Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reason and Freedom

Every now and then my only semi-regular topical-non-fiction lit, Reason magazine, manages to cause a stir of irritation. And it's not because of the way in which they are closet Objectivists, for that's been a philosophical epidemic—in the sense of it being a contagious disease, and a filthy one at that—for a long time, and Ayn Rand just came out of the closet and put it all on the table for the world to see. Way I see it, it would be better if all these idiots came out of the closet, and then it would be done and over with. They could take it back to their bedrooms, close the doors and commune with each other, practising their objectivist rituals—and leave the rest of us alone to get on with the business of living.

No, it isn't that which irritates me, but, the constantly recurring proof that 'reason' from folly doth not protect, and that GIGO is a basic governing principle of human thought as much as it is of computers' workings—much as TANSTAAFL, Milton Friedman's dictum popularized in fiction by Robert Heinlein, is a fundamental principle of just about everything; and possibly GIGO might just be shown to one of its many corollaries. In this instance the offense was instantiated in an article entitled An Epidemic of Meddling: The totalitarian implications of public health.

I should emphasize that by and large I agree with the article. Just as much as I have no argument with John Stuart Mills's dictum that: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.…The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

But the article has some overly-fervent emphases that occasionally degenerate into statements like "behavior cannot be transmitted to other people against their will". Which is perfectly true; and as such, to mention but one example, calling 'obesity' an 'epidemic' as if we were talking about an invasion of Ebola or, less lethally perhaps, the common cold, is at best using terminology in a way Germans might call 'leichtsinnig'—and which means something like 'careless' with a touch of frivolity and irresponsibility—and at worst it's deliberate socio-political propagandizing worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.

Thing is, behavior cannot be transmitted like a virus—so this is true, but truth never just 'is'—but it is possible, and indeed done all the time, to change a person's values and judgment system around in such a way that they will, out of what amounts to perfectly 'free will', make choices they wouldn't make if they hadn't been thus manipulated. This cannot be called 'coercion' and therefore Libertarians will be inclined to take up arms—unless they're of the peacenik variety—against those whom they see as screwing around with people's free will and all that.

Still, even that doesn't do any justice to the complexity of the issue, for now we must ask ourselves whatever is the nature of 'free will' and decision making, and how can we make this relate to the notion that we are all, all the time, 'influenced' by this or that or this person or that organization, with deliberation of without it? And it is true, that the article does acknowledge and deal with the complexities of the issue, but it fails, as such articles written to an 'agenda' usually do, to draw the obvious and necessary conclusion—which is, of course that things are actually even more complicated and less straightforward than we can imagine, and that ultimately 'reason' per se tells us nothing at all about the things that matter and what's what.

So, you may ask, what does?

And I say, now that's a very good question!

Keep at it. I wish those espousing the virtue of 'reason' would spend more time keeping at it as well.

A hint at a solution: vicious squirrels probably have nothing to do with it.

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