Saturday, October 23, 2004


Originally uploaded by jonfobes.
NOTE: E-mail to Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton about a column he wrote for The Plain Dealer forum page to go with a project we’d been working on, pairing quotes from readers who bashed us — or stopped the paper — for being too liberal and pro-Kerry with quotes from other readers who bashed us as being too conservative and pro-Bush.

Read the column: To some folks 'be fair' means 'agree with me'

You wrote a very interesting column to go with all those reader quotes. I hope it made some people realize that bias is more in the eye of the beholder than on the pages of their newspaper.

I have long had a passionate interest in why people believe what they do. It flared in college during the reading of countless works of literature (you can’t get a master’s in English without reading a few mind-blowing novels) and erupted into a volcano of enthusiasm for philosophy and psychology after the dissolution of a 10-year marriage to a person who, though a journalist herself, never grasped the distinction between fact and opinion, at least not in regards her own concrete ideas. In short, like many of our readers, she was convinced of her completely correct views on a wide variety of topics. “Case closed, end of story,” was her mantra.

I can testify: Living with that for 10 years will get you thinking about the psychology of belief! And in the 10 years since I fled that miscarriage of a marriage, I have done lots of reading and writing on the topic, and I believe I’ve learned something, which you touched on in your column.


I think those “filter-equipped eyeglasses” you wrote about are quite common and powerful and come with a variety of lenses. Moreover, and ironically, the people with the thickest lenses are the ones who forget they’re wearing glasses. Which is to say: The more powerful the conviction, the greater the claims of objectivity — the more a person gets lost in his opinion, the more he thinks he’s “just facing facts” and “telling it like it is.”

In other words, to go back to your column, I am not saying we should not have “personal views” and beliefs, but I am saying that as journalists — and as mature adults and careful thinkers — we should, “be aware of them and guard against letting those views influence our judgment …” not just in the news pages but in day-to-day life, too. I think we need to work harder to recognize our opinions as opinions, our beliefs as beliefs and our judgments as our fallible judgments — not as “obvious” facts about the world, which we grasp through the grace of some magical or supernatural power or as Aristotle believed, through some “infallible intellectual intuition” that’s our birthright as human beings. In other words, we all have lenses that influence our judgment ... but they don't have to be a foot thick and dictate our judgment.


One of my favorite philosophers — a person I started to focus on just this year — is Karl Popper. He lived and wrote during most of the 20th Century and died in the late 1990s. He became famous writing about the philosophy of science and then grew in fame as a defender of freedom and critic of authoritarianism when he wrote the two-volume “The Open Society and It’s Enemies,” during WW II, a book amazingly relevant to our times today.

In short Popper believes that civilization is still in its infancy, as is shown by how we're torn between the open and closed societies. Popper said the closed society believes in eternal truths and magical powers; on the other hand, he believes the open society was founded on the ability of human beings to learn, think and do things better. He understood that it takes a toll on human beings to be responsible for their thoughts and actions, and that’s why much of the human race gravitates back toward the closed society, where core “truths” don’t have to be discussed, just accepted and followed without question. In other words, the open society and its members value thought, discussion and flexibility while the closed society and its members value belief, conviction and certainty.


Our country is probably the most open society in the world, yet it is populated by lens-encumbered people who seem intent on closing it down as much as they can. Indeed, I was struck by how the first presidential debate echoed Popper’s ideas:

“If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. … I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government there must be certainty from the U.S. President.” — George W. Bush

“It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. ... and certainty sometimes can get you in trouble. (But you can) learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.” — John Kerry

Well, I fear I have droned on long enough. If you’re curious, here’s a link to the Popper Page on my Web site.

Finally, I thought Gloria and Mary Lou did a wonderful job with the page, and I sent your thanks to Racquel and Denise, who were so good about forwarding the quotes.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Popper the rationalist

Excerpts from his essay entitled, “On Freedom.” See the Karl Popper Page. Emphasis is Popper's.

