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There has been a lot of commentary on the political blogs around the concept of “epistemic closure,” which is a fancy way of saying “closed-mindedness.” The point of discussion has been on whether or not conservatives today are “epistemically closed,” meaning in practical terms, are they willing to consider information and arguments that tell them things they would rather not believe. I remind you again that this is no longer a political blog, so I’m not going to weigh in on the specifics of this question, vis-a-vis conservatism. Readers from the old days can easily imagine where I stand.
What is perhaps more interesting, though, is to consider that all of us are to some degree epistemically closed. We have to be. Someone named Anonymous Liberal writes:
The central dilemma for those us left in the empirical world is how to puncture the bubble. What can we do to make facts once again relevant? What can be done to dis-incentivize the kind of lying and reality denial that has become the hallmark of the modern conservative movement? I can’t say that I have answers to these questions, but I’m pretty confident that these are THE questions that we should be asking. Policy debates are great, but only when they take place in the empirical world. If a majority of Americans aren’t living in that world, then such debates risk becoming purely academic exercises.
…and I get where he’s coming from. I really do. But my alarm goes off when he writes about “those [of] us left in the empirical world.” Really? You really do think you live in the empirical world? Mind you, everybody believes that he sees the world as it really is, but I am struck by how confident people are that they can’t possibly be missing something, that they and their tribe have all the answers, and don’t have to consider how their own biases distort reality. Put another way, I’d be interested to know what counts for “empirical” in Anonymous Liberal’s world.
Now, this is not to start a political argument — so look, don’t do that in the comboxes — but simply to say that we ought to be pay closer attention to the quotes I put up here yesterday. When Andrew Brown, writing at the Guardian, says, “It is only values which decide which facts exist to us,” he’s making an observation about epistemic closure — that is, how we decide what to call a fact.
For example, for many Chinese people, especially martial artists and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, chi (or qi) is a fact. It may not be isolatable according to Western scientific practice, but to a Chinese person, this only speaks of the limits of Western science. The Wikipedia entry on qi actually offers a helpful couple of lines to the point I’m trying to make:
Until China came into contact with Western scientific and philosophical ideas (primarily by way of Catholic missionaries), they knew about things like stones and lightning, but they would not have categorized them in terms of matter and energy. Qi and li (?, li, pattern) are their fundamental categories much as matter and energy have been fundamental categories for people in the West.
One of the things I found so intellectually engaging about the brief study I did last summer about Traditional Chinese Medicine is learning how Chinese thought is so categorically different from Western thought. The book to read on this is “The Web That Has No Weaver.” In that book, Dr. Ted Kaptchuk explains that two “different logical structures” for how to approach the body and indeed how to approach physical reality are in play when you compare Western medicine to Traditional Chinese medicine. To say that one of them is “true” and the other is nonsense is absurd. But each system has values that decide which facts exist within that system.
This is what Stanley Fish is getting at when he says:
It is often said that religious reasons are defective because they refuse judgment by norms that are not nominated by, and already included in, the faith. But the same is true, if Kuhn is right, of all reasons — political, scientific, medical, educational, etc. They are good reasons, reasons for right or moral action, only within the faith that gives them life and to which they return a continual homage.
Now, it must be stressed that this is not to say that we all have the right to decide on our own reality. It is, however, to say that while it is undoubtedly true that not all visions of reality are equally valid — there is not, for example, a Goodyear blimp floating in the air outside my office window, and someone who insisted that there was would plainly be mad — we should be cautious about asserting the triumphant truth of our own way of seeing the world. We don’t always know what we think we know, and we never know what we don’t know.
Consider the Harvard scientist Richard Lewontin, who said famously that “materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” This means that he would consider any evidence pointing to the existence of God, or a realm of the spirit, to be by definition nonsense. His materialist values will not allow him to consider as “facts” any evidence that contradicts them. Materialism is, for Lewontin, non-falsifiable — as non-falsifiable as theism is for a committed religious believer. Our minds are never as open as we think they are.
Again, this is not a brief for relativism, moral or otherwise. It is, though, to put in a word for intellectual humility. Facts really are stubborn things … but what is a fact?