Saturday, January 12, 2013

Generalised Fundamentalism.

Human Fundamentalism is an explosion of your alter ego” says the blurb; but tribalism is also likely to be factor.

PZ Myers has been recently bad-mouthing “accomodationist” atheists Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) and Peter Kloor both of whom appear to take a complaisant stance toward theists (at least theists of the more liberal variety). In fact Kloor and Higgs use the term “fundamentalist” of the kind of culture that PZ Myers represents.  This, need I say, annoys PZ Myers no end.
In spite of my own working theism I would not want to claim that the evidence relevant to God’s existence is overwhelmingly compelling: We have lots of anecdotes, feelings, intuitions, personal revelations, and some historical documents of debatable status, although we do have some very interesting philosophical pointers. But all this evidence is insufficient, in my opinion, to condemn fair minded people like Higgs and Kloor to an eternity of torture, as some fundamentalists would have it. Moreover, the mindless brute sectarianism of much fundamentalism is evidence that weighs heavily against theism and registers with me as mitigating circumstances as far as atheists are concerned. 

One can hardly blame a reasonable atheist/agnostic for being noncommittal about anything other than the products of the hard sciences: Physics, Chemistry and to a certain extent biology have given us a picture of realities that are highly coherent and rational, objects that one can return to at will and find consistency and persistency. In comparison evolutionary psychology, history, sociology and the like have a complexity of subject matter that would be epistemically intractable if we tried to treat them with the same formal methods of the hard sciences. It gets even worse with the paranormal: Ghosts, cryptozoology, aliens, and religion are largely based on observational erratics and subjective feelings. One can hardly blame people for washing their hands of the whole business of the paranormal when its material is so epistemically unfriendly. Moreover, many religions make good their irregular evidential status with liberal dollops of Gnosticism, fideism, legalism, godbotting and above all the fear of the unknown; it is no surprise that much fundamentalist religion majors on spiritual threats about the grave consequences of incurring divine displeasure.

But the inherent difficulties of paranormal material are also its own claim to mitigating circumstances.  Theism is a product of an informal world view synthesis and the enunciation of some very high level objects and concepts. These objects and concepts are hardly the stuff of spring extending and test tube precipitating science . When it comes to this kind of world view synthesis unequivocal truth statements are hard to come by and the formal epistemology of the physical sciences which is at its the best when handling the elemental breaks down. In fact this break down starts to happen in formal science itself: On PZ Myers’ own admission science is making very heavy weather of evolutionary psychology and not surprisingly in my view; mental phenomena are highly complex implying a concomitantly highly convoluted natural history.  When it comes to an object like natural history, which is both very complex and necessarily untestable at will, we have to fall back, to a large measure, on “best fit science”; that is the kind of retrospective analysis that employs lots of imagination as attempts are made to fit the received data into some preconceived theoretical narrative. I see nothing wrong with this kind of activity given that it is imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control and as long as it is carried out with self-awareness, tentativeness and above all with epistemic humility. But a call to epistemic humility is unlikely to be listened to: At the ontological high end people are playing for high stakes and human nature ensures that the difficulties arriving at unequivocal conclusions are made up for by an accompanying epistemic arrogance. A shouting match. is inevitable, but if we are to cling to truly democratic traditions then we must accept that in democratic societies the great parliament of ideas  is going to be like other parliaments I’m familiar with; namely, a kind of controlled row.

PZ Myers doesn’t like being compared with religious fundamentalists. Just how far he qualifies for the label “Science fundamentalist” depends on how strict he is with his epistemological Methodism: The formalties of spring extending and test tube precipitating science are guarded so jealously by some that they declare anyone transcending them to be anti-science heretics. It is no surprise, then, that science fundamentalists get uptight about evolutionary psychologists: The complexity and epistemic inaccessibility with which evolutionary psychologists have  to work gives them little option but to fall back on less formal and reliable methods; that’s OK with me as long as they proceed with epistemic humility.

Religious fundies, like science fundies, seek a formal epistemology that excludes all others on pain of charges of “heresy”. The epistemology of the religious fundamentalists revolves around treating scripture in a highly notational rather than connotational way : That is, they are quite sure they can readout very literal lessons from scripture using sure-fire mechanical rules; “Godbotting”, is the term. Both science and religious fundamentalists seek an exclusive and overriding authoritative epistemological Methodism that gives them a base from which they can scream down hell and damnation on all who transcend their methods. They are, as a rule, very hot on the idea of accessing and telling people “The Truth”, but they are unwilling to admit that at all but the lowest of levels, claims to being the mouth piece of “The Truth” must be treated with the utmost caution. For fundamentalists of all kinds there arises a conflict between their version of “science” and other world views because they don’t take seriously and are uncomfortable with the epistemic difficulties found at the high end. The telling trait of all fundamentalism is its insecurity with ambiguity, especially the ambiguity surrounding answers to the big questions of life; it consequently seeks and often thinks it has found a sure fire epistemic method. The outcome of that is an all too common epistemic arrogance.

12/02/13: Note On Evolutionary Psychology:  See the following two links for the opinion of anti-theists Larry Moran and  PZ Myers on the subject of evolutionary psychology:
They pretty much give a blanket rubbishing to all academic efforts in this field. What they don't seem to understand is that one can't port the same highly formal standards used by spring extending and test tube precipitating science to the study of people. It's like a physicist or a mathematician telling an historian how to do his job. When it comes to the humanities we come to terms with the lack of epistemic rigour imposed by complex inaccessible ontologies by giving formal place to controversy, non-consensus and the argument of parliament - the very things that are anathema to the instinctual epistemic arrogance of the  fundamentalists.

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