Disclaimer: The following, and all posts hereafter with this title will be populated with my philosophical ponderings. Enter at your own peril.
Of course, here I refer to the “why?” of why write this series. There will be bigger versions of “why” to come, but there are less relevant here.
There is a form of thinking I call “conspiracy theory fallacy.” I’m sure this term has been applied to other ideas, but I use it here in a specific form. I think it is a way of thinking that epitomizes what is usually wrong with so-called “conspiracy theories.” In essence it is the fallacy of applying different standards of truth to different views.
Take for example the belief that the moon landing was a hoax. A moon landing denialist will apply very strident standards to the claim that the moon landing was real. “Yes, we have pictures, but isn’t this lighting odd?” “Yes, we have witnesses, but you must concede the possibility that they’re all liars.” These are both, at least in the sense of pure logic, viable viewpoints. The problem is the next stop, when the denialist will posit something along the lines of “ipso facto, there is an ongoing massive government cover-up.”
The fallacy is not just the simple bad logic. It’s the uneven application of standards. A mountain of detailed evidence is piled against the moon landing. Then, once the denialist feels he’s put a little wobble in the claim that we’ve been to the moon, he unleashes a floodgate of unsubstantiated speculation. He requires impossibly perfect explanations from the lunar scientists, but insists on weak or non-existent explanations for his own views.
In essence, if he finds a gap, he can fill it in with whatever crap he likes.
The problem is that this form of reasoning is not restricted to crackpots. In fact, forms of it exists among many respected authors – even authors I respect.
For example, in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan targets the fast food industry with impressively detailed statistics on animal welfare, food quality, longterm health effects, and the like. Having created this gap (in this case, perhaps a legitimate one), he begins to argue for alternative approaches. The argument for these approaches tends to be based on literary quotes, anecdotes, and the claims of people who are already on his side. We see again the fallacy of the conspiracy theorist. Strong evidence brought to bear on the enemy, weak evidence brought to bear on the friend. Statistics for the enemy. Anecdotes for the friend.
We see similar claims from those who argue for Atheism, such as Sam Harris. Harris claims science can deliver ethics. Perhaps by now you’ll see my stance on this view. We see he effectively dismantles the idea that faith and scripture can exclusively deliver ethics (not a difficult task), but then in this gap he inserts the notion that science can.
This may seem like a nitpick, and of course authors are allowed to speculate. But, I think it is a trap that can lead even intelligent minds in a dangerous direction. I listened to Harris doing a Science Friday interview recently, in which he described his theory. Here’s a transcript of what was, to me, the crucial part:
Dr. HARRIS: We could measure it ["human well-being"]. We could scan the brains of everyone involved. But there’s no reason to do that. We know Ira, think of what it takes to doubt that we can know this from the point of view of science.
It’s as though you’re saying we have 150 years of neuroscience and sociology and psychology behind us, we’ve made very impressive gains in our treatment of women, but just maybe – maybe forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating them or killing them when they try to get out, is as good as anything we’ve come up with.
It’s just not a it’s not a position that can be honestly adopted. And we know enough to know, we know enough about human well-being at this moment to know that this is not a good practice – good as defined by all the correlates of human happiness.
FLATOW: Well, but the whole point of science.
Prof. PINKER: But Sam, we don’t have to…
FLATOW: Wait, let me just jump in for a second. But the whole point of science is to create an experiment to prove what you think is true.
Prof. PINKER: Well, no, that’s actually not the…
FLATOW: I mean, isn’t it…?
Dr. HARRIS: Steven’s point about secular reason being a larger footprint is very important to take on board because science is where we science generally, reason generally, is where we are committed to relying on honest observation and clear reasoning.
It’s not that every single question is experimentally tractable next month. And there are some – there are many scientific truths, an infinite number of scientific truths that we will never be able to test because we can’t get the data in hand. You know, how many birds are in flight over the surface of the Earth at this moment? We have no idea, and it just changed. And yet that’s a very simple question about the nature of reality, which we know has an answer.
Can any reasonable person call the above a scientific viewpoint? Harris has created a gap in the origin of ethics, and what does he fill it with? The claim that we can know the truth of ethics, even though we can’t know it and can’t test it.
He’s debunked one view (fair enough) and replaced it with one whose foundation he admits is currently non-existent, and may never prove to be true. I think this is another example of the conspiracy theory fallacy – just because you find a gap, that doesn’t mean you can fill it with whatever you like.
I can think of many other examples, but I suspect you can readily think of your own as well.
Now, what is the point of all this? Well, I’m about to start on what promises to be a very long and wildly self-indulgent series of articles here, and I wanted to explain the impetus. In essence, I think many thinkers lack the humility to question their own views, and I’d like to put forth a world view that is as reasonable and logical as possible.
I’ll be calling it “Mesognosticism” so as to disclaim atheism, agnosticism, or theism. It do this mostly out of ego, but also because I believe the term threads the needle between humility and actuality. “Meso-” is from the Greek “mesos” which means “in the middle.” You know it from Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, and mesocosm. “-Gnostic” is from the late Greek “gnostikos,” meaning “knowing, able to discern.” (Thanks, Online Etymology Dictionary!) So, if I say I am Mesognostic, I mean I know a thing or two. I can’t disprove any form of deity, but I can very well disprove the deity of, say, Buddha.
I plan to start with some basics like induction (previewed in an earlier post) and work my way up to more human-centered topics. More than anything, I’m looking at this as a way to have fun, learn a lot, convince some people of my views, and have something to laugh at in 20 years.
Wish me luck!