letter | 3.1.17

What's the question again?

An embarrassingly lengthy letter from the editor.


If you’re anything like me, you’ve been pretty deeply confused for a while now.

In becoming nakedly, tragicomically, partisan, a collage of weird, empty, mostly unconnected events that’s best understood (at least to me) as a kind of mashup of the Simpsons, House of Cards, and literally any reality TV show, our politics have by accident wedged open a certain little fracture in our value and knowledge systems. It’s a fracture as old as we are, that plenty of philosophers—all of them, really—have spent some time exploring, although mostly in obscurity, because their language is often difficult or downright opaque, and because who the heck wants to read philosophy when you’ve got so much good Netflix to consume?

The fracture was first exposed by a simple question, asked a really, really long time ago, which had, and continues to have, no good answer.

That question is: How do we know what we know?

It’s a question first explored by Plato in his Thaetetus dialogue. In both form and function, Thaetetus casts lots of doubt on the origin and certainty of our knowledge. It’s framed as a game of telephone: as readers, we aren’t witnesses to the conversation Socrates has with soon-to-be famous geometer Thaetetus and his teacher Theodorus, but to a conversation about that conversation – our knowledge of the event, already, is secondhand. Or no, wait, it’s thirdhand actually: because we’re at least half-aware we’re reading a dialogue, written by this guy Plato, in which Euclid (not the famous one) and his buddy Terpsion are listening to a slave read the transcript of the conversation between Socrates, Thaetetus, and Theodorus – and actually, come to think of it, sorry, but it’s even more complicated, because the transcript is not, in fact, a direct transcript; instead, it’s a transcript of Socrates’s retelling of the conversation for the benefit of Euclid, who explains to Terpsion he “wrote it out from memory” but asked Socrates over the years for clarifications and corrections when he wasn’t sure of something.

We’re on very weird, shaky ground, is the gist, and as the dialogue progresses, things just seem to get weirder and shakier.

The first hypothesis that Plato-via-Euclid-via-Socrates-and-Thaetetus-and-Theodorus explores is whether knowledge equates with perception, an idea attributed to Protagoras, whose statement, “Man is the measure of all things,” is meant to imply that “one can only believe what one is experiencing, and this is always true.” It’s a dismal, relativistic view, suggested again more than a millennium later by Descartes (via that “cogito ergo sum” thing, e.g. that the only thing one can know for sure is that one is thinking), and then not too long after brought to its logical endpoint by the Scottish empiricist David Hume. Plato, who is firmly convinced of the existence of universal Forms – or i.e., pretty much the opposite of what’s being considered – has a heckuva lot at stake in refuting this perception-is-knowledge argument, and so he spills gallons of ink making various assaults on it, dismantling it in little chunks – but he’s not able to debunk it completely. Which, to briefly interject, has real-world implications, because: if each individual person is the measure of all things, and we’ve got hierarchical systems of government that elevate a handful of men and women over hundreds of millions of other men and women, then we’re also necessarily relying on the “good” judgment of those certain few men and women we’ve just elevated. Because their actions affect us, we’re basically hoping and trusting that their “measure” will prove to be beneficial – or at least not too harmful – to the rest of us.

Such a relativistic view of knowledge – even if not explicitly endorsed – is why Plato believed philosophers would make the most effective political leaders (because their “measures,” based as they would be in philosophy, would prove to be beneficial, or again, at least less harmful, Plato believes, than the “measures” of non-philosophers), and it’s why Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, considered presidential elections to be national crises: “parties feel the need to rally around one man,” he writes, “not so much to promote the triumph of their own ideas with the help of a President-elect as to prove by his election that these ideas have gained a majority.” In other words, a presidential election is an ideological litmus test; the basic worldview of a political party is embodied in their candidate, and should that candidate win then, goes the argument, that worldview becomes the worldview of the entire country.

Elections function as idea-and-value consolidators, in other words.

