Are you a thinker or follower? Does it mean that we are paralysed, zombified, not very active or participating, chock full of relativism, possessing no ‘firm beliefs whatsoever’

Are you a thinker or follower? asked the Free Thought project recently on Facebook.


Are you skeptical?

At least since the ancient Skeptics we have pondered upon the nature of knowledge.

Given that science is therefore tightly interwoven with government and administration, especially in the information age, where enormous amounts of capital and large installations are needed for research, the question of legitimacy seem crucial. Consider Descartes who apparently liked to repeatedly demolish his opinions, but gave us that only through personal consciousness can one be certain of one’s own existence. Then consider the intellectual struggles associated with Kuhn and Popper in the 60s, and the so-called Science Wars of the mid- and late 1990s. I am not even going to mention quantum mechanics, the avant-vanguard of the physical sciences, which boasts phenomenon such as “non-locality,” i.e., the apparent causal interaction of tiny particles across vast distances of space.

Ok, changed my mind, maybe I will open up with this… and dwell, just a little.

Entangled particles are connected despite distance, the action of one will instantly change behaviour of the other in a kind of telepathic, ‘spooky’ way. Such a concept violates both Newtonian as well as Eisensteinian physics. It shakes the undergirding ideas of physical reality, and by extension, and perhaps the more general idea that science still carries the fully blazing torch of the enlightenment [It was Newton’s followers, we should note, who emphasized his mechanistic view of the universe to the exclusion of his religious and alchemical views].

It challenges that it is the bastion of rational thinking and rationality. That which we value perhaps most in a world stripped of faith and beliefs, a world of selfish genes, memes, tweets, soundbites and trite culture. Yup, and while trying to get out heads around this when it is still tough to make the call whether bottle-water is good or bad for us, our  neighbors and families. Here we are again contemplating the incompleteness of the “common-sense,” rational, materialistic viewpoint.  Damn it, I thought that since Newton all hypotheses suggesting the presence of a force that transcended time or space had already been filed in the x-file cabinet, the one marked ‘outdated’ ‘old fashioned’ ‘redundant’ ‘dealt with’ ‘animistic beliefs’ and ‘superstition’.

They were –  but only for a while.

“Spooky actions at a distance”is what Einstein tagged this phenomena. He didn’t like it much. Just like how twins, although separated seem to have this innate capacity to emulate each other, in taste and behavior, so they are saying entangled pairs of particles seem to act. Could this be the answer of how water remember things? They are so deeply linked that they share the same existence. Let us, dear reader, suspend judgment.

Now if I turn to the comments at the foot of a newspaper article regarding how this phenomena is proven the first one reads:

Einstein based his theories on information and effects of his day and previous research, as did scientists hundreds of years before him. It’s inevitable that theory and science advances based on new technology and experimentation and his amazing groundwork. To suggest we are “finished” and einstein solved it all, is the view of an infant.

This person believes that truth is an ongoing process which never ends and constantly will turn over and renew, and be subject to background/foreground shifts which is what Kuhn was introducing to us, and what a lot of the work in science and technology studies reiterates.

Where do our ideas come from?

Ok, enough… let’s get back down to earth or wherever terra firma is. It is reasonable to say that the ideas, and perhaps even ways of thinking arising from Ancient Greece has had an enormous amount of impact on culture in the western world, and by extension, imperialism, Empire, the growth of global capital etc. etc. i.e. the world.

The whole of western philosophy and thus the machine code for western society built upon the formative ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and certainly enlightenment idea of education where the highest accolade until very recently, commanding its own Honour boards found in schools in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Iceland was the Latin dux. This is the title given to the highest-ranking student in academic achievement, similar to the valedictorian, in the U.S.

Study of the ‘classics’ were indivisibly attached to class difference. Latin and Greek have historically been the preserve of fee-paying schools and the ruling elite or at least the professional classes. We may see the Roman and Greek world on TV, we must acknowledge that their words also inscribe on the walls of buildings where power resides, on Royal and institutional crests, seals of power anywhere – where there is a need to exude ‘gravitas’, ‘authority’ and where  an imprimatur must be employed. Just as in the old cathedral where the priest and the aristocracy understood the mass while the peasants spoke only English it separates. It mystified, and it separated chaff from stalk.

