Friday Aug 29, 2008

Logic and the Future

Many, who have poorly understood the power of analysis, logic and "scientific" prediction, put great weight on the so-called "analysis of facts" to predict the future. In Fact, Fiction and Forecast, Fourth Edition, philosopher Nelson Goodman writes:

The problem of the validity of judgements about future or unknown cases arises, as Hume pointed out, because such judgments are neither reports of experience nor logial consequences of it. Predictions, of course, pertain to what has not yet been observed. And they cannot be logically inferred from what has been observed; for what has happened imposes no logical restrictions on what will happen. 

Sunday Sep 23, 2007

Science and Leibniz

How does science answer Leibniz' famous question: "Why is there not nothing?"

Tuesday Aug 07, 2007

Do Facts Exist?

Of course they do, if we are ever able to get our heads and hands around them.

We get our heads and hands around them when we interpret them for their light, their significance, if we ever apply our given facilities and capacity to do so.

What matters even more are the large number of consistent interpretations for any given body of facts. The enormously vast majority of these interpretations (of the same body of facts) will be mutually contradictory. The non-mutually-contradictory interpretations are merely expansions of a series of existing ones, encapsulating and imprisoning each other like Russian dolls. They reveal nothing new. They disclose nothing new. Instead, they simply envelope themselves in themselves, using larger and larger envelopes.

What matters even more is that facts have no life without interpretations.

The interpretations one chooses will define how one will live in this world and in other worlds....and even there, your interpretation will differ from mine....but at a certain moment of destiny for these interpretations, the imaginary gap will close itself, and they will merge towards the ever returning.

Wednesday Jun 06, 2007

Truth -- What's Consistency Got To Do With It?

Frege used a 2-D notation for his logic.

Many years ago, while with the Graduate Group in Logic and Methodology of Science at Berkeley, I had written a little paper with a tease of a title: "Consistency--What Is Logic Got To Do With It?"

After a recent discussion, I realized more clearly how that paper might have been making too far of a leap in logic.

Perhaps, it should have been named "Consistency--What Is Truth Got To Do With It?"  By "consistency," all along, I had meant "consistency" as understood by mathematicians and scientists, not what we understand "consistency" to be when we speak of, say, "consistent" behavior, which is a totally different concept when compared to a "consistent" theory.

In the mathematicians' definition of truth, as expounded by Alfred Tarski, one can only speak of "truth" within the confines of a mathematically "consistent" theory. Thus, one arrives, in mathematical logic, at incomplete theories that meet mathematical "truth" criteria even as they remain incomplete. In a sense, their incompleteness is more true about these theories than their "truth." Their "truth" exists within their limited, incomplete domain, which, always remains positively finite or countable or of much lower cardinality than the continuum of claims that they can neither prove nor disprove.

Wednesday Mar 28, 2007

Delusion in the Delusion

One could logically demonstrate vast parts of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion to be nothing but delusion.

Man can exist without science but the story of science has no existence without man—the being who created it as a refuge, a very poor one indeed, and at best a means to better comprehend a tiny aspect of the universe in order to appreciate the greatness that surrounds him.

Friday Jan 26, 2007


Greatest stupidity occurs not when a country is invaded or a space-craft explodes as it takes off but when care is not returned.

Saturday Jan 06, 2007

To Will One Thing

The theme and objective of certain parts of Sören Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing reminds me of the same in certain sufi texts including some very early ones such as Al-Gazzali's The Alchemy of Happniess. Both bring attention to material we often ignore. Kierkegaard positions his work primarily to respond to the distractions of modern life and to awaken commitment. For the same purpose, Al-Gazzali takes sure steps to unfold the compendium of sacred knowledge already available in the midst of his world. The former still insists in adopting a philosophical language. The latter puts pure philosophical methods behind him to reach a community.

Monday Dec 18, 2006

Securing Property Rights

In cultured societies1, the state secures personal property against wanton takeover. Such protection encourages personal investment in productive social activity.

