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September 27, 2006


Posted by David Corfield

One of the goals of our activity in this joint blog is to further the ends of mathematics and physics through our public conversations. Likewise for philosophy, if not directly through the refinement of nn-categorical thinking, then indirectly by observation of what it is to partake in an enterprise such as the furthering of mathematics or physics by nn-categorical means. Naturally, in terms of helping ourselves achieve those ends, we have to consider the question of what we are prepared to tolerate, both in terms of the content and the spirit of any contributions.

I’ve just purchased the second volume of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Selected Writings (CUP 2006), and find he has interesting things to say on toleration within the conversations of a local community, such as ours:

Toleration then, so I have argued, is not in itself a virtue and too inclusive a toleration is a vice. Toleration is an exercise of virtue just in so far as it serves the purposes of a certain kind of rational enquiry and discussion, in which the expression of conflicting points of view enables us through constructive conflict to achieve certain individual and communal goods. And intolerance is also an exercise of virtue when and in so far as it enables us to achieve those same goods. (Ethics and Politics, CUP 2006: 223)

Characteristically, MacIntyre’s argument is presented in terms of virtues, and to note one we all perhaps fall short on:

One mark of the possession of those virtues [of conversational and argumentative accountability] is that of taking pleasure in having been shown to be mistaken, something notoriously difficult to achieve. Another closely related mark is that of being both able to recognize and willing to admit that one has shown to be mistaken. (p.222)

While we are hardly putting our necks on the line, there is a political dimension to the search for new fora for discussion, political in the sense of taking a view on the proper running of the polis, a community of enquirers in our case. The café of our title hints at the coffee house, a discussion forum new to Europe in the seventeenth century. Now, MacIntyre sees no possibility of worthwhile dialogue at the level of the nation state, where the diversity of opinion will be such that any control over debate will come from its framing by powerful institutions (business, political parties, the media). On the other hand, debate furthering the ends of a local community is possible. Having argued for the exclusion of those engaging in personal attacks, and, on intellectual grounds, of phlogiston supporters from scientific societies, and of holocaust deniers from political discussion, not as a state-imposed exclusion, but as performed by local communities, he continues:

But such intolerance has perhaps to extend somewhat further than I have so far suggested. The rationality of local communities, when it exists, is always an achievement, the outcome of a history in which a variety of difficulties and obstacles has had to be overcome. And rationality in such communities is always threatened by the seductive and coercive forces that are so powerful in the wider arenas of the civil society of advanced modernity. The rational making of decisions in everyday life has to be undertaken for the most part in milieus in which individuals and groups are exposed by the technologies of the mass media to too much information of too many different types of doubtful provenance, often misleadingly abbreviated, and designed in any case to arouse short-term interest or excitement that can easily be displaced by the next targeted stimulus. It is a commonplace that the use of slogans, the shortening of the public’s attention span, and the manipulation of feelings are now carried through in the media, in political debate, and in advertising with extraordinary professional expertise. So a set of further problems has been created. The rhetorical modes of rational enquiry and discussion are deeply incompatible with the rhetorical modes of the dominant political and commercial culture. And we cannot confront this incompatibility and the conflicts that it generates, and the goods that it threatens, without rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I. (p. 223)

We are, of course, far less afflicted by such intrusions, and we only meet in this virtual café, and so do not have to participate in other forms of communal activity with those not tolerated, but perhaps we should reflect on what forms of toleration interfere with the achievement of our ends.

Posted at September 27, 2006 6:22 PM UTC

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Re: Toleration

I wonder what MacIntyre would make of this Haaretz article:-
Hopefully he wouldn’t exclude the Yad Vashem spokeswoman.

“A Yad Vashem spokeswoman said there is no proof the Nazis made soap from human bodies during the Holocaust.”
“In 1990 samples from several soaps claimed to have been made from Jews were sent for DNA testing at Tel Aviv University. Likewise, those tests determined the soaps did not contain human fats.”

Posted by: astrid on September 27, 2006 9:25 PM | Permalink


I am not sure what that is supposed to have to do with the matter under discussion. But the “soap rumour” has been very popular, over the years, with Holocaust-deniers of various stripes. As usual, has the definitive overview of the uses and abuses of this story.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on September 28, 2006 4:56 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig

Re: Soap

I’m not sure that the Jewish Burial Society (Hevra Kadisha) would agree with you that is ‘definitive’.

