Chuck Klosterman’s new book succeeds by failing spectacularly.
But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the PastPublisher: Blue Rider
Length: 288 pages
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Publication date: 2016-06
Chuck Klosterman’s new book, But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, purports to be a takedown of naïve realism. It's a cornucopia of valuable intellectual queries and a super fun read that doesn't, however, succeed in a takedown of anything other than its author. I'm complimenting Klosterman on his failure, because I'm an optimistic person harboring the possibility of belief that he manufactured this failure deliberately. So now I'm going to show you the holes in the book and hopefully we will come to understand how the whole is greater than the sum of these holes.
I will skip a long detour into criticisms of Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant that show philosophical proofs as to why naïve realism is a weak theoretical position, because Klosterman adds two additional assumptions of his own to the naïve realism mix that will cause him unique trouble: “When considering any question, I must be rational and logical, to the point of dismissing any unverifiable data as preposterous”, and, “when considering any question, I’m going to assume that the information we currently have is all the information that will ever be available” (11).
This first addition is unquestionably a strawperson, meaning it's a substantially weakened form of an argument constructed only for Klosterman to pick it apart. Though most people likely think of themselves as logical and rational, all of those same people would concede that humanity as a collective does not obey principles of objectivity. Take the current American presidential election cycle, by way of example. The tagline across news platforms regardless of bias has been that “politics is emotional, not logical”. We are awash in an ocean of unverifiable factoids, an angry tidal wave of pathos that will cause us to look back on the violently awful summer of 2016 as a fairly dark time. Though Western civilizations generally fly the banner of rationality, from the Brexit vote to gun control, our collective citizenship prefers hearts over heads at every modern turn. We say that we value logic, but we seldom display it in our actions.
The second addition is more complicated. It's a matter of real scientific debate as to whether humanity’s learning curve has dropped off. Klosterman’s speculation on who will one day be considered our greatest artists and what we will retain as important pop cultural artifacts is very interesting to think about and is the kind of forward-looking analysis that generally keeps the author on the cutting edge of our radar. His well-reasoned predictions are playful, but ultimately futile. He concedes, “here’s where we taste the insecure blood from Klosterman’s Razor: The mere fact that I can imagine this scenario [of a Navajo Kafka] forces me to assume that it won’t happen. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the facts that presently exist, but the future is a teenage crackhead who makes shit up as he goes along” (42).
The result of Klosterman’s second premise will always defeat him in this manner. If we agree with him that a lot more information will eventually be available (or agree by extension that future human culture will not substantively resemble today’s culture in any important way), then all predictions fail because we don’t know what we don’t know. Klosterman’s territory of radically unknown unknowns is where epistemological inquiry becomes truly blind, and in a country of the blind, the one-eyed person is king. The king then, is ontology.
While we search for knowledge and question how we arrive at such knowledge, in the many gray areas amongst the knowns we nevertheless remain flesh and blood human beings. No matter what uncertainties large or small we may face, we still get up in the morning, put on some pants and go to work. We might be living in a multiverse where actually hundreds of our parallel selves get up, put different pants on and go to different jobs. We might be putting on pants and going to work in the year 1718 because, according to the phantom time hypothesis, the Catholic Church padded the calendar by about 500 years for its own storytelling convenience. Or we might be figments of an artificial intelligence’s massive simulation, putting on our digital pants that feel real to us, but like us, aren’t. Do any of these three amusing scenarios change the way you will wake up, put on pants and go to work tomorrow?
One of the best and most worthless chunks of But What If We're Wrong? is when Klosterman frames the debate between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and string theorist Brian Greene. The three aforementioned prospects defy naïve realism without touching our daily lives, just as the discovery of the Higgs boson particle did not touch our daily lives. It’s an interesting chapter for which Klosterman leans heavily on block quotes that he does not possess enough scientific expertise to unpack. He wisely turns back to an interview with a filmmaker to summarize what Tyson dismisses as “beer conversation”. “Not to get too far out there on this,” says Richard Linklater, “but either it all matters or none of it matters. That’s just sort of a view about life, and about how thoughts work” (144).
This lays bare the essential fulcrum of the book and its attendant see-saw of infinite regress. Not wanting to get caught up in Bertrand Russell’s punchline that “it’s turtles all the way down”, Klosterman repeatedly express anxiety about the futility of his own book project. “It’s possible this debate [about the merits of future generations watching the unlikely genius of Roseanne] doesn’t even belong in this book, or that it should be its own book. It’s a phenomenon with no willful intent and no discernible results. I’m not satisfied with what my conclusion says about the nature of realism. But I know this matters” (175). Lacking any solid evidence, he works anecdotal support for his feelings into a pointedness that performs precisely the argument as to why his first premise, that he must be rational and logical by dismissing unverifiable data, is incorrect.
