Saturday, July 31, 2021

Situational Epistemology and the Common Good

I have just finished reading

Stock, K. (2021). Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism. London: Fleet.

As the subtitle suggests, a significant part of the book is about feminism and, specifically, the response of feminism to gender-identity theory. I am not at all sure that I want to get into the ins and outs of the male-female, man-woman, gay, lesbian, transexual, bisexual, and everything else arguments the bedevil these conversations. Suffice it only to say that Stock shows, fairly convincingly, that there is a great deal of woolly thinking going on in some quarters, especially in the various lobbying groups, the consequences of which could be devastating for some other groups, particularly cis women.

Still, I by no means wish to get embroiled in some of the nasty invective that these conversations (in so far as they are conversations) usually include. I would like to focus on one of the assertions which is made by some of the lobby groups, that of ‘situational epistemology’.

On the face of it, situational epistemology is a fairly straightforward idea. Only a transsexual person can really know what it is like to be the said transexual person. I think that we can concede that without a problem. After all, only I know what it is like to be me. In fact, I am the world expert on being me. I can tell others, perhaps convincingly, what being me is like, but they cannot know that without actually becoming me, which is impossible.

The next step in the argument is the one which bears some examination, though. As the transexual person (or anyone else for that matter) is the only person who can speak of their experience, and as the said transexual person (but not the others) is oppressed, then only the transexual person can say anything about how transsexual people should be treated. This is where the dubious step, in my view, occurs.

We have conceded that only an individual can speak about what it is like to be an individual. However, a vociferous transexual, by the lights of situational epistemology, can surely only speak with authority about how it is to be themselves, not another transexual, or another woman or man or bisexual. The claim then that only transexuals can speak about policy towards transsexuality because they are the oppressed people, on the face of it, is a valid claim. The problem is that this is only a valid claim if all other transsexuals agree with them and by the light of situational epistemology that cannot be the case. There is no reason to believe that an articulate, educated, middle-class transsexual person can speak for someone less well educated, for example.

This sort of leads on to the next problem with situational epistemology. As John Donne put it centuries ago, when the word ‘man’ could still refer to the human race: ‘No man is an island’. Put another way, Aristotle observes that ‘man is a political animal’: a man of the polis, the city. We are humans and we live in communities. Even the least sociable among us lives in a community, and that community, in part at least, defines us.

The problem here with situational epistemology is that the claim is made that only person X can speak about being person X, and, therefore, only person X can hold valid opinions about how person X and their like (assuming some common trait among people that person X claims to represent) should be treated by everyone else. That is, put another way, person X comes to dictate to everyone else some aspects of society and its arrangements because person X is recognised as representative of people with the trait that person X has (suppose it is trait A). Person X represents all people with trait A, and then has the authority to say that people with trait A should be treated in manner M by society.

The problem here is twofold. Firstly, person X is silencing everyone else with trait A who might, or might not, wish the be treated in manner M. Secondly, in fact, person X is silencing everyone else, including people who might be harmed by society treating people with trait A in manner M, at least if the arguments deployed by person X and their supporters against any detractors are merely to abuse and accuse them of a heinous crime against people with trait A, pushing such people back into being an oppressed minority.

Thus Stock has a problem with transsexual lobbyists who argue that people who declare themselves to be female should be able to use female changing facilities, female prisons, and so on. The problem is that this implies a naive anthropology, that is that someone who declares themselves female is, and should be treated as, being female. There is no accommodation for the fact that people might be making such a declaration for their own persons, in the case of males claiming to be females, for personal sexual gratification.

Now, this is not to say that there are not in existence some people born with male bodies who genuinely are caused psychological harm by being counted by society as males for all time and everywhere. But nor should we be so naive suppose that all such claimants, especially when the claims are made by people who make no effort to in fact transform are genuinely females. Such claims have an impact on society, in this case, on the safety of females in woman-only areas of society.

The problem here is a broader one than our response to transsexuality. The problem is the relationship between the individual and society. The ethic deployed by the transsexual lobby groups is highly individualistic. It has to be right for the person declaring themselves to be something other than their biological sex. However, to ignore that accepting this on a large scale could cause significant problems to other sections of society is rather narrow-minded, to say the least.

We are not isolated, autonomous, atomised individuals, no matter how much postmodernism might claim that we are. We still have to live in a society, and that society has to provide safety and security for all, not just for one group which declares itself to be oppressed and to be able to speak for all such oppressed people.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Frontiers of Knowledge

As I have mentioned, I have been, fairly slowly, reading

Grayling, A. C. (2021). The Frontiers of Knowledge: What We Now Know About Science, History and the Mind. London: Penguin.

