Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom: The Epimenides Paradox

The liar’s paradox, as it is often called, is a fitting subject for our time. For those not familiar with the paradox, it was introduced to me by the historian Gordon Prange when I was a young Navy enlisted man attending the University of Maryland. He introduced the paradox to me as a comedic rejoinder to the charge of a certain bias in history that he considered to be without merit. He stated it this way: “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans are liars.”

The origin of this form of the liar’s paradox has many roots. It is discussed as a philosophical conundrum by Aristotle in ancient Greece as well as by Cicero in Rome. A version of it appears in the Christian New Testament and it was a source of study in Europe during the Middle Ages.

When I have introduced the paradox in a social setting and asked for a resolution to it by the uninitiated, usually a long conversation ensues. The usual approach is as a bi-polar proposition, accepting certain assumptions from the construction of the sentence, that is, if the Cretan is lying then all Cretans tell the truth which cannot be the case, but if the Cretan is telling the truth then he is lying, but he could not be telling the truth since all Cretans lie…and the circular contradiction goes on ad infinitum.

But there is a solution to the paradox and what it requires is thinking about the Cretan and breaking free of bi-polar thinking, which we often call, colloquially, “thinking in black and white.”

The solution.

The assumption in the paradox is that the Cretan in question can speak for all Cretans. This assumption could be false. Thus not all Cretans are liars and, thus, the Cretan in question is making a false statement. Furthermore, the Cretan making the assertion is not necessarily a liar–the individual could just be mistaken. We can test the “truthiness” of what the Cretan has said by testing other Cretans on a number of topics and seeing if they are simply ignorant, uninformed, or truly liars on all things.

Furthermore, there is a difference between something being a lie and a not-lie. Baked into our thinking by absolutist philosophies, ideologies, and religions is black and white thinking that clouds our judgement. A lie must have intent and be directed to misinform, misdirect, or to cloud a discussion. There are all kinds of lies and many forms of not-lies. Thus, the opposite of “all Cretans are liars” is not that “all Cretans are honest” but that “some Cretans are honest and some are not.”

If we only assume the original conclusion as being true, then this is truly a paradox, but it is not. If we show that Cretans do not lie all of the time then we are not required to reach the high bar that “all Cretans are honest”, simply that the Cretan making the assertion has made a false statement or is, instead, the liar.

In sum, our solution in avoiding falling into the thinking of the faulty or dishonest Cretan is not to accept the premises as they have been presented to us, but to use our ability to reason out the premises and to look at the world as it is as a “reality check.” The paradox is not truly a paradox, and the assertion is false.

(Note that I have explained this resolution without going into the philosophical details of the original syllogism, the mathematics, and an inquiry on the detailed assumptions. For a fuller discussion of liar’s paradoxes I recommend this link.)

Why Care About the Paradox?

We see versions of the paradox used all of the time. This includes the use of ad hominem attacks on people, that is, charges of guilt by association with an idea, a place, an ethnic group, or another person. “Person X is a liar (or his/her actions are suspect or cannot be trusted) because they adhere to Y idea, group, or place.” Oftentimes these attacks are joined with insulting or demeaning catchphrases and (especially racial or ethnic) slurs.

What we attribute to partisanship or prejudice or bias often uses this underlying type of thinking. It is a simplification born of ignorance and all simplifications are a form of evil in the world. This assertion was best articulated by Albert Camus in his book The Plague.

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Our own times are not much different in its challenges than what Camus faced during the rise of fascism in Europe, for fascism’s offspring have given rise to a new generation that has insinuated itself into people’s minds.

Aside from my expertise in technology and the military arts and sciences, the bulk of my formal academic education is as an historian and political scientist. The world is currently in the grip of a plague that eschews education and Camus’ clear-sightedness in favor of materialism, ethnic hatred, nativisim, anti-intellectualism, and ideological propaganda.

History is replete with similar examples, both large and small, of this type of thinking which should teach us that this is an aspect of human character wired into our brains that requires eternal vigilance to guard against. Such examples as the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the French Revolution, the defense of slavery in the American Civil War and the subsequent terror of Jim Crow, 18th and 19th century imperialism, apartheid after the Boer War, the disaster of the First World War, the Russian Revolutions, the history of anti-Jewish pogroms and the Holocaust, the rise of Fascism and Nazism, Stalinism, McCarthyism in the United States, Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution, Castro’s Cuba, Pinochet’s Chile, the Pathet Lao, the current violence and intolerance borne of religious fundamentalism–and the list can go on–teaches us that our only salvation and survival as a species lies in our ability to overcome ignorance and self-delusion.

