Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Trust me, I'm a philosopher
Glancing over at my own blogroll, I noticed the headline at The Existence Machine: “Who Do You Trust?” A question that was on my mind, since I was thinking about science and the position of laypeople with respect to it. Turned out to be more relevant than I would have guessed: a long post by blogger Richard Crary specifically taking off from my observation that contentious matters always turn upon issues of trust. Crary writes:
Consider the following sentence: "You're entitled to your own opinion; you're not entitled to your own facts." … I myself have said much the same thing in political arguments. Of course, it rarely gets me anywhere. And as I've noticed that my arguments rarely get me anywhere (assuming those cases when I've been my most coherent and least defensive, and being as charitable as possible toward my interlocutors; it's not helpful going through life thinking everyone else is an idiot, even when they're wrong), I've often wondered how it is that we come to know and understand things, how it is we become open to certain ways of looking at the world.
Socrates probably noticed the same thing: “By Zeus! Callicles and I did not make much headway today, did we?”
Commenting on my post about the neuroscience of wisdom, dy0genes recently spun out a sort of science-fiction scenario (and there is no reason to presume it is inherently fictional) in which it is plausible to know what sorts of brain states correspond to what sorts of mental processes. Could we then artificially induce or repress these processes? This would be one way of approaching the question of “how we become open to certain ways of looking at the world.” We could program everyone to think “scientifically!” No more relying on revelation, or blind faith, refusing to look at the evidence… we would all be perfectly rational creatures, with valid reasons for thinking what and how we think. Well, except of course, for thinking this way in the first place.
Is there an irreducible difference between causes and reasons? No one, I take it, will contest that if I listen to an argument and change my mind, this is different from changing my mind as a result of undergoing hypnosis. (One of the things that makes psychoanalysis, and indeed psychotherapeutic theory in general, fascinating, is the way it blurs this distinction. Ancient philosophy often reads like a weird blend of such therapy and modern informal logic). If, instead of being hypnotized, I am injected with a drug or and have some precise electrical stimulation to particular regions of my cerebral cortex, the case is if anything even more clear. I have not rationally changed my mind; I have had my mind changed for me.
Pursuing the consequences of this Phildickian premise would take me too far afield (questions about autonomy always involve identity, for instance; e.g., “Am I still the same person?”). But I think it is fair to say that if Socrates had been offered the opportunity to change Callicles’ mind with a syringe, he would have thrown the proffered instrument into the Aegean Sea. (This is not an argument against pursuing a line of research, but a way of drawing more starkly its ramifications).
Remarking on my claim that rival arguments about (for example) “What Really Happened on 9/11” all hinge upon unspoken investments of trust, Crary remarks:
I … have occasionally found myself wandering onto certain websites that purport to present expert testimony on, say, the physics of demolition and realizing that I had no basis for deciding the matter. My concern here, of course, is not 9/11 per se, nor is it [Skholiast’s], but rather this matter of trust. In particular, trust in the context of our highly technocratic capitalist society.
Crary goes on to cite Daniel Hind’s book The Threat to Reason, arguing that the alleged rising tide of irrationalism (superstition, fundamentalism, postmodern mumbo-jumbo) is a minor concern compared to the betrayal of the forces of reason into the hands of the powerful corporate and government interests in its own backyard. Hind, and Crary citing him, pointing out the consequences of being continually beset by claims upon our trust. Institutions of state, education, science, commerce, and religion, all vie for our attention and, yes, our credence. Crary underscores that part of the fallout from this is that one has to make an endless array of judgment calls in who you listen to and—perhaps tentatively—believe. Hind’s suggestion that the legacy of the enlightenment (both its democratic and its scientific trajectories) has been, at least partially, hijacked by power, brings into stark relief the fact that we come by our commitments in large part unconsciously.
Pointing this out is neither the obscurantist ploy that impatient critics of either “conspiracy theory” (that unanswerable insult) or postmodernism say it is; nor is it a gotcha-move that outflanks all the he-said-she-said of contemporary debate, as though pointing out that Rupert Murdoch owns a newspaper meant one could, by that token alone, disregard—or even disbelieve—whatever is printed there. But it does name another set of trajectories to which one must pay heed. In the next post or so I will try to show one way in which these considerations pertain, with regard to the so-called Science Wars.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, a tremendous amount of our worldview has been caused, not decided—at least, not by us. Philosophy aims to both to understand, and to prudently increase, the decision/cause ratio.