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Rant against Naive Relativism 27 December 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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1) All ideas (including religions) are not equal, either in their truth content or in their consequences in the real world. For example, to believe that one must “respect” Mormons, because it’s their religion is naive relativism at its worst, and assumes that mormonism’s truth claims are equal in value — merely because someone believes them — to the evidence that disproves them. Hogwash.

1a) Social scientific relativism is a useful and ethical requirement in doing research, but it is far narrower than commonly understood: In order to fully understand someone else’s culture, one must, to the extent possible, lay aside and/or suspend one’s own values and world view. Notice that this says nothing of the value of either your own culture or the culture you are trying to understand. Naive relativism is the misapprehension that social scientific relativism means that all cultures are of equal value. [As a side note, I would argue that social scientists doing descriptive work must stop short of the evaluation stage of analysis; however, I do think there’s a place for evaluation in scholarly work, if it is done correclty and in the right contexts.]

1b) In the real world, we must — I repeat for emphasis, must — judge among competing values and world views. In fact, our world would grind to a halt if we actually lived as if all world views and values were equal. Why? First, our brains aren’t set up to function without values to guide our actions. But more importantly, because competing values and cultures and world views do not impact the world in equal ways. We choose among values and world views on an individual level as we assemble the collection of values that work for us; but socially, we must do this collectively to ensure that society moves forward in a way that maximizes our ability to choose our personal values and world views [insert long discussion about democracy here].

2) Making a truth claim or a value proposition is ethically neutral and a normal part of being a human being. It is not unethical or problematic to do so. However, I would argue that there are better and worse ways to make truth claims (i.e., scientific method) and value propositions (i.e., solid argumentation with reasons and evidence). Further and related, to evaluate a value proposition or a truth claim is ethically necessary: Not to do so is to be complicit in the consequences of such, good or bad.

3) The best way to make evaluations of others’ value propositions and truth claims is to require they be made with adequate reasons to support them and adequate evidence to support the reasons (basic argumentation/logic). Then, if the argumentation is solid up front, the consequences, real or probable (not just possible), of adopting the value proposition and/or believe the truth claim must be evaluated.

3a) If both the argumentation and the consequences are acceptable, rock on. Adopt it or leave it be as your heart desires or as is necessary in your situation or society.

3b) If the argumentation is faulty but the consequences are acceptable, beat the shit out of the argument, but leave the believers their freedom to believe their idiocy (insert again long discussion of democracy and the harm principle). But do not renege your ethical responsibility to the truth to undermine wrong ideas, even if the consequences are acceptable.

3c) If the argumentation is solid, but the consequences are unacceptable, organize socially to stop a value system from being put into place that would have undesireable consequences, even if the argument behind that value proposition are solid. (I have a hard time thinking of a good truth claim that would have unacceptable negative consequences, although many Hollywood political scenarios seem to present true information to the public would somehow harm them.)

4) All truth claims and value propositions should be approached as provisional, as ends-in-view rather than ends-in-themselves, so that at any juncture, with any new information, they may be revised as necessary.

Therefore 5) Although you may have an ethical responsibility to treat believers in false ideas or bad values nicely, you are under no ethical obligation to treat their faulty, untrue, baseless beliefs and values nicely, nor to excuse or ignore the consequences of their beliefs in the real world.

Science as “Faith-based”? (The “New Atheism”, cont.) 20 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Science, Social Sciences.
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In a comment on The New Atheism thread, Compassioninpolitics wrote:

Interesting concerns. I see a couple flaws with new-atheism that have yet to be answered by anyone. Hitchens et al (aka the new atheists) use hyperbole, poisoning the well, and stereotype to prove their points.

I agree about Hitchen’s rhetorical tactics, but I don’t find this to be true of Dennett, Dawkins, or not even Harris. On the other hand, as Hitchens speaks and prods and provokes with his usual bombast and disdain for those who disagree with him, he is still making arguments against religious belief, and the arguments he makes go unanswered. This is perhaps the biggest weakness in Hitchens’ style in general, that it forecloses responses by demonstrating an unwillingness to engage from the outset.

Where I usually have some sympathy with religionists in this debate is that as a social scientist, I see religion as far more complex than a mere “force for evil” in the world (and here Harris joins Hitchens, in my opinion). Claims of that nature make me roll my eyes, since religion has multiple and contradictory effects, ranging from mass murder to self-sacrifice for strangers. So reducing religion to its negative effects without at the very least acknowledging the diversity of effects and its complexity is intellectually problematic, for me. However, in the world we live in today, it is also understandable that we are focusing on the problematic, anti-democratic, and murderous effects of religion, as those are the aspects that are causing very real social problems, from Gujarat to a field in Pennsylvania.

In terms of human reason, I see the worst effect of religion being that it provides a world view that allows people to react to difficult situations out of habit. It releases adherents from moral responsibility because they already know the “truth”. That makes religion particularly dangerous in the interdependent, plural world we live in today.

Compassioninpolitics continues:

Additionally, they fail to account for the fact that their assumptions about truth are wedded to a narrow notion of science, which is itself a faith based system which fails to include all forms of truth.

What is the “broader” view of science that has to be integrated into atheism’s view? I can’t really address that concern until I know exactly what it is.

More problematic is the notion that science is some kind of ‘faith-based initiative.’ I hear this all the time from defensive religionists, but the only way you can say that science is ‘faith-based’ is to make the definition of faith so mushy and general as to no longer hold any analytic usefulness as a category. But it seems to me that faith in religious contexts means, in general, a belief that something is true that cannot be proven to be true. Scientific method isn’t “true” in a “general principles” kind of way, but it has been proven “true” in an instrumental way over and over again: people believe in the method because it works. That seems strikingly different from faith that Jesus Saves or that Allah will greet you in paradise or that Rama will guide.

[As a side note, here’s where religion adopts (without irony) the language of postmodernism to defend itself: You can’t prove anything is true, so all truth claims are equal. You see, science is just like religion! Utter nonsense, perpetrated by, unfortunately, my colleagues in so-called “science studies”.]

Whereas religionists have faith in the supernatural (especially theistic religions), what exactly do scientists have faith in? The closest thing I can think of is faith in a method, the scientific method.

But that breaks down for me immediately because, as I said above, having faith in the scientific method is not qualitatively, affectively, nor empirically the same thing that religionists mean by their faith at all. Whereas religionist faith-based thinking moves forward by beginning with unprovable axiomatic principles by which all other claims are measured (e.g., God exists), science has no axiomatic principles, only a method. Whereas religion requires group agreement (think: religion as a social phenomenon), science requires group mutual-critique and competition as a social phenomenon. Whereas religion claims Universal and Timeless Truth, science insists on contingency and the fallibility of all claims, which require observable evidence and rational analysis that don’t resort to unprovable a prioris, circular logic, or infallibility.

I can only conclude that science is a faith-based system in a sense of the word that robs it of any meaningful use in describing anything.