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Thursday, March 19, 2015

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Is it 1984 or Brave new world?

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Is it 1984 or Brave new world?

In my essay I write a side comment on the difficulties of teasing out
the philosophical issues in a non native philosophical text. I therefore
argue that our real issues are not necessarily tyranny and slavery but
information. Precisely the role information plays in making a human being?

In the meantime Ruel has sent us a link to his essay:

Hello Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote on Sunday's topic:
https://ruelfpepa.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/nineteen-eighty-four-or-brave-new-world/
Thanks. See you on Sunday.
All the best,
Rue

------Lawrence

Is it 1984 or Brave new world?

The difference between "Brave new world" by Huxley and "1984" by Orwell
is the Second World War.

"Brave new world" was published in 1932 at the height of the depression
that directly caused the race for a new ideology to govern the world. By
1932 that race already had three contenders: the status quo of
historical political and economic evolution (let's call it capitalism),
the new brand of Soviet communism and the yet untested social socialism
that was fast emerging in Germany. Huxley's fear that people in 1932
wouldn't want to read books was well justified, but maybe for the wrong
reasons. People wouldn't want to read books in the future maybe not
because of their decadence, but rather because they have carelessly
trusted in someone's philosophically unsound ideas that had become a
direct danger to their lives.

Orwell's book was published at a time (1949) when concentration camps
were still fresh in people's memories, the Normandy landings were still
a symbol of freedom, the Gestapo (and the KGB) were the terror of the
people and, finally, the atom bomb had just become mightier than the
sward and the pen put together.

Orwell's vision was right on censorship and the banning of books. Today,
large parts of the world population don't have access to books and books
are still censored or banned. But Huxley's fear of lack of interest in
books is also valid today. Although the danger today is that we're not
interested in books because of decadence or lack of trust in the
ideology, as I suggested, but mainly because we no longer give value to
the message in books. Thus, publishers will only publish books that
massage our mental ego and henceforth to a decent profit; and self
publishing sites are still too novel to set the world on fire.
Thankfully today most books don't try to give deep political messages:
where is today's Das Kapital, where is the Wealth of Nations or the
Little Red book?

But this background is not the philosophical issue for us; the issues
for us do not directly depend on the content of these books, although
the ideas behind the books are indeed philosophical in nature. I will
argue that the philosophical issues about these two books is not tyranny
and oppression, and as a consequence the values of democracy. These
issues are superficial in nature and a trap in reality. The real
philosophical issues for me are far beyond tyranny.

To begin with the ideas behind these books betray our ingrained
acceptance that people and society must function not only on a
hierarchical model of society but on a top down control of authority. A
few give orders and the vast majority have to follow. And this model in
politics and the economy can be verified and measured by measuring the
level of corruption in a society since corruption is based on the belief
that one can get away with it. Corruption requires the state of mind
that the majority does not have the power to hold the minority to
account and lack of accountability can easily lead to abuse of power.

Both books reflect and reality confirms that there is no such thing as
"the Devine right of Kings" but rather real power stems from the
doctrine that "brute force always wins". "Always wins", that is, as long
as we are one step ahead of the meek and the mob, because even the meek
are capable of using the guillotine. In this context both books not only
reflect what might be, but more importantly, they are describing, in a
crude way, what actually exists.

There is no doubt that the hierarchical model of society is a model of
society in nature. Scarcity of resources does lead to competition and
aggression and thus creating some form of a centrifuged society with the
rich at the top and the destitute at the bottom. Indeed the
preoccupation by some philosophers with exiting this model, or rather
explain this model, has led directly to the social contract model of
society. Under a social contract we give up our freedom to do what we
want in exchange for the protection and recognition of property rights
and protection. But to have property rights one needs to have property
in the first place; indeed one must have property to even think of
property rights. The question is whether a hierarchical model is a valid
model for a society of rational and ethical beings?

Brute force and scarcity, that are also central themes to the books, can
be a state of nature or a man made state of affairs based on the
empirical principle that people with wealth and power are unlikely to
give up these privileges very easily. Maybe what Locke and Hobbes argued
was not a transition from the law of the jungle to a society based on a
social contract but rather an escalation of an evolutionary game of
survival of the fittest.

We might, therefore, make the mistake in thinking that tyranny and
government by brute force might be a consequence of mismanaged
societies, evil, immoral society, and aggression. But this betrays a
naive perspective on our part in failing to appreciate the power and
attraction of tyranny to those who are doing the tyrannising; I grant
you that today in many countries we don't call it tyranny by the
sovereign anymore, but the effects of market forces.

Sure today we still have regimes that apply brute force to control
society, but one of the best way to control society for the benefit of
the few, is to create scarcity rather than physically oppress people.
There is nothing scarier than frightening people with a Malthusian
catastrophe; except that the majority of people have no idea of who
Malthus was or what is a Malthusian catastrophe. Basically the English
economist, Thomas Robert Malthus, argued that an increasing population
would eventually over take agricultural production that will lead to
subsistence levels of existence and eventually social chaos.

