Double Dogma Dare
I hope this will be the last post in which I write about my experience at APW. In particular, I've been picking over my experience interacting with the self-described skeptics at the meeting, and I think I've put my finger more precisely on what was bothering me.
When I describe myself as a skeptic, I mean in part that I take seriously the motto from the ancient skeptic, Sextus Empiricus: Continue the inquiry!
Dogma, defensiveness, rationalization, or anything else that gets in the way of continuing to inquire, continuing to be open to learning something new, actively considering that I may be wrong even about essential things, are all assiduously to be avoided, or critiqued and questioned when they cannot be avoided.
At my academic conference this weekend, I was surrounded by people committed to genuine inquiry of just this sort. We were questioning the complacent assumptions of our profession as a profession, and sometimes even questioning the need to question.
The session with the skeptics at APW was not like that. Talking with the skeptics was much more like talking to Jehovah's Witnesses.
Or maybe hard-line orthodox Marxists.
What made the problem worse is that they had not one but two dogmas to defend: the supremacy of scientific method, and the inevitability of polyamory.
Like all dogmatists, they had a simple story to tell: all knowledge deserving of the name is the product of logic rigorously applied to quantifiable facts, and anyone who fully embraces this view will inevitably become both atheist and polyamorous.
Around this core belief, they had built a defensive perimeter designed to repel or undermine all genuine questions or doubts, to ensure that they never have to think again about the basic assumptions of the story.
Thinking back, I should have seen the rhetorical devices they used for what they were. I knew they were wrong-headed and insulting, but I didn't, at the time, connect them to their equivalents among religious fundamentalists and orthodox ideologues.
Here are two of them:
1. Insist that critics argue on your terms.
One of the skeptics was quite aggressive in his use of this particular tactic, with his in-your-face insistence that, if you disagree with their method, you must provide a substitute method of your own. This forces on critics the assumption that there must be one true method that can do all the things the sciences can do without being the scientific method.
In other words, they will only listen to alternatives that meet all of their criteria for rigor and usefulness within a particular domain, answering a particular set of questions.
My point, though, was in a different direction. I acknowledge that the scientific method is very powerful in its limited domain, but that it is inadequate to compass the whole of human experience. To argue on their terms, I would have to reduce the full complexity of human thought to the narrow straight-jacket of quantifiable data . . . which is both impossible and beside the point.
As for other methods, I have since called up the names of a handful of them from the history of philosophy. Note that these are, to a one, rigorous and non-mystical: dialectic (Socrates), critique (Kant), determinate negation (Hegelian dialectic), phenomenological reduction (Husserl), free variation in imagination (also Husserl), genealogy (Nietzsche, Foucault), negative dialectic, immanent critique, the hermeneutic circle, and so on and on.
The list doesn't matter all that much. The point is that the possibilities for clear and useful human thought - rigorous inquiry - is much, much bigger than scientific skeptics can imagine.
But it was quite clear none of this would have satisfied the skeptics, because none of these methods is a substitute for the sciences. Many of them, though, are methods of inquiry that put the sciences in their (very limited) place.
So, really, I had nothing to say to the skeptics, probably leaving them with the sense that they had "won" their polemical game.
2. Insult the intelligence of your critics.
At several points during the session, I would raise a point or a question that would be met with some variation of the following: "You know, many people who offer that criticism don't really understand our position."
The parallel that comes to mind is the person who once tried to convert me to Islam, and insisted that I could not offer a judgment on it, one way or the other, unless I had read the Koran . . . in Arabic.
It also reminds me of the great little trick built into orthodox Marxism, whereby anyone who disagrees with Marx must be in the grip of false consciousness, no doubt because they are nothing but a filthy bourgeois.
The possibility that I understood their position quite well but have moved past it seems not to have occurred to them. Instead, they lump me together with sloppy thinkers, ignoramuses, hippie mystics and peddlers of "woo," the more easily to dismiss my comments and questions.
As it happens, I used to inhabit a mental box of about the size and shape of the one they now defend so aggressively. Looking back, I can see that it was . . . rather cramped.
There are no doubt other devices in play to help the skeptics deflect all questions, but they have one thing in common: they are all designed to place strict limits on inquiry. There are some questions they are unwilling to ask, some intellectual avenues they can barely even perceive.
They are, in that sense, anti-skeptical.
So, here is my double dogma dare to scientific poly skeptics: stop parroting the canned arguments you've learned from your sacred texts (Dawkins, Harris, etc.); take off the blinders, drop your defenses, and leave some space open for deeper and more genuine inquiry, for thinking what only seems to you now to be unthinkable.
In short: Continue the inquiry! I dare you!
Last edited by hyperskeptic; 03-18-2013 at 10:11 PM.