FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2021
Reporters, logicians won't speak: We've found ourselves drawn, again and again, to the start of David Brooks' new column this morning.
(The column is non-political.)
In particular, we've been struck by the ways the column doesn't quite seem to "parse." (Doesn't quite seem to make sense.)
So much need for help from logicians, so little time! Headline included, the column starts like this:
BROOKS (9/3/21): You Are Not Who You Think You Are
You may think you understand the difference between seeing something and imagining it. When you see something it’s really there; when you imagine it, you make it up. That feels very different.
That intriguing headline drew us in. But just for starters, does that first paragraph parse?
In point of fact, when you "see" something, it is "really there." That's just the logic of the English language, a structure which has been developed "over the course of more than 1,400 years," building upon what went before.
When you see something, it is really there. That's just the logic of the language with which we speak to each other.
If you "imagine" something, it's probably not "really there." Example:
If you see your boyfriend drive up in his car, your boyfriend is really there. If you imagine him driving up in his car, the chances are he's somewhere else.
The chances are he isn't really there. Most likely, you're just daydreaming, or wishing he could be there, or any one of a number of things.
Those situations don't feel "very different." The situations really are different, and that's just the meaning of words.
But as Brooks continues, this difference is said to have generated a problem. The problem is said to be this:
BROOKS (continuing directly): The problem is that when researchers ask people to imagine something, like a tomato, and then give some of them a just barely visible image of a tomato, they find that the process of imagining it is hard to totally separate from the process of seeing it. In fact, they use a lot of the same brain areas.
Just for the record, at no point in the activity described has anyone seen a tomato. The subject has first been asked to imagine a tomato. He or she has then been shown (presumably, has been asked to look at) "a just barely visible image" of same.
The researcher finds that the subjects "use a lot of the same brain areas" in the course of these two activities. In this sense, the researcher is said to have found that "the process of imagining the tomato is hard to totally separate from the process of seeing it."
No one has actually seen a tomato, but this is what the researcher is now said to have found. Also, note the words "totally" and "hard:"
The researcher finds it hard to totally separate the one process from the other! At this point, we're slicing the lunch meat pretty thin. Brooks, who normally isn't like this, continues her meditation as shown:
BROOKS (continuing directly): And when you stop to think about it, that makes some sense. Your brain is locked in the pitch-black bony vault of your skull, trying to use scraps of information to piece together the world. Even when it’s seeing, it’s partly constructing what’s out there based on experience. “It turns out, reality and imagination are completely intermixed in our brain,” Nadine Dijkstra writes in Nautilus, “which means that the separation between our inner world and the outside world is not as clear as we might like to think.”
We grew up believing that “imagining” and “seeing” describe different mental faculties. But as we learn more about what’s going on in the mind, these concepts get really blurry really fast.
Our view? Something did "get really blurry really fast" here. But it wasn't anything we allegedly grew up believing.
Having stopped to think about it, Brooks finds that the researcher's finding—it's hard to totally separate seeing from imagining—does in fact make some sense.
In our view, it's Brooks' thinking which has gone a bit blurry. We say that because he expresses his discovery as shown:
We grew up believing that “imagining” and “seeing” describe different mental faculties.
In fact, we all grew up learning that “imagining” and “seeing” will typically be used to refer to different states of affairs. Along the way, did you ever find yourself believing that the terms refer to different "mental faculties?"
Whatever that term is supposed to mean, we're going to guess that you didn't.
Brooks isn't normally like this. That said, the start of this column shows what can happen—shows what does routinely happen—"when language goes on holiday," to quote the later Wittgenstein.
This sort of thing is especially likely to happen "when doing philosophy," the later Wittgenstein disconsolately said. But it also happens quite routinely in our normal political discourse.
In a slightly different world, logicians might step in to help us get a bit more clear about our new apparent discoveries. In our world, by way of contrast, the logicians tend to be engaged in debates like the one we featured yesterday. Werewolves of London again!
The Theaetetus is a principal field of battle for one of the main disputes between Plato’s interpreters. This is the dispute between Unitarians and Revisionists.
Unitarians argue that Plato’s works display a unity of doctrine and a continuity of purpose throughout. Unitarians include Aristotle, Proclus, and all the ancient and mediaeval commentators; Bishop Berkeley; and in the modern era, Schleiermacher, Ast, Shorey, Diès, Ross, Cornford, and Cherniss.
