Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Guardian's atheist defender of ignorance and superstition

Andrew Brown of the Guardian newspaper denies that it makes any difference whether most people's beliefs about how our universe works, which he labels "our stories", are true or false.  In his recent article "Virginia Heffernan's creationism is wrong but makes good sense", he also argues that it makes "good sense" for people to give justifications for their factual beliefs that provide zero probability of establishing that their factual beliefs are true.  He argues that only some small minority of people who specialize in building useful things need to have some narrowly focused skills required for them to be productive.  Therefore, he argues, only those people need to be epistemologically and ontologically competent within only the confines of their expertise.  But is work time specialization really the only place and time epistemological and ontological competence is needed?  

If we imagine two different countries, one where all citizens are epistemologically and ontologically competent and one where, outside of their narrow areas of work time specialization, all people are epistemologically and ontologically incompetent, which country would you rather live in?  Which country would you prefer shared a border with your country?  After all, our conclusions about how are universe works, and how we go about reaching these conclusions, influences many of the other decisions we make, including the laws we favor, our lifestyles, what and who we accept or reject morally, who is our friend or enemy, whether we ourselves are reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, etc.  

People who choose creationism over evolution, regardless of whether they do this because they find creationism aesthetically more pleasing, or morally uplifting, or meaningful, or any other such entirely inappropriate reason, are asserting that humans are not primates with a common ancestor with other apes.  This is a factual claim, and as such it is not merely a story, and it is not a choice we make like selecting a novel to read.  Factual claims are foundations upon which we construct our laws, our morality, our aesthetics, and our decisions generally, including daily decisions and important decisions impacting not only ourselves but others around us.  To say, as Andrew Brown does, that "they are the clash of two competing stories", and "it is a story which derives most of its power from the way that believers suppose that it is true", is to wrongly trivialize the basic task of making true/false judgements down to the level of picking a novel in a bookstore.

Have we become so accustomed to the fact that epistemological and ontological incompetence are widespread that we have become inured to it?  Do we prefer to scapegoat the rich, the politicians, the boss, the big corporations, particular other religions, for all problems because that is easier?  Is this why people who know better keep making bad excuses that such incompetency is OK as long as it is other people doing this, not me and not my children?  We are told people will forever be stupid so give up, we have no way to reliably make any true/false decisions so one method is as good as any other, one person's truth is another person's falsehood, the primary function of holding true/false beliefs is something other than accurately modeling reality, etc.  Yet some of the same people who argue thusly for denying or ignoring this problem also advocate for public policies which are themselves responses to the symptoms of this same problem.  This refusal to deal with the underlying source of the problems that they argue against thus carries with it a whiff of pusillanimity.

The reality is that, insofar as anything at all has importance, what we believe is true about how our universe works and how we justify our beliefs are also important.  These are actually fundamental.  The Enlightenment was a major positive achievement for humanity exactly because it was about humanity getting a better grip on reality from a commitment to better epistemology and ontology.  Andrew Brown's populist defense of post-modern relativism is lazy, it is bad excuses for bad epistemology and ontology, it is regressive and harmful Counter-Enlightment advocacy. Virginia Heffernan's creationism is not merely mistaken, it is also foolish, there is no good sense to be found there.

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