It is especially important to me that what I am about to say is not taken on trust. Indeed, I should prefer it to be treated with the utmost skepticism. Unlike so many of my philosophical colleagues, I am not a leader in traveling new paths, heralding new directions in philosophy. I am a thoroughly old-fashioned philosopher who believes in a completely outmoded philosophy: that is, the philosophy of an age long past, the age of rationalism and the Enlightenment. As one of the last stragglers of rationalism and the Enlightenment, I believe in human self-emancipation through knowledge — just as Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment once did. … I should like to say quite clearly that I represent views that were already seen as outdated and totally mistaken some 150 years ago.

When I speak of rationalism, I am not speaking of a philosophical theory (such as Decartes’) and not at all of the highly unreasonable belief that man is a purely rational creature. When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly criticizing or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us to achieve new ideas. But he does think that in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that critical discussion can give us the necessary maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgment of it.

This assessment of critical discussion also has its human side. For the rationalist knows perfectly well that critical discussion is not the only relationship between people: that, on the contrary, rational critical discussion is a rare phenomenon in our lives.


The rationalist approach might be described as follows. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right; anyway, we can both hope that after our discussion we will both see things more clearly than before, just so long as we remember that our drawing closer to the truth is more important than the question of who is right. Only with this goal in mind do we defend ourselves as well as we can in discussion.


This, in short, is what I mean when I speak or rationalism. But when I speak of Enlightenment, I mean something else as well. I think above all of the idea of self-emancipation through knowledge, the idea that Kant and Pestalozzi inspired. And I think of the duty of every intellectual to help others to free their minds and to understand the critical approach — a duty which most intellectuals have forgotten since the time of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For, unfortunately, it is all too common among intellectuals to want to impress others and, as Schopenhauer put it, not to teach but to captivate. They appear as leaders or prophets — partly because it is expected of them to appear as prophets, as proclaimers of the dark secrets of life and the world, of man, history, and existence. Here, as so often, ceaseless demand produces a supply. Leaders and prophets are looked for, so it is hardly surprising that leaders and prophets are found. But “grown men do not need leaders,” as H.G. Wells once said. And grown men ought to know they do not need leaders. As for prophets, I believe in the duty of every intellectual to keep them at arm’s length.


The Enlightenment thinker speaks as simply as possible. He wants to be understood … because the true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince: All the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He speaks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions. Free opinion formation is precious to him: Not only because this brings us all closer to the truth, but also because he respects free opinion formation as such.


One of the reasons why the Enlightenment thinker does not want to talk people into anything, or even to convince them, is the following: He knows that, outside the narrow field of logic and perhaps mathematics, nothing can ever be proved. Once can certainly put forward arguments, and one can critically examine points of view. But outside elementary mathematics, our arguments are never conclusive and free of gaps. … In the end, then, opinion formation contains an element of free decision. And it is the free decision that makes an opinion humanly precious. … Kant meant that every human being and his convictions should be respected.

Perhaps it is true that freedom of thought can never be completely suppressed, but it can be suppressed to quite a considerable degree. For without a free exchange of ideas there can be no true freedom of thought. To find out whether our ideas are sound, we need other people to try them out on. Critical discussion is the basis of free thought for each individual. This means, however, that freedom of thought is impossible without political freedom.


Because I am a rationalist, I do not want to convert anybody. Nor do I want to abuse the name of freedom to turn anyone else into a rationalist. But I should like to challenge others to contradict me; I should like, if possible, to prompt others to see things in a new light, so that each may take his own decision in the freest possible formation of opinion. Every rationalist must say with Kant: One cannot teach philosophy — at most only philosophizing, which means a critical attitude.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Presidential Debate II — David Brooks

It’s not just me. New York Times columnist David Brooks also saw a debate within the debate Thursday night, and he reaches a similar depressing conclusion, which I deleted from my posting: That Bush is popular because people love conviction — even it if means death and destruction. This is also the key to Osama bin Laden’s popularity, and that ought to tell us something very disconcerting about our “open” society.

