These last two days I have been rather preoccupied with preparations for a weekend course that I’m teaching. In my spare time I’ve been laboring on a new book project I’m working on, something really interesting that makes a novel contribution to the literature but which is broadly accessible to a lay audience. Suffice it to say, I haven’t had the time to engage with the many interesting and ongoing discussions but I will get back in the game soon enough (no doubt too soon for some).
In the interim, I have an interesting quote from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers. Given that we’ve been talking about that naughty rhetoric for much of the week I thought about this book which, though well written (as you’ll see below) nonethleless is choked by its unquestioned and grossly simplistic binary opposition.
In the quote in question, Raymo lays out the kind of faith he as a skeptic has:
“Let this, then, be the ground of my faith: All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or will ever have, is as an island in a sea [of mystery]…. We live in our partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land. Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring. And occasionally, at certain disquieting moments in history (Aristarchus, Galileo, Planck, Einstein), a tempest of mystery comes rolling in from the sea and overwhelms our efforts, reclaims knowledge that has been built up by years of patient work, and forces us to retreat to the surest, most secure core of what we know, where we huddle in fear and trembling until the storm subsides, and then we start building again, throwing up dikes, pumping, filling, extending the perimeter of our knowledge and our security.”
It is a wonderful image. Never mind that it is completely out of step with the superior attitude Raymo takes through much of the book to those he labels “believers”. If Raymo really believes we are hemmed in by this much mystery then from where does he get the confidence that all the people he labels believers are as completely wrong as he seems to think?
Think about it like this. Imagine you brought your Justin Bieber obsessed fourteen year old niece to the National Gallery in London to try and get her some culture. As she looks skeptically at Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnières” she says “Yawn. This museum is just full of crap.” Then she plugs her headphones back in and goes back to her Bieber-world.
You would think her attitude doubly flawed. It is flawed first because she fails to grasp the great art in her midst. But it is also flawed in a more critical way in her sure conviction that nobody else might possibly grasp something she fails to grasp. Her first mistake is mere ignorance, the second a more serious dogmatism.
Raymo likewise reflects ignorance. He doesn’t know if there is more than he has immediately experienced. It remains mystery to him. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with admitting your failure to grasp an aspect of reality. Indeed, that’s far better than faking it. You could respect your niece for admitting that Seurat doesn’t do anything for her. And you can respect Raymo for admitting that he doesn’t experience that dimension of reality that so many of those he labels “believers” seem to. But when Raymo goes on to declare that nobody can grasp an additional dimension to reality that he has failed grasp, he speaks with all the ignorant dogmatism of the fourteen year old niece. The fact that such dubious dogmatism comes dressed in the garb of abject humility is merely the ironic icing on the cake.