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  1. Tori
    Tori August 16, 2011 at 11:36 pm |

    Kristen J:
    WOOOHOOOO!!!!I got the excerpty thingy to work.Go me!

    I for one am impressed.

  2. cay
    cay August 16, 2011 at 11:46 pm |

    I assume that you’ve read Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”?

  3. Jadey
    Jadey August 16, 2011 at 11:47 pm |

    I always knew there was a reason we liked each other. :D

    My personal metaphor (as an existentialist, skeptical person) has always been the idea of a feather or a leaf skating across the surface tension of a puddle or pond. I try to have defined boundaries and internal structure so that I do not lose myself or get overwhelmed and drowned by the enormity of it all, but to nonetheless be flexible and not fixed in a single location. In practice, I don’t always achieve this ideal, but it’s what I try to focus on to help me get into that poised but not rigid mental space.

    I try to use this with every aspect of my life, but especially with the complexities of social activism. The birth of my social justice interests was in the destruction of my existing paradigms and my continuing growth is occurring in the same manner, and that’s a scary and complicated process. There’s so many new and conflicting ideas going on all the time – I need to be able to accept new ideas without completely losing my way, and sometimes juggle multiple conflicting perspectives at the same time before making judgements about relative “rightness” of them (if ever making those judgements at all). Not just tolerating, but embracing uncertainty has been my central goal. This also ties into my growing belief that our final goal of social activism is unknowable, and perhaps even non-existent, a view that other people seemed to share on the other thread.

    None of this means accepting everything as the complete and total Truth (in fact, I accept nothing as a final, universal Truth), or going to the extremes of “the world is just a giant’s dream and nothing is real at all!”, and giving up on action and beliefs entirely. It’s more like an athlete’s ready posture – poised, relaxed, prepared and aware both internally and externally, and ready to move in whatever direction the ball comes from. It keeps me from automatically imposing my own view on other people’s and failing to recognize the limits of my own understanding.

    In other words, I completely agree.

  4. Jadey
    Jadey August 17, 2011 at 12:27 am |

    Kristen J:
    @ Jadey,

    It is sometimes hard to accept contradiction in particular.For me, holding on to the belief that a perspective is truth in that moment for that person is key.Have you read bits by the Pyrrhonic skeptics?They have this almost spiritual notion of skepticism.I don’t agree fully with their perspective, but I enjoy reading how they become at peace with uncertainty.

    I think accepting contradiction has come a bit more easily to me because I am such a contrary, contradictory person anyway. I like to think it comes from having my sun sign in Cancer and my ascendent sign in Capricorn… :D

    I have not read the Pyrrhonics, but I’ll check them out.

  5. LC
    LC August 17, 2011 at 1:02 am |

    I’d describe my view closer to Jadey’s in how I express it, but I’m more or less on board with this.

  6. Bob Crispen
    Bob Crispen August 17, 2011 at 1:06 am |

    Don’t forget that the real world is also a player. Any claimant to “higher” knowledge that doesn’t fully include the operational kind of knowledge and certainty that keep us from stepping out in front of buses is unlikely to be really higher. Operational certainty is the kind of certainty that constantly tests itself in the real world.

  7. Shoshie
    Shoshie August 17, 2011 at 1:12 am |

    ::applause::

    Yeah, I completely agree. I think the idea of questioning Certainty as being so completely central to social justice, and…gah…I’m getting over a virus and I totally have no words. But yes. Everything you said. Especially the second paragraph. Especially the bits about allowing contradictory viewpoints to be true.

    Also, Jadey, I really like your metaphor for that tension. It definitely spoke to me, so thank you.

  8. Ruthi
    Ruthi August 17, 2011 at 1:13 am |

    I am generally down with your argument, although I think the comments so far are clearly better read than me. However I take issue with this:

    I don’t think you can know things. I mean know them, know them. Not feel them, not experience them…but KNOW them. We (humans) cannot (probably) be absolutely certain of anything.

    As a mathematician, I would argue that we *know* mathematical theorems are true (in particular, most theorems implicitly are really claiming not “Statement X is true” but “Statement X is true, assuming ZFC”). This is distinct from the natural sciences because there is nothing based on empirical evidence, nor any assumption about the outside world being coherent or consistent. If one is a logician (which I am not), one even considers what systems arise if our axioms were different, etc.

    I know this is not really relevant to the social justice application but I felt making this distinction is necessary. Also, because the math nerd in me was really upset.

  9. cay
    cay August 17, 2011 at 1:15 am |

    Thanks, Kristen J. I don’t like certainty either, but I do appreciate a philosophy that tries to get closer to human well-being, and that’s all Harris wants. I can imagine a human in a Burka who would be upset and suicidal if forced to give it up due to modern laws, but to set aside arguments for banning the Burka for the sake of new generations so they could see the world is what I grapple with. By the way, to equate science with fundamentalist religions just pisses me off. I don’t believe in god, but I drive a car to work (science), cook on a gas stove (science), etc. Just please stop. Rick Perry will be president under this type of thinking.

  10. Robert
    Robert August 17, 2011 at 1:17 am |

    Science to me contains the same claims to certainty (in many instances) as the most fundamentalist religion.

    Good scientists know that the best they can do is develop theories that are consistent with observations, rather than establish capital-T truth. Inconsistent observation = disproven theory. But living up to that humility can be difficult when you’re facing down, say, Intelligent Design proponents.

    I agree that the dominant (scientific) narrative as it has played out in the real world has been harmful in many respects (e.g. denigration of Eastern medical practices that are only recently being studied in the West as “real” medicine), but I think there’s still a benefit to drawing the line somewhere.

  11. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 1:33 am |

    “Central to my interpretation of social justice is the equality of dignity. That each person, and most importantly, each person’s perspective, is equality valuable and equality valid.”

