Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

What really is the difference between being an ‘agnostic’ and being an ‘atheist’?

Most people I speak to about this seem to think that they actually refer to positions on two different spectra. The first spectrum is between ‘gnosticism’ and ‘agnosticism’, or ‘knowing vs not-knowing’. The second spectrum is between ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’. Thus we can end up with something like the following 2×2 matrix:

(A)theism/(A)gnosticism Theism Atheism
Gnosticism Gnostic Theist Gnostic Atheist
Agnosticism Agnostic Theist Agnostic Atheist

We could define the four possible options as follows:

  1. Gnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god and that it is possible to know this.
  2. Gnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods and that it is possible to know this.
  3. Agnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god and that it is impossible to know this.
  4. Agnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods and that it is impossible to know this.

The idea behind dividing the positions like this is to allow for differences in opinions as to whether divine entities exist, but also differences in opinions as to whether or not it is possible to know whether divine entities exist.

The main problem with this typology is that it contains a contradiction, a tautology, and a false premise.  The contradiction is to assert a belief while simultaneously asserting that there is no reason to accept this belief as true. I should clarify that this is more of a pragmatic contradiction, in that while it may be formally possible to assert ‘I believe that P’ while also asserting ‘I believe there there is no reason to believe that P’, almost nobody would do this. Rather, the vast majority of people are likely to claim that they have a justification for every belief — that there is a reason to think that their beliefs are true.

Thus 1 and 2 are trivial, while 3 and 4 are contradictions, because basically everyone who makes a claim about the world believes that this claim can be justified and if someone didn’t, they’d appear pretty irrational.

Of course, the reason why this typology looks so broken because a core premise itself is false.

The false premise is that ‘(a)gnosticism’, as the possibility of knowing/not-knowing, can condition atheism in the way outlined above. Rather, let us for a moment instead say that (a)gnosticism refers to the degree of certainty that one has in their belief. Almost everyone is capable of meta-cognition, of looking at some belief P and coming up with an answer to the question, ‘how confident am I that P is true?’ This necessarily admits that it is possible for P to be true, but also that there are conditions, more or less likely, under which P would also be false.

This gives us a different range of possibilities:

  1. Gnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god, with high confidence.
  2. Gnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods, with high confidence.
  3. Agnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god, with low confidence.
  4. Agnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods, with low confidence.

However, this excludes one important position: the position that no justification exists for any belief about the divine. Hence:

  1. Theism (T): (it is warranted to claim that) at least one god exists
  2. Atheism (A): (it is warranted to claim that) no god exists
  3. Agnosticism (X): (it is warranted to claim that) no belief about the existence of gods can be justified*

As we can see, 3 is not simply a matter of knowing or not knowing that T/A, but is a substantively different proposition. One in which we can have more or less confidence. That is, we could believe that ‘agnosticism is true’ but with low confidence. So if we’re going to propose a typology, I propose this one:

  1. Theist, high confidence (by definition, ‘gnostic’ aka not-agnostic)
  2. Atheist, high confidence (by definition, ‘gnostic’ aka not agnostic)
  3. Theist, low confidence
    1. tends towards agnosticism
    2. tends towards atheism
  4. Atheist, low confidence
    1. tends towards agnosticism
    2. tends towards theism
  5. Agnostic, high confidence
  6. Agnostic, low confidence
    1. tends towards theism
    2. tends towards atheism

Besides all of this, though, there is another method. One that is a bit less complicated. That is, while I have just outlined what I think is the most logical way to break down the question, this is not necessarily a description of what actually is the case. Thus I advance two empirical hypotheses:

H1: There is often a significant practical difference between how people who would identify as theists or as atheists live their life, in terms of regular attendance at a place of worship, rituals such as prayer, or justifying fatalism or lack thereof in terms of God’s will.

H2: There is often very little practical difference between how people who would identify as agnostics or as atheists live their life, in that both will not attend places of worship, church, not engage in prayer, or refer to divine will in any way.

I believe these hypotheses are largely true, and I believe, therefore, that the main difference between atheists and agnostics is, practically, how much they care about beliefs about the divine and whether or not they, within the context of their community, really want to be associated with other people who call themselves atheists – something seems to matter a lot, actually, in places where declaring oneself to be an atheist can lead to marginalisation or punishment.


