Century, the think tank crammed with Bush people, that they could not reasonably move forward on their agenda absent a "new Pearl Harbor." There is much more of this stuff. Who knows? But the official commission's report is silent on most of these things. We just read yesterday about the new acting NSA who in the '80s argued that a nuclear war was winnable and besides, he argued, there would only be 15 million dead. What do we know that is true? Maybe it's that stupid and evil crackpots are sometimes in positions of enormous power abound and that sometimes they meet secretly and plan things? No?

s. wallerstein said...

Obviously, the crackpots in power meet secretly and plan things at times. The question is not whether they plan things at times, but whether they planned 9.11.

Chomsky doesn't think so:

s. wallerstein said...

Another short discussion of 9-11 (7 minutes) by Chomsky.
He covers more in this one.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Dr. Wolff, It's always a pleasure to aid in the quest for epistemological certainly. :)

Michael Llenos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sonic said...

I'm gonna download these Chomskies for later, and I would generally defer to his opinion on something like 9/11.

Id like to point out, though, that the 9/11 attacks were terrorism. They hate the US, but if they found out that US leaders would use their terror attack as an excuse to over-react, that wouldn't deter them. That's their intended goal, to coax an overreaction and reveal the true nature of US imperialism. They were extremely successful.

If Japan found out FDR planned to use the Pearl Harbor attack as an excuse to enter the war, would they have canceled the attack?

Anyway, this issue of historical epistemology is fascinating to me, and I envy any historian who gets to study it in-depth. You have to look at so many different, independent accounts of events and contrast them with their motivational biases and it's probably a lot of work. So that's what the 9/11 issue comes down to for me, a hell of a lot of work.