Brooks begins his essay — published in today’s editions of The Plain Dealer — by writing, “In weak moments, I think the best ticket for America would be Bush-Kerry. The two men balance each other out so well.”

He continues: “Kerry can’t make a decision. Bush makes them too quickly. Kerry changes his mind by the month; Bush almost never changes his mind; Kerry thinks obsessively about process questions but can’t seem to come up with a core conviction; Bush is great at coming up with clear goals but is not so great about coming up with the process to get there.”

Brooks also writes: “That was the striking thing about the debate on Thursday night. It wasn’t so much a clash of ideologies or a clash of cultures. It was a clash of two different sorts of minds. … The atmosphere of Kerry’s mind is rationalistic. He thinks about how to get things done. … The atmosphere of Bush’s mind is more creedal or ethical. He talks about moral challenges. … His mind is less coldly secular than Kerry’s, but also more abstracted from day-to-day reality.”


At this point the newspaper was ripped from my hands by the ghost of Karl Popper, who stood by my chair and shouted, “These candidates embody the approaches I was so intent on explaining in ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies.’ This is exactly what I meant when I wrote that our world is still struggling between the open and the closed societies, where on the one hand you have tribal people who embrace eternal truths — and what they assume to be the infallible integrity of their own intellectual intuitions — and on the other hand you have modern people who are critical of absolutes and ‘core convictions’ because they believe the best way forward is to constantly re-evaluate their old theories and approaches for new ideas and plans that work better.”

“Read more,” Popper commanded, and handed me back the paper.

“These contrasting casts of mind influence how the two men see the world — for example, how they define the enemy. …”

“I already defined the enemy,” Popper roared. (Magee was right; he’s got a temper!) “It’s the strain of civilization and our ambivalence about change. The strain centers around the fact that it’s hard for us to make decisions without the help of some authority; we want a solid foundation for those decisions: we want to get god or truth involved. So yes, our minds become ‘creedal.’ What’s more, our ambivalence about change comes back to our realization that change can be good, that it can bring us a better world, but that it can also be risky because we might lose our advantage or drift into chaos. So we want to hold onto god or truth as a way of limiting the damages change can bring. So we lose our nerve and look for absolutes — we cringe from the responsibility of thinking things through.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” I said. “I’m already on board with your ideas — I was before I even read your books. I even added a 'Popper Page' to my main Web site."

“More,” Popper yelled, so I turned back to Brooks.

“Bush sometimes acts as if it’s enough for a president to profess his faith. But a coach can’t just dream up a game plan. He has to understand what his specific players can and can’t do and adapt to those realities.”

“That’s the weakness of the creedal mind,” Popper said. “Once you believe you’re connected to eternal truths, it’s very hard to adapt to specific realities; indeed, doing so often brings charges of weakness, even blasphemy. But the progress of a culture — in my view — depends on the ability to adapt to new realities, which represents the triumph of critical thinking over the worn-out notion that there are eternal truths or magical powers to rescue us from the perils of change. We must remember that things are always changing and that even the idea of gods and truths are products of changes in human minds and human cultures. I explained all this in ‘The Poverty of Historicism.’ You can’t escape choice or change by hiding behind god or eternal truth.”

“I’m afraid our culture hasn’t quite caught up with you,” I said. “Listen to how Brooks ends his essay.”

“Nonetheless, I suspect that the reason Bush’s approval ratings hover around 50 percent, despite a year of carnage in Iraq, is because of the reason many of us in the commentariat don’t like to talk about: In a faithful and moralistic nation, Bush’s language has a resonance with people who know that he is not always competent, and who know that he doesn’t always dominate every argument, but who can sense a shared cast of mind.”

“Cast of mind,” Popper mumbled. “In other words, people like Bush because he’s a walking, talking advertisement for the worst attributes of the closed society?”

“That’s how I understand it.”

“Right now, I am not the least bit sorry to be dead,” Popper said, and disappeared back into the wallpaper.

(See below for my take on the debate.)