*Note that while A is not the same as Not-T, A nevertheless proposes something that is contradictory to what T proposes, and thus A XOR T rather than A OR T.

A random remark on cultural norms and targeted killing

I’ve occasionally run into the argument that once the fighting starts, cultural norms or the finer points of military ethics become less relevant. Rational calculations dictate actions on all sides, abrogated only by terror when terror rises. This may be the case in some situations, but it isn’t the case in all; indeed, I can think of an excellent example of a counter-insurgent military action that quite neatly illustrates the relationship between cultural norms and operational success.

On 5 May 1987, British special forces ambushed and killed an entire, veteran IRA cell: the eight men of the East Tyrone Brigade, as they attempted to attack the Loughgall police station. The East Tyrone Brigade was a bit special; rather than stage ambushes, snipe at police patrols, or plant bombs, they preferred more spectacular and ‘kinetic’ attacks, using construction vehicles as bomb-bearing battering rams and leaping out in full force to rake their enemies’ positions with gunfire. So removing them from the scene appealed to the security forces in Northern Ireland.

Thus, when information came from one of the many double-agents that the RUC and British intelligence services had cultivated within the IRA that the the attack on Loughgall was in the works, which would be the third such attack on an RUC station by the East Tyrone Brigade, it occurred to the people in charge that there might be a good way to prevent there from ever being a fourth. Enter the SAS.

The use of the SAS in Northern Ireland had been controversial. Earlier excess violence by the special forces unit had led to a five-year operational hiatus, while the 1985 killing of two IRA militants in Strabane had led to a public outcry after reports that SAS troopers had a delivered a coup-de-grace to each of the two men as they lay wounded and pleading for mercy. But with Loughgall, this sort of public relations problem could be averted.

Anyway, in rolls the East Tyrone Brigade, with their digger-with-a-big-bomb-in-the-bucket. They blast their way up to the police station then shoot the building up. The building is, of course empty, and nobody is about because it is the evening. Then up pops the SAS where they had been laying in wait around the site, and they do their thing, and thus ends the tale of this particular IRA cell.

The following day, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stated, when asked his view of the rather lopsided engagement (no SAS casualties), ‘I believe that the IRA volunteers would understand the risks that they were taking,’ What else could he say? The IRA’s own narrative was that they were an army fighting in a war. They could hardly complain about losing men when those men were on an operation, and had themselves set out with bombs, guns, and the intent to kill members of the security forces.

Counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency is particularly sensitive to the broader propaganda or political messaging surrounding uses of force, and the way that the Irish public reacted to British military actions had an effect upon the strategic environment. By staging a ‘counter-ambush’ of the East Tyrone Brigade instead of just picking them up (or off) in their homes – which might have been safer, from an operational perspective – the SAS avoided being labeled as excessively violent or invasive (for the most part) while removing a significant terrorist threat.

Identity Crises and IR Scholars

What am I?

It’s very difficult for me to precisely orient myself and my work within political science as it is traditionally organised and conducted in North America. As those familiar with how most social science PhD programmes are structured in N.A., students typically take major field examples in two subfields of their discipline. In my case, I ‘majored’ in international relations (IR) and ‘minored’ in comparative politics. I might have instead made my second field political theory, except that my theoretical interests are much closer to what might be called social or sociological theory. In fact, if I later today trundled over to the department of sociology and took the major field exam for sociological theory, I’d probably pass it, which is currently not the case for comparative politics. And while the things I am learning in the seminar on comparative politics that I am currently taking, to prepare me to write the exam in that subfield, help to give me a sense of what political science is, as a discipline, it has not helped me at all in my own research. Those few covered topics which do relate to my research are ones I’ve already read rather deeply on, while most other covered topics relate to things I don’t care to study employing methods I don’t care to use.

When people who are generally unfamiliar with disciplinary distinctions in the academy ask me what I do, I usually answer ‘the sociology of war’. Does this mean that I’m distancing myself from political science, or misrepresenting myself? Does this indicate an academic identity crises? What does this say about international relations scholars and scholarship, that I find myself identifying in this way? I think these are interesting questions to explore as a way of considering how my field and my discipline work, and what sort of knowledge we produce in studying international or global politics.

