Category Archives: Science
Reproduced from a Print Copy, and Posted by Cain Pinto
*This excerpt is taken in entirety from Paul Ricoeur’s magisterial Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1970).
…what advantages can the hermeneutician adduce when faced with formal logic? To the artificiality of logical symbols, which can be written and read but not spoken he will oppose an essentially oral symbolism, in each instance received and accepted as a heritage. The man who speaks in symbols is first of all a narrator; he transmits an abundance of meaning over which he has little command. This abundance, this density of manifold meaning, is what gives him food for thought and solicits his understanding; interpretation consists less is suppressing ambiguity than in understanding it and explicating its richness. It may also be said that logical symbolism is empty, whereas symbolism in hermeneutics is full; it renders manifest the double meaning of worldly or psychical reality…[S]ymbols are bound: the sensible sign is bound by the symbolic meaning that dwells in it and gives it transparency and lightness; the symbolic meaning is in turn bound to its sensible vehicle, which gives it weight and opacity. One might add that this is also the way symbols bind us, viz. by giving thought a content, a flesh, a density.
These distinctions and oppositions are not false; they are merely unfounded. A confrontation which restricts itself to the symbolic texture of symbols and does not face up to the question of their foundation in reflection will soon prove embarrassing to the advocate of hermeneutics. For the artificiality and emptiness of logical symbolism are simply the counterpart and condition of the true aim of this logic, viz. to guarantee the nonambiguity of arguments; what the hermeneutician calls double meaning is, in logical terms, ambiguity, i.e. equivocity of words and amphiboly of statements. A peaceful juxtaposition of hermeneutics and symbolic logic is therefore impossible; symbolic logic quickly makes any lazy compromise untenable. Its very “intolerance” forces hermeneutics to radically justify its own language.
We must therefore understand this intolerance in order to arrive a contrario at the foundation of hermeneutics.
If the rigour of symbolic logic seems more exclusive than that of traditional formal logic, the reason is that symbolic logic is not a simple prolongation of the earlier logic. It does not represent a higher degree of formalization; it proceeds from a global decision concerning ordinary language, the amphibolous character of its construction, the confusion inherent in metaphor and idiomatic expressions, the emotional resonance of highly descriptive language. Symbolic logic despairs of natural language precisely at the point where hermeneutics believes in its implicit “wisdom”.
This struggle begins with the exclusion from the properly cognitive sphere of all language that does not give factual information. The rest of discourse is classified under the heading of emotive and horatory functions of language; that which does not give factual information expresses emotions, feelings or attitudes, or urges others to behave in some particular way.
Reduced thus to the informative function, language still has to be divested of the equivocity of words and the amphiboly of grammatical constructions; verbal ambiguity must be unmasked so as to eliminate it from arguments and to employ coherently the same words in the same sense within the same argument. The function of definitions that succeed in doing this are scientific ones. These are not content with pointing out the meaning of words already have in usage, independently of their definition; instead they very strictly characterise an object in light of a scientific theory (for example, the definition of force as the product of mass and acceleration in the context of Newtonian theory).
But symbolic logic goes further. For it, the price of univocity is the creation of a symbolism with no ties to natural to language. This notion of a symbol excludes the other notion of symbol. The recourse to a completely artificial symbolism introduces in a logic a difference not only of degree but also of nature; the symbols of the logician intervene precisely at the point where arguments of classical logic, formulated in ordinary language, run into an invincible and, in a way, residual ambiguity. Thus the logical disjunction sign ∨ eliminates the ambiguity of words that express disjunction in ordinary language (Eng., or; Ger., oder; Fr., ou); ∨ expresses only the particular meaning common to the inclusive disjunction (the sense of the Latin vel) according to which at least one is false; ∨ resolves the ambiguity by formulating the inclusive disjunction as the part common to the two modes of disjunction. Likewise the symbol ⊃ resolves the ambiguity inherent in the notion of implication (which may denote formal implication, either logical, definitional, or causal); the symbol ⊃ formulates the common partial meaning, namely, that any hypothetical statement with a true antecedent and a false consequent must be false; the symbol is thus an abbreviation of a longer symbolism which expresses the negation of the conjunction of the truth value of the antecedent and the falsity of the consequent: ∼ (p. ∼ q).
Thus the artificial language of logical symbolism enables one to determine the validity of arguments in all cases where a residual ambiguity can be ascribed to the structure of ordinary language. The precise point where symbolic logic cuts across and contests hermeneutics, therefore, is this: verbal equivocity and syntactical amphiboly—in short, the ambiguity of ordinary language—can be overcome only at the level of a language whose symbols have a meaning completely determined by the truth table whose construction they allow. Thus the sense of the symbol ∨ is completely determined by its truth function, inasmuch as it serves to safeguard the validity of the disjunctive syllogism; likewise the sense of the symbol ⊃ completely exhausts its meaning in the construction of the truth table of the hypothetical syllogism. These constructions guarantee that the symbols are completely unambiguous, while the nonambiguity of the symbols assures the universal validity of arguments.
As long as the logic of multiple meaning is not guaranteed in this reflective function, it necessarily falls under the blows of formal and symbolic logic. In the eyes of the logician, hermeneutics will always be suspected of fostering a culpable complacency toward equivocal meanings, of surreptitiously giving an informative function to expressions that have merely an emotive or horatory function. Hermeneutics thus falls under the fallacies of relevance which a sound logic denounces.
The only thing that can come to the aid of equivocal expressions and truly ground a logic of double meaning is the problematic of reflection. The only thing that can justify equivocal expressions is their a priori role in the movement of self-appropriation by self which constitutes reflective activity. This a priori function pertains not to a formal but to a transcendental logic, if by transcendental logic is meant the establishing of the conditions of possibility of a domain of objectivity in general. The task of such a logic is to extricate by a regressive method the notions presupposed in the constitution of a type of experience and a corresponding type of reality. Transcendental logic is not exhausted in the Kantian a priori. The connection we have established between reflection upon the I think, I am qua act, and the signs scattered in the various cultures of that act of existing, opens up a new field of experience, objectivity, and reality. This is the field to which the logic of double meaning pertains—a logic we have qualified above as complex but not arbitrary, and rigorous in its articulations. The principle of limitation to the demands of symbolic logic lies in the structure of reflection itself. If there is no such thing as the transcendental, there is no reply to the intolerance of symbolic logic; but if the transcendental is an authentic dimension of discourse, then new force is found in the reasons that can be opposed to the requirement of logicism that all discourse be measured by its treatise of arguments. These reasons, which seemed to us to be left hanging in the air for want of a foundation, are as follows:
- The requirement of univocity holds only for discourse that presents itself as argument: but reflection does not argue, it draws no conclusion, it neither deduces or induces; it states the conditions of possibility whereby empirical consciousness can be made equal to thetic consciousness. Hence, “equivocal” applies only to those expressions that ought to be univocal in the course of a single “argument” but are not; in the reflective use of multiple-meaning symbols there is no fallacy of ambiguity: to reflect upon these symbols and to interpret them is one and the same act.
- The understanding developed by reflection upon symbols is not a weak substitute for definition, for reflection is not a type of thinking that defines and thinks according to “classes.” This brings us back to the Aristotelian problem of the “many meanings of being.” Aristotle was the first to see clearly that philosophical discourse is not subject to the logical alternative of univocal-equivocal, for being is not a “genus”
; and yet, being is said; but it “is said in many ways”.
- Let us go back to the very first alternative considered above: a statement that does not give factual information, we said, expresses only the emotions or attitudes of a subject. Reflection, however, falls outside this alternative; that which makes possible the appropriation of the I think, I am is neither the empirical statement not the emotive statement, but something other than either of these.
This case for interpretation rests entirely on the reflective function of interpretative thought. If the double movement of symbols towards reflection and of reflection towards symbols is valid, interpretative thought is well grounded. Hence it may be said, at least, negatively, that such thought is not measured by a logic of arguments; the validity of philosophical statements cannot be arbitrated by a theory of language conceived as syntax; the semantics of philosophy is not swallowed up by a symbolic logic.
