Tuesday, March 23, 2010
skepticism and the last dogma
I made a joke the other day that I wanted to go to a TED conference and read aloud from Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense," and then Andrew Sullivan comes along and drops this on me. It fits what I was thinking exactly. I wonder, often, if there has been a period of greater intellectual arrogance than the one I live in. Of course there has been; there was a time before the modern critique, and, you know, Aristotle had already figured it all out. But it's hard to keep that perspective in our current time. I have watched, with half-horror and half-bemusement, the rise of what I call we might call human achievement yuppies. They are all over: the techno-utopians, the market fetishists, the hipster teleologists, the neo-Aristotelians, "the Secret" devotees and similar cultists, the prosperity gospel evangelists, the proponents of various self-help books, the lifehackers, the starry-eyed socialists, the evolutionary optimists, the scientism proselytizers, the policy wonks, the personal virtue republicans.... Incidentally, were I in charge, I would hold the TED conferences or similar in a Brazilian favela, or village in Haiti or Somalia. I don't think you can meaningfully come to understand human progress without understanding the depths of human misery; a consideration of the human endeavor that weighs only the progress and none of those who have been progressed upon is a work of fantasy.
This is all one of the reasons, among many, that I find the constant invective against the postmodern turn in the academy so strange. Postmodernism is not and has never been a powerful force in the world; for how could it stand against the dueling certainties and totalizing ideologies that we have never fallen out of love with? For my part, personally, I distrust those that think of practicality as a cardinal virtue, who believe our experience represents finally a series of problems to be solved, who think that efficiency is to be pursued in all elements of human achievement, who think that living is something that can be done better or worse. I'll favor those who take as their goals to be beautiful, to be moral, and to be happy. There is no greater insult in this than the expression of personal preference. Such things are personal, and if you'll forgive me, unspeakable.
There are many things that I call myself. The one that I think is the most accurate and the most important has always been "skeptic," but I've rarely used it. I rarely use it because of what most other self-identified skeptics have made of it: when most people here of skeptics, they think of people who are deeply dismissive of the existence of Bigfoot (and isn't that a courageous stance), but who are entirely credulous towards the power of human cognition. You might think of Penn Jillette, the living smirk, who has a massive and showy disdain for people who believe anything that fails to meet his evaluative criteria, and yet seems to apply his own ability to accurately understand the universe around him to no such scrutiny. This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.
I've always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty.... Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.
For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee's intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.
They tell me that the Copernican revolution and the rise of evolution have permanently altered the place of humanity in the human mind. They say that the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview towards a vision of our planet and our sun as existing amidst a sea of stars of incomprehensible vastness has destroyed our arrogant notion that our planet is special. They tell me that evolution has destroyed any belief in divine creation and with it the notion that humanity is anything other than an animal species. And they say all of this from the position of didacticism and superiority, weaving it into a self-aggrandizing narrative about how these skeptics are the ones who are capable of looking at the uncomfortable truths of the world and not flinching.
To these specific changes in fundamental worldview, I say, fair enough; I can't argue with either turn, I suppose. For my part I would only remind them that we live here, in the relentless narrative of our human subjectivity, and such things are of little interest when the rent must be paid. But fair enough, all the same. What I ask of them-- what Nietzsche asks of them; what so many in the field of the humanities, that beleaguered but proud area of human inquiry, have come to ask of them-- is to take it one step further: that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma.
All of this would be just another round in the great battle of human disagreement, and as always, I work with precious little ammunition and, often enough, not even the will to fire. What compels me to speak is that there are many Sam Harrises in the world, and most of them wield their epistemologies against other people. Many atheists, for example, say that religion arose as a way to enforce power, that people looked out unto a frightening and incomprehensible world, and that the priests said, "this is the way," and the fix was in. That was Marx's line, anyway. What I want to suggest from where I stand is that any way of knowing that claims certainty is inevitably the enforcement of power. All philosophical systems are, of course; mine most certainly is. And yes, we are inevitably going to require some minimal normative framework to make basic social interaction necessary. But degree matters, and every step we take back from absolute or totalizing claims, I think, increases the space for people to live their strange, idiosyncratic lives. And if it is the case that man invented God because he looked out at a terrifying world, it is equally the case that man invents the perfect cognition because he looks out at a terrifying world. Each is a comfort, but I wonder if it is not to our pragmatic benefit to look with great skepticism upon both. Sam Harris, too, is in the condition of the caveman looking out unto an endless, empty sky, and that is why I must criticize his convictions, and that is why I must extend to him, to the degree I am able, understanding and compassion.
This line of thinking has always been met with some standard criticisms: that it is self-refuting, that it is antagonistic towards science, that it renders us incapable of standing in opposition to what we call evil. This last one is a favorite of many, and it is a bit like blaming a murder on the constraints of police power rather than on the murderer. All of history's greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan.... They all had it all figured out. I read neoconservative critiques of postmodern -- I read, for example, Sullivan's infamous post 9-11 essay on Islam and John Rawls-- and I wonder what exactly they might make of the history of human suffering, and from where they think crimes against humanity emanate. What the world needs isn't yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.
But suppose my intuition is wrong. Suppose there is, actually, a transcendent morality, a right and wrong that is capital-t True, that is non-contingent, not temporal, that applies to each and every person and situation: then totalitarianism must become the truth of man. If Sam Harris emerges from his lab with his beaker and his chart of what is right and what is wrong-- cast the human question onto the fire. There could be no difference, no diversity. Say goodbye individualism, say hello to the jackboot, and knowing that it is all the worse for being objectively true. To Harris's credit, he acknowledges in the video that there will never be some moral calculator that empowers us to make every minute moral decision with objective certainty. But as soon as we remove doubt, as soon as there is a moral framework that is endless and timeless, fascism has become the truth of man. Nazism was not a moral obscenity merely because it got the answer so terribly wrong, but also because it thought to give the whole answer entirely. Harris gives himself an out by talking of peaks and valleys of moral behavior, but as long as he and his fellow philosopher-kings are holding the measuring tape, that is the end of human freedom. Harris is no fascist, not at all, but fascism is at the heart of his project, his "moral realism."
Among the few necessary social functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.
Update: I have posted a response to the usual comments here.