Miscellany: On “The Danger of Fact-ist Politics” and other topics

On “The Danger of Fact-ist Politics”:

You observed that many public are treating beliefs as evidence and conflating certainty with truth. Naturally, I share your exasperation with this sort of posturing and ostentatious displays of conviction that is misplaced at best and likely often altogether feigned. Moreover, I couldn’t agree more with your identification of the situation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccination program as a quintessential example of this phenomenon, which I find extremely unsettling. At the same time, I think the situation is even worse than you have indicated. Not only are people inclined and even incentivized to affirm falsehoods and “alternative facts,” but even actual facts can be weaponized to coerce people away from the truth rather than to lead them towards it. As Shakespeare so eloquently phrased it in Merchant of Venice, “the Devil can cite Scripture for his purposes.” In the first place, “science” can be made to “prove” almost anything simply by “gerrymandering” hypotheses and data collection and exercising “discretion” over which studies one chooses to publish, to publicize, and even to perform in the first place. Since there is no standard to which scientific fact appeals outside of science itself—specifically, outside of professed fidelity to the method by which the scientific facts in question were achieved—factmakers wield an almost religious power. I’m not certain why I stop short; the power is certainly no less than any bishop or Brahmin has ever enjoyed. I have brought up a similar issue in respect to so-called “fact-checkers”: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? “Who guards the guards themselves?” Perhaps the ones in question are good people, but they are confronted by so many perverse incentives (i.e. incentives to order their inquiries towards something other than the truth) that they would have to be veritable saints to withstand these temptations and thereby deserve the credence we place in them. I will not speak ill of the character of scientists but, as a generalization, they are engaged with questions other than the ones of the soul and spirit. In fact, many of them have made careers out of trying to disprove the existence of these things. In any case, I don’t think the odds are especially great that our factmakers will also happen to be saints and the shame is on us for tacitly expecting them to be. 

A fortiori, since these difficulties inherent in scientific methods and institutions have been demonstrated repeatedly (e.g. “the reproducibility crisis,” the revolution of scientific paradigms, the falsification of theories, etc.), it might be expected that we should have developed a more sophisticated relationship with scientific findings. But evidently that has not been the case. There are likely a number of reasons for this but bears emphasis in particular: it suits politicians to be able to appeal to experts so the former can advance policies without arguing for them and without being held accountable for them. 

Another element of this issue is that our faith in facts, albeit arguably misplaced, is still affirmed with such tenacity that we will naturally be inclined to regard anyone who disagrees with us as not only a political opponent, but as a “science denier.” Displacing argumentation to factual analysis is the same thing as displacing it altogether. Instead of engaging with my opponent’s argument, I will be inclined to diagnose him as a “conspiracy theorist,” or an idiot. That is a typical example of informal fallacy: namely, an ad hominem appeal. It doesn’t matter so much what it is called as that it signals the end of productive dialogue and, by the same token, the end of democracy. Ergo, the author’s play on words in the title of this article. Cryptically, I might remark in closing that people wouldn’t know the Devil was about even if he had them by the coattails. 

***

While I understand your disdain for the “enlightened centrist,” I am left a little bit surprised by some of your statements. You will forgive me if I ask whether you think it is hypocritical to at once affirm that your certainty is correctly placed while that of someone who sees things differently than you is not. Couldn’t the same biases that mislead the other person into his incorrect views (which, keep in mind, he doesn’t believe to be incorrect) also risk doing the same thing to you? How do you propose to address this? Moreover, the scientific method itself brackets out any moral or ethical elements of a given scenario for the sake of objectivity. For this reason, debates around positive policy, even if they draw on scientific data for support, can never be decided scientifically for the same reason that you cannot hammer nails with a hacksaw. 

***

Among many other challenges that the article raises for me is the question of authority. The author conveys the speciousness of the notion that each person could be charged with personally researching every issue and serving as his or her own arbiter of truth. I imagine this has been the case for most of recorded history but it has certainly reached a pitch in the complexity of the modern world. For this reason, people have always deferred their judgement to authorities on many significant matters. Whether these authorities be clergy or royals or elders or “experts,” people have been able to delegate their sense-making to others whom they feel uniquely qualified to judge such questions. Today, our authorities seem to have overplayed their hand and it is very difficult to take seriously many of the things they say. You mentioned MLK and it reminds me of the dilemma that confronted Martin Luther (MLK’s father, Michael King, changed his name and that of his son by appending the surname “Luther,” so impressed was he by the stand that Luther took in initiating the Reformation) in respect to the clergy of the Catholic Church, which he felt had also betrayed the spirit of their office. Luther’s eventual advocacy of the sola scriptura doctrine had the effect of rejecting the authority of the Church and the Church Fathers’ interpretation of Scripture and placing the yoke of interpretation squarely on the individual. There are advantages and drawbacks to this but to expand on them further would take this response too far afield from the issue at stake. Instead, I will just note that there seems to be a clear parallel between our time and the early sixteenth century (Luther published his theses in 1517 on the Eve of All Hallows’ Day, otherwise known as “Hallow-e’en”) in respect to the decadence of our institutional authorities. For Luther, it was the Church; for us, it is the institutions of science and politics, which have become bedfellows amongst each other and with corporate interests, to the corruption of all three of them. 