We come upon more pedestrian examples of this thinking all of the time. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness, “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”

We must perform this vigilance first on ourselves–and it is a painful process because it shatters the self-image that is necessary for us to continue from day-to-day: that narrative thread that connects the events of our existence and that guides our actions as best and in as limited ways that they can be guided, without falling into the abyss of nihilism. Only knowledge, and the attendant realization of the necessary components of human love, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, and community–that is understanding–the essential connections that make us human–can overcome the darkness that constantly threatens to envelope us. But there is something more.

The birth of the United States was born on the premise that the practical experiences of history and its excesses could be guarded against and such “checks and balances” would be woven, first, into the thread of its structure, and then, into the thinking of its people. This is the ideal, and it need not be said that, given that it was a construction of flawed men, despite their best efforts at education and enlightenment compared to the broad ignorance of their time, these ideals for many continued to be only that. This ideal is known as the democratic ideal.

Semantics Matter

It is one that is under attack as well. We often hear the argument against it dressed up in academic clothing as being “only semantics” on the difference between a republic and a democracy. But as I have illustrated  regarding the Epimenides Paradox, semantics matter.

For the democratic ideal is about self-government, which was a revolutionary concept in the 18th century and remains one today, which is why it has been and continues to be under attack by authoritarians, oligarchs, dictators, and factions pushing their version of the truth as they define it. But it goes further than than a mechanical process of government.

The best articulation of democracy in its American incarnation probably was written by the philosopher and educator John Dewey in his essay On Democracy. Democracy, says Dewey, is more than a special political form: it is a way of life, social and individual, that allows for the participation of every mature human being in forming the values that regulate society toward the twin goals of ensuring the general social welfare and full development of human beings as individuals.

While what we call intelligence be distributed in unequal amounts, it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute, whose value can be assessed only as enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all. Every authoritarian scheme, on the contrary, assumes that its value may be assessed by some prior principle, if not of family and birth or race and color or possession of material wealth, then by the position and rank a person occupies in the existing social scheme. The democratic faith in equality is the faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions, not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatever.

In such a society there is no place for “I heard from a Cretan that all Cretans lie.” For democracy to work, however, requires not only vigilance but a dedication to education that is further dedicated to finding knowledge, however inconvenient or unpopular that knowledge may turn out to be. The danger has always been in lying to ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be seduced by good liars.

Note: This post has been updated for grammar and for purposes of clarity from the original.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — A General Theory of Love

When I first wrote about the book, A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, I said that it was an important book in the category of general psychology and human development.  While my comments for this post reprise some of my earlier observations, I think it is worthwhile to reprise and expand upon them.

Human psychology and social psychology have been ripe with pseudo-scientific methods and explanations.  In many cases ideology and just plain societal prejudice has also played a role.   In this work the authors effectively eviscerate the pre-scientific approach to understanding human behavior and mental health. They posit that an understanding of the physical structure of the brain, and the relationship and interplay of the environment to it, is necessary in understanding the manifestation of behaviors found in our species. In outlining the science of the brain’s structure, the authors effectively undermine the approach that the human mind and our emotional lives are self-contained.

According to Thomas Lewis, “the book describes the nature of 3 fundamental neurophysiologic processes that create and govern love: limbic resonance, the wordless and nearly instantaneous emotional attunement that allows us to sense each other’s feeling states; limbic regulation, the modulation and control of our physiology by our relationships; and limbic revision, the manner in which relationships alter the very structure of our brains. those whom we love, as our book describes, change who we are, and who we can become.”

This concept is not without its own limitations.  In the book the authors discuss the concept of the triune brain, that is, the portions of the brain that are derived from our evolutionary ancestors from our reptilian complex, through the limbic system (paleo-mammalian), and ending with the neo-cortex (neo-mammalian).  This model is an effective one for generalization, but it has not been completely accepted in neuroscience as an accurate model. Also, the identification of what constitutes the limbus is a shifting science, as is the evolutionary theory of the brain.  But one would expect such contingency in a scientific field only now garnering results.  What this shows is that we have been amazingly ignorant of the most important part of our anatomy that explains what we are, how our personalities and emotional lives are formed, and how those needs create the society in which we live.

Rather than individuals which are disconnected from those around us, what the book demonstrates is that the present state of psychiatry and neuroscience clearly shows that we are indelibly connected to those around us.  This not only includes family, but also our environments (both neo- and post-natal), and society.  Given that we are in the midst of a new renaissance in the sciences, the ambition of a “general theory” is a bit premature.

