Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mary Midgley says you can't rock someone's world. Everyone and their grandma disagrees.

PZ calls her a twit, and another hip & cool professor (name of ArithmoQuine) tries a more charitable interpretation.

PZ's right, but ArithmoQuine is being more helpful to the dialogue. Midgley is being a twit, saying that we ought not to turn the world-views of others upside-down and shake them for loose change. From her first sentence, "Science really isn't connected to the rest of life half as straightforwardly as one might wish", you can tell that she's arguing from human foolishness - just because people don't unfailingly connect science to their everyday lives doesn't mean that the connection isn't there. And yeah, sure, there's no One True sure-fire method for changing someone's mind on this or that topic (unless we count brainwashing, can we please count brainwashing?), but people change their own minds all the time and the words of other people often have something to do with it. Fuckin' duh. You'd think that a fellow philosopher, of all people, would have a clue about that. I mean, our favorite activity is sitting around in the lotus position trying to find ways to blow our own minds, and our second-favorite activity is sharing these techniques with others so we can watch them try it out.

ArithmoQuine takes a more effective tack and tries to grant Midgley the strongest case he can piece together from her writing. This is called the principle of charity, and it's how you avoid straw-manning the opposition: you help your opponent into the very best suit of armor the two of you can agree upon, and then proceed to show that not even this can withstand your A-bomb. (The A is for Argument.) And really, all Midgley can possibly be saying is that if you take on the underpinning of someone's whole damn world-view, then you're going to run into cognitive dissonance. Which is true. Who gives a shit?

Well, of course, we all give a shit. I mean, cognitive dissonance - well, our drive to resolve cognitive dissonance, more precisely - is what makes the rational world go 'round. And the irrational world. Rational folk, upon noting such dissonance, will reconcile the mis-match between their imperfect minds and obstinate reality by changing their minds to be more in-line with the observed facts. For clarity, I don't mean that this is how "people I'd call rational" consistently behave, I mean that when you do this, you are behaving as a rational person. The alternative, of course, is to try to force the world to fit your idea of how it ought to be when it's clearly not. This can often take the form of kicking the shit out of whoever's existence is causing you angst in order to preserve your idea of moral order in the world.

This is the kind of bullshit we're up against, and I don't just mean atheists: I mean people who accept reality and try to work within its confines. See, dropping your preconceptions about how you first happened to believe the world ought to be, and then accepting implacable reality for what it is, can help produce a kind of serenity that will allow you to become a peaceful, permissive, moral, fun-loving Dane. Siding with your preconceptions in opposition to implacable reality will cause you to brainwash your family and other miscellaneous fuckwits into becoming a national disgrace. Of course, these are the extreme ends of the spectrum and your mileage will vary: Denmark is towards the Very Good end, and Fred Phelps is towards the Fucking Horrible end, and most people pile up to form that smooth bell shape in the middle.

But this spectrum is a moving one, more of a travelling wave as we become ever more civilized over time. Those fuckers on the hump are better than the Phelpses of the world, but they sure provide a lot of dead weight for the Danes to haul along as they (i.e. the majority) passively reinforce the status quo by comprising it. This is where Midgley really screws the pooch: she claims in her closing that we need to try to improve existing world-views and take them on as wholes (good so far), with the implication that trying to actually change anything is a fool's errand. The comparisons to other changes in the status quo are numerous, easy, and left to the reader; ours is a campaign of memocide, and if ideas were people, then we'd be rotten to the core for even considering it. But they're not, so we can keep on truckin'.

Midgley is right, however, that plucking a few hairs from the beast won't kill it. The memes we're up against are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, and they're deeply entwined with other memes we don't like, such as patriarchy and tribalism, and the whole rotten thicket is itself a perfectly natural outgrowth of our very own psychological flaws, so excising this cultural tumor is going to be a task and a half. I said a-good-God-damn.

Midgley does make one profoundly stupid error, though, and I haven't seen anyone call her out on it yet, so I'm gonna. See, Midgley says,
Belief in God is not an isolated factual opinion, like belief in the Loch Ness monster – not, as Richard Dawkins suggests, just one more "scientific hypothesis like any other". It is a world-view, an all-enclosing vision of the kind of world that we inhabit. We all have these visions.
I call equivocation! See, the phrase "belief in God" could be understood either as the genuine world-view of theism, or as the "isolated factual opinion" of a particular person's particular belief in a particular deity (it might not be a clear idea, but it is a particular one). By not clarifying this ambiguity and then immediately trading on it, Midgley has committed textbook equivocation and should brush up on her basic logic. Sure, theism isn't an isolated factual opinion, but believing in this or that god sure the Hell is!

I want to note that believing in the Loch Ness monster requires belief in Loch Ness, and in general requires some sort of world-view. We all have them, as Midgley correctly points out, and there's no "escaping" from them. You can't just "step out" from your world-view without "stepping into" another one, since world-views are the very framework within which we evaluate our experiences. Formally, this is known as the Duhem-Quine thesis, and it says that no single hypothesis can be tested in isolation because every testable hypothesis rests on background assumptions. So naturally, every belief in particular gods is going to go along with some sort of world-view in the actual minds of actual people in the actual world. Those world-views are, by virtue of accommodating one or more gods, categorically theistic. Successfully excising particular god beliefs from a theistic world-view will require one of two things:
1) A different god must be placed in the god-spot, or
2) The world-view itself must be exchanged for a new model without a god-spot.
Since the god-spot holds up huge chunks of the cognitive tapestry for many, of course most theists will shuffle gods in and out of their god-spots, taking great pains to ensure that any god in which they can no longer bear to maintain belief is taken out of the rotation. This helps them avoid the trouble of opting for number two, which is shit. But shit is natural and if you try to avoid it then you'll end up full of it, and I suddenly don't feel like pursuing this metaphor any further.

Point is, it will eventually be cognitively easier to opt for #2 than to continue avoiding it, but there's no telling when for a particular person, and individuals vary wildly in this respect. Son of a bitch, you mean this is going to be hard? Oi, if I'd known that, I never would'a signed up!

Just kidding. All Midgley has done with the best possible version of her point is to clearly outline the problem before us with two scoops of pessimism. What does she want, a pat on the head and a warm glass of milk?

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