Thursday, January 29, 2009

That's Just What They Want You To Think

From a couple of long Edward Feser posts (read 'em all if you have time and are interested in lengthy but easy-to-follow philosophical discussion, otherwise, not).


Notice that unlike local doubt, global doubt tends to undermine even the evidence that led to the doubt in the first place. Doubting that you really saw your cousin doesn’t lead you to think that your belief that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty might also be false. But suppose your belief that you sometimes have been fooled by visual illusions leads you to doubt your senses in general. You came to believe that your perceptual experience of a bent stick in the water was illusory because you also believed that your experience of seeing the stick as straight when removed from the water was not illusory. But you end up with the view that maybe that experience, and all experience, is illusory after all. You came to believe that you might be dreaming right now because in the past you’ve had vivid dreams from which you woke up. You end up with the view that maybe even the experience of waking up was itself a dream, so that you’ve never really been awake at all. Again, the doubt tends to swallow up even the evidence that led to the doubt. (Philosophers like J. L. Austin have suggested that this shows that philosophical skepticism is not even conceptually coherent, but we needn’t commit ourselves to that claim to make the point that it does at least tend to undermine the very evidence that leads to it.)

I suggest that the distinction between ordinary, everyday conspiracies (among mobsters, or Watergate conspirators, or whatever) and vast conspiracies of the sort alleged by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics, parallels the scenarios described by commonsense or “local” forms of doubt and philosophical or “global” forms of doubt, respectively. We know that the former sorts of conspiracies occur because we trust the sources that tell us about them – news accounts, history books, reports issued by government commissions, eyewitnesses, and so forth. And there is nothing in the nature of those conspiracies that would lead us to doubt these sources. But conspiracies of the latter sort, if they were real, would undermine all such sources. And yet it is only through such sources that conspiracy theorists defend their theories in the first place. They point to isolated statements from this or that history book or government document (the Warren Report, say), to this or that allegedly anomalous claim made in a newspaper story or by an eyewitness, and build their case on a collection of such sources. But the conspiracy they posit is one so vast that they end up claiming that all such sources are suspect wherever they conflict with the conspiracy theory. Indeed, even some sources apparently supportive of the conspiracy theory are sometimes suspected of being plants subtly insinuated by the conspirators themselves, so that they might later be discredited, thereby discrediting conspiracy theorists generally. Overall, the history books, news sources, government commissions, and eyewitnesses are all taken to be in some way subject to the power of the conspirators (out of sympathy, or because of threats, or because the sources are themselves being lied to). Nothing is certain. But in that case the grounds for believing in the conspiracy in the first place are themselves uncertain. At the very least, the decision to accept some source claims and not others inevitably becomes arbitrary and question-begging, driven by belief in the conspiracy rather than providing independent support for believing in it.


The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

This is, in fact, part of why the medievals had the respect for authority that they did. They by no means believed in following authority "blindly" - indeed, Thomas Aquinas regarded the argument from authority as the weakest of all arguments. But they did think that the fact that some authority has said something gave us at least some reason to think it is true, even if that reason might often be overridden by other, better reasons to conclude otherwise. That is to say, they acknowledged that it is simply a necessary feature of the human condition that our starting point in coming to know about the world must always be what we have inherited from some authority or other - parents, church, scholars, government, or whomever. Such authorities might not always have the last word, but they cannot fail to have the first word. And to reject the mindless view that authority as such is always to be questioned is not to embrace the equally mindless view that authority is always to be trusted. It is rather just to take the sensible middle ground position that authority has an unavoidable and necessary place in our lives (intellectual and otherwise) even if it is something fallible that we often need to be cautious about.

At some level, everyone knows this, even if some people pretend to think otherwise. The secularist who chides religious believers for having faith in what the Church teaches will also tell them, in the very next breath and with no sense of irony, to shut up and trust the experts where scientific matters are concerned. That there are philosophers and theologians who can present powerful and sophisticated justifications of religious belief is taken to be no defense of the average believer - he ought to "think for himself," says the secularist. And yet while the average secularist couldn't give you an interesting explanation or defense of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, or evolution if his life depended on it, the fact that there are experts who can do so is taken by him to justify his own faith in their findings. As the philosopher Christopher Martin has noted, the real difference between medieval and modern people is not that the former believe in the need for authority and the latter don't - in fact both medievals and moderns believe in it and act accordingly - but rather that the former admitted that they believed in it, while the latter pretend they don't.

This pretense of contempt for authority per se is by no means a mere foible. It can lead to very serious intellectual errors, as it does in the work of such apostles of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" as Marx and Nietzsche. For the former, all moral, legal, religious, and cultural beliefs, practices, and institutions are "really" mere expressions of the interests of the dominant economic class within a society; for the latter (and especially for such contemporary Nietzscheans as Michel Foucault), they are "really" just expressions of a more general "will to power." As such, they are to be regarded with distrust, and indeed (on at least some interpretations of these doctrines) as having no objective validity whatsoever. Authority, tradition, and common sense come to be regarded as something to be constantly unmasked and undercut rather than consulted as necessary, though fallible, sources of wisdom. Indeed, they come to be regarded as something positively hateful and oppressive, from which we must always feel alienated.

Such doctrines are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that is both coherent and interesting. If interpreted as universal claims, they undercut themselves - Marxism and Nietzscheanism themselves turn out to be just two more masks for some sinister interest or other, with no objective validity. If instead they are not interpreted as universal claims - that is, if it is held that either Marxism or Nietzscheanism alone constitutes objective truth and ought not to be regarded with suspicion - then they seem arbitrary and question-begging. If, to avoid these problems, they are softened into the more modest claim that people often believe in or promote various moral, religious, or political ideas out of self-interest, then they become trivial. Everybody has always known that. And from the fact that someone somewhere might have a selfish motivation for believing or promoting some claim, it simply doesn't follow that that claim is false or even doubtful. To think otherwise is to commit the ad hominem fallacy of "poisoning the well." If our believing that the earth is round benefits globe manufacturers, it would be stupid to conclude from this that it must really be flat after all. Similarly, if our believing that 9/11 was caused by a bunch of jihadist fanatics acting without help from any government conspiracy somehow benefits the Bush administration, that is simply no reason whatsoever for doubting that it really was so caused.

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