One important thing to remember about being part of a discipline is that it disciplines you. Comparative politics as a field is, basically, the kernel of American political science, and is in many respects what ‘political science’ is, in terms of what goes on in departments that carry this name. My journey through modernisation theory and the study of electoral politics might as well be through shards of broken glass, but these are the sorts of things that many of my colleagues do. And, quite saliently, my interest in methodology and the philosophy of social science does give me some motivation to look at the methods my colleagues use for their investigations. Critically. Because people like me are nudniks.

An interesting quality of IR is that it actually has quite a lot of space for scholars whose approaches and theoretical backgrounds more closely resemble those of philosophers and social theorists than of typical political scientists. Indeed, this is why there are a number of notable universities where IR is its own separate department, and not a subfield of political science. I have been fortunate enough to secure the supervision, in my work, of one of the more ‘sociological’ scholars in the field, and this goes a long way to making me feel secure in my position within the academy, and not to feel like I’m in the wrong university or the wrong department. And while I probably could also be content in the sociology department – it is perhaps worth noting that both my BA and my MA are neither in political science nor in sociology – it is the case that the study of war, particularly at the systemic or inter-/trans-national level, is traditionally carried out within IR.

However, many of the conditions that lead to me feeling comfortable calling myself a sociologist of war, and in using my preferred methods of enquiry, while being a student in a political science department are partially idiosyncratic. They are a fortuitous confluence of having a particular kind of committee and having a few colleagues whose approaches bear an affinity to mine. Were I in another department, even (or perhaps especially) at an American Ivy League institution, there’s a good chance that these conditions wouldn’t obtain. Toronto is unusual in that respect, in that we have a number of IR scholars who draw upon social theory in ways I find interesting, but it’s also because it turns out that I have, like, two or three fellow PhD students to talk about my work with. And had his or my circumstances been a little different, I might not have ended up such an appropriate supervisor.

I think this highlights the need for departments of political science to recognise that IR is unusually inter-disciplinary, and to make space for IR grad students to maximise their cross-disciplinary education, such as by allowing people like me to fulfill my second field requirement by taking field exams in other departments. It also means encouraging and facilitating scholars with degrees from other disciplines to apply to IR jobs, and vice versa. I recognise that there are plenty of professional/institutional disincentives to this, but it is a possibility worth discussing.

Grad student fitness, bro!

This interlude from the usual comes from having chatted with a couple friends in grad school who are interested in making some programmatic changes to their lifestyle in order to stay a bit more fit.

Grad school is very bad for one’s fitness, generally speaking. Grad students spend many hours hunched over desks, reading or typing. Many of us have appalling eating habits—I will frequently just forget to eat if I don’t have to force myself to remember due to needing fuel for exercise—and abysmal sleeping schedules. We may skip meals, eat poor quality food, stay up to the wee hours of the morning and catch only a few hours of rest, and generally treat our bodies unkindly.

I try to hit the gym every second day, eat nutritiously, and sleep at least 6 and ideally 7.5 hours per night. I have also spent a fair bit of time reading up on nutrition and fitness stuff, and also took a couple courses in kineseology during my undergrad. So I have a modest but salient body of knowledge to draw upon in advising my fellow grad students on how to stay/get fit and healthy.

First, try to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and perhaps more, depending on your individual sleep needs (they vary). Do not compromise on this. Take naps if you have to make up a deficit, but really don’t go several days on just 6 hours per night or less. I mean, some people need less sleep than others, but generally speaking, being chronically underslept will mess you up in so many ways.

Second, be a lot more rigorous in your eating habits. I’m just going to list some principles (yes, not tips; principles) to guide you in this:

  • Don’t skip breakfast. Don’t skip lunch. Don’t eat dinner too late so that you’re going to bed on a full stomach and unlikely to be hungry in the morning. Basically, do not skip meals. It may take some adjustment to ensuring that you have access to food throughout the day if you’re running around from place to place, or if there aren’t many good food options on campus. But make those adjustments.
  • Eat fewer sweets. Eat fewer things made from rice or wheat flour, which is in a metabolic sense basically like eating fewer sweets. Refined or simple carbs are not your friend, unless you’re an endurance athlete in which case why are you reading this?
  • Eat more protein. Especially chicken breast and tuna, if you enjoy the delicious flesh of dead animals, along with lots of eggs and cheese. Don’t worry too much about cholesterol in the eggs or saturated fat in the cheese unless you’ve been specifically warned by your doctor.
  • Eat more fibre. Apples are a great source of fibre. I eat at least one per day. Other veggies are great for this too. Generally eat more veggies. Other good sources of fibre come from slow-digesting carbs like oats, bulgar wheat and quinoa, yams and sweet potatoes.
  • Don’t snack. If you absolutely have to eat something small, try to make it something relatively heavy in protein and fat so that a small amount will satiate you for a while. And definitely don’t munch.