    Do you really believe this?
    That for example blatantly racist opinions are as valid as your own?
    How about a person who is demonstrably misinformed about reality? For example an extreme paranoiac who believe the whole world conspires against him personally. Still as valid?

    Kristen J: Oh yes. Not a fan really. Science to me contains the same claims to certainty (in many instances) as the most fundamentalist religion.

    That is such a tired trope. There is really no comparison.
    In fact, scientists are well known for not claiming certainty but always qualifying their statements.

    Except for mathematics, we can not really know anything from a pure philosophical point of view, but I am for example fairly certain that I am sitting on a chair while writing this. That is a question of truth and not perspective.

    Showing some humility as to what you actually know is all well and good, but throwing out the whole idea of objective truth is just silly.

  12. Marksman2010
    Marksman2010 August 17, 2011 at 2:08 am |

    Gawd, where’s Jill?

  13. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 8:09 am |

    Kristen J: Matlun,

    Do you have verification of that chair outside of your sensory experience?

    No.

    You can argue that I can not be absolutely certain I am not hallucinating, but that is just empty sophism with no practical utility.

    I am aware that what we can truly know is not a philosophically trivial question. There is not even a solid consensus of what knowledge means within epistemology.

    Kristen J: I’m a math nerd too. I see math as closer to a pure langauge. Its a human construct that we use to describe the world. But, it doesn’t make sense as pure truth.

    Pure mathematics is truth in that it is just the study of tautologies. It contains no references to external reality.

  14. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 8:29 am |

    @Kristen J: You say that you do not need to impose your perspective on others.

    What do you see as the difference between this imposition and enforcement of the laws of society (which I assume you accept that we must keep)? Isn’t the creation of laws an implicit choice of norms/perspective?

    (Perhaps I have misunderstood your position and thus been unfair?)

  15. Odin
    Odin August 17, 2011 at 8:40 am |

    Bah! Show me a scientist who isn’t devoted to the scientific method or occams razor as a central Truth and I’ll show you a philosopher.

    The scientific method is a _method_ for finding things out about the world as best we can. Calling it a Truth makes about as much sense to me as calling “waxing my kitchen floor” a Truth. Maybe it’s just because I’m an Aspie (and therefore get hung up on taking things literally) and a mathematician, but I really cannot understand what you’re meaning by Truth, if the scientific method is one, but mathematics isn’t one and doesn’t contain any.

    Also I’d like to know how exactly the world around us is being described by Comb Space (an example chosen because wikipedia does a decent job of describing it), because if I could point to things in the real world that are described by it, I think my topology students would benefit immensely.

  16. Ashley
    Ashley August 17, 2011 at 8:45 am |

    I’m also a skeptic at heart. As far as I know, Buddhist philosophy is the only branch that has actually resolved the skepticism becoming nihilism problem (and hence matlun’s critique). I think Dharmakirti is probably the place to look, though hell if I understand him.

  17. Mr. Kristen J.
    Mr. Kristen J. August 17, 2011 at 8:46 am |

    Dear wife, does it hurt being so wrong? The idea that humans will voluntarily surrender power is equivalent to a believing that a California roll will come down from space and dust us with magic “niceness” wasabi.

  18. SnowdropExplodes
    SnowdropExplodes August 17, 2011 at 9:08 am |

    @ cay, matlun: How do you know you’re not actually a brain in a jar? I refer you to Descartes’ First Meditation. Or the conversation with the bomb in “Dark Star”. We have no way of knowing that our empirical observations are in fact true. We also have no way of knowing that what happened the last time we did something, will also happen the next time we do it (a belief that it will is the foundation of all science). It’s called the problem of induction. Induction is unknowable with certainty, because the only way to prove it is to assume that it works – a classic “begging the question” fallacy.

    @ cay:

    Do you have faith that your car will start tomorrow? On what do you base that faith? Your argument appears to be equivalent to “Religion isn’t the same as superstition, because I don’t believe in superstition but I do believe in God.” You say you believe in certain applications of science, therefore science isn’t the same as religion, because you don’t believe in religion.

    @ matlun:

    I am for example fairly certain that I am sitting on a chair while writing this. That is a question of truth and not perspective.

    Really? What would the chair have to say about it? It might not see it as “matlun is sitting on a chair”, but “a chair is supporting an object”. How do you know that it actually is a chair? Maybe in our culture it would be perceived as a chair, but to another culture it might be understood as having a completely different purpose and the idea of sitting on it would seem ludicrous. The idea that it is a chair is not objective truth. The idea that you are sitting on it, rather than it sitting under you (check out the linguistic structures in Joan Slonczewski’s “A Door Into Ocean”), is not objective truth. And there is certainly no way for you to state objectively what colour it is. These are all matters of perspective, even if we accept that there is a relationship between you and the chair such that the chair is preventing your body from falling to the floor.

    ***

    These ideas are directly relevant to the OP, because the dominant social forces create what we perceive to be objective truth. People continually seek evidence of an objective truth (through scientific research) that PoC are less intelligent than White folks, that women are particularly suited to certain “feminine” activities than they are to traditionally male activities (and vice versa for men), and so on. They seek this evidence because, in their minds, it is already understood as “objective truth”, they just haven’t proved it to everyone else yet. They get their belief in those ideas as being “objective truths”, from the society around them.

    Science does better when it is viewed and practised without a dominant paradigm to shape (unconsciously) the views of its practitioners. Science is not itself fit to be a dominant paradigm, although we can argue that scientific method is a good way to approach the physical world (the best we’ve found yet). Science, put simply, is made up from the sum of our knowledge of past events, and our best guess at what will happen next, based on that knowledge. A guess, however accurate it may prove to be (and modern science has come to be very accurate indeed, based on past experience), is not in fact truth.

  19. Dawn
    Dawn August 17, 2011 at 9:13 am |

    In theory I agree, however in practise seeing so many ignorant and ill-informed opinions about people like me being openly held? I honestly can’t say I’d value the opinions of someone I know is a raging bigot as equal to the opinions of someone I know truly believes in equality.