Posted by: astrid on September 28, 2006 6:43 AM | Permalink

Re: Soap

The” Hevra Kadisha ?!?

Every Jewish community of any size has a Hevra Kadisha.

I doubt that 99.99% of them have ever addressed this particular obsession of yours. Needless to say, you are in rather questionable company.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on September 28, 2006 7:29 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig

Re: Soap

Yes, it would appear the obsessed Yad Vashem spokeswoman is in questionable company too.

Posted by: astrid on September 28, 2006 8:04 AM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

To consider how MacInytre might respond, you would have to envisage how such a statement would be used in the debates of a local community. Someone who invoked it to suggest that the Nazis weren’t so bad after all, perhaps as one step in an argument that aspects of their rule might profitably be imitated in that community, might be justifiably excluded.

Posted by: David Corfield on September 28, 2006 12:12 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

Trying to justify the expansion or creation of an autobahn system by saying that ‘it would be the Nazi thing to do’ would be more than a little odd.
Psychiatric help might be more appropriate than exclusion.

If MacInytres policy was to exclude ‘holocaust deniers who believe the Nazis should be imitated’, then i would have wondered less what his reaction to the article would have been.

Yes, it may well have been justifiable to exclude ‘holocaust deniers’ from the presence of my Grandfather for fear of giving him a heart attack. He fought the Germans during WW2.
But i doubt anything of significant interest ever comes out of local communities which are unable to critically evaluate statements of people they disagree with.

Posted by: astrid on September 28, 2006 7:37 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

But i doubt anything of significant interest ever comes out of local communities which are unable to critically evaluate statements of people they disagree with.

Experience shows that online discussions are threatened not so much by statements that people disagree about (which is generally rather a sign of an interesting discussion), but rather by contributions that cannot even be disagreed with.

Posted by: urs on September 28, 2006 7:58 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

I’m not quite sure how to interprete ‘contributions that cannot even be disagreed with’.
Do you mean legally ?
I gather that in Germany its illegal to question orthodoxy.
And you do have a German sounding name.

Or maybe your ‘cannot even disagreed with’ was meant in the ‘not even wrong’ sense ?
I’m sure the Holocaust survivors who ‘claim that the soap was engraved with writing that said it was made from fat from Jewish bodies’ and the Yad Vashem spokeswoman would have a very lively discussion.

Soap is certainly not the only topic that one can disagree about.

Posted by: astrid on September 28, 2006 11:01 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

I gather that in Germany its illegal to question orthodoxy.

If, by “question orthodoxy,” you mean “peddle neo-Nazi propaganda,” then, yes, I suppose it is illegal.

I’m sure the Holocaust survivors who ‘claim that the soap was engraved with writing that said it was made from fat from Jewish bodies’ …

Straw man argument. Can we move on, or do you not have anything else to contribute?

Posted by: Jacques Distler on September 28, 2006 11:15 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig

Re: Toleration

I’m not quite sure how to interprete ‘contributions that cannot even be disagreed with’.

Some contributions cannot be disagreed with because they are not well-formed enough.

Some contributions cannot be disagreed with because they are off-topic, and disagreeing with them would then be off-topic, too, and online discussions are vulnerable by forces pushing them into off-topic territory.

And you do have a German sounding name.

I could disagree with that and remark that my name happens to be Swiss sounding. But unfortunately that would lead me into completely off-topic territory.

Posted by: urs on September 29, 2006 10:35 AM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

If i had noticed the ambiguity in my statement i would have rephrased it to something like:-

‘I doubt anything of interest comes out of communities which lack the skill to critically evaluate statements of people they disagree with.’

It was meant as a little dig at communites that favour exclusion over dialog.
Sorry about the confusion. My fault.

Posted by: astrid on October 1, 2006 2:18 AM | Permalink

Rhetorical devices

Someone who invoked it to suggest that the Nazis weren’t so bad after all … might be justifiably excluded.

In this particular case, it’s not just the intention of the speaker that is relevant. As the article I linked to above makes clear, those who make a big deal about this particular matter are engaged in a classic straw man argument.

