Saturday, July 9, 2011

Arguing with blowhards

Yesterday, I was manning … er, personing the pro-life barricades on Facebook in tandem with Stacy Trasancos. Our main opponent was this one woman who apparently has drunk deep at the wells of scientism.

Scientism isn’t to be confused with science; in fact, scientism is rather confused about science, though the devoté (or, in this case, devotée) will never see the confusion as such. Scientism isn’t so much a philosophy as an attitude, or even a platitude: “What isn’t measurable isn’t an objective fact.” Which leaves you to wonder how they manage to measure their names or their tastes in ice cream.

But leaving behind the more risible of scientism’s incoherencies (the statement above isn’t measurable; therefore, by its own terms, it isn’t an objective fact), devotés tend to have a smattering of ill-understood philosophical terms, a contempt for religion, and the strange, inexplicable belief (verging on childlike faith) that scientists are beyond the foibles that lead lesser people into error.

Whatever other gifts God has given me, patience isn’t one of them. I certainly don’t take to being treated like a fool, even when I am being foolish. When a person makes basic errors in logic and terminology and sneers at correction attempts, what patience I’ve developed over the years wears quickly.

This is why I prefer to debate by email. Or by blog entries.

Here’s an example:

Although in common practice morality and ethics are used interchangeably, in philosophy ethics is used to distinguish theories of right and wrong, good and evil, from morality, the real-world practices and beliefs concerning proper conduct: “The ethical man knows it is wrong to steal; the moral man does not steal.” Or, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, I’d rather play poker with a man who was dubious about philosophy but bred to believe that “a gentleman does not cheat” than with an impeccable ethical philosopher raised among card sharks.

That’s what morality and ethics mean to the professionals. To our fearless devotée of scientism, ethics pertains to society and are objectively true, while morality is subjective and therefore neither true nor false.

*sigh* Here we go again. A statement is objective if: 1) it conforms to actual existence or reality, or 2) it’s agreed as true by consensus based on mutually observed facts, or 3) it’s not influenced by emotions or prejudice. By contrast, a statement is subjective if it comes from feelings or intuitions, mindsets or personal experience rather than external facts and deductions; it may still be true, but its truth may not be obvious to anyone else.

Now, the odd thing about science is that it often uses one kind or unit of measure when another would serve the purpose … perhaps not as well or as cohesively, but it would still yield useful information. For instance, there’s no reason velocity could not be measured in furlongs per fortnight, or a kilocalorie mean the energy used to raise one cup of water one degree Fahrenheit. We could measure the distance between Washington, DC and Lincoln, Nebraska from Capitol to Capitol rather than their geographic centers, or simply by the shortest interstate route; each would yield useful information. Again, we could go back to a lunar calendar rather than our solar calendar.

In other words, the choice of where to set the markers is a convention based on prudential judgment. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re not objective measures; in fact, since they are agreed upon, they are objective according to our definition. But it also means that they’re contingent, at least partially on their utility but most certainly on the continued agreement of scientists.

But if the choice of where to set the markers is a prudential decision, doesn’t that make them arbitrary? That’s where things get dicey, because arbitrary carries the sense that they were chosen for no reason when in fact they were chosen to achieve specific, objective ends. So by philosophical standards, they’re not arbitrary. But neither are they necessary.

But the fact that the markers are conventions messes up our scientism follower. For biologists use different words to mark stages of fetal development in the womb. These stages are as much conventions as are measurements of degree, time, velocity and so forth … useful and conductive to analysis, but not intrinsic to the little being in the womb. Yet our snarky companion will insist, “A zygote is not a blastocyst is not an embryo is not a fetus …” as if there were an ontological change in the unborn child to go with everything else.

Whatever else can be said about this attitude, it isn’t scientific. Most people prone to scientism aren’t scientists; in fact, they’re almost anything but. They may know collections of obscure terms and out-of-the-way facts about select topics, but they tend to be missing basic concepts, and are uneducated in the philosophy of science (“You’ve got to be kidding me; that’s just a bunch of people with their subjective opinions”).

The adherents of scientism, in the end, are simply another variety of an archetypal figure: the Blowhard Who Doesn’t Really Know What He’s Talking About. I’m tempted to blame it on our education system, but the truth is, the Blowhard has been with us since Adam and Eve.

But the worst thing about the Blowhard? It’s not his bad education. It’s not his unwillingness to accept correction. It’s not his smug certainty in his own rightness and callous dismissal of idiots.

It’s the thought that I could be him.

So I pray for the humility to accept correction, the charity to extend others the assumptions of intelligence and good will, and the patience to explain and research as much as needed. I also pray for the wisdom to understand my opponent’s argument before I respond to it, and the grace to cheerfully acknowledge when I do make a fool of myself.

It’s a prayer in eight words: “O God, don’t let me be a Blowhard!”

Update: July 19, 2011
Lisa Graas has linked this article and correctly points out that I didn't link Stacy to her blog. That has now been corrected. Again, my apologies, Stacy!