    Theoretically hateful opinions must have value, however I’ve never discovered any value in hateful opinions.

  20. LC
    LC August 17, 2011 at 9:26 am |

    What was that old saying, “I believe in lots of little truths, not in one big Truth.”

  21. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 9:56 am |

    SnowdropExplodes: A guess, however accurate it may prove to be (and modern science has come to be very accurate indeed, based on past experience), is not in fact truth.

    This is perhaps where we differ. If you were saying that we may be mistaken and it may not be truth, then no one would argue against it for the general case.

    On the other hand if you are arguing that there is no such thing as objective truths, then I disagree vehemently.

    If I seem a bit irritable in this discussion, I blame my postmodernism allergies which are acting up at the moment…

  22. Dawn
    Dawn August 17, 2011 at 10:02 am |

    @Kristen

    Go right ahead. XD

    I think the other problem might be the water theory, it’s a social-political theory that states that like water people tend to flow into all the space they can and feel entitled to as much space as they’re used to being able to take up, so when someone expects to have equal space, the person taking up more space often feels the person is encroaching on “their” space even though it’s not really their space at all.

    I’ve noticed that not even minorities are immune to it unfortunately.

  23. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin August 17, 2011 at 10:11 am |

    In how I believe, I think strongly that if we listen to the Spirit, then we will be given all the guidance we need. When we reach for more than that, then we will always be conflicted and confused.

    In my own life, I used to be very skeptical of religious faith and lots of things. But one day, I felt, saw, heard, and observed God. And after that point, I have found it impossible to not believe. I can still remember that God felt like this concentrated, vibrating, dense energy that I felt around me. To me, it felt a little like being outside as a thunderstorm begins. It was truly a religious experience.

    Still processing what had happened to me, I walked into a library, and opened a book. The first thing my eye was drawn to was a passage in the New Testament. “Seek and ye shall find…” I had been a seeker my whole life, so to have that confirmed by the Divine was intense and moving. I started to weep and as I think about it even today, my eyes tear up.

  24. Dawn
    Dawn August 17, 2011 at 10:15 am |

    @Kevin,

    Unfortunately all the spirit some folks listen to is their own bigotry and selfishness.

    I’m sure religion has done wonders for you but the Christian religion is still littered with the wreckage of human beings and continues to create more.

  25. Brigid
    Brigid August 17, 2011 at 10:19 am |

    Central to my interpretation of social justice is the equality of dignity. That each person, and most importantly, each person’s perspective, is equality valuable and equality valid. That doesn’t mean that everyone is *right* or that everyone is entitled to do what ever the hell they want, simply that each person’s experience of their own life is valid or as true for them as our experience of our lives is true for us. More precisely, a person’s perspective is reflective of what is true to them in that moment.

    I hadn’t gotten as far as identifying as a skeptic, but this is pretty much what I feel/believe. I think I care less than you do about what these beliefs mean as a cohesive philosophy — I get frustrated very quickly with most people who talk to me about skepticism as a philosophy in the abstract, because they usually (in my experience!) want to use it as an excuse not to give a shit about oppression. So I’m especially interested in how you’ve tied skepticism to social justice. I think it’s very similar to how my social-justice consciousness operates, though I hadn’t thought about it explicitly before.

    If marriage is between one cis dude and one cis woman, then we are justified in refusing to marry same-sex couples. If marriage is between two people (regardless of gender identity), then we are justified in refusing to marry polyamourous groups. Couples are consequently *entitled* to special privileges and special protections that society grants because we have accepted a definition of marriage that privileges some over others.

    This reminds me of Foucault (I think I’m thinking of Foucault), and his understanding of “knowledge” creation as an exchange of power. That how we know things (such as the definition of marriage, in your example) inherently incorporates a power dynamic.

    If we accept that we (probably) can’t know what is real, that as much as we consider, think, feel, explore we will (likely) never grasp the totality of truth, we are free to accept or learn from other people’s perspectives. We are free to accept contradictory perspectives, holding each as true for that person in that moment. We dismantle not just the current dominant narrative but also the very concept of a dominant narrative.

    I believe this very strongly. And for me, it’s not just a way for me to understand social justice, but integral to how I do social justice, especially with people who have privileges I don’t. It can be very tempting to just write off the perspectives of men, for example, who don’t see their privilege and don’t believe me when I try to explain it, and I think I would often be justified in doing so. But I keep trying to communicate with them about sexism in ways they can relate to, because I accept that their truths are different from mine. Indeed, I think it would only get in the way of communication for me to insist that only my way of understanding the world could be right.

  26. Brigid
    Brigid August 17, 2011 at 10:48 am |

    Oh, and since I think I basically agree with Kristen J about science, I’d just like to say —

    I work with science for my job. In fact, I work with environmental science, which means I’m really well-versed in anti-scientism in the United States. It’s appalling. It’s dangerous. I’m fighting it on a daily basis.

    But being philosophically skeptical about science is not the same as being anti-science. I believe it’s vital that we recognize that science was created by humans, and is thus a cultural construct. That doesn’t mean it’s not useful. But it’s a tool, not The Truth. It’s not objective, because no one who does science is objective. And we will miss the ways in which it’s not objective, because no one who does science is all-knowing. Science is just one way that humans try to figure out how the world works, and yes, we can prove things with it, up to a certain point. But it’s always imperfect and subjective, just like any other regime of (human) knowledge.

    This is not anti-science. To me, recognizing the fallibility of science is as true to the spirit of science as you can get.

  27. Nadin
    Nadin August 17, 2011 at 10:59 am |

    It is a pity, but the power structure has always misinformed people taking advantage of its power and presented its information as truth. These are politicians and millionaires who reshape this world to their liking. I think the idea of social justice is Eutopia. Though, it would be great, if everyone had equality of opportunity.

