The Struggle Continues

A little more on the question of skepticism and complacency and how and whether it is possible to have one without the other. What I think is that it could well (of course) be that we are all complacent around here, but that JS’s account of his special powers experience and our reception of it doesn’t really show that. I don’t think it can show that, in the nature of the case. Something else might show that, but I don’t think this particular offering does. I think the reason it can’t is the one I’ve already indicated, as have others: there are too many perfectly legitimate reasons to be skeptical of it and too few legitimate reasons to be credulous about it for it to count as a symptom of complacency that we made some skeptical points. One of the biggest objections, as both Ian and Nicholas pointed out in comments, is to the reliance on the sense of conviction beforehand, combined with getting the answer right. It seems to me so obvious and so likely that getting the answer right would instantly work retroactively to intensify the sense of conviction beforehand, that I think it would be far more complacent to ignore that possibility than it is to take it into account. In short, I don’t see why it is more complacent of us to question that than it is of JS to rely on it. He has a witness, of course, as he points out, but the witness can’t be a witness to the intensity of his conviction beforehand. The intensity of conviction and the witness are thus two completely separate items of corroboration or attempted corroboration, and the one can’t strengthen the other. I think JS has been using them, perhaps implicitly, to corroborate each other, but they can’t.

So I don’t see where the complacency comes in, and I’m curious about it. But it’s occurred to me that JS may be doing a sort of test run, or perhaps more like a training run. It has to do with what he said in the HERO interview

I’m not comfortable with consensus, so I think if it turned out that the kinds of views that B&W advocates became mainstream and taken-for-granted, then I’d have to adopt alternative positions. This isn’t just bloody-minded contrarianism; I think there is value in dialectical engagement. It inoculates against the possibility of a smug complacency over our truth-claims.

It may be that he’s treating B&W as a place in the world where in fact the kinds of views it advocates have become mainstream and taken-for-granted, with the result that he has had to adopt alternative positions – ‘adopt’, remember, in the sense of argue for, or perform, or make a case for, as opposed to actually believing in. So – the whole exercise may have been an exercise in adopting alternative positions in order to inoculate us against smug complacency over our truth-claims. The trouble is, I think it would have done the job a lot better if he’d had a more convincing case; if he’d had a case where we would have had fewer objections to make. I still take the point that his account could be exactly right, and that something rare and difficult to research did happen, and that it is a bad thing if naturalistic methods can’t find that sort of thing out; but I also still don’t see what the alternative is, if we’re not simply to start believing anything and everything.

Carl Sagan has an apposite comment in ‘The Burden of Skepticism’:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Those two modes of thought are, I would say, not just in some tension, but in a great deal of tension. So – la lutte continue. The simultaneous, tense struggle against both complacency and credulity. Aux armes, citoyens!

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