An Essay on The Art of Scepticism and (not) Knowing In Dis Modern World
Firstly, a quick neon-arrow to a worthwhile fold of the internet.
Some informed, academic perspectives on the ethereal beast that is creativity. Well worth checking out this hyperlink…
Below is a couple (thousand) words on information, scepticism and knowing. Warning, it turns a little spicy.
For those that crave information (meee) the internet is simultaneously our best and worst friend. An instantaneous news cycle, largely free access and a plethora of current affairs sites can all be viewed as general wins. The crux is, to publish on the internet you need not a slither of credibility or validity e.g. this site. lol.
We’ve all been suckered before. Viral videos emerging as hoaxes; urban myths gaining momentum mutating into unquestioned truth; news outlets masking their political leanings with a wet, white t-shirt; or any of the above revealed to actually just be a subversive marketing campaign.
It seems this has lead to- at least within my circle- a rise in skepticism. People have upped their bullshit filter a notch and a bit to detect those lil’ inconspicuous falsities we would have in the past blindly taken as truth. News outlets also. They’ve been scolded one too many times by those hot-rising virals that turn out to be fake. Personally, I’m pretty into this new skeptical society. Imagine if people had their skeptical hats on a couple of thousand years ago…
I definitely am guilty of being a pseudo-intellectualist (and probably still am from time to time): regurgitating ideas I haven’t considered the validity of across a broad range of topics I actually have limited knowledge of…undoubtedly because I wanted to seem intelligent and worldly… eek, sorry everyone. But I’ve changed my tune, I promise. There is little I take without question and it feels refreshing. I feel like I’m thinking for myself (that’s what the machine wants me to think, right?) I also reckon I come across more switched on. You’d be surprised how often in this internet age we live in, someone comes out with a claim thoughtlessly regurgitated. These days, to their horror, instead of nodding and going ‘wowowowow’ I’ll consider via our under-utilised friend logic and query them if it’s not adding up. More than a handful of times, before you can even give it a good prodding, said claim crumbles to the floor like a sack of shit. It’s honestly not their fault though. I blame the internet…can’t deny that’s a nice feeling though…
That being said, there is a plethora of information we don’t have the capacity to fact check. It may be due to sheer geography or not having the prerequisite knowledge to validate a claim. And well, some ideas just extend beyond the capacity of our human minds.
If you dwell on the concept of what information we are truly able to validate- if you really give it a solid dwelling, the though can mutate into a deconstructionist musing that ends in a pretty dark place. You may realise that although we are inundated with more information than any generation past, we don’t actually know much more; we are coaxed by the internet and the modern media into thinking we do. I’m not even talking about the big questions of life, death and the perfect aeropress recipe. I’m talking about our everyday opinions on matters spanning from the banal to current affairs.
Example time: think about a current social issue you feel strongly towards. The Brexit maybe? Which at time of writing was voted in favour of leaving the EU about 48 hours ago. Or how something right in the frontal lobes of the Aussie public, an issue such as asylum seekers. Oh yeah contentious as, lets use that. As an Australian, when we form an opinion about asylum seekers what is it really based on- how informed are we really? Think about it. You may be soaking up every word Juanita Phillips is reading on the ABC news or checking out articles on SMH or Newscorp *shutters*. You may be living off the words of your intelligent folks. Or your mate studying politics. He’s intelligent too- and new age to boot. Maybe you trust in a political ideology to guide your moral compass. Preset opinion to L or R. There are a plethora of information streams to be informed by.
Now ask yourself, how have your sources been informed? Let us step aside from the asylum seeker example for a moment. Can you truly place your trust in a seemingly unbiased news article? Journalism 101 is to take the most engaging and sellable statement in a news release and stick as close to the eye-catching headline as possible. They’re not lying, but definitely spinning info round for their own benefit. They need to stay in business and they’re in the business of selling news after all. Heck, writing a media release is the same, if not worse. It’s all about grabbing interest. We don’t ever consider that maybe the initial media release featured a whole gamut of information that contextualised their most eye-catching claim. Imagine collating all these il or un-contextualised headlines into an opinion. Eek.