Finally, we get to exercise. What you do here will vary depending on your ‘fitness priorities’: do you want to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve your capacity to perform certain tasks in a more specific sense? While you might be able to do all three at once, you should ideally prioritise. Nevertheless, your number one priority should be:

  1. Mobility and back health.

Yeah, above all you want to be able to sit for long hours and maintain good posture, and also to be able to move around and lift things without hurting yourself. The grad student life tends to diminish your ability for both. There are plenty of good ways to improve and maintain mobility and back health. You can do some of your own research, but even better would be getting a personal trainer for a few sessions. It’s worth the cost. Make sure that they’re qualified though.

Now that I’ve impressed upon you this first priority, I can suggest some more particular ways of structuring your exercise. Unless you’re training for a particular sport, or are so horrendously out of shape that you need to work your way up to any exertion greater than jogging—and if that is so, do remember not to be discouraged but to take action now, because you would be surprised how quickly you can get into better shape when you’re at rock bottom—then you should probably aim to hit the gym every second day, ideally, for an hour. Here is what I suggest:

  1. A warmup, with some bodyweight squats, some pushups, some lunges, and some other exercises to get the blood flowing, the muscles warm, and your body limber. (5 minutes)
  2. Some weight-lifting, where you pick exercises (one or two, usually) that engage large and multiple muscle groups, like bench or overhead presses, pullups, squats and deadlifts.[1] When you do these with proper form and with intensity, you will improve mobility, lose weight, gain muscle, and generally become better at life. Provided you are getting adequate rest and nutrition. Either do a specific programme—more on that in a moment—or aim to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions at a weight heavy enough so you could probably manage 6-7 reps on the first set, but not more than that. (40 minutes)
  3. Some high-intensity cardio, like sprints, burpees, kettlebell swings, rowing, skipping, mountain-climbers, or something similar. This will vastly improve your cardio-respiratory health and aid you in the archeological dig to excavate your stomach muscles, hidden as they are by the ‘sands’ of the fitness-desert that is the academy. Generally speaking these sorts of high-intensity things, if you have the capacity to do them—and most people actually do have to work their way up, starting with something gentler like running—are better than slower, ‘steady-state cardio’ like jogging or distance biking and rowing. (10 minutes)
  4. Stretch! (5 minutes)

Let me give you my routine as an example. I have been following Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme for almost a year, and it’s working well for me, though progress is slow. This means that I have four main ‘lifts’, bench, squat, deadlift, and overhead press, and each day is devoted to one. Usually I do sets of pullups between sets of the main lift. I start by doing a few sets of very heavy lifts, then I ease off considerably and do several sets at a much lighter weight. Usually I manage to do some conditioning, but sometimes I skip that if I’m too tired and do it the next day.

I’m not especially fit, but I can sprint for a bus or run from place to place if I’m going to be late (this happens so often). I have good posture and no back issues. I can pick up a thing from the ground that weights about twice as much as I do. And I can see my abs. When the light is flattering. Ahem. I’m pretty good about keeping up with my nutrition, though my sleep is rarely what it should be. This is about as much as I could hope for, given my other commitments, and as I live quite close to the campus gym, getting myself there every second day is not too difficult when the whether isn’t nightmarishly horrible.

I’ve deliberately been pretty vague overall with the specifics of exercise especially. This is because individual variance is particularly significant when choosing exercises, and also because frankly it’s probably the last thing you should worry about, coming only after your rest, nutrition, and basic mobility stuff. But since I know a little bit about what exercises are likely to work for people, I can always provide more information on that front.

[1] For squats and deadlifts especially, make sure to have someone who knows what they’re doing, ideally a trainer, show you how to do them properly

Demarcating Social and Natural Science?

