Idiot Savant? Moi?

It can be quite interesting, in an unnerving sort of way, seeing people blogging about Oneself. I’ve been seeing quite a lot of that lately, partly because of the religion and hijab discussions, both of which get people agitated. I’m certainly not going to comment on all of them – I’m not that much of an egomaniac (oh yes you are, oh no I’m not, are, amn’t) – but once in awhile one will suggest an interesting thought or line of inquiry. There is this one for example.

“Some people come into the world as idiot savants, having no choice but to concentrate all their energies on the study of their one small corner of the universe. The results can be interesting, beautiful or even profound, but that’s not a defense of small mindedness, is it?” I cut that paragraph out of last night’s post and moved it up to the front. I think I should have a little more fun with it, since it applies not only to the limitations of Ophelia Benson’s ideology (and the limits of her intellectual curiosity) but also in a more general way to a whole array of recent events and debates…The argument behind liberal economics is that it is predicated on a form of neutrality, predicated itself on an assumption, that of the drive for maximalization. Ophelia Benson assumes that rationalists and religionists want the same thing. Brad Delong assumes, for the purposes of his economic theorizing, that all people want the same thing.

I take it (and I could be wrong) that this guy is criticizing instrumental rationality, and that he takes me to be an instrumental rationalist. I find that interesting not only because it’s about Me (oh come on that’s why, no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not, is, isn’t) but because it’s probably relevant to why rationality and reason have a bad name at the moment. It’s the Voltaire’s Bastards idea, that conflates rationality of all kinds with instrumental rationality. So questions such as ‘Why should we believe X if there is no evidence for X?’ (a question I have been asking a lot lately) are viewed as peculiarly narrow and limited, and the same kind of thing (or perhaps even exactly the same thing) as instrumental rationality. So if one raises such questions, and then declines to be fobbed off with replies to the effect that science can’t answer all questions and there is more in heaven and earth than etc. therefore we should believe what our inner experience tells us however incommunicable it may be – then one is a small-minded idiot savant with limited intellectual curiosity.

Of course I don’t in the least assume that rationalists and religionists want the same thing. Quite the contrary in fact, and that’s part of what I’ve been saying. Religionists want consolation, or meaning, or reassurance, or a feeling of security, or all those. Rationalists want their ideas about the world to match the reality of the world as closely as may be. I see those two things as being strongly opposed; in short, not the same thing.

Maybe an item a little farther down the page helps to explain the confusion.

“[I]t is never a good idea to allow one’s political, ideological and moral commitments to infect the judgments that one makes about truth-claims which have nothing to do with such considerations.” I have little interest in arguments except those that involve one’s political, ideological and moral commitments, and not only for political, ideological and moral reasons.

That’s a quotation from our About, as you’ll probably recognize. Apparently our blogger has found me irritating enough (on the God thread at Twisty Sticks, I think it is) to explore B&W a little. But he hasn’t understood the passage very well. I should be sympathetic, really, because it took me awhile too. I got confused in much the same way. It’s my colleague’s work, About is, and when he first wrote it, when B&W was under construction, when in fact there was no B&W except a banner at the top of an empty page – when he first wrote it, we discussed it, and I wasted a good deal of time arguing about that very line, for the same sort of reason. I didn’t want to disavow all political, ideological and moral commitments. Nor did I have to, he kept patiently explaining, until after a few hours I finally grasped it. The point is about the truth claims. Judgments about truth claims are different from judgments about politics and morality, and things do go wrong when we get them muddled. We can all, I imagine, think of examples in about a quarter of a second – especially if we’ve been reading B&W, which spends all its time pointing them out. We want it to be true that there are, or are not, WMD in Iraq, so we have to be very very careful, when considering the evidence, not to let that want influence the way we look at that evidence. Substitute anything you like for the phrase ‘WMD in Iraq’ and the thought is the same.

So we’re not in the least saying that moral or political arguments are less interesting than other kinds. We’re saying that it’s not a good idea to let our commitments infect our judgments of truth-claims. If that’s a small-minded, idiot savant, limited, intellectually incurious view – so be it. But guess what – I don’t think it is. I think improving one’s chances of getting at the truth of the matter is actually enlarging rather than narrowing. But then I would, wouldn’t I.

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