These propositions concerning philosophic discourse do not enable us, however, to say positively what a philosophical statement is; such an affirmation could be fully justified only by its actually being said. At least we can affirm that the indirect, symbolic language of reflection can be valid, not because it is equivocal, but in spite of its being equivocal”.
Paul Ricoeur. Trans. Denis Savage. “Book I. Problematic: Reflection and Equivocal Language”. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1970. P. 47- 54
By Cain Pinto
TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information(1998) by Erik Davis is a level headed exploration of the collective fetishes and taboos of our technocratic agon. Let not the book’s breezy tone and tongue in cheek yet pyrotechnic proclivity for floating self-conscious portmanteaux like ‘eschatechnology’ and ‘datapocalypse’ among its serious enumerations be an impediment to the receipt of delightful, well considered and erudite insights that are packed in for good measure.
The thesis of the book is not original but is fleshed out in a highly persuasive way and is wide in its reach of resources and analytical framework: that the project of the Enlightenment, seeking to dethrone religiomystical ways of understanding the world, by the use of instrumental reason, perpetuated magical ways of thinking while occulting them into the deeper ordering, unconscious structures of technological rationality is a proposition we have been made by theorists before. All in all, the dispassionate eye of Davis is an excellent vantage for the uninitiated and a succinct recapitulation to the blasé psychonaut and acquisitive dabbler.
The profusion of cults, the rash like irruption of mass entertainment products that gather attention across the globe among diverse audiences, the giddy ecstasy of communication and the tenacious optimism of cutting edge science which rivals the mystical pull of the numinous hearken back to a tribalism that never really ceased to breathe animating pneuma into the erstwhile deus ex machina of bellow-and-cudgel positivism. This book, though several years old in a world that ages by the minute, in sync with sound bites and giga, has aged remarkably well, and I suspect it will remain relevant until man’s elusive pursuit of the apocalypse will meet its resolution by coinciding with some trite prophecy.
Davis’ work is a fine piece of writing, capable of entertaining D & D nerds and tree-hugging ecofeminists alike, while cozying up with oddball, well read history buffs and pop culture connoisseurs. It is must read for the terminally optimistic empiricists of today, as a word of caution, a grain of salt, an obsidian mirror, a quick read in fast times.
My Rating: *** ½
Davis, Erik. (2004). TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Steven Gibson on the limitations of skepticism as a movement
He is a small-town entrepreneur who is by nature at odds with “the man.” The man says he is unemployable, and he is increasingly comfortable with that reality. He has been self-employed in video production and multimedia for the last decade. It was there that he wrote the well-reviewed novel of big and skeptical ideas “A Secret of the Universe: a Story of Love, Loss, and the Discovery of an Eternal Truth.” Before that he ran a small office products dealership for a decade. Now he has started what will hopefully be the occupation for his next decade–a boutique car and driver service for independent seniors and busy professionals. Between all of that he questions everything and enjoy time with friends, his significant other, and his kids. I first came across him five years ago on his old podcast, Truth-Driven thinking. Recently Steven Gibson has been more concerned with popular fallacies in economics, and over-claims in regards to religion and politics that are not often covered in the general skeptic’s community, or are covered only in a standard “Democratic Party” liberal or libertarian matter. His honest struggling with the implications let me to want to talk with him on the issues in the community and the problems with skepticism as a “movement.”
C.Derick Varn: What are the major “skeptical issues” that concern you that you don’t think get covered in the greater skeptic community?
Steven Gibson: ether it can be called a major “skeptical” issue or not is unclear; most of the “major issues” do seem to be adequately covered, almost by definition. That said, there remain many important areas of everyday life that appear to lack critical analysis. Economics and politics come to mind, though admittedly they are complex, “softer” areas of inquiry, so difficulties abound. That said, it seems to me that many, many assumptions exist about how our complex economies and markets work, and that economists don’t understand them nearly as well as advertised. Trickle that down to we everyday pundits and skeptical non-economists, and contrary to what we might expect, we see solutions promoted confidently–often quite certainly as ”obvious” truths. But it is clear that ideological biases are attached, perhaps hinting at how we wish the world worked.
Among my favorite commentators happens to be a Hayekian, Austrian-leaning economist from the not-so-left George Mason University, Russ Roberts. He hosts “Econtalk,” and is generally a shining example of how to discuss and disagree while employing intellectual honesty (there are a few exceptions). He often has guest economists from other “schools” who disagree with him. But what I enjoy most is that he seems to readily admit that although he finds his math and arguments more compelling, others are just as convinced their math and arguments are far superior. And the truth is that these very limited models of hugely complex and unpredictable systems appear relatively poorly understood. In fact that is a fundamental message of Nassim Taleb (“The Black Swan” among his great books), who has also been a guest on the program.
Many argue that economics as a discipline, is not a predictive science, and thus should be off the hook for its astonishing failures to predict the things that really matter–such as busts like the global financial collapse of 2008. You might recall that most of the leaders of our economy touted the solid footings of the economy, and dismissed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown as quite isolated (from Bernanke and Geithner to Greenspan and Krugman). The simple fact is that for something as vital as how finance and economics systems work and are managed, we simply don’t understand how they really work in the real world. And yet we make all sorts of moral judgments based upon our almost faith-based narratives of what works and what does not.
Steve Keen’s new models, and thinkers like Nassim Taleb, and maybe a few others like Alan Harvey are at least banging their heads on the established clergy and encouraging rigor and dialogue, but there is a long way to go, it would appear. How about a little humility. Doesn’t the fact that an entire discipline completely missed, and cannot explain, the most significant of events in their economic lifetime imply the need for a little humility? A little introspection?
On the political front I will be more brief. It probably doesn’t even need to be summarized again, but from fact-checking to confirmation bias, we can quickly set our skepticism aside when it is “our guy.”
As always, my observations are purely anecdotal, based perhaps too heavily on Facebook exchanges and other interactions; and I admit to being guilty myself. My concern is that we too seem to fall prey to tribally- and ideologically-driven biases, filters of data, and downright flawed reasoning–just like anyone else. Whether that is objectivism, free market worship, or equally strong Marxist or populist views, we are not immune. Yet we do not discuss these real-world implications of lack of ”skepticism” enough as a community.
For me, all roads lead to Rome. All the smaller, hard-science questions about how the world works are wonderful, but to me the goal would be to work up the chain to god questions, economics, happiness, and philosophical arguments. We should dabble in what is, and what could be. Unfortunately for this average guy from the Midwest, who has discovered just how little he knows, many of these disciplines are far over my head. That’s why I count on you and your readers. All I can tell you is that everywhere I look I see complexity and lack of understanding, but the appearance from others–including skeptics–of dogmatic certainty.
C.D.V.: So what do you make of the relative decline of new atheism within the skeptics movement?
S.G.: Gosh, that’s a tough question because of some built-in assumptions and definitions. If we stipulate that there is a skeptic movement, I’m a bit more hesitant to confess knowledge of the intimate link to new atheism, or of a decline in new atheism within that community. That said, if there is a decline it could be related to the natural cycle of things–there were a few bestselling books for a spell there that ignited conversations; that’s a great thing but momentum ebbs and flows. So I’m not certain about the premise.
It might be that the core of your question, however, focuses on whether or not atheism and skepticism are related; whether they should be; or better still if we run the risk of being scientistic when we spend lots of time on the god questions. At the risk of writing a book here, and showing my ignorance, I’ll take only a quick shot.
Atheism and skepticism are very much intertwined to the degree that supernatural explanations are used to describe natural events and make falsifiable (or potentially falsifiable) claims about how the natural world works. Taking actions based upon untrue assumptions can have horrible consequences. A sick child is refused a transfusion because god has told the parents to not allow it, and that this personal god actively will suspend the cause and effect of the world and move cells or molecules–without other known or unknown earthly cause–and thus heal him another way if we obey? That is a problem, and skeptics and scientists should be all over it. Great harm can come when any imagined claim about reality is acted upon without some degree of critical thinking, naturalistic testing, or thought. (Note: This is quite different than early intuition, thinking outside the box, and creativity or great insights or breakthroughs. (These appear to come from the same parts of the brain that religion does; one can be very “spiritual”, artsy, creative, intuitive, and even irrational, without resorting to defining the sources of such non-linear, non-reasoned creativity as supernatural.)
