Iran, Foreign Policy, and Positivism

While we wait for the other shoe to drop in Yemen, let’s consider one of the few bits of philosophical jargon that might have application to the wild and wooly arena of international relations : positivism.  Although the concept is credited to Auguste Comte, there is evidence that it was independently rediscovered by Jerry MacGuire. In any particular case,  Comte’s defintion, or MacGuire’s may be more applicable.

Early in the 19th century, the scientific world was still trying to purge  the mystical influences that were the consequences of both centuries of ecclesiastical domination, and the inheritances of ancient philosophy. Comte’s positivism is a kind of doo-dad added onto they very-alive memes of DeCarte, Locke, and Hume.  Those authors of scientific philosophy may not be right (nothing in philosophy is!), but by displacing mysticism as the primary mode of thought, humans have been able to junk candles and witch hunts, replacing them with really nice things, like Toyota Corollas and wifi.

Positivism asserts that the methods of science, and personal observation, are the only sources of authoritative knowledge. As the physics concept of local of causality is under serious challenge, with no replacement in sight, positivism may itself be an article of faith. But in the world we experience, that’s just a subtle quibble, which doesn’t hold up against all the progress that has been made with logic and empiricism.

But everyone has a mind. We might know some things about minds in general, but if positivism acknowledges the possibility of knowing anything about a mind, it calls that kind of knowledge second rate.  William James, in his classic book, Psychology,  combined empirical methods, which were remarkably sophisticated, with introspection — for how can one just ignore one’s own mind, just to adhere to positivism?

James’s work was the high point of this combination. B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism knocked it down. What Skinner called mentalism could not properly be considered in the domain of science.  Henry Stapp may have found a reconciliation of mind with physics, but it is an incomplete theory. The future lies with incomplete theories.

Cultural memes are like oily substances that you can’t clean off. They stick to doorknobs and minds, like that tune you can’t get out of your head. Behaviorism is a concept that escaped the science zoo, and became a wild meme. It constrains the way we think, in a manner analogous to a joke:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”[2]

One of the welcome corollaries of positivism is that you can’t convict somebody for their thoughts. Sometimes we have second thoughts, as with copilot Andreas Lubitz, copilot of German Wings Flight 9525. It wouldn’t hurt to have some precogs on the payroll.

In the sales job for the  2003 invasion of Iraq, evidence that Iraq possessed an active WMD program was fabricated.  It was because those in charge felt a sales job based on abstract concepts,  general principles, or genocide in the ‘hood didn’t have enough punch. Ample evidence of each existed: Saddam was a really bad guy. But it is probably correct that the American public could not be sold a case based on the idea of extensible evil; that is, an active impulse with expansible instincts and intelligence to go with it. It may be the greater threat in the end, but megatons make an easier sale.

Perhaps, if you read this a year ago, it would sound like obscure, unmotivated gibberish. But now that ISIS has willed itself into existence with all the characteristics of a malignant life form, it’s interesting. In both cases, the wellspring  of the threat consists of ideas held by the minds of individuals.  In the case of Saddam, his personality was forefront.  ISIS is a little more doctrinal and less personal. But both illustrate a concept, and a phrase, that have gone out of style: dangerous ideas.

If Japan were to join the nuclear club, there would be formalities of protestation, which would pass. The instabilities of Pakistan,through multiple modalities, offer the greatest danger of transfer of nuclear weapons and materials to terrorist groups. But Pakistan is a U.S. ally. Iran is the subject of the most energetic and protracted effort to stop weapons development. The intricacies of negotiation capture the attention of the press to exclude the reasons. Why care so much?

The answer is, future crime, which positivist thinkers can hardly speak of and cannot afford to ignore. In a world of positivist thinking, Iran simply does not fit. The national language, Farsi, is the only ancient language still in use in the modern world. Iranians tout  Persian poetry the way we extoll mass production. Words, words, words…

In the holy city of Qom, clerics churn out commentary, the quantity, aesthetic quality, and popularity of which define the reputation and power of an ayatollah and his school. The anatomy of the state, the veins through which the power flows, and the currency of  legitimate rule are different from any other state in the world today. It is a hybridization of Plato’s Republic (compare Plato’s ruling “guardians” with Iran’s Guardian Council)  with a state structure that until 2005 occasioned significant expression of secular ideas.

In the West, we are accustomed to simple hierarchies of power, structured like pyramids, narrowing to a single individual at the top. Iran has multiple hierarchies which, at the top, vie for legitimacy in religious publications, selected public disclosure, and popularity. How these balance to modulate the exercise of power, and legitimacy of succession, are known only by the result.

Vast swaths of Iran’s economy are managed by secretive foundations, responsible only to particular ayatollahs. The Republican Guard owns and operates are large portion of Iran’s industrial infrastructure. These structure acquire and disburse vast, invisible, monetary streams.

But you’ve probably heard that before, and also this: Iran is corrupt, the young are our hope, the ayatollahs will fall. None of that has happened. Since 1979, none of our predictions have come about. This should cause us to question our intellectual tools, one of which is positivism.

Iran, Empire of the Mind, requires resort to older methods. What are they thinking?






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