Metaphysics and the Politics of Irrationality

I know I said I’d be posting next on You’re Not Listening, but I’m not finished with the book yet, while the piece below seemed ready to go. Hope you like it.

            In this post, I will discuss what has been called the epistemological crisis affecting the country. The credulousness of large segments of the American public in the face of dubious conspiracy theories, the unwarranted stigmatizing of groups of people, and mythologized historical narratives, along with an ill-informed skepticism about dependable data and scientific fact, offer challenges for all of us. Perhaps most of all, these are signs that our education system needs to change. Specifically, greater emphasis on critical thinking, on logic, on selectivity concerning sources of information, and on responsible citizenship is required. This is different from the pieties and political correctness that sometimes characterize our current system.

            Meanwhile, however, the problem will not wait for even the most expeditious and effective education reform, which will require years and even decades to take effect. Also, before we begin the process of reform, there must be discussion of the nature of the problem. I am heartened to see that this has already begun, and will here add my voice. An important aspect of this crisis is what I will term (not wholly originally and calling on another branch of philosophy to go alongside epistemology) metaphysical thought. Metaphysics is an ancient branch of philosophy that inquires into the nature of the universe. It asks the questions about what is there, and what is it like.  Metaphysics has to a degree been supplanted by modern physics, since some of the questions once left to the speculations of metaphysics can now be answered by forms of observation and computation unknown until relatively recently. Still, metaphysics has performed a service in humankind’s efforts to understand the nature of its condition, and there is arguably still a role for metaphysics. One of the reasons for the survival of metaphysics is that modern and contemporary physics have grown very difficult for the layman to understand. Most of us who are not physicists or cosmologists probably still think of the universe in somewhat metaphysical terms, that is in terms or certain general properties rendered in ordinary language, rather than through rigorous observation and demonstration. This metaphysical thought can be illuminating, merely harmless, or a danger. Metaphysical thought can tend to murkiness or deliberate obscurity. Its search for a hidden or underlying reality behind appearances can lead the individual, and even whole communities, nations, or movements of people to embrace falsehood. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, having tired of the truth, they may betake themselves to error, mistaking it for originality or insight.  Metaphysical thinking may conjure a “higher” or more transcendent reality, a deep understanding that can only be experienced or intuited, never really proven. They are matters of identification, not proof or reason: there was rampant voter fraud even though no evidence exists; the earth is not warming despite the record of climate change; immigrants are ruining the country even though they are actually working and contributing.

            These kinds of thoughts and beliefs are enabled by and in part the cause of the education gap between American Republicans and Democrats, at least among white voters. In a shift from past decades, Democrats are now the better-educated party. Their greater familiarity with science and other forms of organized, systematic expertise gives them a measure confidence in experts and in science and makes them less vulnerable to the appeals of metaphysical thinking. Less-educated people may also feel a need to assert themselves by claiming to a special knowledge that is being missed by the well-educated, by “mainstream media,” by out-of-touch intellectuals who have lost an intuitive sense of their own identity and the underlying truth.        

Right-wing and reactionary causes have often been served by irrational thought and ideas. As noted by Jonathan Egid in a recent book review, metaphysics has been used “to cultivate a feeling of sanctity and sublimity around such notions as ‘nation,’ ‘race,’ or ‘historical destiny’ ” (London TLS May 14, 2021). They have relied on religious or quasi-religious rituals and sometimes spurious traditions. Eighteenth century politician and conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke praised “prejudice and prescription” above the individual exercise of reason. His writings have given a degree of respectability to conservative dismissals of science and expertise.  Reactionary movements have sometimes allied with religious groups to make their appeals, calling on theology and religious cosmology to support their own world view and agenda. Or they have evolved their own form of spirituality, again generally anti-rational, to justify racist or authoritarian ideas. A recent, typically rather louche example of this was the Viking-helmeted “shaman” arrested for the 6 January assault on the U.S. Capitol.         

            A difficulty in challenging such beliefs is that they are not based on facts or reason in the first place. What appears to have worked in the past is that metaphysical thought as a substitute for real knowledge has frequently demonstrated its own lack of efficacy. Movements based on metaphysical thought have generally failed to attract the “best and brightest” who might provide leadership. Their adherents, often motivated by feelings of resentment and inferiority, are also often burdened by social and psychological problems that can impair their effectiveness as activists. It may not be enough to wait for these movement to collapse of the own inherent defects. Patient repetition of facts and appeals to reason may work even with people not used to thinking that way. Some of us who canvassed during the last election may have had that experience. More of these conversations need to happen and, of course (to go back to some recent posts on empathy), we need to listen to why people hold the views that they do. There is a lesson there for me as much as anyone.          

Later: Back to Empathy?

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