When “god claims” involve virgin births, causes of earthquakes, moving your pencil, or healing disease, it seems very cool to try to understand those mechanisms and falsify or prove the claim using earthly, naturalistic methods of science. The more we understand about earthly, natural “reality,” (always provisionally), the better off we are. Knowledge is a good thing, and improved knowledge of how the world really works, of causes and effects, always has accompanied forward progress and reduced human suffering. Always.
But beyond falsifiable claims, science has limits that should be recognized so as not to turn it into a religion or philosophy, without very clear disclaimers and delineations that we have entered a new realm (and maybe not even then; see naturalism.org as an admirable effort in that direction). Yes, one can probabilistically make guesses about the unknown based on the entirety of human knowledge, experience, observation, and testing–and thus suggest that a personal god who manipulates atoms is highly unlikely; but one cannot make definitive statements of certainty about that which is beyond our naturalistic, testable knowledge–at least it seems to me. We must be agnostic about mystical, non-falsifiable beliefs, as I believe even the great skeptic Marvin Gardner is said to have argued through his deistic beliefs. While I lean materialist, I realize that becomes a belief, and not the domain of science; . I have much to learn, but that is the thumbnail of my current thinking.
And to bring it full circle, to me it appears that new atheism gains traction slowly but surely when it stays in the realm of natural science, even when refuting claims of religion about testable claims. Where it seems to get itself in trouble is when it dips its toe too far over the line into scientism–which I might add that it does not do very often, but does do.
As for the “ought” part, I still say that all roads lead to Rome (the big questions), and that certainly religious claims made about cause and effect in the natural world are fair game and should be part of skeptical inquiry. But that ought to be engaged in carefully, compassionately, and kindly, with an eye on dialogue that makes the world better and affects meaningful improvements in the human condition. To simply badger or belittle, even with all the facts on your side, gets us nowhere.
C.D.V.: To be fair, Steve, that was a trick question. What do you think are the problems with the privileging of science over all other means of discourse for moral and aesthetics questions that often happens in the “skeptic’s community” through use of disciplines which are themselves problematic as to demarcation as being scientific? In this I would include things such as the use of simple evolutionary psychology or Dawkin’s memetics or Harris’s claims that morality is analogous to medical sceince to the claims that the laws of evolution may apply to physics as being prime offenders?
S.G.: So you are asking about the tendency of even skeptics to use soft or “sketchy” science (e.g. social science research, evolutionary psychology, etc.) in the arguments that science itself should be privileged above other means of answering moral and aesthetic questions? I’m a simple guy from Kalamazoo, and am probably over my head here so will simply say that I’m, well, skeptical of such arguments, and even dubious as to the motives for making them. Mix the demarcation problem with which philosophers of science have long wrestled, the dangers of groupthink and tribalism, and add the seductive power of a great narrative that makes so much sense that it “must” be true—and you have the potential for undermining the search for truth (via both the sketchy science itself, and the use of sketchy assumptions to oversell science, and its epistemological value).
I’ve long argued that one of the reasons we try to find truth in the world is so that we can take actions based upon how the world really works, which will minimize unanticipated consequences and make the world a better place (or less bad—depending on your perspective); conversely, when we take actions based on untruths, we get into all sorts of trouble. Simple. We want to seek truth, and need to be ever rigorous and vigilant of our claims, and avoid overselling what we actually know. But to take it another step, it’s my sense that science loses credibility when it crosses a line into scientism, and starts writing checks that just aren’t cashable (yet).
So it’s a simple answer that I would give: Sam Harris or others could certainly argue that science has the potential to answer moral and aesthetic questions, but as someone on the outside who owns and claims his ignorance on the topic, I can only say that so far I personally do not see any reason to yield too much ground to science on moral and aesthetic questions, especially where such arguments are based upon convenient but far-from-certain narrative hypotheses about what is really true. But again, I’m a non-academic observer and just one person on the jury of billions of humans who get to have opinions and votes; mine could be way wrong, but I’m saying that for good reason or bad, science has some convincing to do on me yet.
C.D.V.: How did you experiment in a Truth Driven Life community on line go? Why do you think it didn’t take off?
S.G.: Well I should probably explain what it was, and what the vision was. The goal was to create a “skeptic” learning community, and the “Bloomfire” technology behind it offered some promise to streamline multimedia and webcam exchanges, archival, and indexing such that participants could learn from the posts and exchanges. Those posts and video-heavy exchanges would then remain there for future members. I had noticed that too often we rehash old discussions in forums or “in-groups,” new members don’t know that we’ve already covered that, and the group or discussion never moves forward. But more than that, my suspicion was—and is—that for many people in today’s world it can be difficult to find authentic, open-minded, and intelligent people with whom I can have safe, substantive, stimulating, and open conversations—where emotion is mastered such that all honest thoughts and inquiries are fair game. So it was both a social tool, and a learning environment (dare I say “like church”?).
While I’m painfully aware of the dangers of in-group thinking and groupthink, I have also long argued that everyone needs a community—a safe place where likeminded people can grow and explore. The idea was to combine the power of peer learning with access to subject-matter experts, guest bloggers, great minds, and exclusive content—while supporting the Truth-Driven Thinking programming and mission. I envisioned more than a “forum”—rather a place where authentic people could gather socially, almost as if physically (via webcam elements of the platform), submit content; read; watch; learn; share; support one another; debate; and ask big questions.
We could also have some rules about tone, demeanor, and civil exchanges. This would be more of a “knowledge club” than a public square. Maybe even invitation, and maybe even with some dues to cover admin and membership, and contribute toward my then podcast.
So why did it fail? Probably for many reasons. 1) My time and resources became scarce, so I couldn’t give it a fair shot; 2) People have Facebook and other places to be social online—so who really needs one more; 3) the Bloomfire creators sold the company, went “enterprise,” and I believed that the platform wouldn’t be around for long in that form; 4) I’m not sure it was as technologically “there” as I’d hoped; 5) Eventually the utopian community probably doesn’t exist anyway—but part of me would still like to try someday.
C.D.V.: Why do you think that the skeptical community has such a limited range of political options expressed in it? Is this an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within the movement?
S.G.: Based upon only anecdotes and gut, I will try to speculate. (Data driven? Who, me?) That said, I do think the skeptical community has a narrow range of political options that are expressed in it. And yes, I believe this is an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within “the movement”.
Due to my retrenchment and restructuring of my income and life, most of my interaction with skeptics, listeners to my former podcast, and readers of my novel of skeptical ideas come via Facebook these days. So my anecdotes are drawn heavily from those interactions, but also from my broader body of exchanges over the years with many self-identified skeptics around the world. That said, I will hastily categorize my experience of skeptics into two main groups: radical libertarian, free-market, Ayn Randian or Hayekian Objectivists on one side—and general Democratic party enthusiasts in the other cluster. These groups find common ground on social issues: getting the government out of vaginas, etc., however they tend to differ on economic issues, ethical questions of fairness and wealth redistribution, effects of economic policy (Krugman vs. Laffer), and the very philosophical ethics that underpin those views—if they’ve ever even really thought about it that way.
Time and again we skeptics pay lip service to the idea that my “beliefs” won’t own me, that emotional involvement and confirmation bias are to be guarded against, that no notion should be held above critical scrutiny, and that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads us—happily, and on any issue. But I simply don’t see humans, and skeptics are certainly human, behave that way. Our “beliefs” most certain to own us and blind us to pursuit of truth.
Economics is a wonderful example, as is the “issue” of anthropogenic global warming. In the economics sphere, one of my favorite scholarly voices is Russ Roberts, who hosts a podcast called EconTalk (Econtalk.org). What I love is not only his affinity for genuine intellectual exchanges among people who differ on their interpretations of economic theory (hypotheses)—but his experienced voice in articulating the limits of the discipline. Yet few economists would be as honest. In short, and I’m trying to be careful stating someone else’s views, Roberts admits that on the big questions—we just don’t know! That’s right, he sees major fights between “schools” of economic thought, where everyone has their data and believes their data are the best, and has their regression analysis and their hugely complex data sets and multivariate equations—but the reality is that they are simply inconclusive and unresolved questions! These are experts at rhetoric, but deeply divided by school, tribe, gang, or whatever you want to call it, which biases them and creates the illusion of certainty.
