Friday, March 07, 2008

Pointing Out an Argument About Truth

I notice that PZ Myers, talking about John Wilkins's recent thoughtful reflection on problems, uses some of his favorite rhetorical mud -- one of the words that comes up, for instance, is 'shrill', one of his favorite words, which is used so promiscuously that it's obvious that it has nothing to do with the style or tone of what it is used to label. (But you don't have to take my word for it. You can use a search engine to find the posts in which Myers has called someone shrill for disagreeing with a position he holds -- I did, since when I first considered pointing out that Myers seems to use 'shrill' in this way, I wanted to be sure that it wasn't just selective memory. There are, however, many, and you will be hardpressed to find anything in common with the things given the label except that Myers disagrees with them.) But he doesn't stop there; he pulls out all the stops. Indeed, he spends very little space actually analyzing Wilkins's post and a great deal of space piling on gratuitous descriptions of Wilkins. For instance, he doesn't just attribute to Wilkins the claim that Dawkins is practicing atheism rather as if it were a religion, he says, "the running them of his critique, the great dirty word that he uses to bludgeon Dawkins in reply, is to claim with flashing eye and a sneer and a spit that he's practicing atheism as one of those filthy religions." Needless to say, Myers did not watch Wilkins write the post with flashing eyes, sneers, and spitting; it's a caricature, and a rather silly one at that. One could perhaps suggest that Wilkins's post has a tone that's annoyed and grumpy in parts; but the claim that it is shrill, sneering, and involves any spitting is not really going to withstand the scrutiny of a spectator. Indeed, the claim, with its wild exaggeration and attempt to link Wilkins to creationists, seems...a little shrill.

In any case, the point that I thought was particularly interesting in Wilkins's post was the following argument:

And while we're on truth, let's stop pretending all this talk of truth is scientific and not religious in itself. Scientific ideas are tested or not, reliable or not. They are never True, just good enough. To talk about Truth is to help yourself to the trappings of religion under the counter, as it were.

(This is, in fact, what opens the paragraph that starts Myers off on the flashing eyes and spitting.) Although it's informally expressed here (not surprisingly, given that it is an incidental mention at the end of a blog post), Wilkins is actually presenting an argument that has become fairly common among naturalists. I once attended a talk by Simon Blackburn where he gave a version of this argument quite eloquently (and in a context that had nothing to do with Dawkins, since it was part of an abstract argument about the desiderata for a account of truth). This type of argument can get very sophisticated (and complicated), but the general gist summarized very nicely by Wilkins here, and I wanted to point it out as food for thought. (I'm inclined to disagree with it myself, at least without serious qualifications, but I think it worthy of serious attention.)

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