  28. Jadey
    Jadey August 17, 2011 at 11:07 am |

    Brigid: This is not anti-science. To me, recognizing the fallibility of science is as true to the spirit of science as you can get.

    QFfuckingT.

  29. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 11:54 am |

    Brigid: [Science is] not objective, because no one who does science is objective.

    I disagree with this.

    Science is the method by which we seek to sift objective truths from the work of biased scientists. While “science is objective” is perhaps a nonsensical statement (“science” is not an actor), it is the closest thing we have to objective truth.

    The limitations of current scientific knowledge are fairly well recognized within the scientific community.

  30. Caperton
    Caperton August 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm | *

    In defense of my good buddy Science: It’s not infallible, and it doesn’t provide Truth, but it’s never promised to do either. And if someone says it does, they’re the ones who are wrong, not the entire field. Science–through consistency, empirical evidence, and simplicity–is our only way of finding the knowledge (not truth or Truth) to serve as the baseline for our understanding of the real world.

    In philosophy, it’s not only reasonable but good to consider all arguments as equally valid and valuable. Out in the world, though, in order to institute social change, we have to be able to counter “women are worse leaders than men” and “black people aren’t as intelligent as white people” and “homosexuality leads to child abuse” with actual evidence. And the way to find that evidence is through science, hard or soft.

  31. Brigid
    Brigid August 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm |

    Caperton: It’s not infallible, and it doesn’t provide Truth, but it’s never promised to do either. And if someone says it does, they’re the ones who are wrong, not the entire field.

    I think I agree with this. Except I would add that an enormous number of scientists seem to conveniently forget that their discipline is always incomplete and fallible, a lot of the time. I’m not talking about admitting that there’s a lot we don’t know — I mean accepting that our ways of knowing can never be absolute, and that science does not, in reality, give us objective truth.

    And something I want to stress, particularly because this is a feminist discussion, is that science’s fallibility is very cultural in nature. Think of all those studies that “proved” female people are inherently worse at science and math than male people.

    Further, science itself is a cultural force. Here I’m thinking of how ultrasound imaging has influenced how we think about women’s bodies and fetuses, and thus abortion. (I can’t find, for sure, the paper that introduced me to that idea, but it might be this one [pdf] or this one [pdf].) Science changes how we understand the world in a way that is not always value-neutral, even when the original science itself was rigorous and ethical.

    Finally, something many of my atheist scientist friends seem to have trouble understanding is that science and logic are not the only ways of understanding; that there may be truths — at least for individuals, at given moments — that science and logic cannot comprehend. Faith is an alternate kind of understanding; spiritual truth simply cannot be understood with science or logic. That’s not to say that one kind of understanding isn’t more applicable or appropriate to a given situation: I don’t believe spiritual truth helps me understand the earth’s climate or biological evolution, and neither do I think it should determine public policy. But I am entirely fed up with people telling me that scientific understanding is the only real or acceptable kind of understanding, period.

    At this point I may be straying from the topic at hand. For what it’s worth, Caperton, based solely on your comment, I don’t think we really disagree that much. I think we’re just coming at this from different angles. The bottom line for me, with regards to science, is what I said above: that critiquing science (or the philosophy and culture of science) in this way is both necessary to, and in keeping with the spirit of, science itself. It’s not meant to (and shouldn’t) slight the discipline, or scientists generally, at all.

  32. philfemgal
    philfemgal August 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm |

    I might accept the claim that we can’t be *certain* about anything (or at least most things–the point about logic and math one poster made is an important one), but I’m worried that your view actually could undermine social justice. (And I say this as a self-proclaimed pragmatist of sorts!)

    You say we should see our current laws/norms as subject to change in the future and so never certain and in one sense I agree. Of course, we are likely to continue to make tons of moral improvements (and in some cases make things worse) in the future, just as we have been doing throughout history. Many of those improvements we probably can’t fathom today, so we should never assume that we have got everything right. People 50, 100, 500 years ago would be shocked that today gay people are treated (in some places) as equals, slavery is condemned in almost all of the world, in many places people have a deep concern about treatment of animals, etc.

    All that said, though, I’m worried that you’ve given up too much. I want to be able to say that it is clearly *better* that slavery has ended, that gay people are treated equally, that animal suffering is given some degree of moral consideration. Does your view allow for *better*/*worse* claims? (I admit these needn’t be claims that it is 100% certain that it’s better that slavery is over, but perhaps 99.99%!)

    I’m concerned that if we can’t say it’s better that slavery no longer occurs (and by that, be saying something that is justified, warranted, or true and not merely for the individual saying it, but for all of us), then we’ve just undermined the very idea of social justice. If there’s nothing worse about slavery than non-slavery, then why exactly should we not have slavery?

  33. Rachel
    Rachel August 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm |

    Kristen J: Oh yes.Not a fan really.Science to me contains the same claims to certainty (in many instances) as the most fundamentalist religion.

    I think this comparison is completely wrong. Science doesn’t claim certainty. Any evidence found disproving a scientific “certainty” or claim immediately makes that “certainty” or claim invalid. You could find tons of evidence against religious claims and fundementalist religion would just say, “you aren’t even supposed to be questioning me in the first place. I am the final authority on the subject.” Science, by definition, requires that EVERYTHING must be questioned and re-questioned.

    Kristen J:

    To me the difference is the idea that our current social norms are “correct” in any meaningful sense.As opposed to the belief that these norms are simply what we have right now, but subject to change.Essentially, accepting that we could be wrong and being open to altering our social institutions to a reflect better understanding of one another.

    That sounds a lot like science to me. Right now we have a theory which is subject to change. Any new fact found that contradicts the theory would make us either completely scrap the theory or amend it to reflect a better understanding of the facts as we know them now.

    Kristen J:
    @Caperton,

    Some scientists agree with you others don’t.In practice, I’ve found the scientific community to be rather intractible on the idea that the scientific method is a means to Truth and oddly on the idea that the simplest explanation is the most correct.But we may hang out in different scientific circles.

