Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Helpful Ghost

"In a mediocracy, individuals are considered to be blank slates - mere products of social environment" - Fabian Tassano (Link)

The work that has most influenced my political and social beliefs, by quite a long chalk, is the book whose title is evoked by the above statement. That is Steven Pinker's 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' (Link). As you might expect from the above quote, there's a fair bit of common ground where Tassano's and Pinker's philosophies are concerned.

However, this - the second post in my Fabian Tassano Week series - is concerned more with where Tassano and Pinker appear to me to fundamentally disagree.

Pinker contends that the "official" (to borrow a Tassano phrase that I believe applies, 'ideologically correct') theory of human nature consists of not one, but three intertwined doctrines (The Blank Slate, pg6). The first of these is the titular 'Blank Slate'. The others are the 'Noble Savage' and the 'Ghost in the Machine'. The Noble Savage is, in short, the belief that people in the state of nature are peaceful and egalitarian (The Blank Slate, pg26). This will be given no further consideration in this post.

The doctrine of the 'Ghost in the Machine' was best described by Rene Descartes (hence its philosophical name, Cartesian dualism). It is a later critic of Descartes, Gilbert Ryle, who coined the phrase used here, and described it as the belief that human beings have both a body and a mind, the latter of which are "not in space, nor or their operations subject to mechanical laws" (The Blank Slate, pg9).

Compare, now, Fabian Tassano's description of 'physicalism', which he describes as being one of the two key beliefs characterising the 'Mediocracy' in this book of the same name: "Physicalism, the belief that everything is material...implies that individuals are driven by mechanical forces, that they are manipulable and predictable, and that they do not possess free will or even a meaningful self" (Mediocracy, pg136). 'Physicalism' as described here can, I consider, roughly be taken in this context as being the opposing perspective to that of the believer in the 'Ghost in the Machine'.

Note my use of the word 'believer'. The existence or otherwise of 'free will' is one of the most important open questions in philosophy, and any position one might take on this issue is taken on faith. At best, dualism is a far-from-solid foundation on which to build a theory with real world application. At worst, I suppose, it could be found to be altogether wrong. I doubt that's going to happen any time soon.

An anonymous commenter raised this point at Inversions & Deceptions (Fabian's blog) here. In response, perhaps surprisingly if you've read 'Mediocracy', Tassano described free will as "one of those issues which it's impossible to settle by analysis - or by empirical investigation either come to that" and stated that "I certainly don’t hold that determinism must be false" (Link). Here, in contrast to the various derogatory references to 'physicalism' in the book, Tassano's position on this philosophical hot potato becomes one that is essentially identical to my own, and no longer comes into direct conflict with the arguments of Steven Pinker. There's some excellent libertarian argument in the later comments in the same thread. But, on topic, what gives between the antagonism in 'Mediocracy' and the much more philosophical (in both senses of the word) writing in the linked comments thread?

Tassano explains his anti-physicalism position in the former as follows: "I was careful in the book to confine myself to highlighting prevailing ideological biases, and to avoid arguing about whether particular models are true or not." (Link). This may be perceived by some as a weakness in 'Mediocracy', but to me it is one of its key strengths. More on that later in Fabian Tassano Week.

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