It’s one of a set of rhetorical techniques that one might not wish to tolerate, even if the intention were unobjectionable.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on September 28, 2006 8:21 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig

Re: Rhetorical devices

It appears not to have occured to you that maybe people who make a ‘big deal’ about the soap thing do it because they have been brought up believeing it was true.

Given that David is British also it would be interesting to know if he saw the same documentaries that i saw as a kid, and whether he believed them too.

It saddens me that throughout my childhood i had an extremely low opinion of the German people. I suspected that somehow they were genetically defective, having a severe defect on the empathy gene.

As for your ‘definitive’ article on the issue it seems to engage in a few straw arguements of its own.

Surely the point that this Webber guy is trying to make is that, if it is true that the ‘overwhelming majority’ of historians believed that the stories were false, they should have spoken out about it being false. Then the documentaries like the ones ( or maybe one ) that i saw as a kid would not have been made.

I have to say that i do take exception to the notion that i’m engaging in classic ‘rhetorical techniques’.

Posted by: astrid on September 28, 2006 11:45 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

I am intolerant of “fora” as the English plural of “forum”. 80 years ago Fowler’s “Modern English Usage” listed “forum” as completely naturalized with “forums” the only plural in use. “Fora” was a joke that managed to confuse people and re-enter the language. Fowler also says that the language is defined by usage and we have to accept idiom, however ill-judged. So if “fora” gets established I’ll accept it. But I plan to do my bit to resist, and I urge everyone to do the same.

This would be an inappropriate post if “fora” occurred in any other context. However this is a nice example of the need to maintain a certain level of intolerance. Language changes, but to preserve communication across time and between the generations we need to slow that down by resisting unhelpful change.

Posted by: Robert on September 28, 2006 1:09 AM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

Point taken. I think I rejected ‘forums’ as it suggested more of what we already have. But then ‘fora’ doesn’t help at all with this. What I want is something more like ‘new forms of discussion forum’.

Now, did I take

…pleasure in having been shown to be mistaken?

Posted by: David Corfield on September 28, 2006 12:26 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

09 27 06

Toleration then, so I have argued, is not in itself a virtue and too inclusive a toleration is a vice. Toleration is an exercise of virtue just in so far as it serves the purposes of a certain kind of rational enquiry and discussion, in which the expression of conflicting points of view enables us through constructive conflict to achieve certain individual and communal goods.

I particularly like this quote and think it is relevant to any community, but particularly the scientific community. It seems as though standards for discourse are not what they used to be, and rigor is replaced by meaningless glitz. Given this, I was happy about the New Scientist letter because it admonished Elsevier for pushing shoddy science. My biggest concern is that the PR and marketing campaigns pushing bad science may get funded over the rigorously proven or at least well laid out theories.

Regarding this, I wonder what limits are appropriate to set up, especially within a virtual forum. Frankly, I think that since many people view websites of various sorts, the exposure of this blog and other scientifically oriented blogs is greater than one would expect. For that reason I wonder what our responsibility is to squash bad science when we see it.

I wonder if McInyre would consider publically outing bad science via blogs a virtue? Good post.

Posted by: Mahndisa on September 28, 2006 3:56 AM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

I wonder if McInyre would consider publically outing bad science via blogs a virtue?

MacIntyre. To be precise, the question would be whether such outing could be the expression of a virtue, or further, would be required by the possession of that virtue. To the extent that the publication of bad science blocks or interferes with the pursuit of the ends of science, then yes it is reasonable, and in extreme cases necessary to join the fight against such publication. And it’s not just the publication of theoretical positions, the adoption of which mark someone out to be incompetent, that should worry us. Another serious error is to give a false impression of what is necessary for sustained scientific investigation to take place, for instance, presenting theory choice as always governed by the simple outcome of a crucial experiment. This could easily lend support to opponents of the whole of Darwinian theory.

But on what other grounds do we choose to exclude a comment on our blog? John says he will remove one here, but perhaps it will remain long enough for us to consider it now. Presumably the comment was meant humorously, and of course there is a place for humour. (In the 13 th13^{th} century, Aquinas recognised a place for jongleurs - entertainers who sang satirical songs - where Louis IX and Frederick II had them banned.) But humour can be used intelligently to further discussion, as this comment evidently fails to do. (Although a point might have been made about more and less natural units of speed.) For an example of how something which makes you laugh can also make you think, take a look of Alexandre Borovik’s post on Blunders and Howlers.