In respect to “fact-ism”: we are dealing with many issues whose complexity forecloses any possibility of certainty to begin with. Lack of scientific or epistemological certainty alone would not constitute the source for the kind of conflicts we are seeing, however. People could merely content themselves with ambiguity. I think, rather, that the conflict follows from (1) the fact of this uncertainty coupled with (2) the practice that various groups employ of signaling certainty for the sake of weaponizing it against their opponents. This is the real “fly in the ointment” and catalyst for the disintegration we are presently experiencing. These groups affect this factitious certainty under the pretense of advancing the interests of “fact-based policy” or “settled science.” This allows a given interest group to cast anyone who does not share their opinions not only as political opponents, but as irredeemable morons—as enemies of the truth—and to label them with such epithets as “conspiracy theorists” or “science deniers” etc. I appreciate our discussions because nobody expects to win an argument by calling his or her opponent a “science denier” or a “racist,” for that matter. 


On the virtue of theology:

I take it that theology is something we are to LOOK through for the sake of SEEING something higher; almost like a lens that concentrates our sight and draws it to a focus. It can also be seen as a form of “conditioning” so that our capacity for vision can grow. In that sense, theology is a means to the summum bonum, which is never to be confused with the Good itself, which is God.


On the transcendent logic of the Trinity: 

St. Aquinas famously argued that reason alone could apprehend some truths, like the existence of God, but that revelation was required for the apprehension of others. He classed the trinitarian nature of God in this second category. That being said, philosophers since Plato have always had recourse to analogical reasoning in order to endow the soul with wings and thereby carry it beyond its natural confines. I appreciated the geometric analogy you employed to illustrate the manner in which something that appears impossible in one frame of reference can be self-evident in another. A two-dimensional being will be limited by a solid line, but a three-dimensional being can merely pass above or below it. I wonder if it is possible to develop the analogy further by thinking about the well-known Necker-cube image. Notice that it represents, at the same time, a set of two two-dimensional interlocking squares, a concave three-dimensional cube, and a convex three-dimensional cube. We could intensify the representation by noting that it is also both existent and non-existent from the standpoint of eternity and that it is either existent or non-existent from any given standpoint in time. I wonder if you have more to add on this.

Another element to consider is that the ordinary logic of substance does not expressly accommodate the logic of relation. For instance, my own father is also a son and also a brother and also a(n ex-)husband, as well as a thousand other things without the one identity contradicting the other one. Thus the law of non-contradiction, despite its necessity in making sense of substances, is not helpful in grasping the nature of relations. This can help us to comprehend how God could be both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost without any contradiction. 

I have also thought of the Trinity by analogy with speech, and indeed God is the Word (Logos) in a certain aspect or person (i.e. 2nd), as John the Evangelist testifies. In the same way that, in a single speech act, (1) a speaker, (2) a word or meaning, and (3) a breath or sound can be identified as distinct though unified elements, so in God can be distinguished three persons that are represented by the elements that I identified in the speech act.


On abstract thought and animal welfare:

I have encouraged us to think of critical thinking not only as thinking precisely, but also as thinking comprehensively or “ecologically” so that we attempt to understand the context of things. This is a perfect instance of abstract and uncritical thought in which people conceptualize a given beauty product, for instance, as something independent from the animals who were forced to suffer for the sake of its development. The greater our philosophical attainment, the more capable we will be to grasp the “syngeneity” of all things, as Plato might say, or “the universe in a grain of sand/And eternity in a wildflower,” to quote William Blake.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. thinking comprehensively or “ecologically”

    All right. “Ecologically” does hold such a connotation for some, but not all, of us. Okay?

    Personally, I find that “cosmological” thought resonates even more strongly with me, personally, than so-called “ecological” thought, and most certainly not in the conventional sense of the words as the “Cosmos” does, in fact, encompass “Ecos” and vice versa.

    Too many people are way too anxious to define the word “cosmo-ecological” (among other words) for us to go into this in any further detail, at the moment. But I must say, that I’ve had more than enough of the “eco-spirtuality” schtick to last me a lifetime. Eco- without Cosmo- is as ineffective as Cosmo- without Eco-, if you get my drift. One is feminine, one might say. The other is masculine, one might say. But while the “Eco-” has been suppressed for quite a while, that doesn’t make the “Cosmo-” obsolete.

    If we’re all “both/and” “logic” as opposed to “either/or” “logic” all of the sudden, I should think it would be as plain as the noses on our faces that one can’t be without the other.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Fair enough. Between you and me, I wrote “ecological” but I meant both. I think “logos” is the middle term.

      Liked by 2 people

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