Add famed thinker Nassim Taleb or Australian economist Steve Keen (http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/), who passionately and persuasively argues that much of the neoclassical economic model is completely oversimplified and unsupported by the data (from aggregate demand to the critical role of total debt/shadow banking leverage in the system)—and you get my point. There is great doubt. But we don’t ever see academics or talking heads speaking as if there is any doubt whatsoever. Everywhere we see certainty. We are no different than those who are religious, we need narratives and structure, and will mold reality to fit them. We will then coalesce into tribes based on those “beliefs”.
So to tie this back to skeptics, and the question of politics having replaced religion as a narrative ideological framework, I see this play out routinely with both the objectivist/libertarian grouping, and the Krugman-ish liberal culture side. But what if both are wrong on this issue? What if rather than spending vs. revenue, we had a more sophisticated understanding of complex dynamics? Some of the same elements are at play in the global warming “debates”, but you get the point.
Again and again I think we have to pause and ask ourselves what would happen if it turned out that we were wrong, and then specifically examine how that would make us feel? Are we that pastor who has so tightly defined our role in the cosmos to a single school of thought or religion that we are blind to the other options? Are we so unwilling to challenge our very sense of self definition and how we interact with the world that we would succumb to the confirmation bias? Are we so afraid of something being taken from us that we cannot see the starving masses? What is the reality about what motivates humans? I don’t know, but I’m comfortable saying that.
The way I hear skeptics speak (and write) on a routine basis makes me think that even the most educated, rhetorically brilliant among us might simply be delusional and tribal at a higher level. Sometimes I lose the will to scale that wall. Frankly, it gets depressing, because I see it in myself as well. It’s human nature.
And that is my longwinded take on your question as to “why” we have a limited range of political options: we are human. We are tribal. We cluster.
C.D.V.: Do you see the passion in the various skeptics communities waning as divisions within the communities are getting more exposed in social network groups?
S.G.: It’s hard to know and I could be biased by my own skeptic friends and experiences, but in my humble opinion the passion does seem to be waning, perhaps as a result of the exposed divisions. The unity and “family feel” seem threatened. Divisions like “elevator gate” and disagreements over style (a.k.a. “don’t be a dick”—in Phil Plait’s terms), and even over scientistic overreaches do indeed take a toll. But it seems possible to me that other natural factors contribute to ebbs and flows as well.
For a long while I’ve wondered if skepticism for any individual doesn’t have a bit of a predictable trajectory and life cycle—perhaps not unlike that of a new adopter of a religion. (No, I am not equating them, per say.) Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be religious de-conversion. There is often a period of strife and upheaval, or at least some emotional wrestling with a good dose of social side effects. There is also new beauty, and new joy, and perhaps a new sense of connection with new friends and people who think very differently than you used to—refreshingly so. But as with church, the power of that initial transition wanes over time. It might be in our own minds or it might be there is a real reduction in attention and outreach from the community as the dust settles and everyday life settles in. But one way or another we revert to the norms, or regress to the mean, of human behaviors and everyday experiences. Normalcy rules, and there are great people, assholes, and everything in between within a “community” that has very few shared beliefs, cultures, or norms to hold them together. (And see my prior thoughts on how we tribally segregate and remain quite fallible to all sorts of very human behaviors.)
So perhaps the initial trajectory of the experiential curve flattens, and individuals go from raging fire and front-of-mind consciousness, to the warm glow of a naturalistic worldview that shall sustain and enrich them for a lifetime perhaps—albeit at maybe a somewhat less intense level. So could that micro-level effect, if real, also affect and play out on the macro level? Just a thought.
The good news, and my hope, is that there are new people and new passions being introduced to the process on an ongoing basis, and that more and more people are adopting more reason-driven and skeptical worldviews. It does seem to me that this is happening at the same time as our current ebbing, as supported by several recent surveys. So I am not without hope, and not without great gratitude for what skeptic groups and passionate individuals accomplish.
Perhaps this relates to another of my unachieved goals. I used to call my blog “Perspectives: food for the skeptic’s sole (if there is one).” Not unlike churches, who always seem to struggle with retention, its my hope that skepticism and intellectually honest discourse can inspire more soul-feeding initiatives like TED, or The Amazing Meeting, or skeptical comedy or art, in order to feed our intellect and fulfill our social needs—such that our passion remains, and the trajectory of our individual curves don’t flatten quite so much. We are, after all, humans. We need to be connected. We need to be re-amazed. We need to be reinvigorated.
C.D.V.: Do you think this maybe because skepticism is conceive internally as a set of methodological and not an ideological movements?
S.G.: As always I’d drop a disclaimer (in addition to the one that says “what do I know anyway”): that is that it’s probably hard to say for sure how the “movement” conceives or perceives itself. But to the degree it exists might there be some waning passion in the skeptic community as the result of a reflexive and endemic in-group perception as being focused on method more than ideology? Again I’ll bite and say yes, because there are real philosophical schisms, right? Many of the divisions I mentioned (and others) have to do with substantive differences in meta-ethics, ethics, morality, and/or guiding beliefs and philosophies. But those of us who are not trained in philosophy, or who are new to it, are often unaware that our differences are at all born of ideological and philosophical assumptions. So yes, if what unites us is an affinity and affection for methodological naturalism, the fact that there are schisms, tribal divisions, or sects should probably not be surprising—especially in light of the lack of common ideology or guiding principles.
C.D.V.: What do you see as your new projects in regards to skepticism?
S.G.: Well, for the immediate future I am rather occupied with the mundane aspects of existence and survival. That said, as finances and time someday allow, I would like to return to some non-fiction book ideas that I’ve been pondering. Specifically I would like to further explore the real-world implications and practical application of a naturalistic worldview to everyday life, and even more so to the challenges of social-sexual ethics and marital customs. I touched on some of those issues and challenges in my novel of skeptical ideas, but would like to explore them in a deep and personal way in a non-fiction book. I see great pain and angst caused by our unrealistic expectations of strict monogamy for life, romantic love, and the western pressures to achieve all depth of intimate experience through a single person, exclusively, forever. Obviously there are great depths and significant complexities to be plumbed there. And as with all things, the more I learn and experience, the less I “know” for certain, and the more gray I see. But that’s another topic.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
S.G.: Just thanks for your work, posts, writings and thoughts. I readily admit that as a non-academic, my skeptic voice is truly just that of a grassroots life traveler in a state of evolving. You and other academics have so much to give and share with we who are emerging from our Midwest (Western) cocoons. Thanks for doing so, and thanks for rolling with my occasional and obvious ignorance on many levels. But I guess that’s really what it is all about, connecting and influencing a humanity that is composed of people on many different levels of their journeys, and with many different capacities. So we have our work cut out for us. Especially you.
There are two trends dominant in academic discussions about the humanities that I find problematic, if not outright repellent. The “thin” move of the likes of E.O. Wilson and Sam Harris to claim that sense some notion of the aesthetic is evolutionary, then all that needs to be said can be said in terms of biology. The other notion is that of those of the post-Althusserian school who deny any “natural” category and subsume it all to ideology: there is “no human nature,” “no species being,” and no aesthetic categories. Both frankly are power-plays more than legitimate thinking: the later removes any empirical check to any artistic claim, while being “thick” it is also essentially putting all power in the realm of those philosophers of suspicion. The former is thin, and places power in terms of biology, but it’s claim could be said of to be even MORE foundationally true of physics. But no one would expect an electro-magnetic analysis of paint to be able to stand for all that is usefully said about art or literature, so the move seems again to suspiciously favor the field of those who make them.
The truth of the matter is probably much harder as there is no reason to assume the validity of parsimony: both biological and ideological limits exist, mediate our views, and contort our notions of truth and possibility. Both the biological and the ideological shift throughout history and change our notions of art and even of self. Yet neither can could be said to be solely determinate. The thick and thin are both necessary descriptors as the biological world is real as is the ideological world, and both are limits and as limits determine thoughts, but neither are solely determinate nor do I see evidence they they completely subordinate the will in any way. A limit is not a cause, and even a cause is not necessarily the sole cause.