De Tocqueville recognizes that we are not equipped, as individuals in a massively complicated and interconnected society (in which no single individual knows or can know everything, or even most things, or even some things, or even a fraction of some things), to deal with complexity or multiple viewpoints: “A false yet clear and precise idea will always have more potency in society at large than a true but complex one,” he writes, an observation that has played out plenty of times over the last thirty or so years: we can all recall Reagan’s “Morning in America” and the sheer optimistic charisma of Bill Clinton (“born in a town called Hope…”), the “compassionate conservatism” of G.W. Bush, the Hope and Yes We Can of Barack Obama. And now of course Donald J. Trump is Making America Great Again, in part because Hillary Clinton could never quite distill her complex policy proposals into a single emotionally-engaging message: we know from a Morning Consult/POLITICO exit poll that 36% of voters believed “strong leadership” to be the single most important quality in a president – this is a trait, at least as it’s envisioned by Trump and his supporters, that’s typically anathema to democracy, which functions best, democracy does, when executive leadership is weak and citizens are forced to discuss and to argue and basically to just hash things out for themselves.

The problem is, when there’s no structure of facts with which to begin, when we can’t even agree on shared experience (even relativity as expressed in physics isn’t absolutely relative: the speed of light functions as “the measure”), there’s no real way for us to negotiate on a shared vision for the future. 

Socrates was the first to wonder: How do we know what we know? (© Bar Harel, CC BY-SA 4.0, wikimedia commons)

After exhausting their exploration of the knowledge-is-perception theory, Socrates and Thaetetus turn to a second idea: that knowledge is “true belief”, or second-order thinking about our perceptions – or as we might identify it today: pattern detection, abstraction, prediction, and reasoning. In a fun little metafictional twist, Plato’s hierarchy of knowledge mirrors the way he’s organized his dialogue: recall the Euclid-and-Terpsion framing device, the fact that we’re not technically privy to the conversation as it literally occurred, but to a memory, an interpretation.

A story, basically.

Knowledge, in this second theory, is organized perception – our sense-experiences arranged into something cohesive, a narrative about ourselves we can then use to survive and flourish: “If we see two points, we cannot help but draw a line between them,” explains Tim Gorichanaz, in his essay “Running and Worldmaking.” “We fill in the gaps, we find patterns.”

(I’m stretching this a little bit because Socrates was not really all that clear or lucid in explaining “true belief” as a concept.)

This second theory of knowledge is also rejected thanks to some very weird reasoning about juries and the rhetoric lawyers use to persuade them, the gist of which seems to be: people can be persuaded to accept something as true, even when that thing is not actually, genuinely, true (e.g., fake news).

The last theory Thaetetus proposes, that knowledge is true belief attached to a rational account (belief based on tangible evidence? it’s not all that clear how this is distinct from the previous theory, because can’t “rational accounts” be fake?), is quickly dispatched as inadequate, at which point the dialogue breaks off, having exhausted, apparently, all of the ideas Plato had about what knowledge could possibly be.

The final answer, at least for Plato, to that question How do we know what we know?, is in essence a shrug.

It’s no real secret our politics has devolved – as it does from time to time – into a kind of let’s-take-it-outside existential brawl, concerned less with policy and ideology than with facts, with the fundamental truths of our world and our lives. Which, because our lives are shaped by our beliefs – about what we know – it’s come to feel as though we ourselves are besieged by what’s basically a toxic buffet of the facts as interpreted by our politicians, our celebrities, our thought leaders, our corporations, etc. etc. People on TV, basically, and people or companies we buy stuff from. Which are often the same people, anyway. Whom we believe is connected, simply and directly, to whom we trust, and trust is an even more difficult thing to diagnose and determine than belief, especially when it’s placed in someone we’ve never actually interacted with – trust is dependent on a whole host of factors you wouldn’t necessarily call rational: relationships, memories, predictability and consistency, money and influence, etc. There’s a name these days for this network of events and intangible stuff: brand.

Our trust is determined, to just be as clear as I can, by how we feel about a person’s or an entity’s brand. Or put this way: trust is established based on the degree to which we find someone's or something’s story compelling. If we find ourselves connecting with a story, then we tend to find ourselves trusting it, too. That’s why our most successful politicians are often really superb storytellers.

Trust, as something that’s primarily emotional, is likely housed in areas of the brain that have been around a whole lot longer – we’re talking millions of years – than our neocortices (responsible for rationality and critical thinking), meaning this: when we trust and believe, we aren’t being rational.

Like, ever.

