Ontological closure

ontological-closure

Online discussion is today what the original neckbeards made it centuries ago. If neckbeard can be accepted as a derisory term for a youngish man who is socially awkward, physically unappealing-to-repulsive (because of hygiene habits more than physique), and personally obsessed with nerdery emanating from computing and escapist cultural fads, then the progenitor of that species must surely be a monk of the Dark Ages. Obsessed with scholastic but pointless logical debates about smartarse new ways to win the argument that god exists, must exist, and is better than your own shitty conception of a deity. A scholasticism that encapsulates almost all online arguments, because these are overwhelmingly not about discovering something new, rather than establishing the ‘correctness’ of each neckbeard participant.

That thought, coming at the end of a train of thought described below, offers me a deliciously funny imagined visualisation of half-pissed, fat, unwashed, and unruly monks burbling bullshit over rough wooden refectory tables laden with more wine than food. Something from a Monty Python sketch.

But getting to that private and momentary amusement took many paths that are not funny at all, starting with insomnia.

Tangential thinking is a strange bedfellow: how did I find myself thinking about ‘the ontological argument’ (for the existence of god) at one o’clock in the morning, and how did this lead me to consider social media, and Wikipedia more specifically, as proofs of a desperate popular desire for ontological closure?

It all began with my project to illuminate the failure of critical thinking as a recognisable by-product in contemporary high school and university ‘education’ (Reid & Anderson, 2012, p. 52). That’s a project still in train. But if the proposition is true, a logical step in my investigation is to look for evidence of systems outside educational institutions that might foster critical thinking. The obvious large-scale systems coming to mind are workplaces and online collectives.

Looking at workplaces is an entirely separate and long-established field of enquiry, and looking at online anything is still in its infancy, with a lot of nonsense and noise reflecting our historical proximity to claims we cannot yet assess with the benefit of a more relaxed hindsight.

Tangent: I remember the earnest urgings by a younger student in one of my information management classes that I not continue in my ‘failure’ to use Facebook because I was ‘missing invaluable opportunities’ to promote my ‘personal brand’. I could not persuade this young man that I found it distasteful to package and offer myself like some canned, processed pseudofood, or even as a kind of prostitute with charms for hire. I could not get the point across that I was already doing this in other packaging, as a specialty good, but that Facebook was the Walmart of outlets, automatically implying that I was spam or a streetwalker (rather than Beluga or a five figure ‘occasional companion’). The young man told me, believing it quite sincerely, I think, that Facebook had a wider reach and was more relevant to ‘young and switched on people’ than my approaches. The propaganda of promoting ‘self as brand’ was just too strong in his mind to believe an old codger like me could possibly be justified in never having signed up for a Facebook account. I think the young man will one day grow up (which is not a certainty) to appreciate that selling yourself like a disposable consumer product is like tempting fate. But he is too close to the propaganda and marketing hype to see that all things internet are not answers to anything. Not yet, anyway.

Back to online collectives. My train of thought next wandered in between the sheep I should have been counting to get to sleep, and arrived at a brief recollection of ‘the ontological argument’ as a kind of smartarsery, using contorted, some might say ‘scholasticist’, logical arguments to insist on the existence of god. Arguments that took on the character of mathematical formulae to evidence their logic. Arguments that remind me a great deal of the online smartarsery I see behind the scenes of Google Plus, Quora, Reddit, and, especially, Wikipedia, in its talk pages. Well, almost everywhere people come together online to argue this or that.

What struck me as curious, though, is that a good number of such people – at least the ones I have encountered – describe themselves as not religious. How do they come to be possessed of theological logic?

At some stage I did finally fall asleep; theology does have a becalming, perhaps even soporific effect. At least it does on me. But I woke up with ‘ontological closure’ as a word-thought in my mind, and it didn’t vaporise, like some dreams, after my befuddled half-asleep state had given way to first coffee alertness for the business of the day. When the immediate part of that business had been taken care of, I returned to my preoccupation.

Digging around is some readings I did a while back, I found Seattle-based philosophical theologian Daniel Dombrowski’s late 1990s denunciation of Mark Taylor (can Taylor be described as a ‘deconstructionist theologian’?).

In that polite excommunication, Dombrowski wrote:

There are normally three options regarding the existence of a thing. First the existence of a thing can be impossible, as in a square-circle. Second, the existence of a thing can be possible, but it does not in fact exist, as in a Republican president (it is late 1998 as I write). And third, the existence of a thing can be possible, and in point of fact that being does exist. The point to the ontological argument is that regarding God the second option drops out because to entertain this option is to no longer think about God, that than which no greater can be conceived, but about a lesser being-in-becoming whose existence is contingent.

