Thursday, July 26, 2012

Inquiry's Nemesis

A Stance of Deliberate Obliviousness

Quoth Ed Brayton:
"Yes, I am the owner of Freethought Blogs. And I was the one who made the decision to remove Thunderfoot from the network, for reasons I have already explained many times. I did what I did because my primary concern is the health of the FTB community, which was being seriously disrupted by Thunderfoot's presence. It isn't about disagreement; we disagree with each other all the time, as anyone who reads the various blogs can attest. I am perfectly content in accepting the reality that some people are going to believe his side of the story and some are going to believe mine. But the opinions of others are simply not my concern, so there is little point in writing to me to complain about it."

This is one of the most tragic things I have ever read by a self-professed freethinker. The opinions of others may not matter to you, Brayton, but they matter to me because I am interested in exploring ideas. Even unpopular ones. No one ever advanced a subject matter by bobbleheading. There was a time, not so long ago, when atheists were considered "disruptive." I saddens me to hear atheists using the same "arguments" used only too recently to keep atheists silent and under thumb. It seems some, possibly many, have learned nothing. It's a good thing atheists insisted on being heard despite the arrogance of those who weren't interested in other people's opinions.

The Prescriptive and the Descriptive

If you are going to conduct skeptical or scientific inquiry you must learn to distinguish carefully between descriptions of reality and prescriptive ideologies (desired or otherwise). Between what is and what you want to be. In an environment that lauds facts, it is not always an easy thing to realize, much less admit, that your cherished notions are not objective facts, but intellectual integrity and the efficacy of the method demands that you do so. Values are not facts. Those, like the FTB, who want to constrain inquiry within ideological boundaries are the bane of skeptical and scientific inquiry. So, too, are individuals who seek to use skeptical inquiry as a niche market for their ideologies.

It's easy to see why this happens, though. Modern distortions of the definition of "skepticism" have placed ideological claims beyond the scope of skeptical inquiry, with the very goal of classing them immune to skeptical inquiry. So, when I speak of people who seek to use skeptical inquiry as a niche market for their ideologies, I am speaking of people like Shermer and, yes, Watson.

Right now, skeptic and atheist communities are wracked with ideology-based conflict, and the primary functions, benefits, and methods of skepticism and of atheism respectively, indeed of science, are being forgotten about in the sound and fury. The noise rises and the signal fades. Skepticism seems no longer to be about rational distancing from subject matters based on evidence or lack thereof. Instead it is about petty personality conflicts, pushing ideologies, and cliquish mentalities. Atheism was once about questions of whether God exists or not, and the implications thereof. Now it seems to be all about ideological orthodoxy. Conform or be cast out. Secular shunning. Assigning stigma, for lack of anything factual.

I am a humanist - by choice - but I do not ever claim that humanism is, in any sense, true by virtue of being objective fact. That's because, despite that humanism is a cherished notion for me, I understand with crystal clarity that it is not in any sense fact. Humanism is a values consideration. Humanism is not a consequence of skepticism, even if dogmatism is antithetical to humanism (as I claim it is). I am not quite so presumptuous as to claim that my values represent objective facts. Think this paragraph is irrelevant to the discussion? Perhaps it might serve to revisit ideas like skepticism, atheism, and science. If these ideas have anything in common it is that they are unconcerned with what you or I want to be the case.

If we let skeptical or scientific inquiry be dictated by ideological considerations, then we are precisely equivalent to the Bush administration's attempts to introduce faith-based evidence into science, or to the former Soviet Union's attempts to recognize only state-sanctioned "scientific" theory. These all undermine the process and render the results unreliable. Are we interested in error-correction or not?

Mere Rhetoric

It is altogether too easy to vilify those who can remain on-topic as "disruptive" because they don't conform to the current orthodoxy requirements. It's altogether too easy to call into question the "sanity," to engage in amateur psychology, of someone who have the temerity to dare question your cherished notions. Theists have been characterizing atheists as mentally deficient for millennia. It's all too easy to call people names, and awash in the revelrous umbrage of spewing vitriol, forget all about the subject matter.

Never mind that such rhetorical ploys are fallacies of relevance.

Every day, the credulous and the fanatics accuse skepticism and atheism of being "just another ideology." Every day, skeptics and atheists claim those claims are not true. And every day, skeptics and atheists forget about skepticism and atheism in favour of petty ideological squabbles. You can almost hear the peals of laughter from the theists and the credulous.

When did skepticism become about seeing which "prominent figure" you can topple in order to enhance your status, with strong-arming compliance via boycotts? When did atheism become about who gets to dictate the terms of discussion? When did rhetoric replace argument? Remember argument? The point of an argument is not to win. The point of an argument is to learn, to explore, to tease some signal from the noise.

Getting On-Topic

I have been an open. public skeptic (with unlimited scope of inquiry) and an open, public atheist for over thirty years. For over thirty years I have tried to be an example of careful, deliberate reasoning to those around me. For over thirty years I have waited for an environment where free and open inquiry, free of ideological shackles, might arise from the dogmatic noise of petty personal interests or suffocating doctrine. And look what we are seeing instead. "Skeptic" organizations shun people with differing viewpoints. So-called "freethought" groups seek to impose orthodoxy on the discussion. My primary concern is always with the environment where ideas can be exchanged.

Aren't those locked in the quagmire of ideological bickering ashamed they so lack focus that they are distracted from the primary subject matters so incredibly easily?

I am interested in skepticism. I am interested in atheism. I am interested in science. I am interested in free and open inquiry. What are you interested in?