But what the authors have done is provide a strong hypothesis that is proving itself out in experimental and evolutionary biology and neuroscience: that we are social animals, that we have a strong and essential need for love and support early in our development, that our relationships and environment mold the structures of the brain, that emotional regulation is important throughout our lives, and that we are connected to each other in both intuitive and overt ways that make us what we are individually and societally.

They also provide, knowing the psychological needs of human flourishing, that the materialism and dispersion of modern society has contributed to the pathology and neuroses we see today: anxiety, depression, and narcissism, among others.  That this understanding is not academic–that understanding and applying this knowledge in solving human problems is also existential–is the challenge of our own time.

Finding Wisdom — Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

“Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.”Marshall McLuhan in the preface to The Mechanical Bride, 1951

One cannot fully comprehend modern human society without Marshall McLuhan, especially those of us who use the relatively new technologies borne of the television, the personal computer, the smartphone, social media, political spin and manipulation, social control, advertising, and digitized systems.  With McLuhan recent phenomena like Gamergate become intelligible.

He began as an earnest Canadian English teacher who found his intellectual pursuits influenced by the rise of new technologies–both historical and contemporaneous–that would soon transform mediums of literature, art, and learning and become what is now known as popular culture and mass media.  Along the way he also found himself bound up in both that popular culture and mass media which, as all artifacts of human narcissism, cannot help but be fascinated and thus flattered by those who study it.  Then for a while he was largely forgotten and ignored by these same artifacts of modern life once the freshness of his ideas passed and it became apparent that his observations were simply that, and not usually positive.

He introduced into the popular lexicon the phrase, via Dr. Timothy Leary, “tune in, turn on, drop out,” when commenting on advertising during a lunch the two had in New York City, with McLuhan substituting a pitch for psychedelic drugs in the lyrics of a popular Pepsi commercial tune at the time.  He is also remembered, at the height of his popularity, for this cameo in the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall”:

But more significantly, McLuhan is known for establishing the link between modes of transmitting knowledge and the way they influence the structures of the mind, of how knowledge is viewed and used depending on the medium, and its effects on the individual and society, which were not originally anticipated.  His concepts have been summarized by the phrases “the medium is the message,” and “the medium is the massage.”  He also was the first to describe the manner in which the world is connected by various types of media using the phrase “global village,” and anticipated the Internet that we know today, years before it became a fact, describing how it would significantly alter all means of human understanding.

Among the significant works in McLuhan’s canon are The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), which was the work that brought him fame and fortune in this country, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (with Quentin Fiore) (1967), War and Peace in the Global Village (with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel) (1968), From Cliché to Archetype (with Wilfred Watson) (1970), and the posthumous The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (with Bruce Powers) (1989).

My intent is not to delve deeply into McLuhan’s work.  There is a small McLuhan industry of academics in the world who both support and criticize his observations, as well as the interpretations of those observations.  The Wikipedia summary of McLuhan is excellent, as is the in-depth work of the McLuhan Galaxy blog here on WordPress.  There is also a website for his estate that has a wealth of information on his writings.

Instead, what I intend to do is summarize the essential wisdom and understanding in his work.  For it is apparent–and was apparent from the first time that I picked up his anthology of media as an undergraduate student and news editor of my college newspaper in 1972–that the insights he provided constituted both a deep understanding of the world that was to come, and that not understanding that world–and the essential wisdom of what he observed about it–would spell disaster for many of us who cared about the democratic ideal and the transmittal of knowledge.  To paraphrase one of Ray Bradbury’s short story characters, a people who fail to grasp the future will find themselves soon overtaken by it.

McLuhan’s approach that would mark him both as a modernist and an unconventional analyst began in The Mechanical Bride.  The quote found at the beginning of this post is from the preface to that work.  Here he addresses the rising popular culture with its armies hired by corporations and political organizations all dedicated to manipulating the way people think.  The book is filled with advertisements, comics, and articles of the time related to the various essays in the book, which are designed to be read in any order that the reader decides.  His rhetorical position, in lieu of outrage or the tone of the reformist, is to use humor and amusement.  He uses the analogy of Edgar Allen Poe’s character in the story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” who finds himself in the grip of the whirlpool from which he cannot escape, and has no choice but to ride it out and use it for his own amusement.  Unable to reverse the new machine of persuasion and manipulation, he takes the position of exposing the obvious motivations behind the content in the examples provided, and therefore makes the reader aware of what is being attempted.

