Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Path Dependent Charity

Brief thoughts sparked by recent events in academia and this succinctly insightful tweet from Peli Grietzer.

One thing that I notice is that in the conversation around the Sokal Squared hoax a lot of people treated tendencies or viewpoints as absurd that seemed to me quite reasonable. I have encountered the claim that we ought be relativists about standards of scientific inference or truth itself, that the purported laws of classical logic are up for revision and that, if this is done, it might have far reaching consequences for our fundamental beliefs. That scientific inquiry is value laden and this affects its role in public life, and that pluralism in science is therefore important. Read people embracing a kind of multi-culturalist decolonial approach, with radical views on truth, discoursing on inter-cultural relations. I don't agree with all of the linked, but all of them strike me as making points worthy of serious consideration and, if they are wrong, worthy of actual rebuttal. And - and here is what the post is really about - the ideas struck me as so obviously defensible on grounds that are about as cogent as is typical in decent philosophy (somewhat faint praise noted!) that it was hard for me to see what the fuss is about. Sure, maybe this or that essay didn't do a great job of things, but so what? Not every explication of an idea is the best version thereof.

In reflecting on this, I really just mean to put out a rather obvious thought (which is perhaps only new to me) and which, I think, might explain some failures to communicate. As we try and survive The Discourse we encounter all sorts of wild opinions. Some of them seem to us so absurd as to not seriously be worth pursuing. We all have limited time and attention, some things really do need to be set aside. Others seem like they are perhaps imperfectly stated but contain some idea worth considering. As a casual perusal of academic twitter will soon tell you, people often disagree on which of these two categories an idea falls into. If you think an idea, argument, or theory, falls into the So Absurd As To Be Dismissable category then if I persist in wanting to talk it out I can seem obtuse or foolish or like I must be trying to distract. Whereas if you think an idea has only been badly expressed but has some real merit then if I dismiss it then I can seem arrogant or dogmatic or small minded or like I should prefer to avoid difficult challenges.

What has recently struck me is how much this is a dispute about potential, or something in any case a little bit counter-factual rather than quite there immediately in the idea under discussion. When one has a dispute of this sort one is really arguing about what could be done with an idea, should we invest some effort - and on that basis trying to decide whether to invest the effort. What is the epistemology of such claims? How does one decide the potential of an as yet un-had dialogue?

I suspect that, right or wrong, in any case this is what people usually do: they try and think about whether they have seen anything plausibly defended that is sufficiently similar in its premises and conclusion to the matter under discussion. If they have, then they conclude the present instance just needs some work and may contain insight. If they have not, then they conclude that this is just crankery and not worth the effort. If I am right this is a sort of small-c-conservative bias in our reasoning, though it might be a pretty good heuristic when one is pressed for time.

I also think this is what leads to many failures of communication about the kind of ideas discussed in the Sokal Squared hoax. While I agree that there is a lot of bad work out there and I don't think this is the only thing at stake, I think that when I apply this heuristic to even the mediocre or bad work (that is meant to be Very Bad social constructivism) it often comes out looking on the right side of the line. This is just a poor exposition of a basically interesting thought - certainly not intrinsically anti-intellectual or anti-science or incapable of clear expression or anything like that. But of course I have had a very particular educational path through the sciencey and formaly bits of philosophy, which others may not have. So I think without such exemplars to come to mind, the bad or mediocre work looks like the best it gets, and the ideas seem damnable.

(In fact actual discourse is in a worse state than this, since I think the conditions of the culture war and the interest of certain right wing provocateurs prevents people being able to see these similarities. But its my blog and I shall construct the discourse I want to see in the world!)

Our experience tells us which views are really on the table.

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