The first part of this interview is here.
Skepoet: What do you make of Jonathan Haidt’s research that indicates ”liberals” have three spheres of value while conservatives have five? I see this related to the your second point about the function of religion. Although I should be disclose my opinion, and say that I think Haidt trans-historicizes both liberalism and conservatism in a way that is highly problematic.
Simon Pratt: It would be very strange to suggest that Liberals literally lacked those two spheres of value, but as an ideal typical model, I think it captures something important about the relationship between socio-economic circumstances and values. This is because Liberal and Conservative, globally, tends to correlate closely to urban and rural, and particularly so in the US. Is it surprising that people who live in nuclear families in cosmopolitan centres where diverse ethnic, economic, and linguistic groups interact daily will be less concerned with the sort of values indicative and protective of in-group chauvinism? I don’t think so. Rather than understand Haidt as trans-historicising liberalism and conservatism, I see him as revealing, perhaps by proxy, what happens when you throw people together in relatively unprecedented ways, and expose human beings to a huge array of identity categories. Unsurprisingly, Social Identity Theorists studying conflict have found that places where people meet and cooperate with members of other groups than their own usually feature less bigotry.
How does my interpretation of Haidt compare to yours?
S.: It’s more charitable, but it is not out of sync with my suspicion that you’re right about the social and economic structure affects things more than ideological ones in the way most liberals use the term. (As Academics, we both know that Marxist and Weberians use ideology entirely differently and in a way that confuses most outsiders). One thing I noticed Haidt had to do though was place both the far left and libertarians into a liberal camp. This may be useful for the comparison between rural and urban social values, but it’s highly misleading to ideological battles. That’s glossed by the categories.
Back to religion: What do you make of the recent study that shows that middle class, educated people tend to stay religious in higher numbers than the uneducated? It’s a recent trend, but one that bucks most of the Enlightenment predictions about American religiosity being tied to education and poverty-level.
S.P.: Grouping libertarians and far-leftists together makes some sense if you consider the historical origins of their ideologies, in terms of how they group morally significant entities and the human conditions that are the goals of their projects. But you’re right to point to this grouping as evidence that Haidt’s categories are themselves fractured, and salient only to certain kinds of explanation. Another way to view the distinction he creates, from an anthropological perspective, is between pre-modern and modern social structures. For people in rural areas, in-group and out-group resembles much more closely the sort of tribal configurations common throughout most of human history, whereas modern social structures, be they libertarian or Marxian, depart radically from this. Perhaps according to Enlightenment and Romanticist lines, respectively? But now we’re entering territory far outside my knowledge.
I was not aware of such a study, but it doesn’t seem hugely surprising on its own. I would need to see more information about what kind of religion inheres more robustly within the middle classes, though. If it’s a particularly flexible or liberal religion, it would make perfect sense to me that it should remain. Nevertheless, a more general negative correlation appears to obtain between wealth/education and religiosity, even if that relationship does not appear in every observable instance.
S.: Back to terrorism: in a very broad sense, what do you think would be a good perspective for a skeptic to take in regards to Terrorism as a cultural strategy of marginal peoples?
S.P.: I’m not quite sure what your terms mean. What is a cultural strategy and what do you mean by marginal peoples?
S.: Well, a cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state. Clearer?Well, cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state. Clearer?
S.P.: If I understand correctly, do you mean to say that terrorism is the strategy of agents who do not have legal legitimacy to their actions? Because there’s certainly no reason why such agents cannot be analysed according to the same models and terms as official state agents can, in assessing how violence is used to achieve political goals. Cultures are not capable of holding agency, I think, and so it is wrong to assign to them the sort of intentionality and capacity for deliberation that enables strategic behaviour. But groups of people, whatever their institutional status, are capable of collective decision-making and behaviour, and terrorism, whether carried out by a state or a non-state agent, can be viewed as rational, calculated, and entirely political.
S.: The agency would not so much be the issue but the structural placement within a social system, but part of the confusion seems to be that line of agency makes one see any collective agency as political, but this type of politics has a logic that is justified through acceptable norms, which is a cultural norm as much as a political one, I suppose I want to push you on the idea that politics here is separate from culture in that strict way. But I suppose we must admit that we are dealing with reifications of collective action and norm setting as opposed to something slightly more concrete like a state.
Let me ask another question then, is the bombing of Dresden in World War 2 an act of terrorism?
S.P.: I define terrorism as the deliberate generation of fear, usually through violence or the threat of it, within a political community in order to change its behaviour. This is deliberately a very broad definition, including not only the bombing of Dresden but the entire deterrent component of a community’s criminal justice system. But I would never use this definition without immediately following it with a typology, and ‘terrorism’ as its used in most popular or non-critical-theory academic conversations tends to refer to what I’d call ‘insurgent terrorism’, which is terrorism carried out by a non-state agent, either individual or organised group, to subvert or influence a government and its citizenry via extralegal means.
I don’t necessarily see states as any more concrete than the norms and institutions – merely patterns of behaviour – which constitute them. States are what we make of them. The difference to me between collectives like states and collectives like cultures is the presence of decision-making mechanisms designed to facilitate collective action according to some set of intentions. If you have such mechanisms, you can speak of their collectives as you would speak of agents, within certain situations. But as cultures do not have such mechanisms, I struggle to see a situation in which they can be coherently treated as having agency.
Of course, these reifications are useful explanatory and cognitive tools, and nothing more. They entail no ontological commitments to the reality of some entity and the referential status of my language to it.
S.: Now we seem to be on the same page again: What are good, rational policies for dealing with insurgent terrorism if we assume the ends is to seize terrorist activity without causing more grievances that would inspire new sets of insurgents?
S.P.: Well, there are a variety of ways to engage in effective counterterrorism. One is to have a totalitarian police state, but since you’re asking this of me, I’m going to assume a more specific question: how can societies maintain a set of Enlightenment liberal values and still secure itself from terrorism? Of course, this is a very hard question to answer, and the particulars of any answer will depend on the particulars of the terrorist threat, but we can still look for policies that achieve in a general sense the following features of government and the state in an already liberal context:
-well-funded and trained counterterrorism police forces and domestic intelligence service, with effective civilian oversight and active engagement with community leaders of subpopulations particularly likely to produce a terrorist threat.
-development and enforcement of hate speech laws, such that people and groups preaching or mobilising for a violent agenda can be legally stopped from doing so, also subject to a diverse committee of civilian oversight and review.
-training for emergency services in coping effectively with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, both in rescue and in maintaining civil order, including public relations specialists able to reassure the public while honestly communicating any extent risks.
-ongoing public discussions on terrorism including experts capable of keeping things honest and focusing discussion both on the grievances that would-be terrorists may have and in the legitimate mechanisms available for addressing those grievances
These still do not guarantee that insurgent terrorism will not take place, nor that government personnel won’t find ways to abuse the special powers granted to them in the name of security from terrorism, but I think they comprise the best arrangement of legitimate coercive powers in a liberal context.
Freedom and security are, of course, not always a dichotomy. There are ways for the presence of greater coercion – state terrorism of the legitimate variety – to enable greater freedom than a lesser level of coercion. The ‘optimal’ level of coercion will depend on the particular threats within a context, as well as the cultural resources available to make that coercion normatively acceptable and palatable for enough of the public, but as an abstract notion of governance it lies at the very heart of liberal thought.
S.: However, that is what separates liberal as an ideological development, and liberal as a modern orientation, no? The notion of legitimate coercion varies massively amongst those who developed out of Enlightenment liberalism as everyone from American Libertarians to Stalinist to Bakuninite anarchism are developments of that tradition.
I would tend to agree with you about coercion levels being optimal and handled by community governance. This means that terrorism then should not have the moral weight attached to it, but should be seen as a strategy in and of itself (not an abstract value of “evil” or a mere tactic?)
