The collective reading comprehension of the Internet is as sharp as ever, and so I am writing a reply to some of my tired and predictable critics in the comments of my recent post on skepticism.
The most repeated and yet least defensible claim is the hoary old argument towards self-refutation. This trope is evergreen, it appears. Many commenters are taking the tack, "you are saying with certainty that you can't have certainty!" or "you are saying without doubt that we must always have doubt!" or some such. I really have a hard time knowing how to address this failure of reading comprehension: I defy anyone, really, to find a single statement in that post that is expressed in a way that declares itself certain, lacking doubt, atemporal, non-contingent or objective. Take your time; I'll wait. I don't think you're going to find anything. I am quite disciplined on this subject; I've done this dance before. To the point of distraction, I point out the contingent and subjective nature of my own claims, but I have to, because even having done so, you get this same old insistence that I am being certain about uncertainty. I'm not. Please, if it really is unclear from all of the verbiage that I expended on this issue: there is no position or idea that I expressed within that post that I intended as objective, certain, indubitable, atemporal, or non-contingent.
That I was so careful on that score, but that people still launched into the boring old self-refutation gambit again-- and it is boring; despite the fact that so many commenters insist on thinking that they have cracked some kind of code, it is literally ancient, Plato having made a version of it-- I think that reveals a tendency I see more and more on the Internet: there is a large crowd of readers and commenters who read entirely through a kind of reverse shorthand, where they take any post that vaguely resembles a post they've read somewhere else, and respond to it as though it were that earlier post. So John Q. Commenter says, "Aha! I remember someone once say, 'I am certain there is no such thing as certainty,' and boy didn't I give it to that guy in the comments! To the Batmobile!" Well, I'm sorry folks, but you've got to work a little harder than that. Saying over and over that I was expressing certainty doesn't change the fact that I intended no such thing.
Now, if you'd care to read a book or two, you could see that the self-refutation charge has been discussed at length and considered before. Suppose I hadn't been as scrupulous as I was in avoiding making certain or objective truth claims in my post questioning the pragmatic value of truth claims. Suppose I had said the descriptive phrase, "there are no certain truth claims," or the prescriptive phrase, "we should proceed as though we know nothing for certain." This is the sort of thing that those who want to enforce strong truth claim visions of human knowledge jump all over. But are they really self-contradicting? Only if you assume exactly the vision of truth that I am denying. If you assume that the statement "metanarratives are untrue" means "it is objectively and non-contingently true that strong truth claims are untrue," then yes, that would be self-contradicting; but assuming that is to beg the question. To talk as though it is always the case that descriptive or prescriptive language makes appeals to objective truth is to assume exactly the vision of truth that I am telling you I don't assume. If I said, "metanarratives are untrue," I would mean "from my subjective standpoint, I find it useful not to take metanarratives as transcendentally true." And in the context of that post, you should be able to figure that out; after all, I was busy telling you that this was how I look at truth claims.
If you do some reading-- I've recommended Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy in this space before-- you'll find many responses to the self-refutation charge, much better argued than mine. Most or all point out the above, that these claims are ultimately usually tautological or question begging, because they are internally consistent only if one assumes the vision of objective knowledge that is being rejected by the claims that are called self-refuting. People have pointed that out for a long time, and indeed Plato has come under criticism for that. If that is the only arrow in your quiver, ladies and gentlemen, then please, don't bring that weak shit to the rim here. Again: any claim I make, as I keep pointing out, is itself a subjective and contingent claim. I make no claim to certain or objective truth with anything I am here saying.
One commenter claims that I am wrong to call evolution random and directionless. I suppose this depends on how exactly you mean those things. Evolving species will proceed over time through natural selection to being more fit with their environment, but this evolution is the product of functionally random mutation, and no particular evolution ever has to happen. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit organisms, it merely eliminates those so unfit that it prevents survival. What's more, natural selection conditions species through their exposure to their environment, which is itself conditioned through random events. A species might be very well adapted to its environment, but a random environmental change occurs that renders it poorly adapted. If natural selection does not have the time to condition the animal to be more suited to its environment through the superior ability to propagate of animals with beneficial mutation, the species will die out. If it does have time, that evolution will have been the product of random changes in the environment.
Speaking of self-refutation, we've got some of that rare but funny tendency on the Internet for multiple commenters to criticize the same author but from entirely different directions. So you've got the self-refutation crowd who thinks that what I am saying is self-evidently contradictory, and then you've got people who are saying that "everybody knows" what I am saying and I'm not making any important points.
To those who say that I am not disagreeing with Harris, I'm a bit confused: here I am, disagreeing with him. Harris claims that, despite uncertainty and a multiplicity of moral actions, we can make objectively moral or immoral actions or statements. I don't believe in transcendent morality of any kind. Morality, to my lights, is best thought of as an agreement between people, which is therefore never certain, timeless, or transcendent. I think it is to our practical benefit to act as though there is no moral value that transcends limited human agreement. Which means, yes, I am incapable of saying that the Taliban is objectively or certainly of inferior moral value to the Dalai Llama. And if you'd like to haul out the high school debating team tactic, no, I can't say that Hitler, the Holocaust or Nazism are permanently, objectively and non-contingently evil in some transcendent way.
That doesn't mean that I don't consider them evil, or that I can't fight them, or that my feelings towards Nazism and the obligation to fight it are any less passionate or committed. Not at all. It merely means that I find the genesis of that opposition and that passion to be within the subjective framework of my own life. This is part of the problem again: people insist that saying, for example, that scientific truth is socially constructed represents some great insult to science, but it only would be if you maintain belief in a transcendent truth that socially constructed truth can be compared to. I don't. From my perspective, use visions of truth are actually more respectful of science, because science is fantastically useful.
Ultimately, it's the very anger that the comments section contains that suggests that there is something to what I am saying. It's like clockwork: you say, "people get upset when you question the reach of the human mind," and then people show up and lose their shit because you've questioned the reach of the human mind. To call the comments section uncharitable would be an understatement, wouldn't you say? Why? Because this stuff is very, very sensitive for people. It really makes people unhappy. And this is in a context with my beliefs, which are wonderfully capable of existing alongside alternative visions of the truth. I am happy for you to go on believing in the transcendent power of the human mind; there is space for that within my position because, again, I am making no claim with objective certainty. I am not saying that it is objectively the case that there is no objective human knowledge. I am merely saying that for the pragmatic benefit of mankind, it seems to me that epistemological modesty is a very beneficial resource, and further that it seems to me that people get upset if you say so. When you show up in the comments and start flipping your wig to say it isn't true, I wonder if you all appreciate the irony.
Finally, some insisted that this was just my insecurity at being in the humanities and not the sciences. While I am a humanities man at heart, and will defend them to the day I die, I am actually in the social sciences, and I am in the process of being credentialed as a quantitative researcher. My academic coursework these days largely revolves around research methods and statistics. That isn't to make any claim to any kind of hierarchy of knowledge. It's just to dispute a particularly reductive explanation for why I think what I do.