Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

Conspiracy Theories, Plausible or Not

Last year, a company called Public Policy Polling asked 1,247 registered voters in the United States their opinions regarding what the company called “conspiracy theories” (although some of the questions, such as “Do you believe aliens exist, or not?” don’t necessarily refer to conspiracies). Here are some of the more interesting questions and answers, beginning with the least popular “theories”. The poll, which is described here, had a margin of error of 2.8%.

1) Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies, or not?

11% of the respondents said Yes or weren’t sure (happily, that means 89% said No).

2) Do you believe that the exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons, or not?

13% said Yes or weren’t sure (not surprisingly, 87% said No).

3) Do you believe the moon landing was faked, or not?

16% said Yes or weren’t sure.

4) Do you believe Paul McCartney actually died in a car crash in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a lookalike so the Beatles could continue, or not?

19% said Yes or weren’t sure.

5) Do you believe the United States government knowingly allowed the attacks on September 11th, 2001, to happen, or not?

22% Yes or weren’t sure.

6) Do you believe media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals, or not?

30% Yes or weren’t sure.

7) Do you believe global warming is a hoax, or not?

49% Yes or weren’t sure.

8) Do you believe a UFO crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and the US government covered it up, or not?

53% Yes or weren’t sure (21% said Yes).

9) Do you believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order, or not?

53% Yes or weren’t sure (but 28% said Yes).

10)  Do you believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, or not?

54% Yes or weren’t sure (20% said Yes).

11) Do you believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq War, or not?

56% Yes or weren’t sure (44% said Yes).

12) Do you believe that there was a conspiracy (whether or not it included Lee Harvey Oswald) behind the assassination of President Kennedy?

75% Yes or weren’t sure (although I rephrased the question to make it consistent with the others).

One might conclude from some of these results that an uncomfortably large percentage of the American electorate is absolutely nuts. However, we should keep in mind what David Hume said about miracles. If someone claims to have seen a miracle, it’s much more likely that he or she is lying or confused than that a miracle actually occurred. Likewise, if roughly 10% of voters are open to the possibility that shape-shifting reptiles walk among us or that those vapor trails up in the sky are a government plot, we should conclude that many who gave those answers were either confused about the question or messing with the pollsters.

On the other hand, if shape-shifting reptiles do control many of the world’s governments, that would explain a lot. And I for one say “Welcome to our reptilian overlords!”.

(Note: that’s supposed to be a giant insect in the picture behind Kent Brockman, but somebody decided to add a guy’s face.)

A couple of these poll results are more troubling. Half of us think that global warming is a hoax or are open to that possibility, and a similar percentage think that vaccines do or may cause autism. It’s understandable why some might think that the experts are mistaken about global warming, but to believe that thousands of scientists are or could be conspiring to mislead the rest of us is incredibly dumb and also likely to impede efforts to address the problem. Similarly, one might wonder if there is a possible link between vaccines and autism, but to take that idea seriously enough to ignore the medical consensus and not vaccinate one’s children is both foolish and dangerous.

There’s a natural tendency to be skeptical about whatever the official story is. None of us want to be taken in by the powers that be. Governments, corporations and supposed experts lie more than they should and conspiracies do sometimes occur. There’s also nothing wrong with keeping an open mind on controversial topics when there is evidence on both sides.

So I’m comfortable being with the skeptical majority who think people in the Bush administration lied about those weapons of mass destruction or at least decided it wasn’t worth knowing the truth. I’m also comfortable saying that Lee Harvey Oswald may have participated in a conspiracy or been used by one. I think he acted alone but wouldn’t be surprised either way (unless Vice President Johnson had something to do with it – that would be a big surprise). The good news is that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld can’t do much damage anymore and anyone who was involved in the Kennedy assassination is probably gone or will be soon.

A probably unrelated note: Having been on the Central Coast of California for the past week or so, I can report that the state has not completely dried out. In fact, casual observation revealed very little evidence of the major drought they’re having. Shops in one small town were directing everyone to some new portable toilets on the main street, and the outdoor showers at one of the beaches were turned off. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the drought is a hoax being carried out by conspiring reptilian shape-shifters, but you never know.

What It Means to Really Believe

At some point along the way, most philosophers came to the conclusion that having a belief isn’t simply an internal state of the believer. One might suppose otherwise — that in order for Mary to believe some proposition P, she simply needs to be in the appropriate internal mental state, perhaps one in which she is silently saying to herself “You know, I really believe P”.

