Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Atheism, Skepticism, And The Pursuit Of Abstract Nouns

I was slightly surprised to find out that Amanda Marcotte spoke at Skepticon 3. I admittedly know next to nothing about her personal inclinations, but she's never struck me as a hardcore skeptic (which I presume you have to be to go to such a conference) in the same vein as PZ Myers or Christopher Hitchens, mostly because she occasionally takes positions which seem to me to be at odds with a skeptical mindset. On further thought, however, it looks to me like a lot of the most visible proponent of skepticism, PZ and Hitchens included, do the same thing.

There is, I think, a fundamental tension within the contemporary skeptical community. Amanda writes:

One thing in general I like about skeptic gatherings is just that---people are super laid back and take the claim that this is about open discourse very seriously. Instead of bunching up and freaking out when presented with challenging ideas, they really do go the extra mile to ask questions and think about the idea instead of dismissing it out of hand or seeking reasons to shoot it down without thinking about it. Not that defensiveness never happens---I heard lots of stories from activists dedicated to bringing more attention to the issues of racial diversity, feminism, and LGBT rights, and so I'm not being a Pollyanna about it---but I would say that overall, the tone of discourse compares favorably to other organizing conferences I've been to that are focused more on feminism or liberal politics.

Skeptics, or at least that slice of them represented at the conference, tend to be a progressive bunch. At the same time they're... well... skeptics, which means that they're inclined to seek evidence for their beliefs. This latter tendency wreaks havoc with strains of progressive thought which take, as a given, the independent existence of certain abstract concepts. For example, what is the appropriate skeptical response when when someone says that a particular policy should be supported for reasons of "equality and justice"? Is there sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of either beast?

This isn't an entirely fresh observation on my part; the debate about the existence of moral facts is as old as the hills. But such controversy as exists in that regard stems almost entirely from basic, intergroup disagreements about epistemology. What makes skeptics interesting in this regard is that they are defined, as a group, by a commitment to a particular method of validating knowledge. So, rather than getting bogged down in questions about what it means to "know" something, they have a well-understood set of rules that can be applied to determine the truth of propositions.

What does contemporary skepticism have to say about abstract nouns like "justice" and "equality"? Rather than try to dope that out from first principles I'm going to proceed via analogy, which is where the atheism comes in. The bulk of skeptics have rejected the "god hypothesis" i.e. there's insufficient evidence to support the existence of god therefore proceed as if there's no such entity. It appears to me that, as a general rule, skeptical critiques of the existence of god are equally valid when applied to abstract nouns: "Justice" can't be observed, "equality" can't be measured, and so on. There's simply no evidence that these abstract nouns enjoy an independent existence "out there" somewhere1. I realize that's not a terribly earth-shattering observation, but it does have some practical consequences in the context of a group of people given to questioning assumptions.

I'm going to pick on Amanda a little now, not because I think she's especially guilty, but simply because she provides a timely example. When she says that we should be furthering the cause of gay marriage as a matter of justice and equality2 the appropriate skeptical response is as follows:

  1. How are you defining those terms?
  2. Why are those definitions superior to any others?
  3. What is so special about those definitions that they should be entrenched by force of law?

Those are hard questions to answer coherently, but as a matter of intellectual honesty doing so cannot be avoided. My general take on them is as follows:

  1. Definitions can be (among other things) ends-based or means-based. If, however, you reject the independent existence of abstract concepts then ends-based definitions suddenly become highly suspect. You can define a set of end conditions as "just", but at the same time you must acknowledge that the conditions you have selected are essentially arbitrary since there is no external referent by which they can be judged. A skeptic will prefer means-based definition wherever possible to avoid this complication.
  2. The best you can hope to accomplish here is to demonstrate that your selected definition is in greater agreement with your interrogator's principles than other definitions.
  3. This is actually a variant on question 2. In this case you need to show that your particular definition agrees with the interrogator's conception of legitimate legislation.

As a personal aside I became a libertarian as a byproduct of going through this general exercise for myself. One of the defining factors of libertarian philosophy is that it is concerned only with means, not ends; any end is legitimate provided it is arrived at via legitimate means. Moreover, the core principles/axioms by which legitimacy is established (self-ownership, informed consent, fidelity of contract) are accepted (at least in theory) by a wide swath of the modern world. As such libertarianism strikes me as the philosophy which is most compatible with a skeptical/atheistic mindset. Alternatives to libertarianism, when they have any sort of coherent philosophical basis at all, seem to require metaphysical commitments which I cannot accept.


1 To hold otherwise is essentially to endorse a form of Platonism, which seems inconsistent with the rejection of the god hypothesis.
2 A statement I happen to agree with, but I get there by a much different route than Amanda.

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