S.P.: I’m not quite sure what you mean, here. Do you mean the development of a liberal mode of subjectivity as compared to the moral [and entailed political] value commitments of Enlightenment Liberalism?
S.: That is certainly my view: terrorism is not essentially evil, and the moral character of a terrorist act depends on the case. But I am also more committed to (Rule) Utilitarianism than most people, and so even if I were confronted with a definition for terrorism that confined terrorist acts to attacks on civlians – as many definitions do – I could still not call it an essential bad. But in the real world, of course, most of what we call terrorism does seem to me to be pretty bad. There is just too much evidence to show that bombing or shooting people in markets, mosques, clubs, or planes will not be as efficient as other, less violent means in achieving any set of goals I consider worthy. A good analogy would be the so-called ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ that apologists for torture love to trot out. As a Utillitarian I am entirely willing to endorse torture if it is less harmful than the alternative, but since torture is virtually always a worse way to get information than just about any available alternative, the thought experiment is a red herring.
S.: I mean that Enlightenment liberalism produces very different sets of morality and governance, and the agent of legitimate coercive force and if there is ever such an agent vary greatly. Modern liberalism is definitely rooted in the legitimate agency of a democratic Republics and generally takes a moral calculus from either modern form of virtue ethics or variants of Utilitarianism. Libertarians take a deontological view of such notions, and Marxists tend to deny that have a moral framework as a part of a political theory at all.
This brings me to a another point I have against Sam Harris: do you think meta-ethical justification is important?
S.P.: From what I’ve been able to tell, almost all members of the Skeptics movements tend towards a sort of naive Utilitarianism, and see any moral system that doesn’t seek to maximise human wellbeing as absurd. This does not mean that they don’t simultaneously belief that life is an instrinsic good, despite the arguable incompatibility of the two propositions, depending on the version of Utilitarianism to which one subscribes. I’ve also noticed that Skeptics tend not to be republicans. They are in favour of political processes that serve as individual interest aggregators and adjudicators, and tend not to endorse collectivist conceptions of the public or the polity. At least here; the ones in the UK are a bit more willing to see the state prescribe morality.
I have mixed feelings about the value of meta-ethical discussions. On the one hand, I think that having them with is important because such discussions tend to produce more nihilists, expressivists, or other forms of non-cognitivists, and I think this is a good thing because moral realism is absurd and dangerous. On the other hand, that naive Utilitarianism I mentioned earlier is very likely to be what cosmopolitan folk end up developing (cf. Haidt) so we might as well leave the existential angst to the academics and apply ourselves to the practical matter of maximising human wellbeing. Just so long as we don’t wander around looking smug and heaping contempt upon those who don’t share our moral norms. As an observer and theorist on so-called political violence, I get very anxious when I see my comrades suggesting that those who disagree with our principles simply don’t know the facts.
S.: Both Masmimo Piggliuci and myself are virtue ethicists (although his would be center left and mine would be far left), but that does have a nearly consequentialist metajustication, and I actually find collective conception of community as a norm setter for fairly persuasive, but you’re right that I would be in the minority.
This is the second part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part prior to this.
Skepoet: So moving you away from epistemology or avoiding it: Do you think the skeptical movement is just naive about both the philosophy and the sociology of science, or is there something more generally problematic going on? I am particularly interested in the assumption of sort of center-left or libertarian liberalism as a default assumption, and also roblematics around gender relations within the movement.
Jamie McAfee: Ha. More or less, yeah.
I’ve been persuaded that epistemology is a bit of a tarpit that isn’t productive to get into. One thing about all of the sociological approaches I’m referring to is that they tend to be really emphatic about rolling their eyes at epistemological debating in favor of evaluating science, to paraphrase the bible, based on the fruit it produces. Collins and Evans and Latour are in very different camps withing sociology, but they both make the emphatic move of tossing epistemology aside. (I mean that they explicitly say “we think epistemology isn’t helpful.) Scientists are good at doing stuff, so lets talk about it as people doing stuff. They can make arguments based on the stuff they did (like making matter behave in particular ways), which is where rhetoric, in the diminished, conservative sense of “arguing,” comes in. You could, I guess, use argumentation theory, which is a lot more like philosophy than the “rhetoric” that I do, to talk modestly about epistemological issues if you wanted. I’d go along with that. Epistemology is always creeping up, and I think we have to be careful when claiming not to imply claims about epistemology, since we might be doing so. I guess the length of my last answer is what “boundary policing” might look like in my subfield. I’d like to keep myself away from epistemology, or to manage it so I can do other things. I don’t really want to make claims about it.
It’s naivete, but hubris as well. Not to get too meta, but the problem in the Skeptic movement is, I think, a lack of respect for the disciplining that takes place in the humanities. When I see Dawkins, Harris, or an internet troll straying into philosophical debate, the word “precocious” comes to mind. I don’t expect public intellectuals, or anybody not writing in a scholarly journal, to perform scholarly literature reviews in their writing, but I do expect them to approach conversations with either some familiarity with what people who have expertise in a topic have said or with modesty. I’m not saying you have to be a professional philosopher to talk about philosophy. I’m saying you probably shouldn’t write books about it or start a movement about it. Skeptic folks dive right into debates without doing the work required to become expert. They certainly have some expertise in what they are talking about, since they are generally speaking to broad questions that relate to anyone. Since Collins and Evans are on the table, we can call the experience they have “ubiquitous” experience. But ubiquitous experience doesn’t make you a philosopher.
Modernism is a hegemony, which is, I think, why a naive celebration of reason and science allows people to charge ahead confidently and wrongly. As I discussed a bit in my last answer, science is a very institutional thing that is obviously well articulated to power. I’m not claiming that because people have respect for (or participate in) institutions, their ideas will be predetermined. I am, however, claiming that that kind of critical, in the “capital C” sense that cultural studies people mean it, work is deliberate and requires some real engagement with power and culture (when I say “culture” here I don’t mean something that is apart from materialism). That is work that Skeptics seem unwilling to do.
When you charge into debates demanding that everything behave like “science,” and you are unwilling to do the work to understand how other people think about the world, you are going to end up in some of our default small “c” conservative categories. I’d say that center left or libertarian liberalism are those. I’d say that being suspicious of people who want to interrogate gender is one of those. These are “commonsensical” ways of seeing the world. To make matters somewhat worse, Skeptics embrace and ethos of commonsense (in opposition to superstition, etc.) and they embrace the idea that reason is unproblematic. Political radicals and feminists are in violation of that common sense, and for people who define themselves as primarily “rational,” that stuff is just not to be taken seriously. (Coincidentally, or not, perhaps, a lot of conservative rhetoric is based around some form of common sense. “Conservative prudence” for example. Were American conservatism not so overly inane, I’d guess there’d be more Skeptics over there. Oh, and the religion thing, of course.)
So, for example, when feminists are concerned about privilege or objectification, that’s a step too far for common sense.”Equality” (of. . .something?) is fine, but asking people to question the power that comes with gender is out of bounds. So you end up with Richard Dawkins finding it preposterous that someone might be (mildly, originally) offended by an inappropriate proposition, or to use a more extreme example, you end up with the Amazing Atheist ridiculing rape victims. (Yeah, yeah, conversations about those issues can be problematic on the feminist end too, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a “there” there.) The way Shermer reifies capitalism is, in my mind, the same thing.
One more thought:
Since I’m talking about rhetoric, I’ll throw out the analogy sometiemes called “Burke’s parlor,” after Kenneth Burke. Burke wrote:
“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
That’s how scholarship, or any kind of serious intellectual work, happens. The trouble, for me, with the Skeptic movement is an unwilliness to “listen for a while” and “catch the tenor of the argument” when they talk about things that other people are talking about. Their movement is, because it doesn’t have the patience to become serious, remakably shallow and remarkably beholden to a liberal status quo.
trying to say “We’re bracketing that it” and “it’s impossible” at the same time. The later is a philosophically substantive claim; the former is not. However, I am going to charitable read you as saying the former for now.
I, however, really do like your other points here: One) since the demarcation lines of science are under-developed at best and philosophically impossible at worse, it does seem problematic to ignore it. Two) There is a hubristic problem of completely ignoring non-scientific expertise, which given the problematic standing of the demarcation line is science right now can’t work. Three) This leads to all sorts of ideological and psychological heuristics being presumed as a sort of baseline of truth. Ironically, the last bit would be an anti-scientific move itself.