Thus scaring people with rampant immigration not only leads to racism (a
divided society) but more importantly exploits the fears of the people
into supporting a more protectionist and controlling regime. Moreover,
by creating a state of high unemployment and social insecurity gives the
impression that society is very close to the brink of chaos thus
justifying oppressive measures. This will only lead to reinforcing the
status quo that only the minority have what it takes to manage society
(remember the legitimacy of the Devine rule of Kings?). This leads us to
the key philosophical issue of the debate and our topic.

Both authors use books as the source of knowledge and the absence of
which can lead to slavery. Issues in epistemology have always centred on
the roles played by beliefs and knowledge but information has hardly had
a mention in a tradition of over three thousand years of philosophy. We
know that information and data (two different things) play an important
role in science, but not in philosophy. Thus the main philosophical
issue of our topic is "information"; precisely the role played by
information in human beings.

Precisely to identify the causal link between our state of mind, given a
set of information we hold, and our actions based on a set of beliefs,
that were formed by the set of information we hold.

For example, we have truck loads of information about democracy, but
very few people know of a philosophically sound argument why democracy
is the best form of government. Choice and majority are not necessarily
sound arguments and the fact that totalitarian governments are
unacceptable models does not mean that democracy, therefore, ought to be
the best political model. It might be, but that's not an argument why
democracy is a good model.

But establishing a role for information in philosophy is a huge task
especially for our purposes. Hence, I would start by arguing, even to
the point of seeming arrogant, that knowledge and beliefs are not valid
subjects to discuss together; there is absolutely no connection between
knowledge and beliefs despite the three thousand year history. My
argument is very simple, beliefs do not make facts, but knowledge is
about facts. Hence, the way we come to knowledge has to be independent
of our beliefs. It's not that I have a belief about something so let's
try and confirm it, but rather what can we confirm or refute?

So knowledge ought to be more appropriately linked to information rather
than beliefs. Before we arrive to knowledge we are in a state where we
are brim full of information. The salient aspect of knowledge is that we
can use it to predict things and events etc. Thus, knowledge is
important for us not only because we can answer questions of the type
"what is" but also "how to". When I say predict I don't mean knowing the
winning number for next week's lottery but rather we can plan things for
the future with a reasonable expectation of success.

For example, what we have is information that 24% of the work force is
unemployed. However, this information will never lead to any useful
policies to reduce unemployment since we don't know whether those people
are unemployed because of some real market forces or a fabricated
illusion of an imminent Malthusian catastrophe.

Information occupies the middle ground between knowledge and data. Data
would therefore be records of events in a space-time setting. I can
collect data about the temperature in Madrid, but not about the
temperature in heaven since data is empirical and has to take a physical
form for us to handle it. And from what we are told about heaven it
cannot possibly be a physical place in a space-time setting.

This leaves us with information; so what is information? A common
definition of information includes the idea of facts about someone or
something. I disagree with this on the grounds that facts pertain to
knowledge and nothing else. Thus, information can only be data points in
a given space-time context. The temperature in Madrid in summer is
information, and knowing that Madrid can be hot and very quiet during
summer (a verifiable fact about Madrid) converts a set of information to
knowledge and then to reasonably predict that Madrid is not too much fun
if one likes an action packed summer. Only a certain type of information
can be processed into knowledge, the type that brings about reasonable
outcomes.

And this is why information matters: I can cloud your judgement by
giving you false data and false data in a context (information), but
when you act on this information nothing happens. We can be told that
the temperature in heaven is always mild and pleasant but of course,
when we die we just die and enter the recycle bin of atoms and energy.

Alternatively, we can be told that 24% of the workforce is unemployed
because of overspending by society but we'll never be told that this is
basically due to an artificially induced illusion of a pending
Malthusian catastrophe. Thus austerity is not a policy based on
knowledge since an unemployment rate above12%-15% in a western economy
must be induced by artificial forces and not natural market forces. The
Great depression of the last century with unemployment rates between 25%
and 33% was caused by the collapse of the stock market; a very
artificial force indeed. In contrast the 2004 tsunami in Japan that can
only be described as a catastrophe, did not even create a dent in the
Japanese economy and unemployment rates.

The importance of information is that it can be manipulated and
distorted and can thus easily fool people into believing that what they
have is knowledge when in reality what they have is corrupted
information. Hobbes was right in think that people are rational so they
know the real value and power of knowledge. But what is very hard for us
is the ability to distinguish between corrupted information and real
knowledge before it is too late. Something that matters for all of us.

We can now describe the important issue of these two books as: people
without information (1984) and information without people (Brave new world).

So what is the difference? I would say that people without information
know they have no information, but only dead people can have no
information or that information is not relevant for them. Even a
comatose person needs basic information from their environment for their
body to function for example regulating air intake to breath etc. The
mistake we make is to assume that all information is conscious information.

As a side comment, trying to tease out the philosophical issues in the
context of beliefs and knowledge is not always easy. But to do it from a
setting of a non-native philosophical text, like a work of literature,
might complicate life beyond what is reasonably expected. This problem
of identifying the philosophy in a text of fiction would not so much be
like the Berkeleyan problem whether a sound is made if no one hears a
tree fall in the forest. But rather, given the cacophony in the forest
can we actually hear a tree fall? Are we in danger with non-native
philosophical texts of missing the real philosophical issues because of
the distractions and complexities? It's bad enough as it is with
philosophical texts.

Best Lawrence



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from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: Is it 1984 or Brave
new world?

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