by Peter Ludlow
June 14, 2013
New York Times

If there is one thing we can take away from the news of recent weeks it is this: the modern American surveillance state is not really the stuff of paranoid fantasies; it has arrived.

The revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM data collection program have raised awareness — and understandably, concern and fears — among American and those abroad, about the reach and power of secret intelligence gatherers operating behind the facades of government and business.

But those revelations, captivating as they are, have been partial —they primarily focus on one government agency and on the surveillance end of intelligence work, purportedly done in the interest of national security. What has received less attention is the fact that most intelligence work today is not carried out by government agencies but by private intelligence firms and that much of that work involves another common aspect of intelligence work: deception. That is, it is involved not just with the concealment of reality, but with the manufacture of it.

The realm of secrecy and deception among shadowy yet powerful forces may sound like the province of investigative reporters, thriller novelists and Hollywood moviemakers — and it is — but it is also a matter for philosophers. More accurately, understanding deception and and how it can be exposed has been a principle project of philosophy for the last 2500 years. And it is a place where the work of journalists, philosophers and other truth-seekers can meet.

In one of the most referenced allegories in the Western intellectual tradition, Plato describes a group of individuals shackled inside a cave with a fire behind them. They are able to see only shadows cast upon a wall by the people walking behind them. They mistake shadows for reality. To see things as they truly are, they need to be unshackled and make their way outside the cave. Reporting on the world as it truly is outside the cave is one of the foundational duties of philosophers.

In a more contemporary sense, we should also think of the efforts to operate in total secrecy and engage in the creation of false impressions and realities as a problem area in epistemology — the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. And philosophers interested in optimizing our knowledge should consider such surveillance and deception not just fodder for the next “Matrix” movie, but as real sort of epistemic warfare.

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