In short, it is not necessary that we think of God, as Taylor alleges of defenders of the ontological argument, in that we can also think exclusively about things like a good pick-and-roll play or pretzels. But if we do think appropriately of the concept of God we have to think of God as existing necessarily. (2000, pp. 11-12, bold are author’s italics.)

Dombrowski highlights that even thinking of god as contingent is to doubt god’s existence. I realise that this is probably not Dombrowski’s actual belief, and the ontological argument is today more an intellectual exercise than a serious theological debate, but the reason I looked for this extract was that something was bothering me about a similar argument I had seen elsewhere. On Wikipedia’s administrative page detailing its ‘neutral point of view’ policy. That page states without a hint of irony or recognition of its absurdity:

Achieving what the Wikipedia community understands as neutrality means carefully and critically analyzing a variety of reliable sources and then attempting to convey to the reader the information contained in them fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias. Wikipedia aims to describe disputes, but not engage in them. Editors, while naturally having their own points of view, should strive in good faith to provide complete information, and not to promote one particular point of view over another. (Retrieved on 23 July 2015 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view)

In effect, Wikipedia demands the mutually exclusive activities of unbiased critical analysis. If bias is recognised as necessarily contained in many sub-conscious effects of living life in particular circumstances, and if critical analysis is understood as precisely the application of subjectivity, including domain knowledge (or its absence), to an assessment, the ambition for neutrality must be recognised as extinguished, the same way that contingency extinguishes the notion of god. This obvious contradiction applies even before considering the implications of a platform where anonymity is the norm, which prevents conventional proofs of individual neutrality, expertise, or trustworthiness. Instead we are enjoined to rely entirely on the persuasiveness of argument and ‘facts’, as if these were somehow beyond question about veracity, selection biases, or any other factors relating to the establishment of neutrality as a category. Wikipedia’s ‘neutral point of view’ policy is an idea rooted in faith if ever there was one.

Tangent: while looking up the Wikipedia policy page, I strayed into the arbitration pages hoping to find an example of how the neutrality policy is applied. As a sometime-Wikipedia editor I have seen many long arguments about a great variety of trivia that preoccupies people there, but I was shocked at the pseudo-legalism of a ‘decision’ by the arbitration committee, which apparently now takes itself as seriously – if not more so – than supreme court justices. Have a look yourself: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/American_politics_2#Final_decision. The point being that this style of self-selected bureaucracy openly reflects a political nature directly destructive of any normative conception of neutrality (which is not a nominal bipartisanship, but the absence of any political attachments altogether).

What has ontology to do with all of this? Why did my train of thought begin with the unformed idea of ‘ontological closure’? As with all things in my life, this line of thought comes back to political economy. There was an essay I had read in relation to my considerations of the Greek debt crisis that may have been the trigger for connecting, in my sleepless mind, a number of apparently unconnected trains of thought:

For many the relevance of ontological analysis for economics is that it reveals the buried metaphysical commitments of economists. It identifies presuppositions, points out inconsistencies where they obtain and so on. (Pratten, 2007, p. 254.)

I think there’s a strong argument to be made that ontological analysis, no matter how abstract it may seem many people, does indeed offer a means of exposing unstated assumptions, biases, and methodological contradictions. Ontological discussion as a philosophical discipline at least appears to be more neutral than arguing the case for or against a currently polarising position. The problem is that ontological arguments can appear obtuse enough to be rejected by omission before they are ever considered:

We take on commitments when we make sincere assertive utterances, when we accept a sentence or a theory, when we presuppose something or take it for granted. What are the commitments we take on? No doubt that will depend on the intentional act in question. If we sincerely accept a given sentence, then we may be committed, by the norms of rationality, to believing that certain things exist. If we sincerely assert a given sentence, then we may be committed, by the norms of assertion, to assenting to certain existentially quantified sentences, and if we sincerely take the truth of a given sentence for granted, then we may be committed, by the norms of rationality, to taking certain existential claims for granted. For example, a sincere assertive utterance of the sentence ‘there are numbers’ requires us, by the norms of assertion, to assent to the sentence ‘there are numbers’ and a sincere acceptance of the sentence ‘there are black holes’ requires us, by the norms of rationality, to believe that there are black holes. (Brogaard, 2008, p. 32)

Huh? So what? Well, old darling, the point about considering ontological commitments is to highlight what is implicitly accepted as a consequence of doing something that may not have that appearance, and does not explicitly acknowledge that acceptance.

In terms of the Wikipedia quote above, demonstrable ontological commitments are to a rationally conceived critical analysis at the same time as to a nominal neutrality that is either not normatively defined as an absence of judgement, or is in direct contradiction to critical analysis, which is the act of judgement. The only way for the Wikipedia policy to make sense is to entirely suspend normative meanings of the words in question, or to accept that the policy is dishonest (which is a proposition solidly based on what I see as routine subversions within Wikipedia of any normative meanings that can be derived from any Wikipedia policies).