    I think a lot of people would say the scientific method is a means to Truth but that we could never gather enough evidence (being the fallible humans we are) in order to fully explain any Truth. It’s just a method to get closest to the Truth that we can.

    As for Occams razor being the idea that “the simplest explanation is the most correct.” It’s really that the simplest explanation is the most LIKELY to be correct. And it’s really more complicated than that, it’s that you have to make the fewest new assumptions in order to explain something. So as you gather more evidence and have to assume less about the situation, a more complicated explanation might be the correct one. I’m probably not explaining it very well, but it’s definitely not as simple as “the simplest explanation is always right.”

  34. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve August 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm |

    Kristen J:Science to me contains the same claims to certainty (in many instances) as the most fundamentalist religion.

    Could you give some examples of these instances?

    I can’t think of one branch of science which doesn’t attempt to improve on itself. They don’t award the Nobel Prize for physics to the author of a book from 2000 years ago. The whole basis of science is skepticism.

  35. Ashley
    Ashley August 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm |

    On the other hand if you are arguing that there is no such thing as objective truths, then I disagree vehemently.

    The funny thing about believing in objective truth is that it tacitly assumes the existence of (one, all-powerful, all-knowing) God. Because if there isn’t a being to know everything without any particular reference point, and without the effect of changing that which is observed by observing it, there isn’t an objective truth. At least, not one that can be known. Which is strange, because most of the people who believe science gives objective truth are atheists.

  36. Rare Vos
    Rare Vos August 17, 2011 at 4:05 pm |

    The funny thing about believing in objective truth is that it tacitly assumes the existence of (one, all-powerful, all-knowing) God. Because if there isn’t a being to know everything without any particular reference point, and without the effect of changing that which is observed by observing it, there isn’t an objective truth. At least, not one that can be known. Which is strange, because most of the people who believe science gives objective truth are atheists.

    This would only be true if there were no such things as calculators, microscopes, the scientific method, etc. Something supernatural is not needed to prove that 2+2=4. and so forth.

    Of course there’s objective truth. Human beings simply can’t be trusted to know it.

    Which is not to say that science, as we know it right now, is 100% objectively true. Science is a crucible – burning away irrelevance, inaccuracy, etc. until we’re left with a pure product -objective truth. Being humans, means we’re still trying to get *there*.

    Claiming that science – which changes as evidence emerges – is like fundamentalist religion – which denies any and everything that doesn’t agree with it – is 100% incorrect.

  37. WestEndGirl
    WestEndGirl August 17, 2011 at 5:02 pm |

    Just thought I’d throw these into the mix :-o)

    http://www.philosophy.stir.ac.uk/staff/duncan-pritchard/documents/WittgensteinianEpistemology.pdf
    http://acgrayling.com/papers/76-wittgenstein-on-scepticism-and-certainty

    On Certainty by Wittgenstain was the only piece of philosophy I ever enjoyed apart from bits and bobs of ethics. I never could quite get into the whole brain in a jar scenario. I was always like, well, I’m just working on the premise that I am not a brain in the jar, seems a lot easier that way. I just like the real world. Veil of ignorance. Pah. I spit on you!

    For people on Feministe not familiar with academic philosophy, this course outline from Cambridge is quite good for the basic ideas that people are bandying around vis-a-vis political philosophy:
    http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/u_grads/Tripos/Political_Phil/Course_Outline/PtIB-7-PolPhil.pdf

    Amusingly enough was taught by Kymlicka and Swift – stand up dudes, great to have a drink with, rather fit really – and still could only just about stand the stuff.

  38. WestEndGirl
    WestEndGirl August 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm |

    Oh and the source material.
    Philosophical yumminess.

    http://budni.by.ru/oncertainty.html

  39. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 5:24 pm |

    Ashley: The funny thing about believing in objective truth is that it tacitly assumes the existence of (one, all-powerful, all-knowing) God. Because if there isn’t a being to know everything without any particular reference point, and without the effect of changing that which is observed by observing it, there isn’t an objective truth. At least, not one that can be known. Which is strange, because most of the people who believe science gives objective truth are atheists.

    This does not even make sense.

    Funnily enough, Descartes famous quote that “I think therefore I am” (which is very apropos in this debate) was actually the starting point for his (not very convincing) proof on the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

    Kristen J: If in the end, the hang up here is definitional (real scientists aren’t dogmatic) then we are in complete agreement. If you wish to assert that people calling themselves scientists, who write and teach as scientists are not dogmatic…I’ll invite you by my house next time M invites his colleagues over for dinner.

    I would say that scientists in general are not dogmatic in a relative sense (as compared to the general public). In truth I only base this on anecdote and personal experience of a small sample of the set of all scientists, so I do not hold enormous confidence that this is actually a valid generalization.

    Of course individual scientists can be dogmatic or even religious.

    I am still not clear on what you are going for here. If you do not in fact believe that some positions are better than others, can you really be an activist? Why are you fighting for something if you do not believe it is a good purpose?

  40. matlun
    matlun August 17, 2011 at 5:32 pm |

    @Kristen J: Ok, I see that you actually already addressed my last question in #46. Not keeping up with the thread…

  41. Rare Vos
    Rare Vos August 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm |

    Dogmatism pops its head up in science as often as anywhere else.

    Only if you redefine ‘dogmatism’ to mean ‘supported by evidence’.

    it’s not “dogmatic” to accept something that can be proven to be true.

    Obligatory caveat: that’s not the same as saying scientists themselves can’t be dogmatic about something, even “real” scientists (see, Dawkins, Richard). Like i said, we’re humans, therefore flawed and fallible. However, our failings are not science’s fault.

    Still not even in the same league as fundamentalist religion. not in scale, not in influence, not in political power, not in social power.

