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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More Rorty

Jonah Lehrer, in his blog The Frontal Cortex definitely speaks for me when he says "I've never understood why, exactly, Rorty got such a vehement anti-science reputation. I always thought Rorty's views on science were simple common sense."

You can say that again!

"To put it simply," Lehrer continues, "Rorty thought we should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature. Instead, we should see our facts as tools, which, as William James put it, "help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience."

He goes on to provide a few choice quotes from Rorty that are lovely to re-read (Indeed, what a pleasure it is to read peoples' favorite quotes among the many tributes, and to stumble upon only half-remembered but once-cherished bits!):
There is nothing wrong with science, there is only something wrong with the attempt to divinize it.

and this:

My rejection of traditional notions of rationality can be summed up by saying that the only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity.

By solidarity, Rorty meant that science had developed institutions that allowed it to engage in "free and open encounters":

"On this view, [continues Lehrer] there is no reason to praise scientists for being more 'objective' or 'logical' or 'methodical' or 'devoted to truth' than other people. But there is plenty of reason to praise the institutions that they have developed and within which they work, and to use these as models for the rest of culture. For these institutions give concreteness and detail to the idea of unforced agreement."

Lehrer concludes his comments nicely enough: "Finally, for those who would disparage Rorty as some kind of Derridean post-modernist who believed that there is no truth there are only texts [I'll leave aside whether or not it is exactly fair to disparage Derrida as saying this either. -- Dale], I can only offer this common-sense retort from Rorty himself":
To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.

Lehrer, sums up: "The man could turn a phrase."

Could he ever!

To all this, let me add that Rorty was always quite happy to concede the conventional Jamesian line that some descriptions are better in the way of belief than others, and he would surely agree with the criteria and even the weightings of these criteria that tend to be mobilized by scientifically literate people in general when one wants to go about trying to discern just which among the descriptions presently on offer are the best candidates for our belief where, say, matters of prediction and control are concerned.

What Rorty disapproved were the priestly and patriarchal paraphernalia with which our truths tend to get freighted once we have settled into our warranted confidences in them. These, one can nicely summarize as:

Fantasies of Finality (which include models of scientific "progress" that rely stealthily on finality as when science is figured as an approach, sometimes asymtotic, sometimes not, toward "capture," correspondence, indefeasibility, and so on)

Fantasies of Certainty (which is, after all, a gun that shoots nothing but blanks, inasmuch as there is no single available criterion for warranted belief which has not, in the past, perfectly properly warranted beliefs that were nonetheless subsequently defeated for better alternatives)

Fantasies of Irresistibility (the delusive and hence dangerous dream of a compelling self-evidence that could insulate one's cherished beliefs from contest, from appealing attitudes about why democracy, charity, or reasonableness must finally prevail over elitism, greed, and aggression, for example, as well as to ugly parochial attitudes about the racial or religious or socioeconomic superiority of this or that corralling together of some among other human animals or what have you)

Fantasies of Hardness (as against, you know, the "soft" not-quite truths of the poor effete aesthetes of the humanities, for example, or the poor social scientists with their wannabe objective pie charts, and so on)

Fantasies of Objectivity (construed not as adherence to useful criteria of reasonableness hacked together through long centuries of hard-won collective experimentalist effort, but as some kind of correspondence between our own warranted knowledges of the world and the way the world itself would have us know it if it could somehow have and express opinions in the matter)

It is in this last formulation that one can see how Rorty's atheism put him at odds with the scientism of many other public atheists, who are liable to look from a Rortian perspective to have opted for curiously faithful construals of warranted belief, usually the better to preserve the authoritarian priestly formations that tend to accompany such construals.

This they do, perhaps, because they would like to arrive at or to preserve the prerogatives of such priestly authority themselves, or because they would prefer to obey the edicts of priests in certain matters of belief rather than undertake the effort of thinking for themselves, or of taking on the burden or responsibility for beliefs that one comes to hold on their own, or of facing the pleasures and dangers of a world in which there may not be an adequate partner or parent-surrogate to console them for the uncertainty, fragility, vulnerability, complexity, and betrayals of life as adults are compelled to grapple with these things.

No doubt most of the champions of science who disdain Rorty as some kind of clownish or menacing relativist feel quite assured that their own smug scientisms are free from such Fantasies as these, and that such formulations are truisms everybody already believes or perhaps facile straw men easily torched without giving pause to the triumphalist trajectory of human technoscience aspiring ecstatically in the direction of theology's omni-predicates.

To these I can only say that it is not by your occasional and tangential reassurances, nicely mindful of your finitude when the force of argument demands as much from you, but by your words and deeds in the main that you are best exposed in your narcissistic immodesties and ambitions. But beyond this, it seems to me that the reaction to Rorty's rather commonsensical formulations about truth, knowledge, progress, and shared hope (admittedly, complicated sometimes by a somewhat whimsical and also acerbic rhetorical streak that I would be the last person in the world to complain about) is itself as fine an indicator of one's susceptibility to authoritarianism and priggishness in matters of belief as anything else we've got on hand.

It is never "truth" but the authoritarianism of certain flavors of truth-talk that is menaced, if anything at all can properly be said to be, by Richard Rorty's writing. We should bear this in mind when observing those who claim to discern a threat in Rorty's work on warranted scientific belief.


Mike Treder said...

Nice work, Dale. I find your Five Fantasies much worth pondering.

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, thanks, Mike -- and it's good to hear from you, it's been a little while! Hope all's well in your world these days.