In a sense, private property becomes, and indeed is, sacred.

Nowhere is this more clear than the severe, albeit varying punishment vetted against thieves in various cultures and societies throughout history.

For example, consider the law in the U.S. that called for the execution of a man who stole the horse of another. Presumably, stealing a horse could be tantamount to stealing another's livelihood if not his or her life. As another example, if some score of  conditions hold, a thief of a personal property might lose a limb--starting with a piece of a finger--according to the sharia law. One of those score of hard-to-meet conditions that must exist for this particular law to apply involves a lack of a survival need to steal. So, the punishment may apply to a Wall Street magnet who has provenly and intentionally stolen from an old lady's pension or some orphans' trust, wrecking their lives as a consequence, but will not apply to a hungry beggar who takes an apple. 

Furthermore, and beyond the proofs in stipulated punishments, we have the proof in taboos against taking what belongs to others. These taboos run deep. For example, consider the emphasis, in both Jewish and Islamic law, regarding payment of debt as a religious obligation. Most reasonable people experience the relevant acculturation and live by these taboos and commendations.

Without the protection of private property, no one can be expected to give of his own or contribute anything for she or he will receive nothing of worth in return. There would be no incentive to contribute anything of worth without the protection of private property and rights in what is of worth. The history of the artificial beliefs in the sanctity of communal property extending to all things worth owning makes it quite clear that when incentives of private ownership disappear, people stop contributing willingly.

However, all protection of private and personal "property" has come at a price. States levy taxes on assets presumably to compensate themselves for cost of securing the conditions for ownership of such assets. The owners pay taxes and return something to the society that harbored their ownership rights. There are similar limits in other cases.

While IP and copyrights have been treated by some as private property, the protections granted to them had a different purpose. It was not an eternal protection but simply a safeguard for a limited time in order to grant the creative forces some security so that they may achieve and earn a return on the novelty they had created. Indefinite or long-term protection would create other problems such as slow propagation of novel ideas and innovations, not to mention the cost of enforcing such "rights." However, there were limits imposed on the duration of such protection in order to return the ideas to the mix of the community that had helped foster them. 

Lawrence Lessig has written enough about this topic, and today, in The Wall Street Journal, we read how sums are invested for the very protection of copyrights. ("Copyright Tool Will Scan Web for Violations," WSJ, December 18, 2006, Page B1.)

When a society pays more for securing what only needs limited protection, it increases its cumulative transaction costs at a time when better, lower-cost, alternatives exist for safeguarding what needs protecting. (This forumla also holds with aggressive wars as a means to provide "security" or with dubious prisons and gulags as a means to provide "justice." These techniques remind us of the analogy of a hammer used to kill a fly. Indeed, they are far worse.)

To the extent creative commons get a chance to grow beyond a certain threshold, we are in a position to see a more free culture. Cultural production means creating new cultural products against and upon what history has handed to us. To the extent that history can be frozen in a particular era by some few owners of its cultural products, we stand to suffer because we lose our flexibility as a cultured community to respond to the changes that go on around us.


1. The phrase "cultured societies" reads like an oxymoron. No society can exist in the long run without a culture to sustain it. Perhaps, I should have said in "Sustainable societies". Then again, we aree dealing with a bit of a tautology here. Without culture a society cannot be sustained, and no society is sustainable without culture.

Friday Nov 10, 2006

A Persian Blogger Comes of Age

 The Power of the Press

If you know Persian, occasional viewing of Hossein Derakhshan's Persian weblog might benefit you. He also has an English weblog and a photoblog worth a visit for a cultural study if nothing else. The Washington Post carries another regular blog of his.

Derakhshan's recent piece analyzing current politics of Iran might be a good lesson for those Persian speakers who have a tendency to provide knee-jerk analysis of the Iranian history of the last 30 years. The title is a bit odd but clear "چرا با براندازی حتی نرم هم مخالفم" ("Why I'm opposed to regime change of even the soft variety"). I've not included the link to this particular entry of his but you can search for it on his Persian blog if you're interested. If you don't know Persian, you can turn to his Washinton Post blog, mentioned above, for a taste of his writings.

