Day: February 6, 2010

Two philosophers shoveling snow


A brief non-Platonic dialogue.

Dramatis Personae:
Friedrich William Shotter-Wittgenstein (“Will”), a mind-world monist
Rene Roy Searle-Wight (“Roy”), a mind-world dualist

Roy: Hey there, Will. Surprised to see you out here shoveling snow.

Will: Hey, Roy. Why would you be surprised at that? It snowed a lot last night, and I need to get the sidewalk cleared in front of my house.

Roy: Well, can’t you mind-world monists just think the snow away? Why bother to shovel it?

Will (shaking head, to himself): Oh no, not this again.


Roy: Seriously. If you don’t believe in the separation between the mind and the world, then doesn’t it necessarily follow that the world is a figment of your imagination, or your mental projection, or something like that? And if that’s true, why are you imagining yourself this rather tiring task of shoveling snow?

Will: Roy, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a dozen times — you’re confusing mind-world monism with subjective idealism, and they’re not the same thing.

Roy (somewhat skeptically): Please, enlighten me.

Will (continuing to shovel snow): Subjective idealism is the solipsistic doctrine that nothing beyond perception exists, which implies that how we organize our perceptions is arbitrary — so we should be able to reorganize them, and thus the world.

Roy: where I come from we call that the “epistemic fallacy.”

Will: Yes, I know, and that’s actually part of the problem — you only admit two possibilities, either the world exists outside of mind or the world is a subordinate function of mind. Your “epistemic fallacy” is really just a reductio ad absurdum of subjective idealism, leaving the other pole of the dichotomy as the only option standing.

Roy: But the notion that the world is limited by what we know of it is absurd — as absurd as the notion that we make the world by organizing our perceptions. If we did, then I could make all of this snow disappear by wishing.

Will: I agree that the notion that thinking makes things so is absurd. I’m out here shoveling rather than inside wishing or praying or casting a magic spell, right?

Roy: Then you admit it — your mind-world monism is just an intellectual game, and when push comes to shove, you’re a dualist like the rest of us.

Will: How do you figure that? This isn’t going to be your uncle David’s thing about doors and windows again, is it?

Roy (grinning): How did you guess? Yes indeed, the mere fact that when you leave a building you use the door instead of walking out the second-story window shows that you respect external reality as much as the rest of us do. As does your shoveling snow.

Will (shaking head): Ah, Roy. Why is it so important for you whether or not I assent to your beliefs about how the world is put together?

Roy (sputtering): Because . . . because . . . because you’re wrong, that’s why! And because if this snow weren’t real, if it weren’t something that existed in the world outside of our consciousnesses and wills, then not only would our activity in shoveling it be an absurd waste of time, but the county officials wouldn’t feel any necessity to send out snowplows to clear the roads. It’s delusions like “the snow only exists in your mind” that lead people to cut back on funding for emergency preparedness and basic scientific research, mark my words.

Will (skeptically): I’m pretty sure that the arguments against spending more on snowplows were largely about relative priorities given the climate, but we can probably look that up online later. Scientific research — especially social scientific research in fields like Political Science — yes, you have a point there. A lot of government funding follows the logic that if science isn’t about an externally-existing world about which we could achieve completely solid and classically objective knowledge, then it’s not worth supporting. and since I know that you’re such a big fan of the government, they couldn’t possibly be wrong, could they?

Roy (fuming): Ha ha.

Will (continuing to shovel): In any event, my point is that there are options other than subjective-solipsist one that we both clearly think is absurd, and the mind-independent world that you claim to have knowledge of. I would suggest that there is another option.

Roy (exasperated): But you already admitted that you are also taking the world into account in your actions! How can you now deny that world?

Will: I never said that I was taking the world into account. I just said that I wasn’t sitting back and wishing for the snow to go away; I was out here shoveling it.

Roy: And how exactly is that different from taking the mind-independent world into account?

Will: Because I’m not conforming my mind to something mind-independent; I’m just doing what is appropriate under the circumstances.

Roy: This is just semantics.

Will: I would disagree.

Roy: Figures.

Will: But seriously, I think it’s an important distinction. In your account, the snow falls in a mind-independent way, and then all of us confront the mind-independent fact of the snowfall and take action, right?

Roy: Precisely. And I think that’s what we all did — even you, my friend.

Will: Well, even if we did — and I’m not saying that I do — that still wouldn’t prove anything except that we all assume that the snow exists independently of our minds; it wouldn’t prove that the snow actually does exist independently of our minds.

Roy: Right — it’s background assumption, like my cousin John always says.