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Certainty in the presidential debate

“If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. … I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government there must be certainty from the U.S. President.” — George W. Bush

“It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. ... and certainty sometimes can get you in trouble. (But you can) learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.” — John Kerry

I found it interesting that the word “certainty” popped up quite a few times in the first presidential debate; and even when the word itself wasn’t used, there was an undercurrent behind many comments, a hidden debate on the difference between conviction and flexibility.

The question seems to be: Does one stick to his core convictions, simply forge ahead and stay on message — almost as a propaganda tool? Or does one incorporate new information and changing circumstances into his views and act accordingly? How do thought and judgment, on the one hand, interact with conviction and certainty on the other?


The problem with convictions and ideals, it would seem, is that they are something we know and accept today. But if we’re living and learning and getting wiser with each passing day, why would we assume something we adopted yesterday, last year or a decade ago is still the best idea?

To "live and learn" means being flexible in regards our ideals, which may be more the product of our immaturity than we’d like to admit. Maintaining our ideals and convictions in the face of new experience and updated information is like saying, “I am getting dumber every day, so I have to stick to things I learned back when I was smart.” Does than make any sense? Isn’t that backwards and fundamentally wrong-headed?


I also thought it was almost insulting the way George Bush talked about staying on message, especially in regards our troops. It’s as if he thinks that as long as he maintains conviction everyone else will blindly follow suit. He’s so conviction-oriented he doesn’t seem to grasp that some people go back and revisit their convictions and change their minds — no matter what their president says. Some people actually think new thoughts.


Here are some excerpts from the first debate that touch on certainty and conviction. There’s a link to the full transcript at the bottom.

B: “The best way to defeat them (terrorists) is to never waver, to be strong … And if we lose our will, we lose. But if we remain strong and resolute, we will defeat this enemy.”

K: “I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are. But we also have to be smart, Jim. … This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America.”

B: “I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis? No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I've just outlined.”

B: “What kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, ‘wrong war, wrong place, wrong time’? Not a message a commander in chief gives, or this is a ‘great diversion.’”

K: “I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right.”

B: “He says the cornerstone of his plan to succeed in Iraq is to call upon nations to serve. So what's the message going to be: ‘Please join us in Iraq. We're a grand diversion. Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?’ I know how these people (world leaders) think. I deal with them all the time. I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently. They're not going to follow somebody who says, 'This is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.' … They're not going to follow somebody whose core convictions keep changing because of politics in America.”

B: “My concerns about the senator is that, in the course of this campaign, I've been listening very carefully to what he says, and he changes positions on the war in Iraq. He changes positions on something as fundamental as what you believe in your core, in your heart of hearts, is right in Iraq. You cannot lead if you send mixed messages. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens. And that's my biggest concern about my opponent. I admire his service. But I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government, there must be certainty from the U.S. president. Of course, we change tactics when need to, but we never change our beliefs, the strategic beliefs that are necessary to protect this country in the world.”

K: “But this issue of certainty. It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. It's another to be certain and be right, or to be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right. What I worry about with the president is that he's not acknowledging what's on the ground; he's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues. And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble.”

Link to full transcript.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Links to my other sites

You can find The Plain Dealer News Desk site at Nightsiders blog. • You can reach the Rumors of Order Web site portal at • And here's where you can find the A Life in the Day, with some personal photos and literature-based posts.

More pictures from The Plain Dealer: My somewhat dated version of The Intern Web site. • And here we have some move-in pictures. • And let's not forget the TNG LOCAL 1 Web site.


Originally uploaded by jonfobes.
We couldn't have a Rumors Forum without the image that tells us — without saying a word — that a person can lose himself to symbols, whether religious ones, like the apple, or cultural ones, like the typical British business outfit.

The point: Don't lose your identity to a hat or a piece of fruit. Believe it or not, you're more than that.


Originally uploaded by jonfobes.
It's interesting that one little cartoon can point up the problem with rules: Unless they're the ones you love or fear, they can seem quite arbitrary — even silly.

A wonderful documentary called "Purity" accomplishes the same feat. Sundance runs it sometimes. Check out this link to read more about "Purity."