Athough Derakhshan takes the job of the journalist somewhat seriously and does quite a bit to expose double-standards everywhere he can see it, his failing (if any) seems to be related to an exaggerated view of the role of the journalist in modern society up to a purist theoretical limit beyond any dreamed up by common Western journalists in Europe or North America. One may also detect an exaggeration with respect to the actual (as opposed to either the theoretical or the subservient) capability of a journalist to transform society, which in practice tends to remain limited because of subtle realities of human life that stand beyond and above opinions of one sort or another. To his advantage and credit, Derakhshan insists on remaining at least self-consistent unlike some of his peers who go as far as advocating false concepts such as judicious double-standards.

In his "History of American Journalism classes," professor Thomas C. Leonard of UC Berkeley used to ask whether journalists, under the Fourth Estate, had perhaps evolved into a new type of priesthood (The Power of the Press: The Birth of American Political Reporting), and Kierkegaard would have hated that very aspect of modern times, The Present Age, and Ayn Rand tried to capture it all in her Fountainhead. This perspective, focusing on the leveling effect of the journalistic approach to understanding our moral place in the world, while full of modern rings, goes back all the way to Socrates and his dislike of the rhetoricians of the courts who could make anything sound right or good. Hence, his repose into dialogs

Who is right? The confusion continues, and perhaps, the disintegration of authentic communities of moral practice tend to give rise to priestly elites who busy themselves with "useful" justifications (of torture under "rules," e.g., by Alan Dershowitz: here, here, here; here and here) instead of advocating well-established and crystal-clear moral concepts having to do with human beings and their due integrity and honor, and also, to journalists who play the missing priests--to use professor Leonard's reluctantly-drawn  but apt analogy.

Friday Oct 27, 2006

Modes of Perception

Some scientisms claim that there's no truth out in the world to be found and that we simply have some descriptions, in science, of what is going on, at any given time during the course of the evolution of science as a human activity. While this claim has its proponents, it does not quite jive with the reality of human existential experience, a good part of which seems to be summed up in understanding the truth of what is out there.

Although proponents of various scientisms may deny such existential experience, all human beings seem to experience it given some level of maturity and emotional preparation. So, in philosophical discourse, some philosophers are keen on talking of prephilosophical understanding or perception. For example, in the preface to his The Tasks of Philosophy, Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

For the last three hundred years the project of explaining human thought and action in natural scientific terms has been an increasingly influential aspect of the distinctively modern mind. The sciences to which appeal has been made have undergone large changes. But the philosophical questions posed by that project have remained remarkably the same. So Hegel's critique of the claims advanced by the pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is still to the point. And in “Hegel on faces and skulls” I conclude that Hegel provided us with good reasons for rejecting the view that human attitudes and actions are explicable by causal generalizations of the kind provided by the relevant natural sciences, in our day neurophysiology and biochemistry. In “What is a human body?” I argue further that we all of us have and cannot but have a prephilosophical understanding of the human body that is incompatible with treating its movements as wholly explicable in natural scientific terms. This understanding is presupposed by, among other things, those interpretative practices that make it possible for us to understand and to respond to what others say and do. So that in and by our everyday lives we are committed to a denial of the basic assumptions of much contemporary scientific naturalism.

This kind of view is not unique to McIntyre or the strand of Western philosophy to which he belongs.

Very recently and quite accidentally I got hold of a translation of a theosophical treatise prepared by a Berkeley scholar of Islam and Persian which opens up and addresses the same question.

A series of special modes of perception exist in man's being that are rooted in themselves, arise from the very stuff of man's nature, and do not owe their emergence to any external factor. Among these perceptions are the sense of commitment to trust, justice, veracity and honesty.