So you could say a common journey for a piece of information would be something like: a media release formatted for optimal engagement is sent to a news outlet who optimises it further. Then a blogger rehashes the headline to give weight to his opinion. Hope that blogger doesn’t have a large, easy influenced following…
So if you’re still with me with the above we find ourselves in a bit of a doozy situation, not being able to trust the news or the internet. Heavy. So how do we form an opinion? Well, I don’t quite know. What I do know though is we haven’t seen where asylum seekers come from. We haven’t seen how they came here. We haven’t see where the detention centres. More importantly, the greater portion of Australians haven’t seen them assimilate. They haven’t seen them in communities. They haven’t seen for themselves the claims that are made, or even worse, the ‘projections’ or ‘forecasts’ (because they are merely that). They haven’t seen the numbers the forecasts are crunched on. They may have heard and read about any of the above though. It’s not even unlikely the author of said article informed themselves by reading other uninformed articles. Maybe they know Dave from Armadale who is in contact with new migrants. Dave is a better source than most as he used is own set of eyes and ears but even his analysis is filtered through his own bias. Plus that’s just one town. How many people actually see all these things for themselves? I know, pretty much no one. Yet there’s a solid percentage of the population vehemently holding views across both sides of the political spectrum. Vehemently. Like super fired up. The only consolation I can give to progressives is that humanitarians do seek primary evidence to back their claims and although the progressive layman is generally as uninformed as anyone else at the very least they lean on empathy and compassion as opposed to baseless, fear-mongering rhetoric others reference their opinion on…)
Getting my drift, though? It seems so simplistic it verges on offence. It’s year 8 history stuff- primary and secondary sources, on an existential trip. When you boil it down, unless you see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears, I’m of the opinion that you don’t really know. I have to concede it’s pretty fucking defeatist. It could be a bit brighter though- knowing is actually probably spectral. You can probably grade the validity of information across a spectrum, but a lot of what we think we know sits very close to dirty end where you’ll find history’s antagonists propaganda and mythology. Dave from Armadale sits a tad further along I’d say. Good one Dave.
So yes, you can have an informed opinion but at the layman level with our layman knowledge, the commercial streams of information we digest seems to be ‘cut’ in the same way cocaine is from harvest to your pocket. Consider your channels of information. We get suckered into believing the slippery words of rhetoricians who seem to pop up around every corner of our lives disseminating their own il-informed opinion. i.e Donald Trump as the assumptive republican candidate or the rhetoricians that successfully fought for the brexit. They then find their way onto news outlet who slice and dice, adding their own secret herb and spice mix of agenda on top. Or speaking of, the words of the politicians, who these days seems bad for your blood pressure with the fat tub of sea salt needed to burn away the self interest/party interest/interest of fellow technocrats/donator interest/banks interest that fuels their words. It seems today’s media diet is not the best for the body. Stick to Atkins, hey.
In fact, the term technocrat is an interesting one that may help further my point. My understanding was it was coined to denote something along the lines of a class of ‘technological savvy’ leaders- or in this day in age what we might call the ‘information elite’. In theory technocrats are informed and empowered by knowledge, making them ideal candidates to pass informed policies. Although, the modern day interpretation is heavily tarnished, translating to something along the lines of older, white males sitting atop of the political pyramid writing up the do’s and don’ts for the good of us philistines down below. Yah feel? Technocracy could be a solution to the existential crisis of not knowing that we’ve unfolded today.
Let me use the current election campaign as an example of it’s pros and cons. Juanita Phillips has reported to me each evening I’m able to muzz in front of the TV that Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have spent another day jet-setting across the country listening to ‘the people’- in addition to obviously selling themselves, their party and policies (unsure of the balance between listening and selling because I’m not there). It’s one of the greatest opportunities any Australian has to form a contextualised, balanced and informed opinion on a vast range of issues; talking to people who have seen and heard with their own eyes; discussing with academics who have spent their working life unveiling mysteries and searching for solutions. Unfortunately, in addition to the tarnished name of the term technocrat above, it’s also synonymous with such modern evils including privilege, elitism, disconnect and wealth…and to a lesser extent two-party system, vested interest, corruption, fraud, deception bias etc. etc. They may see and hear ‘all’, but the benefits are lost through the heavy-duty filter of the modern political landscape, which I believe is plagued by those devilish things I’ve mentioned above.