You made an assertion about modernity I find interesting: would you like to go into how you see the Skeptic’s movement as a philosophically modernist project? Also I think there has been, to defend the “Skeptic’s movement” for a moment, some push back on this political assumptions. For example, there were many within the movement who started agreeing with me on Sam Harris with his last book, and there were many who took Rebecca Watson’s side in the Watson/Dawkin dispute. What do you see going on there? Do you think there could be a skeptic’s movement that learned from the sociology of science and dealing with the philosophy of science seriously? Massimo Pigliucci, for example, has definitely taken on the problem of ”scientism” within the skeptic’s community.
I’ll start with some clarification about the epistemology thing, since that is related to the modernism thing. While I insist on being disinterested in epistemology, getting away from it is an important “move” in a lot of the literature from which I’m drawing my ideas about science, so it’s important. That move is, as I think we’ve made clear, important for justifying a sociological/rhetorical approach for discussing what science is. I do mean to bracket it, and I do not to say it’s impossible. I also mean to bracket it deliberately, not so skip it as Harris skips stuff. (Although I generally don’t dwell on it as we’ve done here.)
I would, however, say that trying to work out “epistemology” seems to lead to endless debate and discussions of problems that don’t seem to be useful to think about. Rorty’s prolonged explication of that stuff in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” or Latour’s various efforts to contrast a more modest epistemology (if you want to call it that) with Cartesian problems or Collins’s and Evans’s deference to “expertise,” or various efforts by rhetoricians to reclaim parts of some kind of Aristotelian or Roman worldview are all various ways of trying to get some traction that epistemology doesn’t offer. Some of the “thin” theory that is rhetoric is similar.
The comparison to Sam Harris’s meta ethics (or lack thereof) I can see, but I think there’s a huge difference between trying to carefully (and recursively, by the way) bracket something because it’s not useful and plowing through without acknowledging your assumptions. To borrow a metaphor from actor network theory (since we’re talking about that), you have to blackbox things. You can’t have everything in play all the time. But you should be able to justify the choices you make, and to, when problems arise, go back into those blackboxes and do work there. There’s a parallel between what I’m doing and what Harris does, but the people who’ve persuaded me to make that move are a whole lot more conscientious than he is. I hope I’ve satisfactorily explained why I’m don’t think epistemology “is impossible” but, rather “it’s a useful a point of departure and not a thing to be solved.” It’s down in the weeds, but it does matter since I’m complaining about scientism.
And that point of departure is pretty closely related to this “modernism” business. “Modernism,” of course, is a messy, term that can mean a lot of different things. In the context of talking about science, I mean “Modernism” in, more or less, in Latour’s way, which is filled with odd paradoxes, some of which explain how scientistism ends up being at odds with itself. Latour’s shtick is that Modernism is the division of the cultural from the physical from the discursive, and those divisions are what enables science. He bashes this division for creating unnecessary philosophical problems, and he makes fun of Cartesian dualism a lot. He has a lot of bad things to say about “discourse” as a category, for example, although he has come back around to celebrating “rhetoric” in recent years, which he understands as something other than postmodern “discourse.” He also points out that science, when you trace what it does, is good at bending those Modernist categories and then discursively and through practice purifying them.
Modernism is a hegemony, not a “real” thing. Nobody behaves as if they actually believe in the divisions of Modernity, but they talk as though they do. A departure I make from him (although he says this, it’s not his point) is that people who can ground their arguments in some kind of physicalist language can gather a lot of ethos for themselves, because the modern. (Before the latter stages of the Modern that we call post-modernism, but Latour insists is late modernism. . . .my interest in synthesizing Latour with rhetoric is a pretty serious departure from the “pomostrawman,” and the fact that Latour has been often lumped into the “pomo” side of the “science wars” speaks to the light/heat ratio of the science wars.)
I would argue that the Modernist, in the Latour sense, way of talking is the problem. Modernism has empowered science, but as a way of talking about knowledge, it’s a mess. The Skeptics I’m complaining about talk that way.
You are right that there is pushback. The Skeptic thing isn’t monolithic, and their core goals of arguing with fundamentalism and superstition are fine by me. I’d like to see a skeptic movement that was more feminist, that contained expertise in thinking about philosophical problems, and that was more interested in rhetoric (not the discipline, necessarily, but persuasion). I’m aware that there are participants in the movement who are tying to do that.
The question “do I think there could be a skeptic movement that took philosophy of science seriously” however, is trickier. I’d say “yes, there COULD be, but I think it’s unlikely.” Why do I think that? I think that because it’s hard to imagine a well articulated skeptic “movement” that wasn’t rooted in that problematic commonsense stuff discussed earlier. I obviously (I hope it’s obvious) think that a pro-science, pro-skepticism position does not mean one accepts scientism, etc. However, it’s hard for me to imagine a “movement” based on that kind of a position. What’s it in opposition to? What are it’s boundaries?
Now were kinda talking about politics. Here’s an analogous issue. . . “Christian” movements have been all over the political spectrum over the years, but more recently, “Christian” culture is really right wing Evangelicalism. That narrower, activist group has claimed the word, even though there are more Christians who are not conservative Evangelicals than who are. (I’m thinking about this because there was a flap about it yesterday.) While I’d be happy to see more pushback against that appropriation of the word “Christian,” until there is some other movement that’s articulated out of some exigency and has some clear idea “what it’s not,” I think we’re gonna keep having to remind people that not all Christians are Republicans. Christianity, as a political movement, is defined by oppositions and tensions. Skepticism is the same way. It’s hard for me to imagine a nuanced, non-scientistic Skeptic movement coming out of the U.S. right now. There are plenty of us who are, nominally, skeptics who do not embrace skepticism as a part of our identity of who have any need for a movement. The attitudes that have pushed people to embrace skepticism as a “cause” seem increasingly foreign to me.
Like, even if everybody in the Skeptic decided to embrace Massimo Pigliucci and Rebecca Watson, I’m not sure what it would be that they would do with themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine.Why people who are dissidents from scientism and anti-feminism stick around in the skeptic movement? I dunno. Sometimes people define their ideas through smart dissident positions. That’s valid. Some of those folks are probably really interested in science and like participating in the community of other people who are as well. There might be people who, like me, were attracted to the idea when it was (or seemed, anyway) more narrowly focused on pushing back against the religious right but who have invested more than I did. I’m an apprentice academic. I have plenty of outlets for talking about philosophy. Not everybody has that, and the Skeptic movement is, for all of it’s problems, one of the places in American mass culture where people have those conversations. (Libertarianism, oddly enough, is another.) They’ve created a sort of weird counterculture that looks sorta like academia in some ways. It’s oddly like the religious right, actually, in that way.
One thing that hasn’t been brought up is the overlap between the Skeptic thing and pop culture subculture like sci-fi or gamer communities. In my completely undisciplined observations, there is a lot of overlap, and some of the hostility toward the humanities and problems with gender can be an issue in those communities. I don’t mean to suggest that those are monolithically sexist communities, but there are quite a few blogs by female “geeks” and quite a bit of scholarship that suggests there are problems there. That’s about all I have to say about that, really, but it’s worth bringing up.
Althusser or Foucault, that historical “epochs” have structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society. So I wouldn’t reject Latour’s way of thinking outright, but I wouldn’t accept it’s conclusion either.
My point in being critical of you here is not political, but that I think there is still a problem of naturalization of practices that the empirical approach, of which bracketing out questions of philosophy necessitate, do lead to certain conceptual limitations.
That said, I think I we should talk about two key events that can be seen as points of tension in the skeptic movement: the “Sokal Hoax” as the beginning of the hostility towards to the humanities and the Watson/Dawkin’s break as beginning of re-politicization in movement. What do you think about the Sokal hoax?
I might be missing you, but he’s pretty emphatically not making those mistakes. Now, then, you might argue that he’s implicitly making those mistakes regardless of what he claims. If there’s a good explication of that position around, it’d be interesting to read, but Latour claims rather emphatically that he’s not doing those things.