Before he enters the realm of science and knowledge with all its concerns, man is able to perceive certain truths by means of these innate perceptions. But after entering the sphere of science and philosophy and filling his brain with various proofs and deductions, he may forget his natural and innate perceptions or begin to doubt them. It is for this reason that when man moves beyond his innate nature to delineate a belief, differences begin to appear.

...The roots of innate feeling in the disposition of man are so deep and, at the same time, so clear and evident that if a person purges his mind and his spirit both of religious concepts and of anti-religious thoughts and then looks at himself and at the world of being, he will clearly see that he is moving in a certain direction together with the whole caravan of being. Without any desire or will on his part, he begins his life at a certain point, and again without willing it, he advances toward another point, one which is unknown to him. The same reality can be observed in all natural creatures, operating in a precise and orderly way.

Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari, Lessons on Islamic Doctrine (translated by Hamid Algar)

For other writings by Hamid Algar, see here.

Sunday Sep 10, 2006

Opinion as Worthless

Opinion, ultimately, is quite worthless. Real-world experience, on the other hand, has worth in "gold," some say, although this may also be an exaggeration.

Here's the other side: In a letter my father wrote to me in my 30s, when I had said I had finally come to realize the importance of experience, he noted that "experience does not help either." He seemed to be saying that there was some other source of guidance or that we had no such guidance.

Personal commitment and belief seem to come into the picture. Unless we commit something of ourselves, something that's of value to us, we're making no real transformations of anything.

Mental transformation ultimately flows from real-world interaction in the physical world.

So for example, it's better to go to a place and live there than to keep having opinions about it.

Once you commit your body, your opinions might change!

Monday Jul 31, 2006

Truth Criteria

Philosophy has never been this fast.
[Read More]

Tuesday May 02, 2006

Lecture on Zoroastrian Revelations

What can be learned when you pore over five pages of Deenkard and compare them to 2000 pages of Western ethics?[Read More]

Saturday Mar 25, 2006


I don't know what to say about his political writings, but MIT's Michael Schrage's has touched on some important issues in his recent opinion piece for Financial Times, written on a controversial topic in which he seems to possess some expertise ("The 'edutainers' merit a failing grade," FT, March 22, 206, p. 13):

Yes, the internet is wonderful. Yes, children are our future. Yes, state-run school systems require fundamental reform. Nevertheless, the shrewdest policy to improve public education while saving billions in government spending demands abstinence. Keep computers out of the classroom.

The "edutopian" belief that computers should be essential ingredients of classroom curricula is delusional. A quality education has virtually nothing to do with the technological endowment of the school. To the contrary, history confirms that schools are shockingly poor at successfully assimilating new technologies.

...Look instead, perhaps, to technology as a medium that creatively redefines relationships between schools and their communities. In South Korea, for example, Seoul educational administrators recently announced that they would expand a mobile phone service that let teachers text parents the grades, schedules and homework assignments for their children. Korean mothers and fathers were apparently very enthusastic about this innovation.

In this, I hear some echos of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information but it seems to me Brown and Duguid have dug much deeper, and ultimately, it is best to just refer to Hubert Dreyfus' work, including Mind Over Machine.


Wednesday Mar 22, 2006

What's Life Worth

Of course, life is worth a lot, and the closer it gets to us, the larger its worth tends to grow for us. If we fail to have any other moral imagination, we should be able to imagine that the same value principle should hold for others.

Sadly, much of philosophy, under the guise of special forms of utilitarianism, including some extreme types, has often avoided serious questions, particularly ones related to justice and morality.

Is killing (or even harming) one human being like killing (or harming) the whole humanity?

The answer to this moral question should be quite clear but the utilitarian talk of "collateral damage" and the talk of "judicious double standards" badly cloud the public's moral compass — a public that has divorced and forgotten the roots of its moral traditions.