Will: But the fact that it’s our background assumption doesn’t make it true, any more than background assumptions about the existence of witches among the Azande was true. In fact, truth and falsity are not at issue here; what matters is efficacy.

Roy: So you’re willing to accept mind-independent reality as a working pragmatic assumption?

Will: Sort of. Actually, I’m willing to accept intersubjective reality, and to reject solipsism, on that basis. But I’m not sure how we could get from intersubjective reality to mind-independent reality, so I’m not willing to accept that.

Roy: But we could all be wrong about it having snowed — we could all be laboring under a delusion out here. And, if snowfall is an intersubjective consensus, can’t we change it if we all wish hard enough?

Will: An intersubjective consensus isn’t just a summation of individual thoughts in heads; it involves publicly accessible rules and procedures, like my cousin Ludwig is fond of saying. If I said that it hadn’t snowed, you’d think that I was using the words wrong.

Roy: You would be using the words wrong, because it snowed a lot last night.

Will: Right — “it snowed” is the description that makes sense in our language-game.

Roy: So if we had a different language-game, it wouldn’t have snowed?

Will: If we had no word for snow, then we couldn’t very well say that it had snowed, could we?

Roy: But what about all of this white crap on the ground?

Will: It’s only “snow” under a particular description, within a particular language-game. And it’s only a “heavy snowfall” under a language-game that emerges from a form of life where this amount and frequency of snow is an unusual occurrence.

Roy: But it did snow.

Will: Yes, that’s what we say.

Roy: But it snowed! It really did!

Will (smiling): Now, Roy, what does saying “really” add to that sentence?

Roy: It adds a certain non-delusional reality constraint, so you can’t just pretend that it didn’t snow.

Will: But I can’t pretend that it didn’t snow — not under this language-game. We established that. So we don’t need “really,” or the notion of a mind-independent reality, to dismiss solipsism; we can do that with intersubjective consensus just fine.

Roy: But we could be wrong! Intersubjective consensus isn’t enough to ensure that our perceptions and actions are actually lining up with reality; we need to be in touch with what really exists in order to ensure that we aren’t accidentally reproducing the conditions of our own oppression. If it didn’t really snow, why are we out here shoveling? Why are we accepting what might be a coercive appropriation of our labor-power? Only knowledge of mind-independent reality can make us certain that we’re doing the right thing.

Will: You worry about whether we’re reproducing the conditions of our own oppression. I’m going to go shovel the driveway.

[Loosely inspired, as the names should indicate, by the works of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, William James, John Shotter, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rene Descartes, Roy Bhaskar, John Searle, and my ISA sparring-partner Colin Wight. Snow courtesy Snowmageddon 2010.]

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The Short Career of Hakimullah Mehsud

In the latest round of the ongoing blood feud between the US military/intelligence agencies and the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), it appears that the TTP’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by a Predator drone attack in mid-January. The assassination was apparently in “revenge” for the murder of seven CIA operatives at a forward operating base in Afghanistan by Hakimullah’s associate and Jordanian double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. Of course, Al-Balawi had claimed that his suicide bombing was in retaliation for the assassination of the former leader of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, by a CIA drone in August 2009. The US and Pakistan targeted Baitullah Mehsud because he was allegedly behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and a series of suicide bombings and armed attacks in Pakistan. Baitullah had claimed that his attacks were only in retaliation for US drone attacks facilitated by the American puppet regime in Pakistan… Thus the origins of this blood feud recede into a murky history of drone attacks and suicide bombing counter-attacks.

To understand the feud, one needs to appreciate that the relatively precise and virtually unstoppable suicide bomber is considered the military equivalent of the predator drone in the eyes of the Taliban. Hence, there is a cycle of carnage unleashed with each drone attack.

So who was this latest target, Hakimullah Mehsud? Should his death be considered a significant victory in the war?

Haikmullah (also known as Zulfiqar; real name: Jamshed) Mehsud was reportedly first captured and interrogated by Western forces (either NATO or CIA) in the Shawal district of North Waziristan in a raid on March 9th, 2007 according to Pakistani and Chinese media agencies. The illegal incursion by two military helicopters into Pakistani territory led to the ritualized faint murmurs of protest and indignation from the Pakistani government. NATO would later deny any involvement in the kidnapping without denying that the incident may have happened. At the time, Hakimullah was merely known as a cousin and confidante of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the TTP. Through an apparent “catch and release” policy for junior terrorists, Hakimullah was let go.