I’m going to copy a question and my response to it from a conversation on the philosophy of science subreddit, because it may be of interest to the sort of people likely to read my blog (hypothetical people for the most part, I’m sure).

What do you think demarcates social science from hard science? Is this difference qualitative or quantitative. Could this definition or the demarcating line be changed as science progress?

I smart just a little bit at the suggestion that what I am doing is ‘soft’, but I do not think that qualitative-quantitative captures the difference at all. This is first because to quantify something is simply to describe it through maths instead of ordinary language, so that you can perform a more sophisticated set of logical operations on it, like statistical analyses. What this means is that quantitative data/analysis is no less qualitative; it just describes and facilitates the study of qualities in a different sort of way. I bitch about this all the time to my colleagues, incidentally. Second is that many social scientists employ rather sophisticated quantitative analyses, using techniques like structural equation modeling, in their valiant struggles for satisfying covering-law explanations of the social world. Third, there are plenty of scientists, such as all these geologists whose articles I copy-edit, who do not use a lot of maths, but whose descriptions and classifications are highly systematic and rigorous.

I think that all science is, generally, an attempt to clarify and resolve problems of our experience with the world. The way scientific solutions are distinguishable from, say, religious solutions are, I think, because of the particular social dynamics of the scientific community; viz., extreme attention to rigour and reasoned justification, and a way of producing knowledge that is non-partisan and not immediately technical (that is, it’s about building better models of the world, not that such models can’t then help us change the world). By this token, I don’t think that chemistry and political science are essentially different kinds of science.

But I do think that there is a useful demarcation, and that is whether or not the scientist is studying the world of meanings. I mean, all science is a world of meanings, because all science involves representing the world through symbolic systems. But social scientists are engaged in the study of meanings as their explananda, and this brings in a set of ontological problems (for example, agency and free will) and epistemological problems (for example, what Giddens called the double hermeneutic: the fact that we are engaged in the interpretation of interpretation itself). These problems are why social scientists are engaged in a constant state of methodenstreit and why we will probably never reach the settled nature and predictive capacity that natural sciences have.

It also makes certain critical aspects of social science more salient. That is, we are more saliently able to critique policy or discuss matters of value and their relationship to ethics. It’s actually a pity that political science departments tend to feature little engagement between their empirical/scientific and normative students; political theory tends to be a major part of most big pol sci departments but those theorists go off and do their own thing, in marked contrast to sociological theorists, who are far more engaged with the empirical work carried out by practicing social scientists.

What does it mean to take history seriously?

The following is a extemporised draft of a presentation I need to make in an upcoming methods course, but it also works as a stand-alone post, and that it why it is a stand-alone post.

The proper role of history in social science is contentious. The traditional distinction between the ideographic and the nomothetic remains, in the eyes of many in the disciplines of political science and sociology, appropriate. According to it, the discipline of History is concerned with describing the course of history, while the task of the social scientist is to identify patterns in that history and to describe the operations of cause and effect through law-like generalisations. While history matters in this view, its role is as a source of data. rather than an object or domain of study. But there are a number of research traditions that dissent from this perspective. And they’re right to do so.[1]

Why might social scientists want to get their hands dirty in the sandbox of history? First, there are moral reasons to look at a set of events that took place in the past and try to figure out why they happened as they did. Praise and punishment are closely related to the notion of causal responsibility, and so figuring out who or what caused an outcome of interest will shape our judgements. Second, there are ethical reasons, in that we may want to look at how we arrived at our situation, or how similar situations were arrived at, to clarify the problems we face now. Neither of these is so easily done with simple neo-positivist ‘covering-laws’. Third, and perhaps most saliently, historical enquiries might give us some excellent tools for social science theorising.

A number of themes stand out in looking over the literature on the role of history in political science and sociology: narrative, sequence, path-dependence and contingency,  and process. A brief discussion of these themes and their relationship to ontological concepts such as ‘critical junctures’ or social mechanisms is helpful for clarifying just how an historical social science might work.

