The ‘Me-me!’ Meme

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: If we don’t move, it’s because we remain motionless relative to ourselves.

So I’ve been as busy as all hell, the past couple of weeks, what with my pop in the hospital, family visiting, and staying on top of my writing schedule—not to mention trying to keep up with all the activity on the blogosphere.

Vox, it appears, has decided to wage a war of attrition, to keep throwing his cherries until people turn their bowls upside down. I’ve decided to oblige him. But since it stings my vanity knowing the self-aggrandizing way he’ll inevitably spin this, I figured I had better lay out some reasons, as well as discharge an old promise I made regarding the uses of abuses of arguing ad hominem.

Vox literally believes, if you recall, that he really is the winner of the Magical Belief Lottery. You might be inclined, on a occasion, to think that he is simply having one on, but I assure you, when he says things like, “Of course, I am a superintelligence, so the fact that [delevagus] been studying it for years whereas I read Sextus once on an airplane meant that it really wasn’t a fair contest,” he genuinely means it.

At this point, I’m inclined to simply take him as ‘Exhibit A’ of human irrationality. Some, in the jungle that has overrun the comment thread on the previous post, have suggested that I’m ‘running scared’ and the fact is, I am. But from what he represents, not what he ‘argues.’ Vox is what you might call an ‘epistemic bombast’–self-described. He literally believes he has the most powerful three pound brain in the universe. That, in my books, counts as delusional.

One thing I was always big on in my teaching days was what I called the ‘minimum condition of rationality.’ Once you realize that reason is primarily argumentative, as opposed to epistemic, you realize that reason is just as liable to deceive as to reveal. So the question you always need to ask yourself in any debate is whether you are the victim of your own ingenuity. You are more apt to use you intelligence to justify your stupidity post hoc—to rationalize—than otherwise. And that’s a fact Jack.

Thus the crucial importance of epistemic humility. Rational debate is impossible with epistemic bombasts simply because, as more and more research shows, reason is primarily a public relations device, a way to snag other three pound brains, and only secondarily epistemic, a way to snag the world. It is quite literally impossible to convince an epistemic bombast of anything on theoretical subject matters lacking any clear, consensually defined truth conditions.

This is why some cognitive psychologists are now arguing that rationality is quite independent of intelligence.

So what then is the measure of epistemic humility? How can you tell whether you should trust yourself, let alone your interlocutor?

Well some interlocutors, like Vox, make things easy for you. Vox is a self-declared epistemic bombast. As such, given that you accept that science is the best tool we have ever devised for sorting—even if only contingently—fact from fiction, you can write him off as a serious interlocutor.

In other words, you can safely dismiss him on ad hominem grounds.

Other interlocutors are nowhere so easy. One of the things I was hoping to spark with this post is a discussion of the kinds of criteria that could be used to make this determination.

Or how about yourself—or in my case, myself? How can we know whether we’ve lapsed into the epistemic bombast mould, especially knowing that we have a hardwired predilection to do so?

In my case, the fact that I genuinely struggle with this question gives me some hope. As deflationary (minimal) as my position is (at least in terms of exclusive epistemic commitments), I have never in my life consistently believed anything for such a long time. I know the way the brain works, how repeated functions get stamped into its very architecture—and how this architecture is the very frame of reference for what does and does not make sense.

I try to restrict myself to platitudes, like the fact that not all claims are equal, or the fact that science is easily the most transformative claim-making institution in human history. Like the social constructivists, Vox seems to think that commitment to a philosophical theory of ‘What Science Is’ warrants suspending commitment to What Science Does (provide us with facts about nature). For my part, I have no definitive idea What Science Is, but I am deeply impressed by what it makes possible—like for instance, the semiconductor technology that allows you to read this at all.

Now the retreat to platitudes is not without its perils, simply because these could be wrong as well. I’ve probably been accused of being ‘dogmatic about science’ as much as anything else over the years. But for the life of me, I can’t think of any theoretical claim-making institution with a track record even remotely resembling that of science. It really seems to be the case that nothing compares.

Given science, you actually have a very powerful standard for sorting interlocutors according to rationality. As soon as your interlocutor starts telling you What Science Is, you should smell a cognitive rat. Why? Because odds are they have some set of philosophical or religious claims that are incompatible with scientific fact. In other words, they find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to discredit the most powerful claim-making institution in human history to make their own claims stick.

The argument tends to take a similar form:

Armchair claim (1): Science is A.

Armchair claim (2): A is a social construct, philosophically derivative, or epistemically overblown, etc.

Therefore, armchair conclusion (3): Scientific claims (or a particular set of them) should not be believed.

In other words, even though scientific claims have transformed the world, even though they seem to possess every theoretical virtue we know of (short of flattering our parochial preconceptions), we should suspend our commitment to them on the basis of a prior commitment to one out of hundreds of armchair claims regarding What Science Is—which, by some happy coincidence, happens to flatter this or that parochial preconception.

Pardon me for suggesting this is just more self-serving bullshit. Rationalization. Like I’ve said many times before, it seems awfully like convicting Mother Theresa on Ted Bundy’s testimony.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be critical of science. My own worry is that it is too powerful of an institutional tool for a species as vain and blinkered as ourselves. And there’s no shortage of bad science, simply because scientists belong to the same vain and blinkered species. Nevertheless, when it comes to the provision of reliable, comprehensive, actionable information regarding nature, it is literally the only game in town. When an interlocutor thinks their wank trumps scientific fact, there’s a good chance you’re locking horns with an epistemic bombast.

In other words, epistemic humility entails demuring to scientific fact, especially when you find it inconvenient.

Where science doesn’t have anything to say, I try to avoid exclusive epistemic commitments as much as I can, and always try to remind myself to entertain theoretical positions, not believe them. I’m skeptical of governments to the degree I’m skeptical of centralized answers to supercomplicated social problems. I’m skeptical of markets to the degree I am skeptical of power. I see political and economic matters as an interminable high-wire act, an attempt to sum the interests of disparate and often antagonistic constituencies. Some guesses have to be made, of course. Policy is unavoidable: but it has to be experimental. We need the humility to 1) recognize our inevitable mistakes; and 2) let people, as much as possible, chart their own social and moral course.

Likewise, I take it to be a platitude that Christianity is one out of thousands of religions claiming supernatural authority. I also think it’s a platitude that each of those religions has adherents, like Vox, claiming ‘indisputable evidence’ that always turns out to be quite disputable indeed.

And on a number of issues, like consciousness, I find myself mired in what Roger would call, ‘epistemic akrasia,’ the state of having been ‘rationally forced’ to reach conclusions that I simply cannot bring myself to believe. Meaning skepticism is the big one.

Of course, for people who reject my platitudes, I have to be the bombastic one. Each of us is cursed with being our own frame of reference, with having only the yardsticks and information we happen to have. Perhaps you think science is no great shakes, or that your armchair theories, unlike those entertained by billions of others, actually happen to be right. Perhaps you really have won the Magical Belief Lottery–ruly truly.

Or perhaps not. I’m sure that you’ll forgive me for thinking you’re at least as full of shit as I fear that I am.