Although he was most likely illiterate, the young and handsome (in a swashbuckling, Captain Jack Sparrow-ish sort of way) Mehsud became a spokesman for the TTP organization. He appeared on a local news station (Khyber News) in October 2008 to refute rumors of the death of his cousin. He then transferred from the Taliban’s communications desk to become a commander in the field. By November 2008, he rose to become the head of the Taliban in the Orakzai, Khyber, and Kurram Agencies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). However, even as he rose in the ranks of the Taliban, he continued to hold press conferences and grant interviews to local journalists — a sharp contrast with his introverted cousin, Baitullah. The brash commander particularly enjoyed showing off the Humvee he had captured from NATO forces by raiding their supply lines.

Despite his oddly charming personality, it was clear that Hakimullah was also ruthless. He claimed to have had several men beheaded for spying on the Taliban. He instituted a strict interpretation of sharia’ and enforced a ban on the movement of women outside of their homes in the Orakzai Agency.

The first attempt by the US to kill Hakimullah with a Predator drone was in April 2009. In revenge for this failed attempt, Mehsud unleashed a wave of suicide attacks and threatened that there would be at least two suicide bombings per week in retaliation.

Hakimullah was appointed to head the TTP network by a shura (council) after the assassination of his cousin by a drone in August 2009. Notably, Hakimullah held a press conference flanked by his new lieutenants to announce his promotion and he vowed to avenge the drone attack … a vow that his associate, al-Balawi, helped him to fulfill on the last day of 2009. Hakimullah would live for only one more month as American drones narrowed in on him.

At the end of the day the short three year career of the brash and ruthless Mehsud is relatively inconsequential in the broader war. The contrast between Hakimullah and his predecessor only illustrates the wide range of personality types which can assume a leadership position within the Taliban. The skill set Hakimullah used to lead the Taliban organization in the field were not particularly unique or demanding — he was little more than an illiterate, brutal, and narcissistic gangster.

When the camera pans back from the current assassination, it is clear the overall US strategy of leadership decapitation has failed to make a noticeable dent in the operational capacity of the organizations and networks that call themselves the Taliban. If anything, the Taliban appear to be growing bolder on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan. For each commander who is killed, a new leader will rise and take his place after a short period of disorganization. The Pakistani government and media hypes each new leader (while selectively ignoring other militant “assets”), transforming a small fish into a whale; the leader comes to the attention of American forces which begin plotting an assassination with the assistance of Pakistani officials and local informants. After a few failed attempts and some collateral damage, which embitters the local population and helps to recruit more militants, the US usually succeeds in bringing down their man. The Americans trump their kill as a success in the war. Unfortunately, very little is actually accomplished as the cycle resets with each successful assassination, the structural positions are re-loaded, and the game begins again.

A leadership decapitation strategy only makes sense when one is confronted with a highly centralized organization led by a small number of capable leaders and a mass of fighters with low morale — this is clearly not the situation of the organizations and networks targeting Americans and their client regimes in South Asia. The US military and intelligence community continues to confuse a policy of revenge killings for a viable military strategy to defeat a broad based and conscious rebellion.

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Hello Ducks

Hi. I’ve been invited to guest blog here at Duck of Minerva for a little while. So I thought I’d introduce myself…

I’m Vikash Yadav. I teach Political Science and International Relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. My doctoral research (and first book) was an attempt to apply the framework from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to understand the concept of risk and its effects in international financial markets. I have also worked on the political relationship between international financial institutions and low income countries.

My current research and teaching is oriented toward issues of security, sovereignty, and identity in greater South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan — but also including Singapore and the Gulf. I intend to post mainly on my current interests.

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Israel’s Integrated Military

Danny Kaplan at Foreign Policy is pointing out how the US lags behind other top-notch militaries like the IDF in its nascent, grudging willingness to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.

The United States and Turkey are now the only NATO military powers that do not allow gays to serve openly, but Israel and other countries have shown that the participation of gay soldiers in combat units presents no risk for military effectiveness. What’s more, acknowledging their presence might even improve unite cohesion.

No “might” about it, actually; Elizabeth Kier’s study of this topic twelve years ago demonstrated it does. She drew attention back then to the distinction between “unit cohesion” which is indeed based on a sense of commonality among fellow fighters, and “task cohesion” – the ability to actually get things done in a professional manner – which at times can actually be threatened by too much unit cohesion resulting in group-think. While the “military morale” arguments have accounted for the opposition to open integration by conservatives, Kier explains this only applies to unit cohesion, but it’s task cohesion that makes military units effective.

[cross-posted at LGM]

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