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Paranoid Paradigm By: Genesio Zenone
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, December 02, 2002


There are an increasing number of intellectual clerics on the far left within the US and on the not-so-far left outside the US who suggest that the attacks on the WTC and the pentagon were actually part of a cynical plan. They believe that it was orchestrated by the military industrial complex in order to stampede public opinion into supporting the so-called war on terrorism and to "justify a war on Afghanistan for a future oil pipeline, the grab for Middle East oil, big budget increases for the military, and the general drive for global domination by the American Empire."

My question is, simply:

Why would the American military industrial complex bring so much damage to the financial center of NY?

They could have, instead, filled a plane with intellectual celebrities like Noam Chomsky, Jane Fonda and Howard Zinn, blow it up over the desert of Nevada and pretend that Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein did it.

If a bigger plane were needed for greater psychological impact, there would be no problem in filling it; Oliver Stone, Edward Said, Barbara Streisand, the entire staff of Z magazine, all could have been ushered into the drone.

A clever plot by the CIA would deceive these people into believing that they were going on a cultural exchange mission to North Korea. The martyrdom of so many heroes of our culture would provoke an explosion of rage in the "educated" American public who would then give carte blanche to Cheney to pursue his oil interests around the world.

In trying to cope with the logical possibility that certain perceptible events may not be as they seem but are rather illusions created by conspiracy, I am reminded of how philosophers of knowledge struggled and continue to struggle against a more general form of skepticism known as epistemological skepticism:

Descartes, for instance, imagined the possibility that perceived reality might be an illusion brought forth by an Evil Demon. The skeptic asks:

-Could we be deceived about almost everything that we think we know?

-Moreover, is it possible to be certain of our own existence?

The skeptic has a relatively easy task because all he has to do is cast the possibility of doubt; he is perfectly happy with the conclusion "it is possible that you might be a brain in a vat..."

Attempts at overcoming this skepticism are not infallible; we continue to struggle as epistemic underdogs.

I suggest that the logical possibility that reality is illusion hinges on the possibility that (other) realities are not illusion; a proposition P about the falsehood of a perceived reality R has to be itself a reality and has to have a positive truth-value. Therefore there is at least some reality that is not illusion.

Also, we have to take certain things for granted (and therefore as a reality) to be in a position to communicate at all. When the skeptic addresses us, he is confident of the reality of his lexicon (that it will be understood). He is confident (even if he pretends not to be) that the plane that takes him from one campus to the next will adhere to the laws of physics. This is, I believe a step in the right direction. And it is the first step that one takes when becoming a pragmatist.

In a way, this step is parallel to the first step that Descartes takes:

I am full of doubts about the perceptibility and existence of reality; I even have doubts about whether I exist...It is this doubt that reassures me at least of my own existence, for how could I doubt if I did not exist.

This, of course does not negate the possibility that some realities are illusion, and that the Evil Demon may still be in the business deceiving us.

Illusion can fall into two categories: There can be illusions that initially fool us, but which we can eventually distinguish from reality. There can be illusions that can never be overcome because there is no reality other than mental reality (no physical reality...essentially the brain in the vat thesis). The former type of illusion has been called "thin" while the latter, "thick". Pragmatists spend little time worrying about thick illusions, acknowledging that such exercise would be futile. They decide to lead their intellectual lives [as if] there were a physical reality. Admittedly they have given something up here. Absolute certainty of knowledge and reality is traded in for a scheme where epistemological efficacy is assessed based on whether communication can take place. If communication can take place, then all is well.

There are other reasons to give up absolute certainty: The theories of relativity, chaos and most of all quantum mechanics have uprooted the certainty of the Newtonian paradigm including that of cause and effect.

Already with Kant, time and space had lost their ontological status, acquiring instead epistemological functions. Kant, himself a Newtonian, was skeptical of the capacity of the human mind to know the real world. He had postulated certain "categories" of the human mind (e.g. space and time) as congruent with the space and time of Newtonian physics.

With relativity, space and time lost their absolute essence in physics. Kant’s skepticism became physics' skepticism. With these developments, knowledge is revealed as a product of human perception and interpretation and therefore relative and variable.

Moreover, because of the crucial role of the observer in quantum mechanics, the act of "observing" (of experimenting) contributes to produce the observed reality. With the principle of uncertainty, physics, and therefore science in general, looses its character of absoluteness and unequivocal objectivity. We have come a long way from "Let Newton be and all was light".

A pragmatist would therefore have to decide which conspiracy theories to believe in. He acknowledges the possibility and probability that illusion does exist, but he must simultaneously remain skeptical of conspiracy theory itself and its tendency towards belief in "thick" illusion. The success of a conspiracy theory depends less on its ability to prove itself and more on its ability to cast doubt.

There is a fine line between healthy, skeptical cynicism and systematized delusion, the latter being a manifestation of the need for a black and white universe, where every event is questioned and explained in terms of a paranoid paradigm.




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