"Conjectures and Refutations"

"Conjectures and Refutations"

Saturday, January 7, 2017

What I wouldn't give for one Russell today!



Time was when thinkers (like Bertrand Russell, Bernard Williams, A.J.Ayer) brought a entire arsenal of sound analytical reasoning (given in the form of clearly outlined propositions and  inferences) to their views on things like the nature of reality and the existence of God. It was both good and instructive to listen to them, whatever your own views happened to be. How things have changed!

The contemporary debate on God's existence, for example, has changed sound reasoning into a form of garish social media in which participants gain points not by logic but by the outward show of 'cleverness' only: voice, body language and an outlandish sort of 'showmanship' oftentimes indistinguishable from 'bullying'. We are in need of better intellectual role models. Intellectual debate today is more 'media-' than 'word-' centric, the aim always being to serve up  more interesting sound bite to an audience hungry for them. Contemporary atheists, indistinguishable from their media caricatures, have quite intentionally undercut the possibility of real intellectual 'dialogue'. It's clear: without the theatrics their ideas will look shallow and largely indefensible.

Jacques Rancière is somebody who understands media and the potentially pernicious image of itself and media users it likes to unleash on the public. It's, in his view, in the service of the new image of the real tied indissolubly to media that media users quite literally dictate the terms of discourse everywhere. It's pure 'image' dissociated from reality  : "The visible can be arranged", Rancière says " in meaningful tropes; words deploy a visibility that can be blinding." And as a result what purveyors of the new 'discourse' (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett) do is offer skim rather than real depth, the simulacra of intelligence only. They, and their YouTube followers, have no time for patient and respectful exchange of ideas: their role is to be iconoclastic, offensive and fleeting.


They can, in other words, tell their audiences what they need to see since audiences do seem incapable of separating the proverbial tares from wheat. There's always something menacingly anti-intellectual and anti-social at work here. In the absence of real sustained theorizing the 'new atheists' (as Chomsky has correctly said) actually look like propogandists for their own brand of state religion. It's not conversion to a different viewpoint they seek so much as state-sponsored suppression of religious ideas in general.

And how well they exploit media spectacle to do this.Things like an affecting accent, credentials and aggressive delivery--amounting at times to character assassination-- always carry the day. Their audiences (except for the attentive few) can't see (as if quite invisible) what is there in front of them. Indeed, a contemporary audience wouldn't be able to see a logician's well-formed proposition as anything but a poorly 'trending' moment.

I offer the following as just one good example of the 'dumbing down' of much contemporary discourse. Jacques Derrida-- perhaps this century's greatest intellectual--  has gotten so far only four YouTube responses for his comments on atheism and belief! I take responses rather than views to be a more meaningful gauge of audience engagement and interest. It certainly isn't fashionable (and nor do I think most people today have the ability) to patiently follow through a rather complex train of thought based on faithful reading and study . Argumentative strength has taken a backseat to 'image' understood  in this peculiarly contemporary sense . In a typical YouTube debate forum Derrida would necessarily look like a stammering amateur.

 Logic, in short. just doesn't enjoy that crucial 30 second sound bite advantage over its opponents: for that the new media intellectuals rely on all the available 'video manager' tips and tricks available. Rather than following in the philosophical tradition of Russell and Derrida  the 'men of ideas' today have become little more than virulently self-satisfied "fools and fanatics" of a bread and circus world always happy to receive & applaud them.

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