Thursday 24 June 2010

The Texas Sharpshooter society of secular modernity

Yesterday I mentioned the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy - a joke which suggests that the TS fires his gun many times into a barn door, then draws a target over the bullet holes, with the bulls-eye over the closest cluster of bullet holes to make it look as if he had been aiming at the bulls-eye and had hit it, when in fact he drew the bulls-eye only after he took the shots.

But in fact the sharpshooter fallacy is unavoidable and everywhere, it characterizes secular modern society throughout, because secular modern society has no aim but instead idealizes process and retrofits aim to outcome.

Secular moderns - in public discourse - 'believe in' things like freedom, or democracy, or equality, or progress - but these are processes, not aims. Aims are retrospectively ascribed to whatever emerges from process.

It happens all the time: liberation of slavery emerged from the American Civil War therefore people retrospectively ascribe liberation as its purpose. Destruction of the Jewish concentration camps emerged from the second world war, so the liberation of the Jews is ascribed as its purpose.

Libertarians 'believe in' freedom not as a means to some end, but as a process which by definition leads to the best ends; so that they 'believe in' whatever comes out of the process. People are made free, stuff happens as a result, then that stuff is retrospectively defined as good - because it is the output of a free system. In other words, the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

In democracy, people believe in a system, there are elections and so on, someone is elected, stuff happens – much of which appears to be disastrous but good or bad it is retrospectively defined as the best outcome because it is the result of democracy (or it is a bad outcome because the system was not real democracy, or not full democracy, or democracy had been subverted or corrupted. If it is not a democracy then it is bad, because it lacks the process.). In other words, the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

The example I gave was science. The modern attitude is that the best thing is for science to be free and to do what science does, and whatever comes out of the process of science is retrospectively defined as 'truth'. In practice, science is defined as what scientists do, and what scientists do is defined as generating truth. In other words, the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

Or law. Law is a process, and justice is defined as that which results from the process of law. Lacking a transcendental concept of justice, nothing more can be said.

Or education. What is education? The answer is ‘what happens at school and college’. And whatever happens at school and college is what counts as education. Since what happens at school and college changes, then the meaning of education changes. But since education is not aiming at anything in particular, these changes cannot be evaluated. Whatever happens is retrospectively defined as what needed to happen.

Or economics. Economic ‘growth’ is pursued as the good, and whatever comes out of economics is defined as prosperity. What people 'want' is known only by what they get - their wants are retrospectively ascribed. If what is measured and counted grows, then this counts as growing prosperity. So the economy fifty years ago wanted more A, B and C but the modern economy instead provides X, Y and Z – however, economists retrospectively re-draw the target around X,Y and Z and proclaim the triumph of economics. TSF.

Certainly this was the kind of view I held and argued for in my atheist days, not very long ago. It seemed ‘paradoxical’ even then, but it is not just paradoxical - it is nonsense.

The primacy of process is simple nonsense - it is simply trying to do without aims because all aims point to the necessity for underpinning transcendental justifications for those aims. (Or else aims are arbitrary and subjective statements.)

Atheists cannot have real aims (if they are thoughtful and join up the dots in their thinking) - and so are always and inevitably pushed into trying to substitute processes for aims. I was always aware this was the case, but had to live with it since – being an atheist - there was no alternative.

Over several decades, I sought always, somehow, to generate purpose from process (trying one trick then another, adding layers of complexity, smuggling-in assumptions) but of course the thing is impossible.

One reason that atheists are usually intellectuals is that the incoherence of atheism as a basic underpinning for individual and social life is so simple and so obvious that the fact can only be ignored by those intelligent enough to deceive themselves indefinitely with layers of complex and changing obfuscation.

Secular modernity is fundamentally based on the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, and the fallacy is simple and obvious. However, since the fallacy is intrinsic and pervasive, it must be concealed, and it is concealed.