The European canon is here

Thus we have a cultural exemplar of Gamsci’s hegemony – in which he sees the ruling class establish and exert cultural dominance to impose their worldview on the masses. It was done through language, whether Latin or Pali, it denoted the educated from the uneducated. As books became available, really only towards the end of the 19th century [with a dramatic increase in literacy, the growth in libraries and public schools, technological advances which allowed more volume at less cost). The mechanism of hegemonic control shifts to the “western  canon” comprises of books which have been accorded a timeless, evergreen, stable or classic status, whose irrefutable qualities have been continually recognised by different readers in different cultures at different times.In reality these books were hand-picked by influential presidents of major universities of the time. The Harvard Classics by Charles William Eliot in 1909 and Great Books of the Western World organised by Robert Maynard Hutchins working with Mortimer Arlder in 1952. Other ‘classic’ works added to the western canon [note: if you manage to read all of these you will become a well-rounded man or woman – you might need to situate yourself on  a desert island for the next 20 years].

The word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek, kanon, meaning a straight rod or standard, which is a classic way of thinking about conservative people and their military (I don’t mean weapons here of course, that’s another kind of ‘canon’, but more the stiff upper lip, and general uptightness :-)). The word later came to have a theological meaning, the sacred or chosen texts. But there are few straight lines today, the only ones perhaps being between nodes in the network. Everything is a bit more liquid and fluid and morphing (i.e. Bauman).

The whole idea of a canon, is that it be treated like the celebrity system and fandom, digression is not welcomed. ‘More of the same please’ is the prevailing attitude. Any apparent inconsistencies had to be understood by means of careful examination of a given text, within the context of other texts. Like it is a bit risky for boy pop groups who were picked for their ‘cuteness’rather than their songwriting, production, and singing ability, to start making their own music and deciding upon their own new radical style. So it was with conservative ideas about literature and worldviews. The working man in his place, the educated in another, the rich and their cash offshore, sweat shops and pollution there but not here, grow strawberries and eastern European workers here and not there, etc. etc.

It suggests that there is superior knowledge, superior accounts of things, superior thinkers, and ever more profound insights which will always be essential. Personal enlightenment comes with a close reading and a particular understanding of these selected works. And so with so much at stake, such works must be copied verbatim, mark for mark translation or transference.  This is the manner in which the much criticized learning by rote, learning things off by heart, was administered. And it is not just to do with western culture and ways of doing things – this has been put forward as having a detrimental impact of Asian education, which has a long history going back to the Chinese Imperial Exams of the Han dynasty.206 BCE-206 AD – the blueprint of all education examinations worldwide. Most of this work was based not on interpretation, but on memorization of the received or given text. It was to do with copying and replication rather than ingenuity and innovation.

Shine a light on the darkness of ignorance

These collections feature many of the Greco-roman classics. These were the works, along with the bible, that were hoarded (some would say thank goodness) during the ‘dark ages’ the contested period of European history which spans the sacking of Rome for a millennia of corruption within the Catholic Church including Popes who ruled as kings, pagan superstitions with saints relics, celibate priesthood, and institutionalized moral hypocrisy, until we started to think again.

The bible during this period was nevertheless meticulously copied and and reproduced by monks and religious people of many faiths. The reemergence of Greek and Roman thought and writings, some say, brought us out of the ‘dark ages’and fueled the Renaissance, which then led onto the enlightenment. The religious overtones still set the canon apart from its near-relations “the curriculum” and “the syllabus” and the priest or teacher that towers above you to tutor you on how to enter the cult. At best the western literature canon has served as a happy secular collective, a pool of enthusiasms, a shared memory, a chance to baste in the illustrious glory of the culmination of wisdom. Books from the canon used to furnish (usually unread) the home book shelves of respectable middle class educated where it conspicuously symbolised that one was indeed educated and middle class. It would render the reader as an intellectually rounded man or woman familiar with the Great Works of the Western canon, and knowledgeable of the great ideas developed in the course of three millennia. It would afford them the ability to make distinctions and consciously or unconsciously assert their superiority and class (i.e. Bourdieu) just as I am doing now.

But with the religious texts, there were different levels of interpretation: some were used to arrive at the plain meaning of the text (literal meaning), some expounded the law given in the text (allegorical or metaphorical), and others found secret or mystical levels of understanding. Exegesis includes a wide range of critical discipline and includes: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. In all instead of being distorted out of all proportion since the 1990s and the rise of the various ‘isms’and critical theory we have become quite comfortable with ambiguity, mash-ups and out and out surrealism – put simply not have any certitudes or constants, nothing to rest our weary assumptions on [apart from perhaps PokemeonGo and digital technology].

