Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Foolish Consistency

What is real?  Why?
Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914
In short, if you believe this, how can you also believe that? The answer is that the realms of belief supposedly existing in a condition of opposition and conflict are, at least to some extent, discrete. What you believe in one arena of human endeavor may have no spillover into what you believe, and do, in another.

Thus, for example, you may have assented to an argument that calls into question the solidity of facts, but when you’re not doing meta-theory, you will experience facts as solidly as the most committed and polemical of empiricists. In doing so you will not be inconsistent or self-contradictory because the question of a belief in facts arises only in the special precincts of philosophical deliberation. In everyday life, we neither believe nor disbelieve in facts as [a] general category; we just encounter particular ones in perfectly ordinary ways; and any challenge to one or more of them will also be perfectly ordinary, a matter of evidentiary adequacy or the force of counter examples or some other humdrum, non-philosophical measure of dis-confirmation. The conclusions we may have come to in the context of fancy epistemological debates (a context few will ever inhabit) will have no necessary force when we step into, and are asked to operate in, other contexts.

Stanley Fish

Stephen Jay Gould made a rather controversial claim some years ago that science and religion operate in separate domains of authority, domains which he christened “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). His separation was attacked from many directions, most successfully by those who pointed out that religion does not limit its claims to questions of meaning and value, but rather also makes existence claims (the history of the universe, the existence of miracles, etc.) and claims about the nature of physical reality.

Now we have New Atheists like Sam Harris declaring that science can answer moral questions, claiming that “moral values are facts, no different from the kinds of facts discovered by chemists.” Of course, Mr. Harris stacks the deck for his argument, unpersuasively in my opinion, by simply defining morality as that which can be measured by science. Presumably, under his schema, something like the knotty problem of evil, with which human beings have been struggling for millennia, can be conveniently reduced to a quantitative analysis of unambiguous results from an fMRI scan of someone’s brain. Aficionados of philosophical argument, whom Mr. Harris seems to discount as irrelevant, would probably consider this line of thinking a somewhat epic example of “begging the question.”

One need not be someone who denies that human beings are physical creatures who live in a universe existing independent of our consciousness to see that such reductionist twaddle is utter nonsense. Science is a fabulous collection of tools—an epistemological attitude, really—which has tremendously successful application to many aspects of our lives, primarily in helping us hypothesize and manipulate what is the nature of the reality we presume we inhabit. It is crackerjack in helping us identify and understand facts, but it has virtually nothing to say about the realm of meaning and value. Those are individual, interpersonal, and societal concerns which absorb us in our mental lives and interactions with each other. In order to grapple with that domain, we must employ different tools and different epistemological attitudes, and there is no independently existing universe of meaning or values we can test our beliefs against, fact-like, to see whether we are correct.

This perspective—that we need to and should use different mental tools and practices to address disjoint spheres of human experience—should worry no-one but those little minds burdened with the hobgoblin of foolish consistency. Human minds are protean instruments, and we should celebrate the fact we can plumb the depths of the sky with science in one minute, struggle with the meaning of our lives another, and wonder at the beauty of a painting or concerto the next. One might say this capacity is what makes us human in the first place.

Science is a wonderful hammer, but only someone with a desperately limited imagination could believe that everything we must grapple with is a nail.

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