  42. Jadey
    Jadey August 17, 2011 at 6:25 pm |

    I think both science and religion are beset by the problem of “what we do in theory” versus “what we do in practice”.

  43. Shoshie
    Shoshie August 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm |

    Hey-o, religious scientist here. I don’t think you have to search very hard to find instances of scientists being dogmatic and thinking that they have the Truth rather than a theory that has some degree of support from various experiments. And it’s definitely not a way-back-when thing, but totally a we’re-struggling-with-it-now thing. I mean, geez, look at the obesity science crap that gets published, if you want some evidence of dogmatic scientific Truths that perpetuate harm. And it’s that much more insidious because science is held up as this wonder that’s free from mere human prejudices. Which is total bullshit.

    Interestingly, I found this to be way less the case within my religion. The Jewish literature is full of scenarios where multiple opinions are given for a single situation, and, in many cases, they’re both considered valid. Truth-with-a-capital-T isn’t something that’s supposed to be obvious or easy. It’s something we’re supposed to struggle with over a lifetime, keeping in mind that it’s the struggle that’s important, not the conclusion of Truth. Or at least that’s what I was taught by my progressive religious scientist parents. =P

  44. Shoshie
    Shoshie August 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm |

    Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, I still love this post and this conversation.

  45. Ashley
    Ashley August 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm |

    matlun– It does make sense. In order for knowable objective truth to exist, it has to be known all at once, because otherwise it is relative. And, objective truth must be known by something that doesn’t impact things by observing them, or it becomes relative again. The only thing that could possibly observe things all at once without impacting them would be outside reality. In other words, supernatural.

  46. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve August 17, 2011 at 7:36 pm |

    Ok, we’re venturing dangerously into ‘No True Scotsman’ territory here, but if you define a ‘scientist’ as ‘one who adheres to the scientific method’, then a scientist can’t make assumptions about the truth without fully testing them.

  47. Tony
    Tony August 17, 2011 at 7:58 pm |

    Ashley- but isn’t it possible for objective truth to exist without being known? Why does it have to be knowable? My guess is the atheists you refer to would say that science gives objective truth but that no one fully knows it.

    As to the OP, I agree. I would only add, often what seems like a contradiction between the perspectives of two different individuals only one of which can be true (or neither of which is true) is actually two perspectives both of which are true and not really contradictory. They only seem contradictory because they happen to bring out a conflict. For example there is one apple and you and I are both after it; is the way to characterize your perspective that “I should get the apple” and my perspective is “I should get the apple”? Or do we characterize your perspective as “I am hungry and want the apple, and therefore will fight for it” and my perspective is that “I” am, and will? In the former case, the perspectives are each contradictory, and you cannot make any statement about truth. Whereas in the latter case, there is no contradiction at all, and you can easily see that both perspectives are true. I suppose this is just another way of saying the same thing, though.

  48. Darque
    Darque August 17, 2011 at 11:36 pm |

    I think there is one thing the social justice movement is quite certain about.

    The first is the equality of people regardless of race, gender, class, ability, religion, etc. etc. etc. etc.

    The willingness to listen to, and consider opposing viewpoints, is simply an extension of the desire to give equal weight to different people’s ideas. Feminism, and social justice sees ideas and viewpoints as narratives that shape the world – and therefore believes that if you privilege or overemphasize one person’s narrative, you will also end up unfairly privileging the person.

    Thus the emphasis on storytelling. Thus the emphasis on bearing witness. Thus the emphasis on listening, and understanding the privilege of dominant cultural narratives.

  49. Ali
    Ali August 17, 2011 at 11:52 pm |

    Sorry, but no, I find it hard to agree with the basis of this post. Being certain rather than uncertain is what leads to social justice. If you are not certain, it is difficult, almost impossible to act. You are prone to becoming paralyzed by indecision. Imagine if you (all these you’s are general), if you were uncertain about your feminist views. Part of you is still arguing, “Hm, maybe women are better off solely in the home/maybe they should not vote/maybe they should not have full control of their bodies under the law.” If you were truly uncertain about these things, you would not feel strong enough about feminism to act in accordance with your beliefs.

    People know things, even when they pretend they don’t, even if that knowledge is limited by human fallibility. For example, No one is debating whether women should be able to vote in America. Every one knows they should, with the exception of a few–and those few are regarded as delusional.

  50. Darque
    Darque August 18, 2011 at 12:44 am |

    Ali:
    Sorry, but no, I find it hard to agree with the basis of this post. Being certain rather than uncertain is what leads to social justice. If you are not certain, it is difficult, almost impossible to act. You are prone to becoming paralyzed by indecision. Imagine if you (all these you’s are general), if you were uncertain about your feminist views. Part of you is still arguing, “Hm, maybe women are better off solely in the home/maybe they should not vote/maybe they should not have full control of their bodies under the law.” If you were truly uncertain about these things, you would not feel strong enough about feminism to act in accordance with your beliefs.

    People know things, even when they pretend they don’t, even if that knowledge is limited by human fallibility. For example, No one is debating whether women should be able to vote in America. Every one knows they should, with the exception of a few–and those few are regarded as delusional.

    Yes, absolutely. 100% agreed.

    I also think that the most exciting thing about life is when genuine conflicts of opinion do occur – and I think that for people to have a truly heated argument or discussion, I believe that those people have to have an underlying passion and a strongly held belief.

    One of the worst things is agreement for the sake of agreement.

  51. RBT
    RBT August 18, 2011 at 6:26 am |

    Lobbing this into a looong thread, but there are just a few things I’d like to point out, as a scientist. Maybe it’s different other fields, but I feel like most of the science that I’ve seen is couched directly in the language of uncertainty. That is, the mathematical language of statistics. For me, part of becoming a scientist has been learning how to interpret my results by saying *how* certain I am about something, given the evidence. We’re constantly trying to evaluate our biases, accounting for the role of random fluctuations, etc. The final result of an experiment can usually be something like “We are X% certain that this is true.” If that number X gets to be really really close to 1.0, it’s considered proof. But it never actually becomes 100%. And there’s always the chance of new evidence.