March 22 report of The World, includes a segment where host Lisa Mullins speaks with Time Magazine reporter Tim McGirk who has looked into the the Haditha, Iraq case, in which 23 people, including women and children in multiple families lost their lives.

Wednesday Mar 08, 2006

Nuclear Opinions - or - The High Art of Mocking Morality

Morality used to mean something at the time of the great saviors. Skillful mocking of it has now become high art and fashionable.

Some are advancing "innovative" moral principles, for example:

  • (a) The world is divided into friends and enemies.

  • (b) Whatever my friends do (no matter how wrong), they have done right!

  • (c) Whatever my enemies do (no matter how right), they have done wrong!

  • (d) Apply the above principles where you can, and where you don't apply them, say you couldn't. This includes the paranthesis in items (c) and (b) above.

Opinion journalism more often than not will go astray, and take up this high art.

"This tailor cuts and sews," so goes the Persian saying, with no care whether the coat will fit the poor fellow who would wear it. The opinion journalists (M. Ledeen, etc.), particularly the ones who eagerly beat the drums of confrontation with Iran at every media corner and opportunity they find, will spare no effort to produce unreal accounts of what is at stake.

So, we read Richard Cohen (of Washington Post) enshrine the new policy principles (see above) with his sanctification of "Judicious Double Standards."

Mockery becomes more manifest when the joker imposes his own value system on others and takes no heed of the importance of consistency.

Not only does Cohen ridicule consistency of rules and standards, he also believes Iranian leaders must think they should want nuclear weapons, even if they don't. In fact, all Iranian political leaders (all of whom are elected officials, by the way) have said, on multiple occasions, that nuclear weapons do not fit their national defense doctrine. They have held such weapons to be not only costly and unnecessary but also ineffective and immoral, despite what Cohen would rather have Iranian leaders believe.

But facts and what others say matter little to opinion makers who are bent towards conflict, specially one that promises, if it ever happens, to be far more costly for the future of the West than for what will become of Iran, not in a physical sense, but in a wierd moral sense.

Here, I could choose at random and analyze every sentence in Mr. Cohen's rhetorical column, show its deep injustice and prove it false based on real events and facts but I have a day job to do and need some evenings to spend with my family instead of blogging.

I do have one quick advice for him to improve his rhetoric. The moral principle he should enshrine is not that double standards are good policy and should be defended but that different cases need to be measured according to their context.

However, all measurement, even if sensitive to the context of a case, will eventually require the same moral foundation, compass and measuring stick, and Mr. Cohen seems to posses only one very rusty and biased measuring tool in his toolbox — the one summarized in the first part of this essay.

Charged adjectives and accusations, deployed using the highest rhetorical techniques, may have a university campus quality but they can hardly turn halucinations into reality.

The moral that "whatever my friend does is right" is far lower in its value as a measuring stick and a guiding principle than the golden rule of reciprocity that says "treat others as you would like to be treated yourself" — in other words consistency on a very personal, deep level — "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" (Gospel of Matthew 7:12 of the Christian Bible). (Unfortunately, when I re-examine the situation, I see that even this principle has been misinterpreted by some towards violence.)

What a great guide consistency can be and how far away, from where Mr. Cohen is taking us, it is!

Poor logic and poor facts when combined with good rhetorical skills — not once, but since the time of Alcibiades, have together dragged the great into wars, some ending like Melos, others like Syracuse!

Saturday Dec 10, 2005

Collective Goods and Group Members

Our understanding of how groups and organizations operate has significant influence on how we talk about a company, a cartel, an oligopoly, a standards organization or any other group with a collective interest. Successful groups and organizations, whether it comes to a company, an open source software community or a family, have become successful because, among other important needs, they have addressed the inherent tensions between individual and group purpose.

There are many ways to look at this tension between the member and the group. Here, I should note that religion, at its core, seeks to resolve the apparent contradictions we face in life, including the most significant aspects involving the tension between the community and its members. Religion achieves this resolution through various practices and rituals including ones that govern commerce, compassion and caring. However, resort to such harmony cannot always be available and seems to have escaped many a modern human being. The interested reader should turn to Kierkegaard, who was among the first to realize this "modern" affliction.