Revisionists retort that Plato’s works are full of revisions, retractations, and changes of direction. Eminent Revisionists include Lutoslawski, Ryle, Robinson, Runciman, Owen, McDowell, Bostock, and many recent commentators.
Unitarianism is historically the dominant interpretive tradition. Revisionism, it appears, was not invented until the text-critical methods, such as stylometry, that were developed in early nineteenth-century German biblical studies were transferred to Plato.
In the twentieth century, a different brand of Revisionism has dominated English-speaking Platonic studies. This owes its impetus to a desire to read Plato as charitably as possible, and a belief that a charitable reading of Plato’s works will minimise their dependence on the theory of Forms...
Twenty-four hundred years later, these academics can't quit Plato, or his Theaetetus! And good God:
As the actual world passes them by, the Revisionists allegedly act on "a desire to read Plato as charitably as possible"—on a desire to slide past the embarrassing silliness (and incoherence) of his so-called "theory of Forms!"
At least as portrayed by Plato, Socrates was so spectacularly annoying that he pretty much had to go. In Socrates' defense, he at least seemed to be trying to "interrogate" the affairs of the day. We rarely see such reactions from modern-day practitioners in this lapsed academic field.
When's the last time you saw a logician comment on the endless follies of the public discourse? Simply put, it isn't done. Consider a recent case which, like so many others, has cried out for clarification.
We refer to the case of Rachel Nichols, who just last week got canceled. Rather, her daily cable TV sports show got canceled by the powers that be, with the strong suggestion that Nichols will never be seen on ESPN again.
This is modern-day "cancel culture" is the pre-existing literal sense! Headline included, NPR's account of the matter started off like this:
Rachel Nichols' ESPN Show Is Canceled After Her Comments About Maria Taylor
ESPN has removed Rachel Nichols from NBA coverage and has canceled her show The Jump, the network confirmed Thursday.
This comes nearly two months after Nichols' remarks became public in which she suggested that Maria Taylor was promoted because she is Black.
In early July, The New York Times reported on a recording of a conversation involving Nichols, an ESPN reporter. In the July 2020 recording, Nichols, who is white, is heard suggesting that Taylor got her job hosting the marquee program NBA Countdown during the NBA finals because she is Black.
"If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity—which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it—like, go for it," Nichols said in the recording. "Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away."
NPR was discreet enough to disappear parts of the story. To wit:
The remarks in question were made during a personal phone conversation—a conversation Nichols believed to be private.
Due to a technical snafu, the conversation was recorded at ESPN. An ESPN employee then took the tape of the private phone call and spread it all around.
During the call, Nichols said that Taylor had been newly assigned to host NBA Countdown despite the fact that the assignment was contractually guaranteed to Nichols. As noted in the comments cited by NPR, Nichols seemed to believe that the switch had been made because ESPN had been "feeling pressure about [its] crappy longtime record on diversity."
How much of this was true? In particular, was the high-profile assignment in question contractually guaranteed to Nichols? Also, did ESPN replace Nichols in this ongoing role because Nichols is "white" and Taylor is "black?"
In part because of the way the New York Times has behaved, we can't answer those questions. To wit:
As it continues to report this matter, the Times has made no apparent attempt to learn if Nichols really did have the contractual guarantee to which she referred.
Meanwhile, playing a bit of hero ball, the Times has continued reporting this matter in the manner shown:
DRAPER (8/26/21): ESPN has taken Rachel Nichols off its N.B.A. programming and canceled “The Jump,” the daily basketball show she has hosted for five years, the network confirmed Wednesday.
The show’s cancellation comes one month after The New York Times reported on disparaging comments made by Nichols about Maria Taylor, one of her colleagues at ESPN at the time. In a conversation with an adviser to the Lakers star LeBron James, Nichols, who is white, said that Taylor, who is Black, had been chosen to host 2020 N.B.A. finals coverage instead of her because ESPN executives were “feeling pressure” on diversity.
From beginning to end, the heroic Draper has said that Nichols came under fire because she had made "disparaging" or "demeaning" comments about Taylor.
Other news orgs haven't made that claim as they've reported this matter. Nor is it clear why the heroic Draper did.