    Of course, it’s different if you’re an engineer – the bridge falls down or the bridge stays up. Medical and pharmaceutical research always seemed to be closer to “true” or “not true” also, though I guess you can have a medicine which only works X% of the time…

    One problem is that I feel like the news media tends to really overexaggerate the degree of certainty in a lot of scientific results. I’m just gonna leave this comic here:
    http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1174

    (Also, I feel like, given this discussion, it’s ironic that one of the central principles of quantum mechanics, which has been driving physics this past century, is actually called “Uncertainty.”)

  52. SnowdropExplodes
    SnowdropExplodes August 18, 2011 at 7:02 am |

    @ Tony: an objective truth that cannot be known is no truth at all, from the perspective of humanity; instead, you can only have subjective views of that objective truth. Even if a person were able to glimpse that objective truth clearly, their knowledge of it would still only appear to be subjective to everyone else.

    That means that everyone’s subjective truths are the only truths worth worrying about because the objective truth cannot be known, and it is those subjective truths with which we have to deal on a daily basis, just as the OP discussed with reference to social activism.

    Speaking of which, you and the other person would both be better off going and fighting the person who’s hoarding all the other apples, than fighting each other over that one apple. Just sayin’!

  53. matlun
    matlun August 18, 2011 at 7:37 am |

    SnowdropExplodes: @ Tony: an objective truth that cannot be known is no truth at all,

    Actually, this is what much of the debate is about. Is there an objective truth which is separate from our knowledge? From an epistemological point knowledge is classically defined (somewhat debated definition) as

    I know X if the following criteria are all met
    1. I believe X to be true
    2. I am justified in believing this
    3. X is objectively true

    From this philosophical standpoint, objective truth is something that exists independent of our knowledge of it. (Also according to this definition objective truth can indeed be known)

    As an example, consider Russel’s classical teapot. The question is: Is there a teapot that is orbiting the sun somewhere in outer space?
    Practically speaking we can not know whether this is true (space is large and unless we actually find such a teapot, the statement can not in practice be disproven).

    Still, there is either such a teapot or there is not. The statement is either objectively false or objectively true. Our knowledge is irrelevant.

    (NB: I am not sure that this is applicable at all to the views of Kristen J. Fallibilism in general seem to accept the existence of objective truth and I may just have been misunderstanding her in my earlier posts)

  54. Brigid
    Brigid August 18, 2011 at 9:36 am |

    Kristen J: If in the end, the hang up here is definitional (real scientists aren’t dogmatic) then we are in complete agreement.

    Shoshie: And it’s definitely not a way-back-when thing, but totally a we’re-struggling-with-it-now thing. …And it’s that much more insidious because science is held up as this wonder that’s free from mere human prejudices.

    Word.

    Fat Steve: if you define a ‘scientist’ as ‘one who adheres to the scientific method’, then a scientist can’t make assumptions about the truth without fully testing them

    Two problems:

    1. In practice, scientists — and people who portray science in the media — often act as though we can be sure we’ve applied the scientific method perfectly. Which we can’t. And it only helps us apply the scientific method better when we acknowledge this.

    2. There are truths that cannot be understood with the scientific method. Emotional truth. Spiritual truth. Science cannot prove or disprove these things, because they are what I would call truths but not facts. They are subjective. Emotions and spirituality cannot understand physics, either. They’re just different. And I see a lot of scientists and logicians dogmatically insist that they don’t believe in or support certain emotional or spiritual claims because science/logic “proves” them wrong — which is ridiculous.

    So, yeah. Neither I or the OP are arguing that all scientists are dogmatic, or that the practice of science is inherently dogmatic in nature. But it’s definitely possible to be dogmatic about science.

  55. RBT
    RBT August 18, 2011 at 9:56 am |

    Yeah, the assumption that each and every scientific experiment was conducted perfectly is a dangerous one, for sure. This seems to be a particularly bad problem in the social sciences, which deal with studies of actual human beings (a complicated system to assess bias in if there ever was one).

    To discuss one example that’s very near and dear to my heart, I’ve had nerdy guys (particularly around the time of the whole Larry Summers debacle) trot out the whole “bell-curve” theory and cite experiments showing that men and women have fundamentally different brains and that dudes are therefore better at science (omg men can rotate objects in three dimensions in their brains!). You try to explain that “no, these experiments made some major assumptions and there were some experimental faults here and here” and they respond “But it’s sciiiieeeence! I thought you were logical? Why won’t you listen to the sciiieeence!” Because you’re darn well not approaching it scientifically! Evolutionary Psychology had gotten particularly badly hit by this kind of thinking.

    I know this does sound a little bit like a “No true Scotsman” style argument, but I feel like it’s really important to distinguish science as a method from *bad* science as a crap political tool.

  56. Jadey
    Jadey August 18, 2011 at 9:59 am |

    Kristen J:
    Some fallibilist believe in objective truth some don’t.True to my fallibilistic nature, I’m open to the possibility that I’m a brain in a jar but think its sufficiently unlikely that I don’t base any decisions on it.

    If you ever get a chance to see a production of Possible Worlds, by John Mighton, I recommend it. Highly enjoyable.

  57. z
    z August 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm |

    RBT: I know this does sound a little bit like a “No true Scotsman” style argument, but I feel like it’s really important to distinguish science as a method from *bad* science as a crap political tool.

    This.

  58. Shripathi Kamath
    Shripathi Kamath August 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm |

    Quite a silly set of assertions.

    “Which brings me back to skepticism. If we accept that we (probably) can’t know what is real, that as much as we consider, think, feel, explore we will (likely) never grasp the totality of truth, we are free to accept or learn from other people’s perspectives.”

