No Exit

I’ve been thinking about consensus and complacency. I know of people who think that B&W has too much in the way of consensus and thereby risks smug complacency. That’s true enough, but I don’t quite know what can be done about it, or even if anything should be done about it (that’s what I’ve been thinking about). It seems to me that as soon as I try to figure out what (if anything) can be done about it, I immediately get into a regress, which engenders feelings of deep hopelessness and futility (along with hunger). It may be that from a moral point of view, feelings of hopelessness and futility (and hunger) are preferable to smug complacency; but from other points of view, I’m not sure they are.

Here’s why I get into the regress. It seems to me that B&W’s* only really basic commitment – and thus all it can really risk being complacent about – is to rational inquiry. To rational inquiry of whatever kind; to using whatever tools and methods are needed to investigate whatever particular question needs investigating – including whether or not B&W is smug and complacent, and whether consensus on the need for and value of rational inquiry necessarily leads to smug complacency. And right there, two seconds into the inquiry, we smack into the regress, and I don’t see how we can get out of it. How can we tell whether or not B&W is smugly complacent except by trying to find out? By trying to find out by inquiry? But if we do that we’re just displaying the consensus again, smugly and complacently. But what else can we do? What is there other than rational inquiry? Faith? Revelation? Authority? Intuition? Blind commitment? Hunch? Insight? Mystical experience? But those simply don’t seem the right (the most reliable, the most testable, the most likely to be accurate) way to find out the truth of the matter. No doubt it’s smug and complacent of me to say and to think that – I can see that in a way it is by definition – but I still don’t see any good alternative. To rely on faith or revelation would be credulous and reckless and fundamentally incompetent, in the sense of using the wrong tools for a particular job.

So I seem to be stuck. It seems to me that B&W is not (necessarily) smug and complacent, because the basic idea it is committed to is, to the best of its (my) knowledge, the only one that’s a valid option – so it’s a forced choice – so not really a source of smugness. We don’t really feel smug when we pick up a garlic press instead of a chainsaw when we have some garlic to squash. Not unless we’re terribly hard up for reasons to feel smug (in which case no one should begrudge us, because really, how sad, don’t you think?).

It’s as if someone said, ‘what colour is that shirt?’ You have two choices – you can guess, or you can look. You think you’re more likely to give an accurate answer if you look. Is it smug and complacent to think that?

The other issue is that in a world where lots of people guess, and not only guess but make a virtue of guessing, and chastise people who look instead of guessing – the result may well be that the people who look will feel superior to the guessers (and, as a matter of fact, the guessers will feel superior to the lookers). If that is the sense of smug and complacent that is meant, it’s true enough: no doubt that is a risk. But how can it be helped? What is to be done? Should we start arguing in favour of guessing in order to avoid feeling superior to guessers? (What of the risk then of feeling superior to lookers? Should we just alternate every few minutes? But then wouldn’t we get dizzy and start dropping things?) But is that a good reason to do that? If we think rational inquiry really is the best way to find out things (and we think finding out things is worth doing) then is it sensible to do the opposite simply to prevent ourselves from (possibly) feeling superior? Isn’t that doing a large bad in order to prevent a comparatively trivial bad?

And the logic of doing things we don’t actually believe in in order to avoid smugness is tricky – because anything can prompt such feelings – so at that rate we should never do anything. Never learn anything, acquire any skill, form any opinion – we should be so humble and self-abnegating that we don’t exist at all. Which seems safe, but a bit pointless.

*I keep saying B&W, which is a bit absurd, because B&W c’est moi, there isn’t anyone else here – so why don’t I just say ‘I’? It seems coy to say B&W if I mean me. But I don’t really mean me, I mean B&W, so that’s what I say. B&W seems like something bigger than mere me – which it is, actually, because a lot of other people write for it, and I assume they do that because of the nature of B&W, which is created partly by those very people who write for it, in a continuing expansive process. Okay that’s why I say B&W. Though it’s also because it was two people when it was founded, so I formed the habit of thinking of it and referring to it that way; it’s taken me a long time to break the habit of using the plural first-person pronoun.

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