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Old 03-20-2013, 02:32 PM
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hyperskeptic hyperskeptic is offline
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Default What Scientific Skeptics Should Ask Themselves

Originally Posted by dingedheart View Post
What are questions they are unwilling to ask ? And did you raise those questions at the event?
I did try to raise some of my questions, though they seemed not to fit the mood and purpose of the session. It's only after the fact I realized my error: it was the equivalent of interrupting a revival meeting to question the validity of Scripture and say a word on behalf of humanism.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of the panel was for poly skeptics to congratulate themselves on being right and to deride others for being wrong.

Still, I almost couldn't help but get my Don Quixote on. I saw the windmill turning; I leveled my lance and charged . . . with predictable results.

Anyway, here are a few questions scientific so-called skeptics should be asking themselves:

Are we being consistent? Are we living up to our own standards?

An old saw of scientific skeptics is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The poly skeptics in particular made a set of claims that, on their face, went well beyond extraordinary; they were outrageous: Scientific inquiry is the only court of appeal for determining what is true, and anyone who accepts the supremacy of scientific inquiry will necessarily become both atheist and polyamorous.

When challenged, though, they did not offer proof. Instead, they consistently shifted the burden of proof away from themselves and onto their critics: "What's your alternative?" and, "Why can't you understand us?"

Can we argue for our basic outlook or framework without resorting to circular reasoning?

Take the claim that all knowledge worthy of the name is derived from quantifiable evidence by the strict application of a logical method.

On what is that claim based? Is there quantifiable evidence that only quantifiable evidence is valid? Is there a logical argument for the primacy of logical argument?


When pressed on this point, the scientific skeptics pointed to the effectiveness of science in getting us what we want. There's no doubt that the natural sciences are effective. They deliver the goods, as e.e. cummings wrote.

But why is that the standard of proof?

The idea that our desires ("what we want") are the sole measure of value - and effectiveness in pursuing desire the sole concern of normative inquiry - is an implication of their framework. So, appealing to it to support the framework is just another kind of circularity.

Is our framework fully adequate for making coherent sense of human experience?

One would think that a conference about polyamory would focus a lot on what amor means, the full richness of intimate human relationships. I don't doubt that, if pressed, even the scientific skeptics could wax poetical about love and responsibility and connection with other people, just as they wax poetical - and rightly so! - about the wonders of the cosmos as revealed by the natural sciences.

The problem is that the reduction of all valid cognition to bits of knowledge derived by logic from quantifiable evidence makes it impossible to give connection and wonder their full due. All they can talk about is pleasure in some very thin sense of the term, ultimately reducible to neurochemistry.

It really does take the juxtaposition of some other framework, some other way of making sense of human experience, to give voice to those other parts of our experience. Kant - see the previous post - provides one such outlook.

By the doctrine of empiricism, pleasure is the only possible basis for value; it is something we experience directly, perhaps something we can measure. We judge things to be good or bad based on their tendency to produce pleasure. Practical ethics is simply a matter of calculating the most effective and efficient way of producing pleasure.

Is that a good basis for human relationships? Well, it may be a partial account of human relationships. I wouldn't deny that we are animals, that we respond to each other chemically.

But is that all we are? Is that the only way of making sense of our connection to one another? Kant, for one, would insist that it is not. We also relate to one another as subjects; we have the possibility of thinking of ourselves as if we were autonomous moral beings, and so we should respect ourselves and others as such.

(Kant would be the first to admit there is no empirical evidence for our autonomy. But then, Kant insisted that the natural sciences are limited in their scope and that dogmatic empiricism in particular is blind.)

Kant also wrote of our faculty of judgment, which interprets our experience in terms of purposes, which informs our experience of beauty, and also gives a sense of wonder and direction even to scientific inquiry. Without wonder, without judgment in terms of purposes that cannot be reduced to mere "facts", the sciences would never be anything but a catalog of observations.

Now, the skeptics would no doubt say that their worldview can encompass real love for other people, and wonderment at the cosmos, because they acknowledge that we have emotional responses to things.

But that's inadequate. It's not that I see another person and experience an immediate feeling of approval. Such a feeling has no depth, no cognitive content; it's just something I feel.

A dogmatic empiricist has no framework for making sense, say, of the following quotation from Rilke:
“Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”
I find this quotation profoundly moving, not because those words produce in me a fuzzy feeling. I find it moving because I recognize something in it, it gets at a truth about relationships, and about love, that is rich in meaning that has real cognitive content. It would take a long digression through Kant and Hegel, and maybe on to Sartre, to get at and elucidate that meaning, but it is far more than just an immediate thrill of pleasure.

I would go so far as to say the truth in this quotation from Rilke is as real and as substantial, in it's own distinctive way, as the truth of Newton's laws of motion or Darwin's account of evolution by natural selection.

Can we live by this framework? Would such a life be worth living?

It seems to me impossible to live a full and decent human life in strict conformity to dogmatic empiricism. A life based on such an impoverished outlook on the world and on human relationships would not be worth living . . . at least not without smuggling in, without explanation or acknowledgment, elements from other frameworks (e.g., human dignity, wonder, purpose).

But then, I would hazard to say - and I did, in fact, say so in the session - that no one framework is adequate to making sense of our experience or providing meaning and guidance to our lives in the world.

Last edited by hyperskeptic; 03-20-2013 at 05:25 PM.
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