In fact, there is a pretty well-established body of evidence that shows our rationality exists to serve and reinforce decisions made irrationally – our critical thinking comes, in other words, post-hoc, after the fact:

(a)    In one study, cited by Michael P. Lynch in In Praise of Reason, participants were instructed to use “gut feeling” to choose the winner of a political campaign, and did so correctly more than seventy percent of the time, despite being completely unfamiliar with the candidates. Let’s just pause and think about this for a second, because it’s creepy and implies some not-so-nice things about our democracy: more than seven in ten times, the correct candidate was predicted even though nothing was known about that candidate. Even scarier: participants were given just one hundred milliseconds to make their choice, which for perspective, it takes you three times that long to blink.

(b)   In another study, designed, carried out, and then reported on by Drew Westen in his book The Political Brain, participants express a preference for a political candidate, after which they’re presented with two explicitly conflicting statements made by that candidate. The result was this: participants not only rationalized the contradiction away, they felt good about it – their brains “activat[ed] reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.”

(c)    Professors Brendan Nyhan and Jason Riefler identify what they term the “backfire effect,” “in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question” – i.e., when we’re shown to be wrong, we most often double-down on that wrong assumption, “because it threatens [our] worldview or self-concept.” In one of their studies, participants were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed something they already believed, and then were given an article disproving their belief. The result: participants “reported being even more convinced” of their belief after reading the second article, according to Nyhan and Reifler.

(d)   According to a post-election Buzzfeed News analysis, “In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets” – a smoking gun in terms of evidence for confirmation bias and post-hoc rationality, because, look, we’re all clicking on the stories that seem most lurid about the person we already oppose, or most flattering to the person we already support.

In sum: we’re having some serious trouble agreeing on what we’re experiencing, right now, in this place and time. And but, to risk bumming you out, it gets worse: we tend to collect into like-minded tribes – we gravitate, in other words, toward people who think like we think and believe what we believe. Whose stories we find compelling (because we see ourselves in them). Such tribalism is magnified online, to a degree that’s almost impossible to overstate: we’ve seen the brain-crushingly rapid formulation of massive echo chambers, facilitated by (1) algorithms that automatically filter our social media feeds based on the sorts of things we’ve clicked and viewed in the past, and (2) internet trolls, who manufacture outrage and tribalism, which suppresses real and productive conversation.

It does not have to be this way. All that discussion above just to make this single, simple point.

Trust does not have to equate with tribalism. Empathy does not have to serve our fears. We can find ways to establish a network of facts and channel our emotions into more productive discussions – there are, in other words, shared aspects to our existence, commonalities that, if we can identify them, we can build on: this is what Barack Obama means when he says, again and again, that we are not as divided as we seem.

In particular, let me offer a handful of tangible suggestions – based on my own experience and the experiences of people like Daryl Davis, a black musician who’s spent decades having conversations with KKK members, and has gotten dozens to turn in their robes – we can do to combat echo chambers and overcome confirmation biases:

(1)   Be aware – we’re often great at pointing out the confirmation biases and contradictions in thought and ideology of other people and groups, but we’re noticeably less good at self-monitoring our own personal belief-and-value systems. Just understanding that you’re prone to the same sorts of thinking-and-feeling errors that everybody else is prone to is a GIANT first step – this is that biblical remove-the-log-from-your-own-eye-before-you-attempt-to-remove-the-speck-from-your-brother’s-eye thing.

(2)   Turn off the cable news – it’s no real secret our new president is an avid consumer of cable news, and I’d suggest that such gluttonous consumption is one major reason for the warped reality-TV worldview expressed in tweets for some eight years now (Trump signed up for Twitter in 2009). The problem with monetizing the news is basic: if your primary goal is to generate revenue, which you do by selling ad time, then it behooves you to collect as many watchers as you can (to make your network attractive to ad-buyers). The best way to collect watchers is not to be honest, necessarily, but to make the news stimulating – to generate, in other words, an emotional connection that’s not totally unlike addiction. Cable news networks want to do at least one of two things: provoke shock and outrage, and/or play into confirmation biases. Either one will keep you watching. The truth is enhanced: the lurid parts made more lurid, more entertaining, and discussed way more often than the regular, less interesting stuff. That’s why Trump got so much free press during the 2016 campaign.

