During the Enlightenment, as each new idea spread across Europe, it was debated and challenged by other thinkers. Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), the skeptic, rejected the scope and power of reason in decision-making that Newton’s work had released. Hume thought that our passions and our affections naturally lead us to perform certain actions with reason acting only as a guide and sought to develop more fully the consequences of cautious empiricism by applying the scientific methods of observation to a study of human nature itself. We cannot rely on the common-sense pronouncements of popular superstition, which illustrate human conduct without offering any illumination, Hume held, nor can we achieve any genuine progress based on speculative or abstract reasoning, which imposes a spurious clarity upon profound issues. The alternative is to reject all easy answers, employing the negative results of philosophical skepticism as a legitimate place to start.
Hume claimed the apparent connection of one idea to another is invariably the result of an association that we manufacture ourselves. We use our mental operations to link ideas to each other in one of three ways: resemblance, contiguity, or cause and effect. (This animal looks like that animal; this book is on that table; moving this switch turns off the light, for example.) Experience provides us with both the ideas themselves and our awareness of their association. All human beliefs (including those we regard as cases of knowledge) result from repeated applications of these simple associations.
According to Hume, our belief that events are causally related is a custom or habit acquired by experience: having observed the regularity with which events of particular sorts occur together, we form the association of ideas that produces the habit of expecting the effect whenever we experience the cause. But since each idea is distinct and separable from every other, there is no self-evident relation; these connections can only be derived from our experience of similar cases. Causal reasoning can never be justified rationally. In order to learn, we must suppose that our past experiences bear some relevance to present and future cases. But although we do indeed believe that the future will be like the past, the truth of that belief is not self-evident. In fact, it is always possible for nature to change, so inferences from past to future are never rationally certain.
Skepticism quite properly forbids us to speculate beyond the content of our present experience and memory, yet we find it entirely natural to believe much more than that. Hume held that these unjustifiable beliefs can be explained by reference to custom or habit. Remember that the association of ideas is a powerful natural process in which separate ideas come to be joined together in the mind. Of course they can be associated with each other by rational means, as they are in the relations of ideas that constitute mathematical knowledge. But even where this is possible, Hume argued, reason is a slow and inefficient guide, while the habits acquired by much repetition can produce a powerful conviction independently of reason.1
Our beliefs in matters of fact, then, arise from sentiment or feeling rather than from reason. For Hume, imagination and belief differ only in the degree of conviction with which their objects are anticipated. Although this positive answer may seem disappointing, Hume maintained that custom or habit is the great guide of life and the foundation of all natural science. The most reasonable position, Hume held, is a ‘mitigated’ skepticism that humbly accepts the limitations of human knowledge while pursuing the legitimate aims of math and science.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) claimed there are no facts only interpretations. In his view there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consisted of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. Nietzsche is critical of the very idea of objective truth (he did not believe in values or truth). That we should think there is only one right way of considering a matter is only evidence that we have become inflexible in our thinking. A healthy mind is flexible and recognizes that there are many different ways of considering a matter. There is no single truth but rather many. Arbitrariness prevails within human experience: concepts originate via the transformation of nerve stimuli into images, and ‘truth’ is nothing more than the invention of fixed conventions for practical purposes, especially those of repose, security and consistency.