There is some truth to the internalist view. After all, we sometimes reach conclusions without announcing them to the world. Archimedes could have stepped into his bathtub, noticed how the water rose and immediately acquired a belief about how to measure the volume of irregularly-shaped objects — while keeping his mouth firmly shut, saving “Eureka!” for another time and place.

One problem with this view, however, is that it seems wrong to say that Mary believes P if her behavior is (consistently) inconsistent with believing P. Say, for example, that Mary claims to believe that all Americans should pay their required income tax, yet fails to pay any tax at all on her extremely high income. When the IRS comes calling, she is nowhere to be found. Mary might loudly proclaim that she believes in paying her income tax — she often says to herself “We Americans should all pay what we owe to the IRS” — but we would be remiss if we didn’t reply: “You claim to believe that, Mary, but your behavior shows that you really don’t”.

I was recently moved to think about what it means to really believe by an exchange of views on an Internet message board. The subject of this particular board is a certain fairly well-known musician. During a recent discussion, a Christian gentleman, veering seriously off-topic, wrote the following:

I got on here before and some people complained, saying that I shouldn’t be using the forum for a place to discuss God. It started a controversy. The people here who go to church etc, and those who don’t. It starts a conflict. That’s the way witnessing is. That’s the way it always is. I won’t continually use the forum here to witness day to day, etc. That’s not the only purpose of the community here. People have a right to get on here and talk about music without someone telling them that they need God. I understand that. But I can’t deny God when I need to mention Him.

And later:

We don’t have to be preaching every minute of the day…. I am getting ready to take a trip up the road to the place I go to see flowers, etc. I don’t feel that I am lost because of it. There is plenty of time for me to enjoy my life, whether it is music, art or whatever, being with family, etc.

The question that occurred to me was: how should a person behave if he really, truly believes that the Christian God exists and that each of us is going to face an eternity of paradise or damnation? How much time should a person spend “witnessing”, i.e. doing God’s work by trying to convince other people of the truth of Christianity, so that they might enjoy a good afterlife? Should one witness only when the mood strikes? An hour a week? One day a week? Five days a week? Every waking hour?

Charles Stanley, of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, put it this way: “God’s plan for enlarging His kingdom is so simple — one person telling another about the Savior. Yet we’re busy and full of excuses. Just remember, someone’s eternal destiny is at stake.”

Here’s another example. If you truly believe that every fertilized egg is a full-fledged human being, so that abortion is murder plain and simple, what should you do to stop abortions? If you really believe that there are murders being committed every day in a neighborhood clinic, is it enough to express disapproval to your friends, or to show up once a week outside the clinic and try to convince women not to go inside? Or should you be doing something much more dramatic? If you believed that children were being murdered every day in the back room of your local 7-11, what would you do to stop it from happening?

I go back and forth between atheism and agnosticism (do I believe that God doesn’t exist? Or do I strongly doubt it?). So I’m asking these questions as an outsider. I’m not trying to live according to the supposed dictates of the divine ruler of all creation. But I wonder why more Christians don’t behave like those Asian monks, giving up their worldly pursuits, leaving their loved ones and spending all of their time preaching and praying, relying on donations to survive (remember that comment about rich people finding it terribly difficult to get into heaven).

Do serious Christians truly believe what they claim to believe? I think the answer is “yes”, but why don’t they behave more often as if they do?

One answer is that they think some level of prescribed behavior is “good enough”. It isn’t necessary to be a perfect Christian. You just need to meet some minimum requirements in order to get to heaven, so why do more? It’s only right that we should enjoy life while we can, even if that means a few more souls end up in Hell and some more babies are murdered. 

Another possibility is that the seriously religious don’t feel it’s necessary to be their brother’s keeper. So long as they (and their loved ones, perhaps) are doing the right thing, they don’t have a responsibility to make sure that everyone else does the right thing too. It would be wonderful if lots of other people could be saved and go to heaven. It would be wonderful if there were no more abortions. In fact, it’s your Christian duty to do what you can to make those wonderful things happen, but only within reason. It isn’t necessary to devote your whole life to other people’s problems. 

Or maybe they just haven’t thought too hard about this kind of thing. They grew up in the church, saw how other Christians behaved and followed their lead. That’s human nature. 

P.S. — I could have written about Islam instead of Christianity, of course. It’s doubtful that all Muslims try to be perfect Muslims. Unfortunately, a tiny minority of Muslims take their religion extremely seriously, mixing it with politics to violent effect.