Posted by: David Corfield on September 28, 2006 11:52 AM | Permalink

degrees of tolerance/intolerance

Maybe instead of tolerance as a black or white issue it is better to have degrees of tolerance/intolerance. For instance consider a site like slashdot. It allows users to mod comments up or down and you can display comments at any level you want. The result is that there is never total intolerance or total tolerance but rather degrees of tolerance. Each user can then choose what level of discourse they are willing to tolerate. If you are willing to tolerate comments at the level of holocaust denial you can just set the level of comments you want to see really low. No comments are completely excluded and at the same time there isn’t complete equality since some comments are more visible than others.

On the other hand a blog like this one doesn’t really get many comments so a system like this is not really useful. Intolerance is only really useful for efficiencies sake.

Posted by: assman on September 29, 2006 6:13 AM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

What to tolerate in a discussion about toleration within a local community such as ours? My post was specifically addressed to the claim that MacIntyre can provide us with some philosophical resources to help us think about the conditions which promote the ends of a discussion community. When we began this blog, John, Urs and I were very keen to avoid the antagonism so commonly found on other blogs. We expect people to participate in a spirit of respectful co-operation. One way to achieve this is to confine posts to very specific issues in nn-categorical maths or physics. But, I believe, all of us would find this too confining. For example, John has opened up a series on ‘gnarly issues’, with the expectation that these posts will also provide us with an opportunity to learn.

I have my own personal interest in having my understanding of MacIntyre’s position scrutinised, since I have found many resources in his writings which have aided my own thinking. MacIntyre has an unusually integrated philosophy, and so a challenge to one part of his thinking impacts on other parts. I cannot expect contributors to have any training in philosophy, as Urs or John might expect someone to have been trained in mathematics or physics, but I should then expect if anything greater humility from contributors. You clearly know that this is required when you learn maths or physics, otherwise read Grothendieck here. It should not be a surprise that it is also necessary in philosophy. Much of the work of teaching first year philosophy students amounts to getting them to see why they shouldn’t tell you that Plato or Descartes was obviously wrong. After however many years, humility is still necessary for me to learn from other philosophers.

But the topic of this post wasn’t just chosen for my own benefit. As I indicated, it concerns one of the reasons we set this blog up - to engender a certain form of discussion. If you’ve read my work, or perhaps Lakatos’s, you’ll know we’ve expressed our dissatisfaction with the lack of well-governed discussion in mathematics. I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this is something I see as a mark of irrationality. I’ve heard and read very senior mathematicians calling for changes to be made with little impact. The success of a blog such as this could make a difference. It seems reasonable then to reflect on the conditions for productive dialogue.

Make every effort to be precise about the point you are making with regard to the intentions of the post. Only reply to a comment when you see a genuine opportunity for respectful dialogue. And strive to take pleasure in being shown to be mistaken.

Posted by: David Corfield on September 29, 2006 9:48 AM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

This running around the subject, metasubject, metametasubject, and so on is growing intolerable.

Posted by: John Armstrong on September 30, 2006 7:09 PM | Permalink

Re: Toleration

I think it’s time to wrap this thread up. I’ll turn the comments off now. (You’ll notice the hosts will do this from time to time.) Some comments have been removed upon the request of their author.

I still maintain that we can profitably think aloud about what makes for fruitful discussion. That it’s very difficult to achieve even when discussing maths and physics has become very evident. Disappointment with sci.physics.research has led two of the hosts here. Meanwhile, sci.math.research is not very lively. This should give us great concern with regard to politics, MacIntyre’s worry. Success here may gives us some small cause for hope.

John, philosophy can’t help but ask second and third order questions. A discipline which investigates the nature of enquiry can hardly avoid wondering how its findings bear on its own activity. A natural question to pose to the Vienna Circle members who claimed that all statements are either empirical, tautological or meaningless, is how they would classify their own statement.

I side with the many mathematicians I’ve heard who would like there to be a greater opportunity to talk about mathematics. It’s worth reflecting on what stands in the way of this meta-mathematical activity. But if you’re fed up with all this talk, why not make your contribution to one of the straight math or physics threads, such as Klein 2-geometry?

Posted by: David Corfield on October 1, 2006 11:22 AM | Permalink