12 August 2009

I'm an idiot

Over at Slactivist, Fred Clark is talking about how the Far Right has to be willingly deceiving themselves.

Fred is being entirely sensible, as usual, but I think he's missing something here.

Yes, there's a structure of advancing contra-factual utter nonsense as truth, there's an obvious unwillingness to consider anything that might require a change of opinion, but it's really a bit simpler than that.

"True" is a statement about the inside of your head; there is no direct or inherent connection to outside your head.

"Fact" is a statement that something does not depend on the inside of any one particular person's head. If it's a fact, consistent methodology will demonstrate it consistently in a way completely independent of any one person's belief, un-belief, or indifference.

That's where science comes from; that's what, reduced to the core essential, all the requirements for peer review and repeatability mean; they're tests for the fact-nature, as distinct from the truth-nature.

If you really believe that believing an untruth will send you to hell, or that sin is operant on the state of your life, or something like that, you have to privilege truth over fact, because there are no facts supporting any religious belief.

Further, an acceptance of the pre-eminence of fact as a basis for decision will require you to say "I am an idiot" and mean it. You have to give up absolute truth and the possibility of being really right in some immutable sense.

Also, you'll have to say, in an honest service of facts, "I was wrong", "that belief doesn't appear to be supported by the data", "OK, that was a dumb thing to try", and so on. People make factual errors all the time. Taking this seriously, taking the methodology of science seriously, becomes an obligation to acknowledge that your picture of the world, that thing your brain builds and that you live in and that is really all you will ever have as a matter of direct knowledge, is necessarily now and forever incomplete, inaccurate, and intractable. Call this secular humility if you like.

From the point of view of the Far Right, accepting that facts should be the basis of decision means accepting:

  • I can't have what I most want (well, no one can; are you special?)
  • I don't actually deserve anything (not good, and not bad, either; it's a contingent world, it doesn't do "deserves", and when people do "deserves" things get messy)
  • there's no state of grace that has any material meaning
  • I can never be right; I can only be imperfectly aware of the "best current understanding"
The historical record is absolutely full of people preferring bloodshed, murder, and chaos to changing their world view. Each of those is a big change in world view; all four together is somewhere past a Road-to-Damascus moment.

I don't think they're deceiving themselves at all, really, beyond the unquestioning acceptance of the magic-works world view that's the default state of human brains. I think they're very consciously trying to force the facts to match what they hold true, by whatever means necessary. It's not deception; it's rejection, a conscious, willed, deliberate rejection of facts they don't like, and a combined insistence that the world can be re-made to conform to their truth.

If they get to write the history books, it'll be close enough.


Kai Jones said...

I don't actually deserve anything (not good, and not bad, either; it's a contingent world, it doesn't do "deserves", and when people do "deserves" things get messy)

Except that it is a precept of liberalism that people deserve a whole list of things, like a safe place to live and food and education and so on. I don't think this is a particularly conservative value.

Jeremy Leader said...

I think you have to ask "deserves from whom?" There's a big difference between what I believe the Universe as a whole owes any of us (nothing) and what I believe our society owes its members.

Graydon said...

Kai --

I'm not a liberal. I'm an egalitarian. As a result, I am not likely to fit neatly on a conservative-liberal axis.

Jeremy --

Even when considering society, I think "deserves" is dangerous, rather like "good" or "moral" are dangerous. This is one of the reasons I hop up and down about increased generally realizable access to choice and the resiliency of diversity; both of those things can be in the realm of facts, rather than truth, and on the whole I prefer policy to stay in the realm of facts.

Graydon said...

Oh, and Kai -- since I may have parsed what you said wrong the first time -- conservatives in the US believe people deserve lots of things. Criminals deserve to be harshly punished; good people should be rewarded for their goodness with material prosperity; America deserves to be left alone by the world.

It's a moral sorting of the world, and while there are extensive differences in the details of the sorting, the existence of a moral sorting by deserts is widespread.