Nietzsche was concerned about the effects of nihilism on society and culture, not because he advocated nihilism. Nietzsche saw that the old values and old morality simply didn’t have the same power that they once did. God no longer mattered in modern culture and was effectively dead to us. He believed that there was no longer any real substance to traditional social, political, moral, and religious values. However, science does not introduce a new set of values to replace the Christian values it displaces. Nietzsche rightly foresaw that people need to identify some source of meaning and value in their lives, and if they could not find it in science, they would turn to aggressive nationalism and other such salves.2
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a classical political philosopher who read Nietzsche and had considerable influence on the neocons. From 1949 to 1967 Strauss served as a professor in the University of Chicago political science department, and became the source of the inspiration of the neoconservative ideology of the Republican Party. He developed a political philosophy based on deception, the power of religion, and aggressive nationalism. This was a system in which the people are told no more than they need to know as deception is a norm in political life. He recommended the use of religion for the morals of the masses, but not applying to the leaders. If the masses really knew what was going on it would lead to nihilism. The void was to be filled with religious values. Also Strauss proposed the use of aggressive foreign policy to unite the masses.3 After the end of the Cold War this foreign policy morphed under the influence of neo-conservatives into the concept of ‘exporting democracy’.4
One of the outcomes of the Iraq War was to expose the ugly underbelly of the neo-conservative machine in America. Two of the bureaucrats who put together the package of ‘evidence’ of WMD in Iraq were Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense and Abram Shulsky, Director of the Office of Special Plans, were students of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. This like thinking allowed a group to easily engineer a plan of deception of the American people about the need to invade Iraq.
Paul Wolfowitz out maneuvered the State Department and the CIA to get the Bush administration to set up the Special Plans unit because they were more effective in making their argument. Special Plans was created in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true –that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States. Abram Shulsky (who had roomed with Wolfowitz at Cornell and Chicago) was appointed the Director of Special Plans. Under his direction Special Plans put together the case for weapons of mass destruction creating the need to invade Iraq.
In late February 2002, the CIA sent Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate reports that the African nation sold uranium to Iraq to reconstitute their nuclear program. He failed to find evidence of any activities related to the purchase of ‘yellowcake’ uranium from Niger by Iraq. President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address claimed that purchases of uranium by Iraq from Niger were immanent creating a public protest by Ambassador Wilson. The neocons do not like people who disagree with them. Valerie Plame, the former CIA agent whose undercover status was blown by a White House leak of her identity sues Vice President Dick Cheney, White House aide Karl Rove, and former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Plame accuses them and other White House officials of conspiring to destroy her career as a CIA operative as well as conspiring to besmirch the reputation and integrity of her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.
I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby who studied under Wolfowitz at Yale, was assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney since 2001, resigned October 28, 2005, after being indicted on five counts which included obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury. He was later convicted on four of the five counts, and sentenced to thirty months in prison on June 5, 2007. On July 2, 2007 outgoing President Bush spared I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby from prison, commuting the former White House aide’s prison term.5
The neoconservatives identified that one could use democracy to defeat liberty as too much liberty undermines piety and leads to crime, drugs, rampant homosexuality, children out of wedlock, and family breakdown. Neocons have no trouble interfacing with the Christian right (basically turn back the clock on the liberal revolution and its achievements). To this end, the electoral boundaries for districts for the House of Representatives have been gerrymandered to ensure an easy majority of Republicans can be elected. In addition, states with a Republican Governor have enacted legislation that hinders the ability of minorities (especially blacks) from ready access to the voting booth (groups that generally support Democrats). Many states with Republican governors pass laws such as No Rights at Work bills (promoted under the guise of creating jobs and job security) that restrict the freedom of workers to organize to ensure just compensation. The neocons are a group with contrasting values – acting in the name of liberty and democracy, when they have so little regard for either.
With the Republicans sweeping victory in the midterm elections the influence of the neo-conservatives is on the rebound. The neocons are once again driving the debate. The truth for this group is the vision of the neoconservative beliefs (such as a more aggressive national security policy) while the general public receives controlled messages that ensure the elite can rule. President Obama admits that it is his fault that Democrats lost the midterm election because of his failure to explain to the people what it is he is trying to do. For the average person the increased influence of the neocons ushers in an era of increased questioning and skepticism of what is truth.
1“Hume: Empirist Naturalism.” http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/4t.htm
2“Nietzsche and Nihilism” http://atheism.about.com/od/nihilismnihilists/a/nietzsche.htm
3Drury, Shadia. “Saving America: Leo Strauss and the Neoconservatives. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article6750.htm
4“Leo Strauss’ Philosophy of Deception.” http://www.alternet.org/story/15935/leo_strauss’_philosophy_of_deception
5Hersh, Seymour M. “Selective Intelligence.” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/05/12/selective-intelligence