Organizational theorists have explored and contrasted the individual and the group purpose from other, more philosophical perspectives.

In my most recent entries, I've pointed the reader to Etienne Wenger's Communities of Practice. Wenger has focused on the "what" and the "how" of participation within communities. Wenger's point of departure involves his interest in the connections between learning, identity, community and practice. (These are all near and dear to Open Source software development.)

There were others, prior to Wenger, who were interested in other characteristics of organizations and their members.

For example, Chester Barnard outlined the conflicting interests of the individual and the organization, noted the difficulty of measuring motivation, suggested the diversity and importance of incentives, individual integrity and informal social groups within the background of a formal organization. (Of course, my reading of Chester Barnard's The Functions of the Executive, although physically complete for the first time, is hardly fresh. Perhaps if I read these books for a living and if I were an academician, I would be more careful and conservative when it came to commenting on his and others' works but there are noticable contrasts that come to mind which might be useful to record and share.)

Currently, I'm also continuing my sporadic reading of The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups by Mancur Olson. While Barnard was moved by the problem of satisfying individual purpose within the context of an organization, Olson sought to find when individuals would stay away from collective action involving public (group) goods. When would members of a group fail to act to obtain a valuable good for the group? The group could be, for example, a corporation and the public good could be the successful (and presumably moral) generation of larger revenues through provision of better goods and services.

Here, I'll quote from page 45 of Olson's book, where he underlines the significance of the number of members in a group when it comes to the group's ability to obtain a collective good —

Whether a group will have the possibility of providing itself with a collective good without coercion or outside inducements therefore depends to a striking degree upon the number of individuals in the group, since the larger the group, the less the likelihood that the contribution of any one will be perceptible. It is not, however, strictly accurate to say that it depends solely on the number of individuals in the group. The relation between the size of the group and the significance of an individual member cannot be defined quite that simply. A group which has members with highly unequal degrees of interest in a collective good, and which wants a collective good that is (at some level of provision) extremely valuable in relation to its cost, will be more apt to provide itself with a collective good than other groups with the same number of members . . . The standard for determining whether a group will have the capacity to act, without coercion or outside inducements, in its group interest is (as it should be) the same for market and nonmarket groups: it depends on whether the individual actions of any one or more members in a group are noticeable to any other individuals in the group. This is most obviously, but not exclusively, a function of the number in the group.

In closing, it is worth noting that Barnard, in The Functions, had already realized not only the effect of the number of members on group dynamics but also the problematic of perceiving member contribution to the attainment of collective purpose.

So, why do we watch group sports? Could be because it is one sure place where individual contributions are most obvious to see and perceive?

I know I watch group sports for far more interesting reasons — skill and beauty of group interaction and flawless execution come to mind immediately —


Thursday Dec 08, 2005

Why We Need to Learn about Learning

We need to learn about learning because never before have we "meddled with it on the scale on which we do today," to borrow Etienne Wenger's words —

For many of us, the concept of learning immediately conjures up images of classrooms, training sessions, teachers, textbooks, homework, and exercises. Yet in our experience, learning is an integral part of our everyday lives. It is part of our participation in our communities and organizations. The problem is not that we do not know this, but rather than we do not have very systematic ways of talking about this familiar experience.

In his book, Wenger focuses on disclosing a new, systematic way of talking about the familiar experience of learning in "communities of practice" by way of finding meaning and identity through "participation". One should probably also think about knowledge networks.

Communities of Practice, Learning, Meaning, and Identity

I've begun reading Etienne Wenger's Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity.

I ran into this book while reading John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's Social Life of Information, about which I've written here earlier. I've always been interested in how social groupings and organizations learn, evolve, prosper and survive, how we learn and work, and how we come to be who we are as individuals.

