Saturday, May 28, 2011

The distortions of kairosfocus: Why they matter

They don't really: not in a direct way. Most of what he writes seems to sink without a ripple. A writer both prolix and pointless, kairosfocus produces an impact-per-word number that must be so small as to be homeopathic. It's hard to imagine people changing their minds based on the writings of kairosfocus; at best, he may reinforce already-held beliefs. Rhetorically, this makes his work (whatever its outward appearance) neither forensic nor deliberative, but epideictic. To quote Aristotle quoting Socrates in a discussion of epideictic, "it is not difficult to praise the Athenians to an Athenian audience." Yet Kairosfocus's distortions may matter indirectly, by propagating falsehoods that will be used by others.

Now, back to Alinsky. The argument that Alinsky was a kind of Marxist is, I think, wrong, but it's a possible argument. However, kairosfocus has done more than make that claim: he has distorted Alinsky's words to support it. To repeat, No one reading Alinsky in context would take his reference to Marxists on page 10 as a reference to his own position; however, kairosfocus distorts the passage to give precisely that (false) impression. Kairosfocus may (indeed, I do not doubt he will) say this is a red herring or strawman (oil of ad hominem, yadda yadda). Yet why should we take his word on anything if significant distortions are so easily found? This is not ad hominem; this is a question of his ethos as a writer.

Kairosfocus: Here's the deal

I'll accept your characterization of Saul Alinsky as "Neo-Marxist" if you accept that Intelligent Design is "Neo-Creationist." The relationship between ID and creationism is at least as close (I'd say much more) than between Alinsky and Marxism.

William James, Pragmatism, and the Designer

[reposted from Intelligent Design is not Science]

I have been reading William James' book Pragmatism and came across a really interesting passage. I post it here because I can't recall its being used in the ID debate before. Back in 1904, James anticipates some issues about the identity of the designer. This is from Lecture III, entitled "Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered," and is quoted from the Project Gutenberg version of the text:

Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the QUESTION of DESIGN IN NATURE. God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the woodpecker's bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees with grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity.

The first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate in intra- uterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made FOR each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.

It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question of purpose AGAINST mechanism, of one OR the other. It was as if one should say "My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery." We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed MACHINERY OF CONDITIONS—the game's rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature's vast machinery. Without nature's stupendous laws and counterforces, man's creation and perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have designed them.

This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content. The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be incomprehensible to us humans. The WHAT of them so overwhelms us that to establish the mere THAT of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has, we see, no consequences and explains nothing. It is the barrenest of principles. The old question of WHETHER there is design is idle. The real question is WHAT is the world, whether or not it have a designer—and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars.

Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been FITTED TO THAT PRODUCTION. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product's character. The recent Mont-Pelee eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. IF God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make SOME definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery MAY have been designed to produce it.

Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What sort of design? and what sort of a designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, anyone who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term—the same, in fact which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us 'Design,' worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of PROMISE. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible 'truth' the terms will then have in them.

I've put several parts in bold and one bit, which seems to me crucial, in bold blue. I find this argument compelling as far as the identity of the designer goes. James is right: design as such is empty until it starts talking about the designer, a discussion which (for reasons of cultural politics) ID has made itself unwilling to have.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Radical misreading: Kairosfocus on Saul Alinsky

Just a brief note to respond to kairosfocus, who claims regarding Saul Alinsky:
For those who came in late, Alinsky was a neo-marxist radical who saw cultural and community subversion as the means of communist revolution.

I cut my critical thinking eye-teeth on Communists, messianistic charismatic pols and cultists, and have wariness about all three.

(All quotes in bold are emphasis added.) Truth be told, kairosfocus couldn't tell a Communist from a hole in the ground. He links to a passage in his bloviating web page on "selective hyperskepticism" as follows:

His premise for resorting to ruthless radicalism -- as stated in his key work, the 1971 Rules for Radicals [RFR] was that:

"A Marxist begins with his prime truth that all evils are caused by the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists. From this he logically proceeds to the revolution to end capitalism, then into the third stage of reorganization into a new social order of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally the last stage -- the political paradise of communism." p.10

"The end is what you want, the means is how you get it. Whenever we think about social change, the question of means and ends arises. The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work. ... The real arena is corrupt and bloody." p.24

"The means-and-ends moralists, constantly obsessed with the ethics of the means used by the Have-Nots against the Haves, should search themselves as to their real political position. In fact, they are passive — but real — allies of the Haves…. The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means... The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be." pp.25-26

"The first step in community organization is community disorganization. The disruption of the present organization is the first step toward community organization. Present arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displace by new patterns.... All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new." p.116

In short we see here a radically relativist ("his prime truth"), utterly amoral Machiavellian (might makes right and ends justify means) ruthlessness that rejects moral constraints on means, in pursuit of ideological and revolutionary agendas that start by working to destroy the current order. But, such habitual ruthless amoral destructiveness soon become an all consuming pattern of behaviour and -- on the long, sad and oft- repeated history of "successful" radical revolutions -- normally ends in chaos and tyranny.
There's a lot to discuss here, but the main thing I want to note is that Alinsky was not a Marxist, and that kairosfocus is profoundly distorting his words here. This becomes clear when the first passage is put into context:

This raises the question: what, if any, is my ideology? What kind of ideology, if any, can an organizer have who is working in and for a free society? The prerequisite for an ideology is possession of a basic truth. For example, a Marxist begins with his prime truth that all evils are caused by the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists. From this he logically proceeds to the revolution to end capitalism, then into the third stage of reorganization into a new social order or the dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally the last stage -- the political paradise of communism. The Christians also begin with their prime truth: the divinity of Christ and the tripartite nature of God. Out of these "prime truths" flow a step-by-step ideology.

An organizer working in and for an open society is in an ideological dilemma. To begin with, he does not have a fixed truth--truth to him is relative and changing;everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. He accepts the late Justice Learned Hand's statement that "the mark of a free man is that ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not heis right." The consequence is that he is ever on the hunt for the causes of man's plight and the general propositions that help to make some sense out of man's irrational world. He must constantly examine life, including his own, to get some idea of what it is all about, and he must challenge and test his own findings. Irreverence, essential to questioning, is a requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is "why?"
I've put the quoted passage in bold so readers can see what is going on. In brief, Alinsky refers to Marxism as he refers to Christianity: they examples of what he is not. He does not have either of those ideologies, but he is "an organizer working in and for an open society."

Nobody who has read Alinsky would distort that passage in a way that is so easily corrected, unless they are (a) lying, or (b) stupid. kairosfocus is not stupid, and I do not believe he is lying. Rather, I believe, kairosfocus has not read Alinsky but has read only selectively distorted passages.

Now, I also believe he is too arrogant to admit his error. Will he ignore this or try to dance around it?