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Monday, November 24, 2003

"...every belief is always a system of beliefs that together constitute a world view. All confirmation and disconfirmation of a belief presuppose such a system and are internal to the system. For all this [Wittgenstein] was not advocating a relativism, but a naturalism that assumes that the world ultimately determines which language games can be played... The considerations of On Certainty are evidently directed against both philosophical skeptics and those philosophers who want to refute skepticism. Against the philosophical skeptics Wittgenstein insisted that there is real knowledge, but this knowledge is always dispersed and not necessarily reliable; it consists of things we have heard and read, of what has been drilled into us, and our modifications of this inheritance. We have no general reason to doubt this inherited body of knowledge, we do not generally doubt it, and we are, in fact, not in a position to do so. But On Certainty also arguest hat it is impossible to refute skepticism by pointing to propositions that are absolutely certain, as Descartes did when he declared 'I think, therefore I am' indubitable, or as Moore did when he said, 'I know for certian that this is a hand here.' The facts that such propositions are considered certain, Wittgenstein argued, indicates only that they play an indispensable, normative role in our language game; they are the riverbed through which the thought of our language game flows. Such propositions cannot be taken to express metaphysical truths... the conclusion is that all philosophical argumentation must come to an end, but that the end of such argumentation is not an absolute self-evident truth, but a certain kind of normal human practice."
~Hans Sluga

While I'm railing against the NYT trying to artificially infuse terms into the language which I find offensive or wrong, I may as well go about talking about another phenomena which, while not as widespread as "metrosexual," still maintaints a special place next to my gag reflex. Over the summer, an essay appeared on the pages of the storied news outlet (no pun intended) which made me a little unhappy. the article was titled "The Bright Stuff." Brights define themselves as being free of "supernatural and mystical elements" and essentially fall into the scope of empiricism and the generally nonreligious folk. The only distinction they make is that they still think ethics and human community are alright.

When I read this, I found it odd that there was a percieved need to manufacture a term like "bright." The reason I found it odd is that we already have a slew of words which describe exactly what they're referring to: atheist, agnostic, skeptic, unbeliever, freethinker, and so on and so forth. I've been saying for a while that the whole role of philosophy is to somehow say in a new way that which everyone already knows, but this goes even beyond that. Taking a metaphysics which is already entrenched in many people's minds, and just arbitrarily sprucing up the term is a poor way for language to evolve. What is it with people and their ardent desire to escape from the negative connotations of a word by just making a new one?

The longstanding "war" between people who insist on a substanitive difference between "atheist" and "agnostic" is bad enough. Look, if you are state that you are unwilling to accept any specific theistic view on the grounds of a lack of empirical evidence in any given direction, and the predication upon which you make this assertion is that faith is a fundimentally inadequate form of divination, you are an atheist. An agnostic by their very nature entails atheism, since the two are logically equivilent. If you have not chosen a sandwich for lunch, you don't have a sandwich. If you don't have a sandwich, you have not chosen one for lunch. The idea that this principle somehow fails to translate to the selection of an ethical systems viewpoint is sort of silly. The connotative value of "agnostic" is simply something which escapes the traditional Judeo-Christian hatred of "atheist," which in modern parlence is almost always conflated with the view of nihilism or anti-theism, which is a totally different school altogther.

But the religious folk started to figure out what people were doing. They figured out that they could attack atheists for the percieved metaphysical statement of knowledge which had never been made, but they could also attack the agnostics for failing to choose what they saw as any system. So people decided to do something else... they invented the "Bright" cult. The designate it as "a community of individuals with a naturalistic worldview" who want political and social influence, and who seek to prove that Godlessness does not equate to lawlessness or a general disrespect for having an ethos in general. Here's the catch: they're still fundimentally just redefining themselves among the lines of atheism, agnosticism and skepticism, they're just doing it in the form of a positive definition instead of a negative definition.

As it stands, if you are a "Bright" or an atheist, you believe essentially the same thing. An atheist who is going to be coherant has to believe pretty clearly that there is some chain of causality and perceptual reality (the alternative is supernatural beliefs, which atheism is defined as being against. The dichotomy between naturalism and supernaturalism is key, since it allows for the absence of a substantial middle ground). And a Bright who is going to take the stance that they do just falls under empiricism (bordering on flat-out logical positivism, the way they seem to write).

Brights then took this to another level, and set up a website where they want to gather a coherant community to accomplish some unexplicated political and social agenda. There's an intrinsic problem with this sort of thing, of course, which is that a metaphysics which is based on what amounts to "causality and the law of noncontradiction in the classical set of physical laws are exhaustively truths about the functioning of the universe" doesn't have a cohesive implicitive ethics or even any normative moral postulates. If the stated goal of the "bright" community is "Gain public recognition that: persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance" then they're adding another level to their organization which is not, as mentioned elsewhere, to just give a strict interpretation of what it is to be a naturalist.

In fact, under their FAQ they even go so far as to say "Brights can be agnostics, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, objectivists, igtheists, and so on." This is more problematic than they seem to realize since in many instances, the internal groups have conflicting views about the implications of a godless universe. Why even bother? You may as well set up a group predicated upon the verification principle, or the law of noncontradiction, and then try to say "people who believe in the VP can participate meaningfully within society." It's not a stretch, but it's also not impactful in any real way. Like, "People who like peanuts can participate in civic duty" doesn't mean anything becuase the two are totally unrelated. So it is with metaphysics (or metaethics for that matter) and social interaction.

I just hate when people make up words which no practical consequence and in such a way as deliniate themselves from another group which has the same beliefs. These capricious divisions are also seen in the fragmentation of Christianity into various sects and so on and so forth. It has a categorical harm inasmuch as it removes the bigger picture, and forces people to focus on the minutae of the subject rather than the substance. It means that people don't consider anything in terms of the actual consequence of a belief, but more based on what little piece of dogma they agree with more. People are willing to accept really messed up things if it means that on the little things, they agree.

I wish the NYT would go back to just propegating the liberal conspiracies of the day and leave the linguistic innovation to people who aren't crazy.

cranked out at 2:12 PM | |

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