To study the role of narrative is, in a sense, to treat history as an object rather than a domain of study. Human beings are constantly making and re-making stories of their lives. Identity, community, collective action, and the identification of social problems all proceed through symbolic action and interaction. The way that people construct their common histories is a potent determinant of social outcomes, and those histories are thus highly political, being formed through rhetorical battles and resulting in the allocation of values (to use Easton’s classic definition of politics).

Returning to a more conventional definition of history, the explanation of many social outcomes seems to rely heavily on the linking-together of a number of causal links throughout a period of time—a sequence of causes, in other words—where later causes function only due to the presence (and order) of prior ones. To adequately explain an outcome requires the scientist to show how it is contingent upon a series of steps along a pathway of cause and effect stretching back through history. The presence of remarkable things in the social world, such as revolutions or massive wars, may only make good sense if understood as the product of such a sequence, and explaining them as such typically requires a rich and broad description of context.

But the question still remains, how do we build forward-looking theories that don’t just tell us what already happened, or how we’ve reached the present, but how things might work out in the future? This is where process comes in.

To treat society as set of processes of constant construction is a philosophical ontology; it is a package of first principles as to the nature of social reality and the source of change and stability therein. It is also a sound starting-point for an historical social science. To take a processual view of history is to treat it as something in a continual state of becoming: not only are we constantly affirming, revising, and contending our historical narratives, but we are generating the society as a physical reality through continuous social transactions. On this view, any ‘outcome’ of interest is nothing but a snapshot of a moment in time, and any explanation is, effectively, a description of the salient sequences or paths that led up to it.

What generality can theory have, then, if all outcomes are so unique?

Historical sociologists and political scientists often explain outcomes through reference to mechanisms, and this gives their theories some measure of portability or predictive capacity. While there are many possible definitions for a causal mechanism, the very general idea is that they are semi-generalisable patterns of interactions between factors that link cause to effect. They are the bridges that lead from one historical situation to the next, through in a sense, to identify a causal (/social) mechanism is more to identify a particular form that a bridge can take, with the actual construction materials or location to be determined by unique historical context. Causal mechanisms can be very general, such as ‘brokerage’[2], or more specific, such as the way capitalist economies generate the need for market expansion (according to Marxists). The notion of ‘critical junctures’, where social structures remain relatively stable until certain points of historical instability, at which point insurgent actors gain the opportunity to generate change, fits best within this perspective on theory construction. A critical juncture can more or less be understood as a situation in which the conditions for transformational—sometimes called ‘morphogenetic’—mechanisms are present for a short while. Thus causal mechanisms can explain how things stay the same, and thus how institutions endure over time, or how things change, and if we know the conditions under which they ‘activate’, then we can have some idea what will happen given a particular historical context. Such as the present.

Unsurprisingly, social movement theorists and institutionalists often build their theories around mechanism-based explanations. This is because social movements and institutions are everywhere[3], and despite being reflections of their social contexts nevertheless show certain patterned regularities in how they operate. By studying when (and by extension, how) those regularities do or do not obtain, social scientists can build a ‘general’ theory that allows them to better appreciate context, rather than to be forced into a compromise between context and covering-law.

Marxists and other ‘materialists’ are also often fond of mechanism-based explanations.[4] By building theories that allow them to explain the causal relationships and interactions of particular situations, they can claim to be doing a ‘realist’ social science. In the same way that biologists can talk of the mechanisms of DNA reproduction or photosynthesis, scientific realists in the social sciences can claim to be theorising how society ‘really works’ in a way that goes beyond correlation or prediction, and to be describing the deeper relationships that generate the reality that most in society take for granted. This entails greater potential for social critique than covering-law explanations.

The foregoing is a shallow and expansive survey of some of the major social science perspectives on why history should be taken seriously and how to go about doing that. But hopefully it teases out some of the implications of treating history as more than just a gigantic dataset, and goes a little way towards selling my own appreciation for historical sociology as a legitimate method for conducting social enquiry.


[1] If I wanted to be glib, I could simply point out that all description is ‘theory-laden’ and therefore already implies causal linkages. But where’s the fun in that?

[2] Where a third-party mediates or brings together two other parties who otherwise would not interact in a way that would produce the outcome of interest.

[3] It should be noted that social movements are pretty new things, whereas bureaucracies or other sorts of institutions have been around a very long time.

[4] Cf. critical realism

Habermas on rationality in TCM: what gives?