He then moved on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, which was awarded Canada’s highest literary prize for non-fiction, to look at the development of different mediums of transmitting information.  He traced the effect of the transformation from the oral to print to visual mediums, like television on human understanding, and anticipated new mass electronic media.  This came at a time, in the early 1960s, that saw a rapid expansion of literacy, the consumer acceptance of television, and the mass introduction of paperback books.  While the effect of television was just beginning to be realized (the “vast wasteland”), mass electronic media that combined all of the capabilities of previous media was still the topic of science fiction.  Yet McLuhan successfully identified the emerging computerization of data and its future possible role, characterizing it as the “global village.”  It is also here that we find the first use of the term “surfing” to describe a means of electronically navigating to find information.  In the global village, unlike in the world of print, knowledge would become individualized and fragmented.

Unlike the world of phonetic written language based on movable type, the electronic global village would undermine the preciseness of language and understanding that print was able to enforce.  For McLuhan, the process of the medium of books and other written mediums was an individual one between author and reader that fostered–and made possible–such civilizing concepts as objective analysis, democracy, and individual rights.  Print moved the human species from mere tribal, mythical, and parochial concerns to those that transcended the shackles of human understanding.  The effects on cognition by the electronic global village, he posited, would once again transform the world around us in unexpected ways from this level of stability.  Technology itself possesses no morality, it shapes society’s and the individual’s self-conception.

Thus, it is soon that we are brought to his most popular and influential, if not fully coherent work, in Understanding Media.  Here we are introduced to the McLuhan Equation, which is summarized popularly by the phrase “the medium is the message”–a further development of the thesis regarding media that he wrote about in The Gutenberg Galaxy.  This equation has been largely misunderstood, oftentimes in the most extreme ways, of positing that the content of the medium being used doesn’t matter.  This is not true.  What McLuhan was observing, instead, was that content is a medium of its own, but the manner in which it is conveyed also has its own dynamism and effect.  The means of conveyance comes with its own message that may alter the way that people think and learn, that will influence the way in which the content is received.

For example, I am sitting at my desk writing this post.  The medium in which it is being transmitted to you, the reader, is via the web that is accessed by your PC, laptop, notepad, or smartphone.  Having been raised and disciplined in an educational environment that requires focus, concentration, and constant fact-checking, my content is presented in the form of the essay.  The medium in which my ideas are transmitted, however, undermines such discipline.

You may scan this post, mark it for further reading when you have a chance, and then move on to other things like looking at the weather for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, perhaps doing some shopping on-line in advance of the end of year holiday rush, take a look at headline news–which invariably nowadays is selected based on how and who is presenting the information to reinforce your personal worldview–and then continue surfing for some other bit of information.  During this process you will be bombarded by ads and other forms of information designed to draw your attention.  The content for each of these items is different and will affect you in different ways, but the medium in which it is presented provides you with that information in a linear, immediate, and flat manner.  No attempt is made to filter much of that information for accuracy or significance.  The brain registers it all as if it all has equal value.

To elaborate on his concepts he introduced the concept of “hot” and “cool” media.  Hot media, such as books, movies, and lectures, engage the individual through one primary sense, require immersion and analytical thought.  Cool media are those like television and, in our own day, gaming and the internet, which provide substantial stimulus and, oftentimes, active participation by the user involving many senses.  His later works, which on the whole are less compelling but which provide many elements of significance and insight, elaborate on these foundations.  In particular, The Medium is the Massage, describes the ability of different media to engage the user and massage the senses.  The additional speculations on the global village, in particular the means in which communication and propaganda has been used to justify war, and what they would look like, have proved prescient.

To wonder about social and political polarization, neo-Medieval forms of thinking, or the basest motivations of the human psyche reemerging given the effect of this technology, which reinforces individuation, alienation, and fragmentation, is to ignore the elephant in the room.  It is not that these forms of dysfunction have not survived throughout the modern era, given that all mediums exist simultaneously.  It is that they have not been transmitted and influenced human agency so quickly, effectively, and widely.  This is also the crux of the issue regarding net neutrality and other forms of surveillance, behavioral advertising, and social control by both business and government.

Taken with other contemporaneous and subsequent works such as those of B. F. Skinner, Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders, the recent work in social psychology by Albert Bandura, McLuhan’s work provides a great deal of insight into how media both reflects the society at large and, at the same time, influences it as well.  We must be aware of the ways in which we are manipulated and influenced by those whose sole goal is to have us do their bidding.  The nature of democracy and human autonomy depends on it.