There is, however, one other way in which the Wikipedia policy could make sense: a closed loop of a kind that fashions and internalises its own self-contained ontological argument and commitments. Insofar as ontology is possible by an act of seceding from all other humans, I can imagine a limited gang of people involved in ‘administering’ (read controlling) Wikipedia who share linguistic and cultural ontological commitments that enable them to interpret discrete terminology in a shared meaning not accessible to others, and closed off from re-interpretation.

In that thought, right there, just after my third cup of coffee this afternoon, I realised that this entire line of thought had bubbled up from a partially digested synthesis in an entirely different discussion, like acid reflux, or some other symptom of indigestion.

Yesterday, while considering the Greek financial crisis, I had occasion to suggest that Germany’s hard line stance was an effect of its commitment to the Washington Consensus. A critique of Washington Consensus policies is that they presuppose fixed economic conditions (Scott, 2011, p.20) – an ontological commitment to the idea that economic variables do not alter sufficiently for cause to alter the Washington Consensus itself.

The Washington Consensus reforms were built on an exceedingly shallow understanding of how societies develop, whether capitalist or not. Deregulation, as espoused in this Anglo-American-based formula, amounts to an open invitation to abuse the system or the commercial commons. That is hardly a compelling formula of what is needed in countries that have experienced centuries of abusive behavior by their elites already. (p. 225.)

… the prevailing belief system based on neoclassical economics, which was and is the basis of the Washington Consensus view, has become increasingly associated with a quasi-static view of the world, and thus has a less dominant position in economic thinking than it held a decade ago. However, that quasi-static view has been so dominant that there has been relatively little thinking about the alternatives. (p. 335.)

In fact, the Washington Consensus also presupposes pre-existing Western-style ‘sound’ fundamentals that it actually corrodes, such as an absence (or low incidence of) corruption, maintained social infrastructure like schools, roads, utilities, and restraint by corporations from overt criminal misconduct.

Bringing all these thoughts together was the idea of a closed system, immune to change and impervious to critique. An ‘ontologically closed’ system. A cycle of self-delusional ontological certainty. More the end of history than Marx’s end of history. More deterministic than the most rigid ideology for its prescription, not just of ontological dictates, but also epistemological culling – a strict limit on what can be known, and an even stricter, but arbitrary, limit on how that can be known or spoken of.

This is how economies are destroyed in the real world. This is how tyranny displaces consensus. This is how a good part of the world today thinks and speaks, perhaps explaining a good part of the malaise in Western politics and economics people talk about. You think I’m overstating the case? Go click onto any thread here started by some argument about atheism, or any other thread here, started by some argument about ‘the better product’. Check out Facebook, Reddit, Wikipedia or any other social media platform (yes, I include Wikipedia as social media) for the same. Tell me you can’t see it. That yearning for ontological closure. That desperate desire for certainty, and all the neckbeard strategies for arriving there by being ‘correct’.

Objectivism is a normative epistemological strategy which assumes that value-free observers, the agents of knowledge production, employ unobtrusive methods to observe objects, for example, persons. The person, as object, is unified and total, though delimited and numerically defined by the arbitrary categories chosen to operationalize them. Their behaviors and self-reports are assumed to be direct and immediate, not contingent upon self-conscious reflection or interpretation. They are unidimensional and bodiless, without an ‘I’. With these facts and methodological tactics, an academic discipline like Organizational Studies produces knowledge. Knowledge products are inventoried and accumulated, but it is only the practitioner who ‘values’ knowledge statements. The producer remains aloof and passive. Ideology, ego, and concerns about career and institutional advancement do not contaminate production or product. (Steffy, 1997, p. 448.)

I find it horrifying to contemplate how many people strive to be the gholas stripped of humanity described in Steffy’s passage. Slightly less frightening than the idea of a technocrat embarking on such a quest is the idea of a technocrat knowingly doing it for fun or profit.

 


 

Brogaard, B. (2008). Inscrutability and ontological commitment. Philosophical Studies, 141(1), 21-42. doi: 10.1007/s11098-008-9261-x

Dombrowski, D. A. (2000). Deconstructionism and the ontological argument. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, 21(1), 3-18.

Pratten, S. (2007). The scope of ontological theorising. Foundations of Science, 1(3), 235-256. doi: 10.1007/s10699-007-9106-7

Reid, J. R., & Anderson, P. R. (2012). Critical Thinking in the Business Classroom. Journal of Education for Business, 87(1), 52-59. doi: 10.1080/08832323.2011.557103

Steffy, B. D. (1997). Ontological Fallacies. Organization, 4(3), 448-450. doi: 10.1177/135050849743013