    Yes, you are free to accept that Earth rests on the back of turtles. But why would you? Because you cannot ever be certain that it does not, right?

    Science provides the *only* known means of helping you why you should not accept that turtles are the props holding up the Earth. When you dial a phone number, you know that you’ll reach a person at the other end of it.

    But you cannot be certain. So what?

    When you apply the brakes on your car, you know that your car will slow down. If you do not know this, don’t drive a car.

    Please.

  59. Diana
    Diana August 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm |

    Kristen J:
    Bah!Show me a scientist who isn’t devoted to the scientific method or occams razor as a central Truth and I’ll show you a philosopher.

    The scientific method is just that – a method. We are devoted to it as a method that provides reasonably accurate and useful information about the world relative to other ways people gather information. “Useful” is defined as describing reproducible phenomena that we can then use to develop or inform our development of tools that better the living conditions of humanity.

    The key difference between science and dogma is that contrary evidence is accepted, even sought. What this means with respect to the scientific method is that if someone figures out in a reproducible fashion that there is some other method that gives reliably useful information about the world* in a faster/more efficient manner than what is currently known as the scientific method then that will become the new scientific method.

    The proving ground of science is the translation of data and ideas into working reality. The ‘proving ground’ of religion is a group of like-minded people patting each other on the back.

    Your insults bring to mind this comic: http://xkcd.com/774/

    Philosophy is well and good. What you have written here is a load of unhelpful tripe.

    *rather than shrouded information about our own cognitive states, which is the persistent problem of cognitive bias that science seeks to avoid.

  60. Skepticism and Tolerance « Earnest and Jest

    [...] post about epistemic relativism in the feminist movement. McCreight is responding to to a post on Feministe, which argues for the role of absolutism and certainty in social repression. I don’t entirely [...]

  61. Diana
    Diana August 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm |

    Kristen J:
    I’ll see your xkcd and raise you a Bloom County.All rhetorical arguments should be fought via comic strip!

    Hah! I’d support that. My altogether-too-much-brainspace being used for remembering webcomics would finally come in handy. ^^

  62. matlun
    matlun August 19, 2011 at 12:38 am |

    Ok, then. More xkcd

  63. thewhatfor
    thewhatfor August 19, 2011 at 2:55 am |

    Kristen, I’m loving this post a lot.

    This New Yorker article is pretty interesting. It addresses the way the scientific community can uphold and reinforce existing theories, even when the evidence supporting them is lacking:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer

  64. Mr. Kristen J.
    Mr. Kristen J. August 19, 2011 at 6:16 am |

    matlun:
    Ok, then. More xkcd

    Math is simply applied logic which clearly means Philosophers FTW!

  65. matlun
    matlun August 19, 2011 at 6:59 am |

    Mr. Kristen J.: Math is simply applied logic which clearly means Philosophers FTW!

    There is some truth in this :D

    I would actually say that Mathematics is not science, so they should not be anywhere on that scale. But I like that comic so I would not want to break it. Choices, choices…

  66. AlbertaNerd
    AlbertaNerd August 19, 2011 at 9:45 am |

    It sounds like you’re saying that given any amount of uncertainty on any subject, everyone’s opinion is equally valid.

    I hope I misunderstood. Because anyone who thinks (“thinks”) that must surely be an ambulatory example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  67. Odin
    Odin August 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm |

    You don’t think science has provided the intellectual foundation oppression? Eugenics. Medical and chemical testing on the poor and non-consenting. Half of evo psych.

    Oh… for… Argh. Half of evo psych is NOT SCIENCE. Probably more than half, and at least more than half of what makes the mainstream press. The conclusions are not drawn properly according to, well, the scientific method and basic logic. Fuck, I took an evo psych class in college, and half of the course was reading papers and discussing in class how the authors didn’t seem to understand evolution, or didn’t understand the scientific method, or were actively hostile to biologists out of pipette envy or something, or didn’t even fucking try to test their pretty ideas, or were ignoring reality (like the color of ripe berries).

    Every time someone brings up evo psych as an example of how Science Does Evil Things, God kills a kitten. (I’m not sure why he does that, it’s kind of a dick thing to do, but he does it anyway.) So please, think of the kittens.

  68. Stephen
    Stephen August 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm |

    @matlun, 54

    //This does not even make sense.//

    What Ashley was admirably explaining in her post is the idea of God-as-transcendental signified, which is a post-structuralist idea that you’ll see a lot in Derrida especially. Basically, the idea is part-and-parcel of the definition of “objectively true,” that is, that something is obviously true for everyone all of the time. Well, how do you determine what those things are? Language is very relative and it’s hard to figure out what someone or something means. So, that’s where the transcendental signified, in this case God, comes in: it’s a fixed reference point for all meaning, the essence of essences, sort of like the fixed gravitational frame you get in Newton. Think of it like a dialogue where one of the interlocutors asks “why” every time you try to explain something; at some point, if you want to make the conversation end, you have to say “because God” or some equivalent. Without that reference point, truth can’t be objective, because there’s no yardstick to measure what is true for everyone and what isn’t.

    Ashley, I’m very sorry if that wasn’t what you were getting at. And I’m also sorry if that wasn’t very germane to the discussion as a whole; I just find that argument personally compelling.

  69. Skepticism is false | The Uncredible Hallq

    [...] Jen McCreight (a.k.a. “Blag Hag”) did a post complaing about a Feministe blogger who declared herself a “sketpic” in that “I don’t think you can know things. I [...]

  70. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve August 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm |

    Shripathi Kamath: Science provides the *only* known means of helping you why you should not accept that turtles are the props holding up the Earth. When you dial a phone number, you know that you’ll reach a person at the other end of it.

    But you cannot be certain. So what?

    When you apply the brakes on your car, you know that your car will slow down. If you do not know this, don’t drive a car.

    Sorry for the repetitive cliche/meme but…

    THIS THIS THIS

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