Sunday, February 19, 2006

Inquiring Minds Don't Want to Know

I used to subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer, but it became clear pretty quickly that skepticism was the last thing on most of the writers' minds...if we define "skepticism" in a manner harmonious with, say, the Oxford English Dictionary: "doubt or incredulity as to the truth of some assertion or supposed fact....disposition to doubt or incredulity in general."

It's the "in general" that trips up inquiring wanna-be skeptics everywhere, from CSICOP to Daniel Dennett--the latter exposed in a recent book review worthy of H. L. Mencken. Anyone interested in science, religion, or both should read this...or if you just enjoy a good piss-taking now and again; the reviewer, Leon Wieseltier, comes out swinging and doesn't let up, like a Muhammad Ali of vituperation, fearing not the cowardly norms of "civility" and "fairness."

As a science nut who also happens to be a religious fanatic (or is it the other way around?), I get frustrated by self-proclaimed "rationalists" who can't reason their way out of soggy fish-and-chip papers--as, apparently, does Mr. Wieseltier:

"Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky."

My attitude towards fundamentalists, new-age suckers, and we-are-the-world namby-pambies resides somewhere quite beyond contempt (especially for the violent end of the spectrum, the pro-life killers and cartoon rioters), and I fear, loathe, and wish for the late-Jurassic die-off of the believe-or-else types at least as fervently as does Dennett. Then again, Dennett (and Dawkins, and--) have always displayed an odd inability to articulate a persuasive alternative to or even argue well with religious pinheadosity. (For an example of someone who does argue well with religious pinheads, vide Thomas Paine.)

Wieseltier scoffs at Dennett's use of the term "brights," humorously and then profoundly. Here is Dennett's definition of the term from his op-ed piece "The Bright Stuff":

"A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny--or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of beliefs about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic--and life after death."

I guess I'm a "dark"...someone who worships the Dark Mother; who likes dark days and darker nights; who is, in fact, nocturnal; who isn't afraid of uncertainty; who can't for the life of me postulate a workable opposition of "natural" to "supernatural;" who is constitutionally unwilling and unable to "believe" and who would rather practice (a religion, a world-view, a life, a love) and see what happens...I am someone who bases his certainty about scientism's absurdity not upon an inclination towards "mystery" or "the unexplained," but upon the indisputable fact that there have existed and continue to exist an arbitrarily high number of contradictory philosophies that explain the world equally well.

Not equally "emprically," but empiricals reside mainly in instruments and interpretations; all philosophies, all views of the world ground themselves in some set of observables--and all views of the world necessarily ignore or "bracket" some other set of observables.

(Science doesn't? How many data was Newton willing to ignore to maintain his bond with alchemy? How many data was Einstein willing to throw out to maintain his opposition to quantum mechanics? How many people have you heard quote Einstein's faux-skeptical proclamation that "God does not play dice"? And how many times have you heard quoted Niels Bohr's genuinely skeptical [alleged] riposte--that one shouldn't presume to tell a Deity how to run His or Her universe?)

Bohr, less apocryphally, also remarked to someone surprised to see a horseshoe nailed up over a door in the physicist's house, "I heard it worked whether you believe in it or not." This is the essence of empiricism. Or, as a woman said to me at the Al-Anon convention I attended yesterday, after a rather disagreeably fundamentalist prologue: "I guess I believe in God because I've noticed my life works a lot better that way."

I would never tell You what to believe, Dear Reader...believe only what your True Will dictates...but don't reject any unknowns untried...don't conclude your study before viewing the data.


  1. grigorss1:26 AM

    I simply can't think of any stupid anecdote to add to this. YWhat you wrote here is simply too cogent to allow for it. Bravo.

  2. The Skeptical Inquirer left me feeling the same way -- I subscribed to it for a year very early on.

    When you think about it, all empiricism is ultimately subjective. Everything gets filtered through our organs of perception -- so even before we get to whatever tender sensibilities contextualize the data, we are limited by our biology. I can't navigate the way a bee can. I can't communicate through vibrations in the ground as an elephant can. And, much to my cat Red's chagrin when I sometimes misstep, I can't see as well as he can in the dark. (Daisy at least has light-colored fur.)

    I haven't yet checked the Institute of Noetic Sciences out much, but they seem to have carved out a good middle-ground. They were founded by Ed Mitchell, the astronaut who tried to conduct ESP experiments on the moon.