So I’m just going to write out here what my problem was with Habermas’s view of rationality as I saw it. Perhaps someone who knows his views better than I do can correct me if I’ve misread him.

Habermas seems to say that the way we evaluate the reasons people adduce in defending claims is by relating those reasons to a communal body of presuppositions through certain procedures of analysis in order to determine whether those reasons are valid or not. Essentially, then, evaluation is a function: reasons go in, they get processed, and a yea/nay output gets spat out. This is a computational view of evaluation: people are nothing but logic machines made of meat.

Of course, I don’t actually think Habermas wants to say this. Instead, I think he has an implicitly pragmatist view of agency. That is, evaluation isn’t computational because there is a human creativity to all reasoning, whereby when we evaluate a claim we are flexibly interpreting our presuppositions in a way that cannot be summarised in a rule. Wasn’t it Wittgenstein who commented that every attempt to follow a rule is also the creation of a new rule? Or am I imagining this? Anyway, the point being, the agentic component of evaluation is ultimately based upon creativity.

The issue here, however, is that creativity arises from iterated transactions between actors and their experiences. In other words, if evaluation is agentic because creative, then evaluation is ‘empirically’ sensitive. Doesn’t this make Habermas’s epistemic separation of moral and factual claims specious? Obviously these things can be analytically separated or functionally divided by a community of enquirers, but I feel like he wants to also distinguish them on epistemic grounds. The problem here, though, is that the way we evaluate something like ‘abortion is murder’ is ultimately not different from how we evaluate ‘it is currently raining’, in that the former ultimately depends upon lived experiences just as does the latter.

Drones, civilian casualties, and war crimes

Two recent reports, released by Amnesty International and HRW, have alleged a number of cases in which civilians have been killed in drone strikes under circumstances that resemble war crimes. There appear to be some flaws in these studies, and these flaws have been discussed in concise and helpful articles by David Axe Timothy Hoyt, and Joshua Foust among others. Setting aside for a moment how much confidence we put into these reports, it seems to me that they imply two possible conclusions.

The first is that drones are not as accurate as their proponents claim them to be. The second is that drone operators are negligent.*

A major argument of the pro-drone crowd is that the technology permits greater discrimination and precision in the use of lethal force. The armed drones that the US uses to carry out these strikes are capable of spending many hours ‘orbiting’ a possible target, allowing its operators to collect further information and to wait for an opportune time to strike. This does  suggest that drones are, in theory, capable of a high degree of discrimination; drone operators can spend a while figuring out if they’re about to bomb a legitimate target and to ascertain whether there are many illegitimate targets (ie civilians) in the area. If there are lots of such illegitimate targets dying, then one or both of the conclusions implied by these two reports provides an explanation.

How should we approach these conclusions?

Well, first of all, we have some reason to think that neither are warranted because the claims of these reports might be based upon bad information and analysis.

Second, we should probably compare drone strikes to ‘counter-factual’ alternatives. Unless one is of the opinion that the government of Pakistan should surrender some or all control of its frontier to the Taliban, it seems to me that the only alternatives to drone strikes are some sort of ground operation or airstrikes launched from a different platform. As Axe’s article explains, both of these options, and particularly the former, will likely produce vastly more harm than the drone strikes do.

Third, we should probably want the US government to make more explicit how it ensures that its drone operators comply with international humanitarian law when deciding whether to strike a target. It is unreasonable to expect drone operators to avoid killing any innocent people. Innocent people die in war, and as I’ve already said, the alternative to this war, at least in Pakistan, is a different war that is even more harmful or a peace that would be intolerable to the people who would then have to suffer under Taliban rule. It is not at all unreasonable, however, to ask for more transparency, oversight, and accountability in how the US security apparatus uses force.

Not only that, but such improvements would probably be to the US’s strategic advantage. That is, the perception of the drone strikes as assassinations carried out by shadowy intelligence officers acting unilaterally in the sovereign territory of another country frames them as violating of all sorts of international norms. The more the public is able to see that their worst fears about the strikes are probably not true, and the more the public sees that particular acts of negligence – for it would surprise me if there aren’t at least a few – are identified and punished, the less hostility the drone strikes are likely to garner and the less useful of a rhetorical bludgeon they will be.

