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Politics And Philosophy

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By Doug Thompson

I haven’t picked up a serious book of philosophy in well over a decade … until Saturday.

I picked one up a the library because I’ve had to read about American politics for more than 10 years now as part of my job. I don’t think I’ve encountered a new thought that whole time.

It came to a head for me last week. AIG executives got bonuses. Of course they got bonuses. Wall Street hasn’t had to live off salaries in years. The Democratic response was a tax on the bonuses, a hollow political stunt. The Republican response wasn’t much better. Some GOP Congressman called the Democratic reaction a stunt. OK so far. He went on, though, to say that the stunt diverted attention from the real problem: Finding out who in the administration knew what and when in the approval of the bonuses.

The American economy is staggering like a drunk on an ice rink and this moron thinks the most important thing we need to do is pin blame on bonuses. Who wants to bet this man calling for accountability now that the Democrats are in one-party power voted for the Iraq War, torture and domestic spying when the GOP ruled the roost? Why don’t we find out who knew what and when on those topics?

Partisan blindness — Democratic and Republican — is choking us. They don’t think anymore. They have a conditioned response for everything.

So I picked up a philosophy book. Philosophy does one thing very well. Unless you’re using it to rationalize what you believe anyway, it can break through your particular mindset. And boy, are there some mindsets that need breaking.

In fact, philosophy breaks down mindsets and groupthink too well. Follow philosophy to its logical conclusion and you don’t believe anything.

I read a lot of philosophy when I was young. I stopped after plowing through “Godel, Escher, Bach.” Mathematics was never my strong subject. I persevered. I didn’t get all of it, but I got the point: You can’t prove anything.

Bertrand Russell was much easier to read but he led to the same conclusion. You are still faced with the problem of sense data. You don’t really know anything but what your senses tell you and your senses could be fooling you. If you put your finger on a table, what you’re really putting your finger on is a lot of nuclei and electrons arranged in some particular order that you really don’t understand and can’t really perceive. Theorists had to tell you.

This navel-gazing can quickly convince you that philosophy is a waste of time. W.V. Quine, a notable researcher into mathematical logic, went so far as to say that nothing useful in philosophy will ever get done until the whole concept of sense data is disregarded.

I don’t go that far. I have a simplistic little bias. I believe in evolution. I think there’s a real world and we’re part of it. I think organisms whose sense data gave them a more accurate perception of that real world had a major advantage in natural selection. I also think that technology has massively increased the quality of our collection of this sense data. We may not see the nuclei and electrons in the table, but we know they are there because of the fact that there’s only one rational explanation for many things we can observe: That matter is made up of little things called atoms that they move around all the time.

So what does any of this have to do with politics? It’s time to put a little juice back, that’s what. It’s time to stop being just a wiseguy who points out how dumb and hidebound the major parties have become — that’s so obvious it needs no pointing out — and come up with something more insightful.

It’s time to ask the conditioned responders some questions they don’t have a conditioned response for. That will require some thought.

By the way, the book I got was “The Proper Study of Mankind” by Isaiah Berlin. By philosophical standards, it’s a light read. Oh well. It will take me a while to get back in shape.

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