In the phone call she believed to be private, it's clear that Nichols made disparaging comments about ESPN's brass—about the corporate executives who eventually cancelled her last week.
She said the channel, and its executives, had "a crappy longtime record on diversity." She said she herself was aware of this crappy record from the standpoint of gender inclusion.
Does ESPN have a crappy record on diversity? Inevitably, that's a matter of judgment. We wouldn't know how to score the claim, and the claim isn't being widely analyzed as part of this brouhaha.
That said, we have no idea why Draper keeps claiming that Nichols made disparaging comments about Taylor. Nichols didn't say that Taylor had done anything wrong in this matter. In fact, she praised Taylor's voluminous work during the course of the phone call, a call she believed to be private.
Rather plainly, Nichols was criticizing the fellows who run ESPN; she never criticized Taylor. Playing a bit of hero ball, Draper and his editors keep saying that Nichols disparaged Taylor. The usual mob has run alongside, howling in the streets.
NPR didn't claim, in its report, that Nichols disparaged Taylor. Neither did the Washington Post in its more disciplined report last week.
The Washington Post simply reported what Nichols had said during the personal phone call. Only the Times positioned itself out in front of the wholly predictable mob.
At the reliably gruesome Daily Beast, the indictment of Nichols on this score was even more overstated. But that's the way our species' mobs have always worked, all the way back to the way the mob eventually went after Socrates.
(Plato discusses the "wickedness" of that behavior in the Seventh Letter.)
Borrowing from Brooks' headline, our mainstream journalists are not always who we may think they are. In this instance, Draper has been more the instigator of a mob, less a competent journalist.
Surely, any journalist can see the nature of this problem, but they won't be speaking up. The reason? Did you see the way Steven Pinker was attacked last summer when he used the term "urban crime" in the headline of a tweet?
(Speaking with Jonathan Rauch on C-Span, Pinker said that attacks of that type can't really harm tenured professors like him. He said the attacks do serve to encourage silence from everyone else.)
Our journalists aren't going to speak about this. Our logicians and our ethicists won't be speaking up either. Our philosophers walked off their posts a long time ago, if they were ever there to begin with.
That said, this case is especially striking with respect to our logicians and "epistemologists." The reason would be this:
The Nichols case presents a perfect example of the traditional framework in which knowledge is said to be "justified true belief." You could almost bring in "the Gettier problem!" (For links, see below.) Just consider this:
Based on what she said in her private telephone call, Nichols seemed to believe that she'd been booted from a plum assignment on the basis of race.
(Was the assignment contractually guaranteed? We don't have the slightest idea. Nor has Draper shown any sign of trying to find out.)
Nichols voiced a certain belief. Obviously, it's possible that her belief may have been true. You'd have to be out of your mind to doubt that possibility.
(Did ESPN make the switch on that basis? In other words, did Nichols have a true belief? We have no way of knowing. Draper hasn't shown the slightest sign of trying to find out.)
Final point! Nichols is a long-standing ESPN insider. Did she have some inside knowledge which might justify her apparent belief? Did she have substantial reason for thinking her claim was true?
That's an obvious possibility! As such, it's possible that Nichols, in her private call, was voicing a justified true belief!
(Or not! Thanks to the existence of journalists like Draper, we live in a world where little effort will ever be made to find out. Storyline will prevail.)
The Nichols case falls into a framework our lethargic logicians love. That said, no logician has stepped forward to address this case, and no logician ever will.
What actually happened at ESPN? We have no way of knowing! But those of us in our liberal tribe have a Storyline we currently love, and people like Draper are playing hero ball as they run in the streets.
We watch a lot of ESPN debate / discussion shows. Nichols was never a favorite of ours.
That said, our failing nation has a crying need for help when it comes to the logic of race. Also, the behavior of people like Draper is helping doom our self-impressed tribe, and our failing society as a whole, to an onrushing perdition.
Our journalists aren't going to speak. Neither will the logicians. They're too busy batting around Plato's "theory of forms!"
A modern nation can't function this way. On Fox, The Others are (accurately) told that our tribe does function this way. This hastens our headlong decline.
Our academic elites may not be "who we think they are." Please write about that, David Brooks!
Concerning the Gettier problem: Concerning "justified true belief," see last Friday's report.
Included is a brief overview of "the Gettier problem." As you read about this embarrassing silliness, don't let the children look on!