Rod Dreher

In response to my post last week about epistemic closure, the blogger Anonymous Liberal, whom I questioned in the post, has responded. Here’s part of what he wrote:

Similarly, there is a major difference between someone who makes a real effort to expose himself to all relevant facts – even unpleasant ones – and conform his beliefs accordingly, and someone who makes no such effort. We may all be epistemically closed to some degree, but not to the same degree. Some of us are much worse than others.
In proclaiming myself to be a member of the empirical world, I was not claiming to be a perfectly rational super human, someone beyond the reach of bias or the limitations of human knowledge. Rather, I was claiming to be a guy who tries very hard to let facts drive my opinions and not the other way around.

Good for Anonymous Liberal! I mean that; we should all aspire to being people who try very hard to let facts drive our opinions, and not the other way around. And while not wishing to get into a lengthy political discussion, I also agree with him that at the present time, it does seem that people on the Right, generally speaking, are having a relatively tougher time letting facts drive opinions rather than the other way around.
That said, it’s a struggle for all of us, especially if we live and work in social circles where our epistemic bias is enforced. As a Guardian writer I quoted on my blog the other day put it, facts are facts, but our values determine which facts matter to us. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that facts are, in an ontological sense, whatever one wants them to be; I’m saying that our values condition the way we value facts.
From the point of view of social conservatives, for example, social liberals ignore certain facts that go against their deeply held principles about sexuality and race. I have seen this happen too many times to count, both in the university and working in the mainstream media. One reason I was first attracted to conservatism as an undergraduate in the 1980s is because conservatives in those days seemed far more willing to deal with the world as it was than the rigidly dogmatic liberals I sympathized with at the time. These things come and go in cycles, and conservatives are no more or less temperamentally inclined to epistemic closure than liberals.
The thing is, I really do believe that most of my liberal friends and colleagues did not believe they were disbelieving inconvenient facts; they really did think they were judging matters with empirical rigor. I have written before about how my own past conservative political and religious biases blinded me to facts I ought to have considered. In fact, the fallout from having learned otherwise is why I am so fascinated by how we know what we think we know, and am immediately suspicious when I read someone of whatever political tribe claiming to be part of the reality-based community. None of us can have the full picture, and I have learned from my own bitter experience to be more skeptical of things that I and my circle believe are obviously true. Insofar as Anonymous Liberal and I are both trying to do that, then we share the same goal, even though we come from politically different positions. But I can’t follow him here:

Liberalism, in its truest and most noble form, is an epistemology; it is a way of approaching problems through the use of empiricism and the application of universal principles of justice. A true liberal is defined not by what he believes on any given issue, but by how he arrives at his conclusions. And those conclusions, whatever they may be, are always provisional, for a true liberal is always open to the possibility that his conclusions are wrong and is always receptive to arguments which are grounded in empiricism and concern for justice.

Well, that sounds nice, but what are universal principles of justice — and what happens when they conflict with empirical data? What is true, in the factual sense, is not always compatible with what is just. Justice is not a fact, it’s a value. I’m sure that A.L. and I would both stand together against any attempt to revive eugenics, because to do so would violate our shared sense of justice — and we would do so even if empirical data rationalized eugenicist policies. But to do so could mean denying facts — not denying their factuality, necessarily, but denying that those facts are so meaningful that they should compel us to act in a way we believe to be unjust. That’s well and good — we all have to have an interpretive framework in which to analyze data — but see, already, then, one’s claim to be driven by facts is compromised.
A.L. might respond that choosing to act in a way contrary to the facts is not the same thing as actually denying the factual quality of the data. And he would be right. But it’s funny how that distinction is often not made within individuals and deliberative groups. And in a society that privileges scientism and empiricism as ours does, it’s not hard to see why this distinction is often ignored: the political actors that can claim to have the facts on their side are often the ones who have the rhetorical advantage.
Moreover, if it’s true that liberalism is an epistemology, then so too is conservatism — one that, in its truest and noblest form, is far more open than liberalism to valuing the wisdom of the past as a sure guide to the present. It’s weakness is that it can become fixated on tradition, and rigid in the application of its principles; conservatives can forget that theirs is not an ideology, but a temperament, and way of looking at the world — in fact, a sort of epistemology. The problem with liberalism as an epistemology is that it can fall prey to being a prisoner of the present moment, and pays insufficient attention to the wisdom of the past — this, as a result of its high idealism.
In their decadent stages — and these things are cyclical — both liberalism and conservatism forget that they are at their best limited epistemologies — ways of seeing and evaluating the world that can only show us a partial truth — and not ideologies. Epistemic humility is a virtue of which all sides have great need these days.
[Note to readers: if you want to discuss liberalism and conservatism in the sense of how they shape the way we know things and interpret reality, I’m pleased to host that here. If you want to get into a pointless Internet political slap fight, I’m going to unpublish those posts. I’m talking about the “Was Hitler a Christian?” endless exchanges that never lead anywhere, but allow people to vent about their enemies. Not interested in that. — RD.]

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