Anyway, apologies if that was all a bit heavy guys. I just want to conclude the above by adding: the core of this argument transcends politics. It’s beyond left or right. It’s beyond social commentary even. I’m not decrying the system right now. I’m fore-mostly trying to remind everyone to be vigilant digesters of information in this modern world. But at a deeper level I’m also trying to express a philosophical view that clashes with what the internet has instilled in us over our decade long relationship with it. In fact, I’m sure there is a conceptual school of thought that aligns with what I’m saying. A quick google search of ‘philosophy of knowing’ leads me to a wiki page on epistemology? Well there you go. I’ll do some more reading and probably not get back to you.
EDIT 2/7: I actually got back to you. It goes so deep!! Here is a little intro video, see you down the bottom of the rabbit hole..
EDIT 27/7: So here I was reading a conversation.com article and suddenly epistemology pops it heads. It seems C17th philosopher Renee Descartes had a lot to say about knowing and not knowing. A quick read on how epistemology can aid us in deducing whether we are simulations or not. https://theconversation.com/how-do-you-know-youre-not-living-in-a-computer-simulation-60704
The nucleus of this whole ramble is: we actually know very little. I’ll repeat what I said before- the antagonists in the room are the internet and the modern media. They create a facade of knowing a whole lot but once you step back and review the source, well, like fools gold the invalid quickly dissolves in the palms of our hands revealing just how much we actually don’t know. Look, it’s a dark argument and I don’t have solution which is no help at all, but awareness is a necessary step no matter the path.
If you’re still not on board with what I’m saying I have a single trump card that might get you over the line. It’s a high profile figure endorsing my argument. Who? None other than philosophy’s first father: Socrates. I shit you not, he was musing on pretty exactly this in 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece.
I’m by no mean an authority on the man so I’m not going to say too much. I did although watch an informative documentary on him just the other night that I found insightful and would recommend to others- a BBC produced three part series called ‘Genius of the Ancient World’ profiling Buddha, Confucius (who I didn’t know was an actual guy!) and Socrates (although, not being there I was naturally sceptical of everything 😉 hehe… nah). There are three particular facets of Socrates’ story that resonated with my own musings and I wish to share. The third and possibly the most powerful I’ve left till the end of the article for lil poetic cap off. Forgive my amorousness.
It’s recounted that in latter part of his life, after serving in the military and philosophising for decades, Socrates would walk around the bustling streets of Ancient Athens disseminating his ideas by word of mouth. He was a well-known figure about town but neglected to wear shoes/sandals and donned scruffy robes because by this time he realised material possessions messed ya soul up real good and he was going to have none of that. He would stop young passers by and berate them with questions that framed him as an unknowing simpleton. ‘What is knowledge?’ The young in question would consider and reply. Socrates would then question their definition and have them agree it’s false. The questioned would reconsider and provide an edited answer, to which Socrates would find fallacy in again and throw more questions at them. Basically, sneaky lil Socrates would eat away at their understanding until they had nothing else to admit except that they ‘do not know.’ This is called the Socratic method. Doesn’t sound too unfamiliar to my anecdote re scepticism if I do say so myself.
The Socratic method was really his only method of dissemination because he chose to never write anything down. All we know of him and his musings are through the accounts of others. Maybe he neglected to write because he understood by giving information the gift of timelessness you also burdened it with the susceptibility of bias. I would relish the chance to bring back Socrates today and see what he has to say about our modern day interpretations of his interpreted words- also his thoughts on our modern world. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be too psyched. Also what he thinks of the internet and our current unvalidated information overload predicament.
Plato was kind enough to write down Socrate’s musings after his death, I believe. Although, however much his interpretation of Socrates’ concepts aligned with that of the philosopher’s, there remains a gap between the original argument and this transcribed interpretation through the very process of transcription. Even Socrates’ writing down his own musings wouldn’t alleviate this problem (although admittedly the gap would be less wide). Fast-forward two thousand years and countless people have translated Plato’s words, another widening of the gap. The translations were probably reworded or again translated into different languages or proses. There two more processes that further the information from it’s original. What we think Socrate’s stands for could be pretty removed from the man’s now true, but long buried philosophy.
So what’s the good news, Nick? Socrates gone ‘an carked it, I know nothing, you know nothing. This is all a bit shit. Please let there be good news.