*A third possibility is that they’re deliberately targeting civilians, but this seems unlikely to me.

Why the Snowden leaks bother us young cosmopolitan types

After thinking a bit on a brief exchange on twitter with Joshua Foust, on how the Snowden leaks seem to be part of a movement against the whole intelligence community, I thought I’d dash out a few musings.

So I think it’s fair to say that most of the leaks in the past month or three have been aimed not at exposing domestic intelligence collections overreach but at exposing the intelligence collections efforts of the NSA, GCHQ, and CSEC in general. The impetus seems to be a generalised hostility towards the intelligence services, and perhaps against the entire governments that employ them.

At the forefront of this seems to be a bunch of tech-savvy left-libertarians with what I’d characterise as very unsophisticated views as to what the government can and should be doing. In some cases I may go so far as to draw a parallel with the Tea Party movement, albeit with the caveats that the Tea Party still seem to be exponentially more stupid and powerful.

However, I think there’s something else going on. That is, I think there is a whole generation of young, cosmopolitan, generally left-wing types who have just had something very important taken from them.

Specifically: they’ve just lost their innocence.

Let me explain. We — because I’m basically part of this demographic — live major parts of our lives online, we upload vast quantities of information to social media networks, and we rely heavily upon those networks for our self-expression. We view these networks as the main forum for counter-culture and dissent, for the development and expression of unconventional sexual and gender identities, and for developing personal relationships with exciting people and things. Many of us have entertained the view, not always invalid, that social media offer a world unsullied by the interlocking dynamics of violence and tradition that are characteristic of ‘the real world’.

Snowden’s revelations are the equivalent, then, of us finding out that shady people have invaded our nice house with no locks. People associated with precisely those coercive things that we hoped to keep out of our house. As hesitant as I am to employ psychoanalytical terms, I want to call this a sense of violation and betrayal.

Couple this with an existing hostility towards the institutions of state control and an unsophisticated view of the relationship between freedom and authority and it’s not surprising that many of us have taken to hand-waving calls for the entire intelligence community to be radically downsized or eliminated altogether. Don’t look for too much depth or coherence in these views because they’re neither deep nor coherent. But don’t dismiss them either, because they come from anxieties and aspirations that really matter to how people want to live their lives.

Suffice it to say, we need to be having these conversations. And I think that before we can have them properly, we may need to ride out a wave of hysteria while resisting the urge to dismiss it as stupid, even if we try not to let it determine what we think and do.

‘It’s not Islamic, it’s tribal/cultural’

I’ve seen some discussions recently, both academic and casual, in which people want to say that things like honour killings, arranged/child marriage, or even burka-wearing should not be understood as Islamic because they are cultural customs which predate the arrival of Islam to a community and which appear to be unsupported by Islamic orthodoxy.

This attitude is wrong-headed.

Islam is neither monolithic nor abstract. There are many Islams, and they are defined by the principles and practices of Muslim communities. There is a story to tell, for example, about how Islam arrived in South-East Asia and how it assimilated pre-existing ‘tribal’ customs. But that doesn’t mean that Islam, as religion, has not played a causal role in maintaining those customs. Islam isn’t a discrete variable here; the fact that we might have had a Christian or Jewish ‘tribalism’ doesn’t mean that particular interpretations of Islam haven’t been essential in legitimising and enabling god-awful customs like honour-killing. It just means that there is a non-deterministic relationship between being a Muslim and thinking that being a Muslim means you have to do the things that Pashtuns do which make some of them our enemies.

To put it another way, religion is deeply involved the social mechanisms and dynamics that preserve gendered norms, marital practices, attitudes towards authority, when violence is legitimate, and so on, and differentiating between those things and the religion of a community is rarely coherent. Social scientists might observe similar patterns of action or similar social structures across different communities with different religions, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore religion as a causal factor.

I’ve often heard the ‘it’s not Islam, it’s culture’ line from people seeking to distance Islam from repugnant practices such as honour-killing. It relies on an essentialised and singular conception of what Islam is, and I suspect it’s designed to be a rhetorical move either for undermining perceived bigotry against Muslims or for undermining the encroach of those highly restrictive practices into less conservative Muslim communities. Either way, it’s not a useful perspective for a social scientist to take and in many respects is essentially a theological argument about what True Islam really is.


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