Though Klosterman has trapped himself in the parable of a flat earth resting on the back of infinite turtles, he turns to a different proverb, that “the clever fox knows many things, but the old hedgehog knows one big thing” (200). The impetus for the metaphor extended throughout this chapter is that Klosterman used to see a hedgehog behind his house, waiting for apples to drop from a tree. An apple always dropped; the hedgehog had a certitude about gravity that the author uses to make his point: “This is the difference between the fox and the hedgehog. Both creatures know that storytelling is everything, and that the only way modern people can understand history and politics is through the machinations of a story. But only the hedgehog knows that storytelling is secretly the problem, which is why the fox is constantly wrong” (201).
This may be another strawperson argument, but in the back page acknowledgements, he knocks it down with thorough hilarity himself. ”It turns out there is a problem with this memory -- hedgehogs are not native to North America. […] I’m (very slightly) embarrassed by all this, since I based an entire chapter around a metaphor I did not technically experience. But there was no practical solution to this contradiction, outside of re-naming this book But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About Woodchucks As If They Were Hedgehogs. Chuck Klosterman regrets the error” (264). I bet a lot of people might mistake a woodchuck for a hedgehog; discovery of such a mistake does little to undercut our ways of being, even when it jeopardizes our ways of knowing. Ah, practical solutions!
The truth is, knowing or unknowingly, we sometimes behave as if woodchucks are hedgehogs. “To behave as if” certain things are known to us is a general definition of ontology. Our way of being in the world is based on what we think we know, but is necessarily flexible in allowing space for what we don’t yet know and what will contravene our present knowledge. Klosterman claims that he is on a mission to explore epistemological uncertainty, but he consistently performs displays of ontological certainty.
This is because a rejection of naïve realism in favor of epistemic vagaries need not plunge us into moral relativism, because we are agents who must take action in daily life. Look at his reading of the Constitution: “The apparent unfairness of reality can’t be blamed on our inability to embody this ‘self-evident’ principle [that all people are created equal, according to the U.S. Constitution]. The world would be just as unfair if we did. I realize there’s a natural response to the previous statement, and it’s the same response I would have given fifteen years ago: ‘This is a conscious misreading of the message. Jefferson is not claiming that all men are literally created equal. He’s arguing that all men deserve equal protection under the law, and that they are to be treated as if they are equal.’ Which, of course, I agree with (because who wouldn’t)” (213-4). This “as if” is crucial; we must continue to do our best to act as if everyone is equal under the law.
The “as if” is about striving for ideal conditions, which never truly arrive. It's the most optimistic form of ontology, because it utilizes our ethical sense of “should”. Epistemology is about “this giant AI simulated world could happen” or “gravity would not be observable if we were to learn more about”, et cetera. But “should” is the express purview of ontology, because it implies moral reasoning skills; beings in the world should get up in the morning, put on some pants, and go to work. Klosterman concedes this also, in a elegant footnote to his analysis of the way sports has been ruined by data-driving a la the film Moneyball:
Math tells us that being ‘clutch’ is a myth, and that the performance of athletes placed in identical ‘clutch’ scenarios will roughly equate with however they’d perform in any normal scenario. This is wrong. For one thing, every ‘clutch’ situation is unique and distinct, so there’s no way to compare any two real-life scenarios, even if all the technical details are identical. But the larger reason is that absolutely everyone who has played sports at any level knows that clutchness is real, to a depth that would make it become real (even if it wasn’t) for purely psychological reasons. […] The recognition that certain people respond better under pressure will happen instantly, and you’ll never try to convince yourself otherwise” (250-1).
Klosterman’s wild visions of the future are pressurized by his clouded epistemology. Every day is ‘clutch’, where to be wrong about what we know at present and to be radically uncertain about what we may know in future in no way prevents us from living our daily lives. The author is generously shouldering a vast quantity of this timeless epistemic dilemma, fleshing it out into a wide variety of popular fields and modern disciplines in a way that provides ample, amusing food for thought. Your mind will occasionally be somewhat blown, and that’s it. You should not doing anything to alter your practice of everyday living.
As Klosterman repeatedly hints throughout the book, it hasn’t changed his life, either. Ontology hinges on a type of pragmatism that, by virtue of our simple need to continue to act, no amount of epistemological paralysis can defeat. The story the author performs through But What If We’re Wrong? has far more merit than the failed story he purports to be telling. That’s why Klosterman himself is so clutch -- at least in the here and now.