Enlightenment Contested: Scientific Skepticism (archive 2012)

Despite my love of philosophy, my first love in philosophy was philosophy of science and as a child, I read Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer to show up the locals in science in my small middle Georgia town. My first love was biology and anthropology, and my first crush on a writer was the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, and the scientist and science journalist, Stephen Jay Gould. One of the things you will notice is that while I will make critiques of scientific community’s publishing practices, of the sociology of research, on fields with have little historical, comparative, or experimental checks (such as Evolutionary Psychology): I do, however, think the chanting of many in the New Atheist and “Skeptic’s Community” about “reason” is vapid and more than a little unreasonable as what is meant by “reason:” moves from meaning “science” to “logic” to “commonsense” to “critical thinking” without realizing that these are not the same thing, and even individually

Despite my philosophical critiques, I actually still consider myself part of that moment. I listen to Skeptic podcasts, and while I avoid the new atheist, one of my favorite popular philosophers is Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking (Blog and Podcast). I was struck, however, listening to a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: the difference between intuitive and deliberation reason is fascinating as it indicates that a) most people actually don’t think deliberately rationally, and b) this is rational in a extreme way. This leads to a set of flukes: human beings do not have a base-line “system b” intuition about probability and advanced numbers.

If one wanted to talk about “dialectics of Enlightenment” (to borrow a phrase from Horkheimer and Adorno and use in in a completely different way), it is clear that the more you study the “reasoning brain,” the more complicated our picture of human logic becomes. Most logical skills are not innate, and the optimistic vision of the 17th century Enlightenment enables the science which makes us question “natural” reasoning states. No wonder why post-structuralists philosophers can appear so convincing when you understand them, the more you know about science and logic, the more you realize that people do not automatically think scientifically and logically even without “substitution” and other forms of cultural habit.

So the legacy of the Enlightenment, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Israel, is contested within itself. This, by the way, is why I am not “anti-modern” in a simple sense: I am a loyal opposition to modernity because I think “reason”–by which I mean logic and scientific rigor–actually undoes most of the optimism in the early parts of the Enlightenment and the violent meloncholia that Nietzsche calls nihilism can emerge if one is burned to bad by the dreams of a completely reasonable world. I, however, don’t think it is just philosophy that gets you there–either in analytic breakdown of modal logic or the speculative categories of modern European philosophy and critical theory.

Still understanding “reason” in a not naive way, and realizing the limitations of framing and limits of a particular sociology, science is one of the modern gifts that one should fight, tooth and nail, to preserve even when one is critiquing “scientism” (abuses of the scientific demarcation line) and bad practices, of which there are many, in the scientific community.


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