Fluid epistemology and soft watch ontology and Photoshop reality

There has been an ongoing debate over critical theory, the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s, much of which is rooted in critical theory, feminism, critical race theory, and Marxism. In particular postmodern studies argued that the body of scholarship of any ‘canon’ is biased, because the main focus traditionally of the academic studies of history and Western culture, has only been on Europe and men. Thinks about all those paintings and statues depicting the duke of x, and the marquis of y, who led some obscure battle, which still pepper European cities and art galleries which were built to emulate the acropolis and the heroic Hellenstic statues. How you look at something will determine what you see.  A sheet of paper that is different colours on either side. The colour you see depends entirely on where you are standing. Two people can look at the same sheet of paper and both can see different colours, and both of them can be right. The paper may be a five pound note, or a love letter and so on. They cannot use gematria or Sage published handbooks such as hermenutics for dummies to work out its value and meaning.

Yes, even before the Greek Skeptics or even in other human societies and cultures, humans pondered upon what is real, and what is ‘received’ and taken up. But alas, we have no record, so they don’t count, do they? They are like all those who today work and sleep in their factory, or face another hungry day, or are busy painting their faces to work in the bar where they will entertain those working in the dismal factories.  They are subalterns with no voice even if they were given the tools to unpick the BS, and the veneers of truth and what is real.

The Greek notion of ‘Doxa’ is important to this discussion. It speaks of what something *seems to be* to someone. When I watch too much RT television I think I panic like others that society and the global economy is on the brink of tumbling down due to out of control capitalism, Fiat currency and qualitative easing, another manoeuvre by Wall street, things that I don’t know or can hardly understand, or will never see, touch or face -until perhaps we feel the impact or end result of all this when intoxicated young men are suddenly replacing the instruments of state with whatever and however they feel at a given time .

With regards to the Hellenistic view to all of this – you would either agree with these impassioned RT presenters, or you may reject their claims, viewing them as total BS as they act in favour of BTC and the Russian gov, Julian Assuage etc. But you have one other option in the ancient skeptical tradition. You can sit on the fence and perform *epochê* – that is, *suspend your judgement*

“Ok” you say “fine, but how do we *do* this? How *often* do we do this?” I suspect we do it a lot more than what is given credit for typically by media or even just listing to gossip over the garden fence – that much *I am sure about*. But if this means that we are paralysed, zombified, not very active or participating, chock full of relativism, possessing no ‘firm beliefs whatsoever’ then I personally think that is about right, accurate, and OK as a description … On many things including what I will eat for dinner, there is not a hard, fast foregone conclusion, its a constant ebbing, evolving emerging conclusion towards shoving something my mouth – I see belief more analogous to a capacitor in an electronic circuit – or like a dam filling with rain water from the hills, it kind of builds up a charge until it reaches its capacity then triggers or busts… for better or worse [hopefully not fro your sake or mine intoxicated marauding packs].

How can you lead an ordinary human life without belief? Without being crisp and precise? Without being so rational? Yes I wondered about that so so much, and when so much in psychology told me that there was all sort of un- and sub- conscious filtering and influence going on based upon attitudes and beliefs and media manipulation.

When I dabbled with phenomenology as a Ph.D. student, and it brought up the idea of epochê, I searched and searched for just how you could bring on the condition of the blank slate so you could see things as they really were for the purposes of research. It wasn’t there, at least not clearly in a way I could understand as a non-philosopher. I didn’t find clear bullet point instructions in Brentato, Husserl or Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Three ways… only?

But I got a slightly more enlightened answer when I dabbled with cultural studies. Stuart Hall’s three hypothetical positions for the reader of a text carried insights for me [I will leave you to explore yourself what Hall meant by ‘codes‘]:

*Dominant reading* where the reader *fully shares* the text’s code and accepts and reproduces the preferred reading.

A *Negotiated reading* where the reader *partly* shares the text’s code and broadly accepts the preferred reading, but sometimes resists and modifies it in a way that reflects his own position, experiences, and interests.

And finally a *Oppositional reading* where the reader is in a social situation that places him or her in *direct opposition* to the dominant code. The reader understands the preferred reading but does not share the text’s code and rejects the reading, bringing to bear an alternative frame of reference.

Even reading and writing this meant that I have beliefs. The nobel prize chemist Harry Kroto – who gave rise to buckminsterfullerene and who recently passed away (2016) – famously gave a talk on the truth claims and science. In it he challenges the knowledge of his audience by asking them how many of them could recount Galileo’s arguments for the Earth’s going round the sun. Unsurprisingly, hardly any audience member can (can you?). Its funny that he puts forward his claim , in a time when Churches continue to be converted into luxury apartments, as much as 70-80% of his audience simply simply ‘believes’ scientific truth.

This brings us to Gabriel García Márquez who also had a lot to say about all of this: “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.” And let us not forget Donald Rumsfeld who  will go down in history for many things, perhaps chief among them the quote: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns” – the question is who is going to look, penetrate, inform and act? And what are they going to do?


From the desk of D.W. Nicoll

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