Well, there are a handful of outlets providing as-informed-opinions-as-you’ll-get on a whole gambit of relevant issues. One of those sites is theconversation.com/au.
It’s a website that publishes broadsheet-style editorials written by university academics on their field of expertise. Many of the time providing informed commentary on current affairs. Some of these people sit on the vanguard of what is known and unknown in their field. Yes, they might be wrong somewhere down the line but if so it’s likely that the correct answer is not actually known yet.
Jazzers- how ruffled were your jimmies after watching Whiplash? Well, how about a minutes silence for those poor, poor scientists who’s facts and findings are constantly placed in disrepute thanks to handful of gumbies with a login to news.com.au able to type up some vile, invalid dribble and slap the words ‘ed-op’ on it. Those poor anthropologists, psychologists, political lecturers, historians. Professors of all fields.Theconversation.com is their stand against the misinformed dribble.
I still subscribe to SMH for breaking and local news but if I ever want an informed opinion on social matters I’ll head straight to theconversation.com. Fun fact: the site is actually an Australian initiative that has been adopted by Western countries including the States and the UK. Good work Aus. It gets better though. The middle of last year they started a series on creativity. It’s great. Nothing like spending time learning about the ethereal beast that is creativity through a range of academic perspectives. Ooohh yeah.
Speaking of the coupling of creativity and information I have a vague memory of a nugget of knowledge Phil dropped on me in a lesson in 2013 that I’ve been meaning to share for some time. He was describing the three pillars of an informed artist. I believe knowing the past, was definitely one. It’s the big one, right? Know Louis to know Ambrose etc. Knowing yourself, was maybe one? I’m into it although may be a tad hard to sell you that one right this instant. Take it or leave it with your found skepticism. Knowing the now was definitely one, though. Basically, being informed is integral to being an artist. Know what art is being made around you but also having an awareness of current affairs, even if your art doesn’t address them explicitly. An artist is a product of their time, so know it.
Taking it back a little, I’m not saying through this disillusionment to not be informed. Fuck no, being informed is the best. I just mentioned it was necessary to being an artist, even. I just ask you pleaseeee be wary of the information you digest. Seek out with your own eyes and ears or closest to it! Even articles on theconversation.com shouldn’t be taken unreservedly. Your best line of defence is your scepticism. Also next time you’re arguing a cause with that firey vivacity of yours, ask yourself whether you have primary evidence. Do you really know? Do you really know. It’s been daunting for me, deconstructing and realising I know very little- kind of like realising (nearly) everything is a construct. But if we want to live informed and truthful lives, I’m of the belief we must understand the above. Stray away from pseudo intellectualism- that is, believing the digestion of secondary sources gifts you the authority of opinion across a multitude affairs when you really have little idea beyond the already skewed opinions of those authors. Instead, be content knowing what you do and find truth in understanding the things around you. I’m going to leave you with the story of Socrates and the Oracle, abridged below from Plato’s Apology. I have reworded the infamous punch line myself here:
‘I am only the wisest man because I don’t pretend to know what I don’t know.’
” Everyone here, I think, knows Chaerephon, he has been a friend of mine since we were boys together; and he is a friend of many of you too. So you know the eager impetuous fellow he is. Well, one day he went to Delphi, and there he had the impudence to put this question — do not jeer, gentlemen, at what I am going to say — he asked, “Is anyone wiser than Socrates?” And the Pythian priestess answered, “No one.” Well, I was fully aware that I knew absolutely nothing. So what could the god mean? for gods cannot tell lies. For some time I was frankly puzzled to get at his meaning; but at last I embarked on my quest. I went to a man with a high reputation for wisdom — I would rather not mention his name; he was one of the politicians — and after some talk together it began to dawn on me that, wise as everyone thought him and wise as he thought himself, he was not really wise at all. I tried to point this out to him, but then he turned nasty, and so did others who were listening; so I went away, but with this reflection that anyhow I was wiser than this man; for, though in all probability neither of us knows anything, he thought he did when he did not, whereas I neither knew anything nor imagined I did.” (C. E. Robinson, Zito Hellas (1946) (Hellas (1955), ix, 1, p. 136)) http://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/delphi.html
Stay skeptical. Live honest.
This message has been sponsored by theconversation.com/au…