Examining nonsense 2 – A muddle of categories.
What is epistemology, ontology, and qualia? An introduction by an example of scrutiny.
This essay is the second in a series called "Examining nonsense". It analyses a speech given by David Icke. You may find the first essay here.
Having opened the speech by preparing the listener to benevolently interpret whatever is to come, the speaker then goes on to confuse what philosophers would call epistemology, ontology, and qualia:
What if all you ever knew was a lie? Well, what do we know at any point? This Matrix scene is absolutely spot on. “This isn’t real, what is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste, and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” The senses are decoding systems, decoding information into a form that the brain can decode.
Icke partly quotes some lines from the movie The Matrix in this part of the speech. While being aware of the origins of these words, they will nevertheless be interpreted as part of the speech. This is because Icke uses the quote to back up his own beliefs.
The two first questions regarding knowledge are epistemological questions. Which is to say that they are questions about knowledge. The term, originally spelt επιστημολογία, comes from Greek. It is composed of the terms “episteme” meaning “knowledge”, and “logia” meaning “word”, or “study of”. Synonyms of epistemology in more common English are “the study of knowledge”, or “knowledge theory”.
The first question, “What if all you ever knew was a lie?” was asked by René Descartes in 1641 in his Meditations on first philosophy. Descartes asked this question as a means of developing radical doubt, a method of analysis where everything that can be doubted is doubted. His motivation was to reveal some sort of analytical truth which is beyond doubt, but Icke’s purpose does not appear to be so pure. How can we reveal that? The hint lies in the follow-up.
When Descartes asked the question, he subjected all of his thoughts to radical doubt to see if there was anything that could withstand that doubt. Descartes also asked the question meditatively in the first person, which suggests that he was not interested in other people's thoughts, but rather in the subject of thoughts itself.
On the other hand, Icke asks if all you ever knew was a lie, implying that he has some knowledge which the listener does not have, and that this piece of knowledge falsifies the listener’s beliefs. Moreover, since “all you ever knew” could be a lie, whatever Icke knows seems to be of vital importance. Not only are these claims bombastic to say the least, but they are also a serious attack on the listener’s confidence in their own abilities.
However, fear not! Because although the narrative sets the listener at a disadvantage, Icke then reaches out to the listener with the next sentence: “Well, what do we know at any point?” With this follow up question he unnoticeably asserts the subtle implication that the listener is unaware of something important. More importantly though, he also invites the listener into his group of knowing people by switching his rhetoric from using you to we. The choice of words in this rhetoric seems to subtly convey a message: Do not think for yourself.
In the next sentence he gives a hint as to what is true, but nothing more, which is crucial to the function of the speech. As mentioned in the previous essay, the speech must remain vague enough for the listener to be able to fill in the gaps with whatever they please, and it must be able to accommodate that without crumbling. Being vague and imprecise is key.
The reference to the Matrix scene is just that: It hints that there is something terribly wrong with the world, but does not say exactly what that is. And he uses this reference as a transition from epistemology to ontology by confusing the two.
Ontology – from Greek οντολογία, “ontos” meaning “being”, and “logia” meaning study of – is the study of what is. Put more precisely: It is the study of what there fundamentally is. Icke is not committing any fallacy by questioning what is real. However, by confusing it with what came previously – epistemology – and what he follows it up with – qualia – he is making a categorical error.
Knowledge and reality are not one and the same. The classical definition of knowledge is a true, justified belief. A belief that happens to be true, and you have good reason for believing it to be true. Knowledge is our perception of something, and ontology is, colloquially speaking, the real world. It is not our perception, but what fills our perception.
In an ideal world, all knowledge would correspond with reality. If that was the case, then we would call this knowledge true. The question of "what is true?" is up for philosophical debate, but a common understanding is that beliefs about the world correspond with the world itself. The claim "there are atoms" is true, because we observe atoms in the real world. Make no mistake: There are many good philosophical rebuttles one could make against this understanding of truth. Here, I simply present a simple philosophical understanding of it in order to give the term some depth.
However, if knowledge and reality were one and the same, then there would be no such thing as true or false. Not because everyone would be right, but because it would not be possible for knowledge not to correspond with reality, since they are equal. If it is true that knowledge equals reality, then they are indistinguishable. In that sense, knowledge would be neither true nor false, since there would be perfect correspondence by definition.
He then goes onto ask how to define real. In philosophy, popular answers to this in our time would be ontological realism which states that the world exist objectively, independent of our consciousness. An antithesis to this would be anti-realism, that things do not exist independently of our consciousness. Or nominalism, that our consciousness is reality. These are all decent alternatives, and Icke is spoiled for choice here. However, instead of going for one, he goes for all. He muddles up realism, nominalism, and qualia into a soup that cannot be considered valid. But before proceeding with the analysis of the speech, what is qualia?
Qualia, from Latin meaning “what kind”, is a term introduced by C. I. Lewis in 1929. Qualia refers to experience as it is presented in consciousness. So, when Icke mentions “what you can feel, … smell, taste, and see” one interpretation is that he is talking of qualia.
It would be an interesting form of nominalism to say that qualia, our experience, is reality. However, that cannot be a good interpretation what he says because of how he follows up his description of qualia:
... then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
If qualia, i.e., experience, constituted reality, then it would be the most fundamental to reality. Here, experience is not fundamental, as experience consists of “electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Therefore, there seems to be something external to experience that is more fundamental than experience itself. Thus, the strongest interpreted ontology that would best fit Icke’s view seems to be realism, an ontology which happens to be very in line with science. This is due to physical phenomena, like electricity, being more fundamental than the experience itself.
He follows this up by immediately contradicting himself. He first sketches out the senses as being something that feeds raw information to the brain, which then "decodes", i.e., interprets that information. The senses are thus simply channels of information, and the brain is the interpreter. However, he follows this up by stating that senses are “decoding systems, decoding information into a form that the brain can decode.”
So, the senses decode or interpret the information, and the brain also does so, but what is feeding the information to these decoding devices? This description of information, knowledge, and reality is so muddled that it becomes difficult to even discuss it, because there is nothing meaningful here to discuss. However, this is exactly the point: By being so meaningless and speaking with the appearance of a high level of complexity the speech appears to be wise. That wise appearance quickly fades when scrutinising this speech.
Philosophically, logically, and with regards to truth, this speech is poor. However, rhetorically it is rich. It takes the well-prepared listener on an epic journey of false discovery which makes a strong impression. What this part of the speech does is to start building the speaker’s authority, and to make the listener doubt their own mental devices, thus discouraging the listener from scrutinising the speech. It is the work of a true demagogue.
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