Aug. 23rd, 2010

flewellyn: (Default)
Some time ago, I left a comment on a thread on Shakesville in which I outlined my observations of a certain type of debator, who is often found on the internet. This is the particularly precious kind of mansplainer who, not merely content to assume he knows better than women, assumes he knows better than everyone. About everything. I referred to this type as a "pseudosopher".

Some friends of mine have since told me I should post about it here. So, here is a somewhat edited version of that comment, in which I describe this strange and infuriating sort of person.

Pseudosophers are endemic on the internet. They are, in my experience, almost exclusively (cis-)male, so I describe them here with male pronouns. They are also mostly white, middle or upper class, and almost always heterosexual; often, they are atheists who used to belong to fundamentalist or conservative Christian sects. I have observed one or two who are Orthodox Jews, however, so the common thread here is fundamentalist thinking, rather than a particular religion or lack thereof.

The pseudosopher is an intelligent but unwise thinker who has bought into his own hype that he heard from parents and teachers about how "you're so smart, you can do anything!", and actually believes that being clever and rational is enough to carry the day. In doing so, he has fallen victim to a most debilitating memetic contagion. A pseudosopher is smart, though never quite as smart as he thinks he is, but also arrogant, often suffering from entitlement poisoning, and exceptionally lazy in some ways. Specifically, lazy in the sense that, while he may well put a great deal of effort into learning things that interest him, he will make the mistake of believing that the facility with which he acquires a decent layperson's knowledge of a particular subject equates with actual expertise. He may well have a field in which he is genuinely expert, commonly some form of science or engineering (computer science and IT are rife with them), but pride or intellectual laziness will make him reject the notion that this does not magically make him expert at all things.

A pseudosopher will also express a great veneration for logic and reasoning, purporting rationality and cold, logical discourse to be the highest and most important forms of intellectual pursuit and inquiry. Of course, he disparages emotion and empathy as silly and irrational, and thus unworthy of consideration. He will insist that he is always logical and rational, and deny that his emotions have anything to do with any conclusions he ever reaches, or anything he ever says to someone about anything, even while he transparently manipulates people around him in order to satisfy his (often woefully immature) emotional needs. He often believes, in particular, that women are inherently emotional, and thus unable to reason properly; since he believes reason to be the pinnacle of humanity, this naturally translates into thinking of women as lesser beings. In debates, he will resort to all sorts of fallacies while maintaining that, because he knows the names of those fallacies, he obviously cannot commit them; attempting to point them out to him will result in him becoming enraged and calling you "irrational" and "emotional", missing the irony completely.

This veneration of logic and reason above all else, of course, ties back into the laziness issue: because one can construct a valid argument from any set of premises, provided one uses the proper logical rules to reach a conclusion, the pseudosopher will treasure the ability to assume any number of absurd and insane ideas, and then proceed from those completely bogus premisese to a "logical" conclusion. In reality, as we all know, logic is useless without empirical observation; it is from those observations that we glean true premises, on which we can then build sound logical arguments, based not only in proper use of the rules of logic, but in actual fact as well. But, since that takes work, the pseudosopher prefers to simply look for existing memes (or invent new ones, though often that's also too much work) which suit his biases, adopt those as his "facts", and then base all of his careful logical arguments on them, regardless of their actual truth.

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, is entitlement, often accompanied by a large dose of paranoia. A pseudosopher generally believes that, because he is smart, he should automatically be successful, wealthy, powerful, beloved by the opposite sex (pseudosophers are almost never gay!), and so on. The fact that he is not these things, or if he is, not to the extent he believes he deserves, is never due to anything wrong with him; the cause, of course, is some external factor, often a conspiratorial group or political or social movement for which he has some preexisting antipathy. While some do go so far as to blame the Illuminati or aliens or something, most confine their paranoid delusions to actually existing targets: feminists, liberals, "the government", and organized religion are common culprits.

I've found that pseudosophers often gravitate towards Libertarianism as a political philosophy, because it appeals to all of these traits: it's a very logic-based, axiomatic philosophy, whose core principles are not based in empirical observation but are simply meant to be assumed true; it's a very good vehicle for paranoia, because the Libertarian pseudosopher can simply blame the government for any and all personal misfortunes or societal ills; it appeals to his sense of entitlement, because of its emphasis on property as the most fundamental right and the evils of people taking from him the fruits of his labor in the form of taxes, which he views not as the price of civilization but an onerous burden from which he derives no benefit (or none that he will acknowledge); and, because it's politically an "out-group", it allows him to claim persecuted "underdog" status without having to commit to any actually unpopular or risky political stances, or suffer any actual hardship.

(That said, I should add that you see a number of these types manifesting in radical socialist, Marxist groups as well. And, might I add, for the same reasons.)

The cure for this pernicious memetic disease is to somehow impart to the sufferer a sense of humility, coupled with at least a measure of empathy. Unfortunately, most of the pseudosophers I have met have been completely unreachable, as they don't even speak the same language as the rest of us. What they use will resemble English, but (especially if they are Libertarians or hardcore Marxists) with many common words redefined into "terms of art" that mean not what the rest of the English-speaking world mean, but what they want them to mean. They will not tell you that this is the case, of course, as this would both require effort, and some degree of empathy on their part, to realize that their understanding of something is not universal truth. Instead, they will mock you for not understanding them, while continuing to spout intellectual-sounding pronouncements that, on analysis, either make no Earthly sense whatsoever, or are utterly repugnant and unsupportable.

The best cure is prevention: instilling a healthy level of introspection and self-criticism, while maintaining a good level of praise for actual ability and accomplishment, along with emphasizing the need to understand the mental and emotional states of other human beings, is the only means I know to prevent infection. This is mostly a job for parents and teachers, not participants in an internet discussion, so to the latter, I advise only awareness, and perhaps a certain level of detached amusement.


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