Some thoughts upon the death of Colin Powell [problems of exceptional epistemology]

Look at me being topical. Part of this is also an exercise in trying to get blog posts up in a reasonable amount of time. So, here goes.

Colin Powell died recently, and I can’t say I was all that much bothered by it. I am not all that troubled by most people dying, particularly people I am not all that attached to. I didn’t know him, and while I guess there is a certain amount of sadness when anyone dies… meh?

But one of my first thoughts about this was, as I imagine it was with so many people from my generation, “Hey, wasn’t this the guy that lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?” That of course, doesn’t speak to the tragedy of the loss of the individual, but it did take me down memory lane.

So let’s talk about my favorite subject… epistemology.

Back during gulf war part two, Colin Powell went to the United Nations to state the case for the US going into Iraq. As a guy reading about it in the newspaper, my first thoughts were… Well, this is bullshit. This was an opinion shared by my family, and likely must of my social circle. What I am wondering now is to what extent I was justified in that opinion.

Likely, it wasn’t. The distinction needed here is a difference between being correct about something and being justified about the opinion. The go to thought experiment involves a Roman emperor who declares that the world must be spherical, because ‘spheres are the most perfect geometrical shape’. Our hypothetical emperor may be correct, but he isn’t justified. Why is that a problem? Well, someone could walk along and convince him that, for instance, hexagons are the most perfect geometrical shape. By the emperor’s reasoning, the world is now hexagonal. Suddenly, he isn’t so correct anymore, is he?

So for my own admittedly dismissive take on the WMD’s, I am not all that satisfied with being right, as merely being right is nothing more than a gambler’s game. I am much more interested in being justified. Alas, too much time has passed for me to really remember what was in my head at the time (and the journal I used to keep then is lost), and so whether that was an opinion born of any sophisticated analysis or simply an opinion bubbled up to be in line with those of my community are lost. For as much as I would like the former, I am willing to concede (from what I know of myself then) is likely of the latter.

I can’t say I do remember much about those times, and the access I had to relevant information. Would, with all the information presented to me, I have even been able to make significant discernment about what had happened? Somehow, I doubt it. If Colin Powell had personally sat down with me and showed me the evidence for, by what metric should I have gone about doubting him?

By what metric did those doubting members of the UN do it?

The answer to all of this is a resounding ‘I have no idea’. And as all of these epistemology posts are meant to prove, this all makes for a terrifying world to live in.

I would have it no other way.

So what about the man himself, Colin Powell? At that time I saw him as little more than a complicit liar. Now, I see that there are several more options on the table:

  • He may have been a true believer.
  • He may have been been obliged by his superiors.
  • He may have been deceived by the intelligence he gathered.
  • He may have been ‘going with his gut’.
  • He may have followed the conclusion to the evidence.

and, of course

  • He may have been a warmongering complicit liar.

So, now that Colin Powell is gone, who was he? I have no idea. A name in the history books, at the very least. A person who, with certainty, we can say was wrong, and was so at the cost of thousands of lives. We may, however, never now more than that.

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