(3)   Seek out publications that have a reputation for balanced coverage, and credible sources with different politics/ideologies/viewpoints – this is something we’re deeply committed to here at sinkhole mag, because we know how tough it’s become in a world where facts have become relative (see: all of above discussion). A good rule of thumb: if your preferred source of news is getting you riled up on a consistent basis, and you find yourself in vigorous agreement with pretty much every word published or spoken, then it might be a good idea to look for a second source. The Runoff, our weekly political roundup blog, is a good place to start (if I may): we do our very best to link to analyses and commentary across the political spectrum, from The National Review to Mother Jones, in order to provide at least a little taste of the wide constellation of thought on policies and events. Another good strategy: bookmarking a conservative site like, say, Fox News online, and a liberal site, like Vox, and finally, a site known for more balanced coverage/analysis, like The Atlantic or The Washington Post, and training yourself to visit all three sites when looking for news about something – such rigor, while possibly more effortful than we’ve become used to, is central to what David Foster Wallace has called the Democratic Spirit, a "willing[ness] to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually."

(4)   Be neighborly, invest time and energy in your community – toward the end of his excellent essay about the parallels between George Wallace and Donald Trump, Terry Barr writes that “being friends only with those who think like you politically is the road to sterility, to the wasteland, the anti-Bethlehem.” One very simple way to exit the echo chamber is to spend some time talking to people, volunteering, participating in community events and activities. Getting a sense of your neighborhood, township, or city’s ecosystem. Sounds radical, I know, but: you’ll be exposed to a much wider array of thought and opinion at a standard homeowner’s association meeting than you will on your Facebook feed, and what’s more, you’ll likely find, as James Fallows writes in The Atlantic, a surprising degree of genuine hopefulness about the future.

Despite lots of trepidation, I’ll go all in on the hokey ending here, because: sometimes we could all use a little pinch of a reminder of a certain basic fact, which is this: there is a middle ground, and we’re standing on it, a place where labor interests meet business interests, where black meets white, Muslim meets Christian, progressive meets conservative, rich people meet the rest of us.

I’m aware how far-fetched and possibly naïve it sounds right now, but it’s an absolute fact – there is more that unites us than divides us.

This middle ground (elsewhere referred to as the common ground, the village square, the Center, etc.) is broad and it’s firm, and beneath it lies the dream that is America, the principles we all lay claim to in different ways: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness; social and economic equality; the sort of open-minded diversity and messiness which incubates the very best ideas. The stuff we all get mushy and patriotic about. The stuff our kids sleepily pledge allegiance to each and every weekday morning. I warned you I was getting hokey. There is a broad firm middle ground on which we stand, beneath which lies our hopes and dreams: the security and prosperity of our families, the good health of our children and our planet, the wealth of opportunities to create, to serve, to love. Beneath our bigly society, which is so complicated and huge and dynamic that no single individual could ever honestly hope to grasp even a tiny little fraction of it, there is a deceptively simple idea, a little forgotten Easter egg of an idea, and it’s this idea that makes us Americans—that we can and will govern ourselves, that democracy is fundamentally better than tyranny, that hope and empathy and honesty are fundamentally better than bigotry and fear and spin—this idea has never and likely will never be perfectly implemented; it’s always been and will be what Barack Obama terms “aspirational”: issues of class and race, along with systemic poverty, will persist – of course they will, because they always have. But, here’s the thing, if there’s no measure, if there’s no vision to progress toward – if we lose ourselves in our problems, if we choose to live inside our hatred and fear and feel helpless – then we’ll see an increasing escalation of the stuff that’s already happening: hyper-partisanship (viewing your fellow American as the enemy), the exponential concentration of wealth into the hands of a vilified, and probably really scared, group of global oligarchs with the means to act on their fears, the backsliding of democracy into autocracy and/or anarchy, the fragmentation of communities into tiny little tribes that can’t really strive for much beyond basic, primitive survival.

Or: we can choose hope.

We can choose, as John McCain has recently said, not to give up on each other. We can choose to believe and affirm and expand on the things that unite us: as Daryl Davis says, “You can find something in five minutes – even with your worst enemy…as we focus more and more and find more things in common, things we have in contrast, such as skin color, matter less and less.”

America functions best, becomes the best version of itself, when Americans are actively hopeful – when we can agree on the basic things we want and can agree not to restrict each other in striving to achieve those basic desires. We can do that – the only tough part, which in fairness has proven to be very tough indeed, is in changing how we think, in expanding our tribe. But we’ve done that before, too. In 1776. In 1862. In 1964. In 2015.

That, as our culture editor has written, is the work.

Toward the end of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator asks, desperately (fully understanding the immense transformation required to reach the answer he seeks): “could politics ever be an expression of love?”

Let’s ask that question again.

- Eric Fershtman, editor