He wants us to talk differently about science and technology by insisting on them as networks, and he thinks that that move is a way out of the Cartesian trap. That’s another way to paraphrase him. The parts that rhetoric people are interested in are things like unpacking the processes of transcription or re-inscription that create data or the way that writing helps to articulate networks together. Also, his blurring of human and non human is something that some folks look at as a way to try to recover materialism in rhetoric.
The problem with historical demarcations is a problem though, as it always is when people talk that way. I’d go along with “structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society.”
I’m leaning on Latour here as a way to talk about modernist discourse because it’s the way that I know because that’s most informed by concern for how scientist work. It’s compatible with more narrowly rhetorical ways to do that, but I don’t want to give you impression that Latour is THE guy for us, or for even for a booster like me. He’s pretty good though. This is one part of an ongoing conversation that involves different syntheses of Latour that I’m sharing. Plenty of rhetoric folks dislike Latour. My advisor is sorta one of them, actually. I think over-focusing on him might distort my position, which is a lot more in flux than it seems, even in this response, by making it seem like I’ve put all the eggs in the Latour basket. We are having a conversation that people have withing rhetoric.
(While I’m thinking about it Pandora’s Hope has some chapters from which you might extrapolate some implicit argument about Latour’s epistemology. He works overtime to be a realist, if one who’s modest about knowledge but who glosses over many of the problems that philosophers might worry about. The Sam Harris analogy might fit at some moments there.)
I agree. Affordances and constraints are intertwined. I think Latour is useful, but when I slip into Latour mode I sacrificed the ability to make other kinds of arguments. Although I have taken issue with the specifics of what you say Latour sacrifices, I suspect you’re kinda in the ballpark. I wouldn’t know quite how to articulate Latour’s problems without re-reading it with that in mind, but yeah. When I defend him, I don’t mean to say that you aren’t getting at something important. I just don’t think you’ve put it together in a way I agree with.
“Naturalization” is actually my biggest concern with Latour. Donna Harraway is, in my view, Latour on radical and feminist steroids (and they have been in contact with each other). She’s really dense and difficult to haul around though. When I’m doing academic writing, I always try to stick here in there. I’d like to move toward here as I keep doing this stuff.
I’d be quick to note that Latour is not a philosopher by training, and I’d be happy to concede that he’s probably not put the Enlightenment to bed. Let’s leave the poor guy alone. He’s had a long day.
As for “What do I think about the Sokal hoax?” I think it makes a lot of people look very bad.
My understanding of the Sokal hoax is that it has been, in part, misrepresented. I might be incorrect, but my understanding is that the Sokal piece was not blind reviewed in the usual way, but published, in part, out of excitement that an actual scientist was trying to participate. Given the nature of the performative writing that was going around at the time, I have no idea the degree to which Sokal actually “fooled” people and the degree to which people regarded his piece as whimsey. I am certain that he put in a lot of jokes that Social Text readers didn’t understand. So I don’t quite “buy” the conventional account of the story. It’s cheap and kinda dumb.
Having said that, you couldn’t pay me to read an issue of Social Text from that period. I tend to be something of a defender of the Social Text side as they were doing experimental, avant guard stuff. It was also trendy and not particularly robust of good. I think Sokal killed some of the faddish postmodernism of the time, so it wasn’t all bad.
The follow up stuff Sokal wrote (and Dawkins talked up) was silly. I actually kinda sympathize with some of the points he was trying to make, both politically and about philosophy, but sheesh. The lessons that people took from the whole fiasco are wrong though. The legacy of the Sokal Hoax is to embolden people who want to embrace scientism.
This, by the way, popped up on facebook while I was typing this out, and it serves as a convenient artifact. Ug. I am holding fire on about Dawkins and Watson.
I wanted to go into one of the first assumptions of Sokal and Bricmont text: It literally asserted that all philosophy of science was silly including Popper and Kuhn, not just the sociological and po-mo critiques of the science wars. I found this fascinating because it was defending the idea that science is just rigorous common sense. What do you think that assertion?
It is a very interesting problem. We keep trying to get out of epistemology and keep getting sucked back in. I think that trying to get out is a good move, but I’ll acknowledge that those of us who think that was are going to keep having to perform variations of that move that over and over. Pretty much every philosopher I’ve mentioned has made versions of that move multiple times. I do, actually, appreciate being made to wrestle with it a bit. Its something that’s easy, in my field, to gloss over. That phenomenon, repeating the move of “departing” from some problem (incommensurability was a popular one for a while), is common in rhetoric, so I’m comfortable with it. I dunno how it looks to other people. Seems like something anybody with a toe in philosophy will spend time doing.
I think I agree with the assertion that science can be understood as rigorous common sense. The techne/episteme thing from Rorty I was talking about somewhere earlier is a way to say that. I think most of the people I’m drawing influence from would agree. One of the really fascinating things about the science wars (once I get past being annoyed, and once I manage to forget how they helped to empower scientism) is that there was a lot of people talking past each other. Once you take the Lacan brigade off the table (some of the complaints about them were substantive differences, and the science people had a point there), I think everybody who was arguing with each other agrees that science is rigorous common sense.
I’ve never encountered, by the way, anything with a whiff of Lacan in rhetorical science studies. We have spent a lot of time theorizing the word “practical,” so that stuff is a little far out for us to even read. I’ve seen Lacan elsewhere in rhetoric, of course, but never in science stuff. One of our saving graces, when it comes to that stuff, if that we came to science studies, in part, through technical communication. We had an inside/outside relationship to science and technology that Social Text did not. Digression over.
BUT. . . there’s the trick. . . both “rigor” and “common sense” deserve very serious interrogation.
When Latour spends months following scientists around and watches them transfer data from one place to another, isn’t that an interrogation of what counts as “rigor”? Can’t “rigor” be interrogated? When Feyeraband or Kuhn did there early work discussing communsurability, isn’t that also a discussion of rigor? I once sat through a presentation/workshop by a college dean trying to describe what “rigor” looked like in teaching. (It was a shitty presentation, as most presentations of that nature are, but it was a good topic.) I’ll go along with rigor. It seems to be a useful place to start if you want to defend science studies.
And I’ve already pointed out, and you’ve pushed me to more carefully explain, that “common sense” is an extremely loaded phrase. My dissertation research, which is why Laclau and Mouffe keep coming up, is all about “common sense” in therapeutic rhetoric that is used in politics (James Dobson). “It’s common sense” says to me that “it” needs to be unpacked and that we need to trace what “it” is, does, and where it comes from. Calling something “common sense” is putting a post it note saying “study me.” (Let’s be careful though, and say that “study me” does not mean “debunk me.” “Redescribe me” might be better)
I think, to offer some benefit of the doubt to Sokal and Bricmont, that that assertion might have been a response to some of the bolder claims of avant guardians who were trying to stake territory. Even the more modest science studies people in rhetoric were doing a lot of sloppy colonizing. That’s what early work can look like sometimes. So there’s an opening for some benefit of the doubt for them.
One counter argument I’d make against the claim that philosophy of science is silly is to point out that before Kuhn and Feyeraband, we understood science through a highly edited, retrospective point of view. “Oxygen was discovered in such and such, and that was some more science, and then somebody did and experiment using cowpox, and then. . . .” The process of the community that is science was erased. Kuhn’s breakthrough was to imperfectly introduce that process to the discussion.
One last thought. . . . I have a former professor who does rhetoric stuff with science who is very skeptical of postmodernism, science studies, Marxian theory, etc. His argument with that stuff was that it was just too mundane, and the thought the “action” was in taking more traditionally about persuasion and public policy. I disagree with him about the value of that kind of interrogation, but his point is well taken. Meaningful science studies does more than say “THAT IS LANGUAGE” or “THAT IS HEGEMONIC.” Those are really obvious things to say, and even Sokal agrees. I think, though, that using those claims as a starting point can be useful. William Keith argues that “redescription” is a key step in scholarly work. I think that it’s a STEP, but to make that step and start spouting radical claims is silly. That premise does not mean that humanities studies of science isn’t potentially valuable.