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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Epistemic nihilism

Why are we so divided in what we believe? Blame postmodernism.

A decade ago—it seems like a century—people argued about what the successor to postmodernism, by then definitively dead and buried, should be called. Some preferred transmodernism, others meta­modernism. Philosopher Alan Kirby called it pseudo­modernism.[1] But now that we've passed through it, I think a better term is post-political-correctness: if PC is pretense, then what we have now is fake pretense.

Take the expression “enlightened and progressive.” That's how some guy on TV who identifies as a comedian (and tells us so, otherwise how would we know?) describes himself, while smiling smugly, as if believing it to be true.

What's going on here? “Enlightened and progressive” would seem go together like endodontists and protozoa. They are not exactly opposites, but at least to me they seem to have almost nothing in common.

To a patient visiting a doctor, ‘progressive’ is the last thing the patient wants to hear. As for ‘enlightened,’ to me it sounds like he or she has stuck his or her finger in a light socket, which now that I think of it might explain all that gosh-darned screaming.

Other people have used the term post-political correctness before, mostly as a way of describing PC as a watershed event. I mean it as a description of a philosophy that, for unfathomable reasons, has become popular.

Postmodernism held that truth was a mere political narrative designed to reinforce your privilege. All facts, and indeed reality itself, were social constructions, and there is no such thing as true or false. Science was a mere discourse, with no more relevance to truth than astrology[2]; indeed, Western logic, science and reason were worse than the alternatives since they were mere political tools whose sole purpose was to oppress people. Its purpose was to gain power by undermining confidence in Western values.

Political correctness (PC) is the imposition of postmodernist valuelessness on the rest of us. In PC the population is divided into groups. Each group is a herd that creates what it calls truth and pressures the rest of us not just accede to it, but to believe it. If we pretend to do so for the sake of comity, we deliver up our intellectual autonomy to the collective. Its purpose was to crush opposition to their ideology.

Figure 1. Snowflakes, in case you don't know what a snowflake looks like.

In Post-PC the herd and its beliefs are atomized to individuals. Facts exist only in the mind of the individual believer, and belief creates reality. If you're a man who believes he's a woman, that makes you a woman, and everyone must agree and celebrate it as a glorious new fact. Ditto if you're a white who believes you're a black, or vice versa. The latest thing is pretending that female athletes are as physically strong as male athletes. You must believe it, because it ought to be true; therefore believing it makes it true.

But there's more to this than just false beliefs. It's narcissism on steroids. While previously every culture was entitled to its own truth, now every individual is entitled to their own reality, their own facts, and their own pronouns, and refusing to use them is violence—as they put it, against their bodies, to emphasize that it's no metaphor. It's physical because their wishes define the physical world for them.

In post-PC, there is no fundamental difference between a belief and an emotional feeling: both are your internal states and cannot be questioned. The rest of us must pretend to agree, to validate the person's fake reality. Each individual is a snowflake (see Figure 1): unique, with their own reality and their own truth that defines their physical world. So if we dispute those truths we're committing an act of physical aggression. QED: words are violence.

Excruciating banality

Ten years ago Alan Kirby talked about the “excruciating banality and vacuity of the cultural products” generated by postmodernism.

Those born before 1980 may see, not the people, but contemporary texts which are alternately violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless (see the drivel found, say, on some Wikipedia pages, or the lack of context on Ceefax). To them what came before pseudo-modernism will increasingly seem a golden age of intelligence, creativity, rebellion and authenticity. [1]

He said the postmodern world was to be replaced by an even more banal and shallow participatory culture where we add our own opinion to web pages and watch reality shows. The viewer would invent a unique pathway through the cultural world.

Well, the wonderful thing about freedom is that we're allowed to do dumb things. But when each individual is entitled to their own reality, it creates chaos. And in the past decade we've had chaos up to here along with self-righteous, rattle-banging political tantrums.

These tantrums, and the hatred that motivates them, signify many things, but one thing they don't signify is enlightenment. PC was a way of pretending things are not the way they are. To normal people, the refusal to accept reality in so many glorious ways is infuriating. But if we view post-PC as a more extreme form of reality denialism, it actually explains a lot.

When a person's worldview is based on a false self-image, anything that challenges that worldview not only threatens their goals, it threatens their very identity. That's what makes the po-po-moian idea that belief creates reality so destructive. In order to preserve their false identities, others must believe as well; otherwise the magic pixie dust[3] stops working.

Epistemic nihilism

Postmodernism was a way of de-legitimizing rational thought. Post-PC is based on the idea that wanting something makes it so. So in po-mo land we got fake history, which was designed to undermine the idea that we could trust our knowledge of the past. Now we get fake news, which undermines our trust that we can know the present. And we get fake crises, undermining our ability to trust projections about the future. It's a form of epistemic nihilism.

If you deny reality, human nature, and the natural world, then all of reality is against you, and the best you can hope for is to break things in some amusingly tragic way.

But here's an interesting fact: the total amount of individual truth always remains constant. The more individualized the truth appears, the more it is a stereotyped image of the truth produced by the herd. The herd recognizes this and knows that it gives them more power. So in that respect, PostPC and PC have something in common: the quest for power.

The postmodernists claimed there was no truth. Their descendants tried to reshape the world to make that happen. The Washington Post and CNN and all the other purveyors of fake news and fake crises might not think of themselves as postmodern, but they are living its dream.

1. Kirby A (2006) The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond. Philosophy Now: 58. Link [partially paywalled]

2. The idea that the planets affect you is nonsense, but I still maintain that astrology has not been adequately tested. It's theoretically possible your birthdate could influence your personality, since it's conceivable (though not proven) that the time of year your parents decided to conceive you is related to some heritable personality trait.

3. Made from ground-up pixies.

created jul 08, 2017; last edited jul 08 2017, 5:37 am

See also

Adventures in diversity training
The smiley face of political indoctrination

How to fix the universities
The university system is unsustainable and needs to be replaced. But online universities aren't the solution.

Cultural terrorism
The term political correctness doesn't fully express the threat that we're facing.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
Name and address
book reviews