Wenger's book would be a good start for whoever wants to explore these topics. Wenger is also deeply interested in building the conceptual framework that will help with the design of organizations, artifacts and processes.

Wenger's ambitious enterprise suits the practitioner as much as it stimulates the theoretician. As the book plate says, the material "is presented with all the breadth, depth, and rigor necessary to address such a complex and yet profoundly human topic."


Monday Oct 10, 2005

Existential Phenomenology Of The Internet

Søren Kierkegaard

The Internet has introduced, among other things, new modes of transactions, mostly involving what one can buy from a relatively competitive market. The Internet has reduced some transaction costs while increasing others.

The pundits have often exaggerated the effectiveness of the Internet in organizing and searching for "information," in distant "learning," and in citizen participation and "democratization" even if we include more recent phenomena such as blogs and podcasts. Much more has been said about the role, importance, expansion and revolutionary effects of the Internet than about how it can stultify action and movement.

Hubert Dreyfus is the one philosopher who has paid attention to these other concerns regarding the Internet. Earlier, on this weblog, I have written short entries on Dreyfus' book On The Internet. Now, I'd like to point to an essay of his whose content can also be found near the end of this book: "Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age".

In this essay, Dreyfus explains why "Kierkegaard would have hated the Internet."

This is a must-read essay for anyone who wants to know what is going on with the Internet. I will quote a few paragraphs to titillate your interest:

Kierkegaard would surely have seen in the Internet, with its web sites full of anonymous information from all over the world and its interest groups which anyone in the world can join and where one can discuss any topic endlessly without consequences, the hi-tech synthesis of the worst features of the newspaper and the coffee house. On their web page anyone can put any alleged information into circulation. Kierkegaard could have been speaking of the Internet when he said of the Press, "It is frightful that someone who is no one ... can set any error into circulation with no thought of responsibility and with the aid of this dreadful disproportioned means of communication" (Journals and Papers, Vol. 2, p 481.) And in interest groups anyone can have an opinion on anything. In both cases, all are only too eager to respond to the equally deracinated opinions of other anonymous amateurs who post their views from nowhere. Such commentators do not take a stand on the issues they speak about. Indeed, the very ubiquity of the Net generally makes any such local stand seem irrelevant.

What is striking about such interest groups is that no experience or skill is required to enter the conversation. Indeed, a serious danger of the Public Sphere, as illustrated on the Internet, is that it undermines expertise. Learning a skill requires interpreting the situation as being of a sort that requires a certain action, taking that action, and learning from the results. As Kierkegaard understood, there is no way to gain wisdom but by making risky commitments and thereby experiencing both failure and success. Studies of skill acquisition have shown that, unless the outcome matters and unless the person developing the skill is willing to accept the pain that comes from failure and the elation that comes with success, the learner will be stuck at the level of competence and never achieve mastery. Since expertise can only be acquired through involved engagement with actual situations, what is lost in disengaged discussion is precisely the conditions for acquiring practical wisdom. Thus the heroes of the Public Sphere who appear on serious radio and TV programs, such as the United States's MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, have a view on every issue, and can justify their view by appeal [to] abstract principles, but they do not have to act on the principles they defend and therefore lack the passionate perspective that alone can lead to risk of serious error and also to the gradual acquisition of wisdom.

Kierkegaard even saw that the ultimate activity the Internet would encourage would be speculation on how big it is, how much bigger it will get, and what, if anything, all this means for our culture. This sort of discussion is, of course, in danger of becoming part of the very cloud of anonymous speculation Kierkegaard abhorred. Ever sensitive to his own position as a speaker, Kierkegaard concluded his analysis of the dangers of the present age and his dark predictions of what was ahead for Europe with the ironic remark that: "In our times, when so little is done, an extraordinary number of prophecies, apocalypses, glances at and studies of the future appear, and there is nothing to do but to join in and be one with the rest" (85).

From Hubert Dreyfus, "Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age"




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