It is a good book, nicely written, although of course, it cannot deliver on the sub-title. We know a lot more about science than high-energy particle physics and cosmology, for example. Fortunately, Grayling is well aware of the limits of the book.

I have mentioned already the irritations of the section on physics, and I will not rehearse them again. I am not a historian, but I do think that the middle section on history attempts to do too much. It covers both the evolution of the human from the various fossil traces, and a bit about pre-history and early history which can be gleaned from archaeology. There is a good bit about various sorts of historical denial – starting with Holocaust deniers but moving beyond that to the various issues arising from colonialism and its usually violent interactions with those already settled in the ‘empty’ lands of North America and Australia.

The third section, on psychology and the philosophy of mind I cannot really comment on. The achievements in experimental psychology are great, its implications are uncertain and concerning on ethical grounds. We already know that Internet giants and some governments collect a great deal of data on people’s online habits, and use that to either try to sell us stuff or monitor our activities for possible subversive activity. As with, for example, nuclear weapons, the advances of a young science, in this case, neuroscience, outstrip our moral and cultural resources to decide what we want to do with it. As it is almost impossible in these circumstances, to stop the science being done (perhaps scientists are a bit naive, thinking that no one would use their discoveries for bad purposes) we are left with the uneasy feeling that the advances will not end well for humanity.

Still, Grayling is an atheist, and so you know what you are going to get when you read the book. Actually, he manages to keep his own views on religion fairly well at bay. There are a few ‘god-of-the-gaps’ snipes early on, and an extended part on the iniquities of the Templeton Foundation funding archaeological work on ancient sites looking for evidence of religion. It is a fair point that religion in, say, 10000 BC may not look anything like religion in the 2000s AD. It could, in fact, be noted that religion in, say, Japan in 2020 probably does not look much like (at least so far as material remains may go) religion in England in 2020. The problem is not, perhaps, one of looking for evidence of something, but that archaeology gives a snapshot of material remains, not meanings. We cannot, in fact, reconstruct the meanings that our ancestors placed on certain material items. Speculation is all that remains.

Still, at the end, Grayling launches the long-expected (by me, at least) attack on religion, declaring it irrational (as opposed to rational beliefs). An irrational belief is taken as false when premising them or acting on them leads to a high incidence of poor outcomes (p. 338). Irrational beliefs are also inconsistent with each other or with rational beliefs. Grayling, of course, singles out the problem of evil – the existence of an omnipotent and wholly good deity is inconsistent with natural evils. The god is either not omnipotent or not good.

Grayling claims the theological response to the problem of evil is that suffering serves some greater long term good which we, as mere humans, cannot discern. ‘The carpet of divine inscrutability is always a good place to sweep difficulties under, and the kind of manoeuvre in which it consists is a mark of irrational belief in its own right.’ (p. 339). Perhaps, but for all his acquired erudition in physics, history and neuroscience, Grayling’s theology is a bit suspect. I doubt that divine inscrutability would last long as a theodicy in any undergraduate essay on the problem of evil. To suppose that theologians are not aware of the problems and have, on the whole, moved beyond that solution to the problem of evil is actually to insult theology as an academic discipline, theologians as rational humans, and to presume that theology does not develop as a discipline.

There are many responses, theologically, to the problem of evil that do not sweep it under the carpet of divine inscrutability. Natural evils, after all, often arise from our own errors and sinfulness in using and abusing the world and its resources. The death toll in the 2004 tsunami was a lot higher than it could have been if humans had not cleared the mango swamps to make beaches for tourists. It is quite possible that the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided if habitat destruction had not forced wild animals into closer proximity with humans, with consequences for inter-species transmission of a virus. Childhood cancer, or some of them, could well be linked to pollution or environmental chemicals. And so on.

To claim that theology has no rational response to the problem of evil is, it seems to me, to perpetrate a sweeping under the carpet of religious irrationality of the responses which rational theologians have made. This is unfortunate. If Grayling is going to comment on something he could, at least, be fair enough to find more recent responses to evil in the theological literature than his (unreferenced) sweeping statements. After all, he has clearly followed some of the literature in the other fields he focuses on.

The point of the book is to demonstrate that while we are probing the frontiers of knowledge, in all directions, we are simply adding to the stack of things that we do not know, but are becoming aware of being ignorant of. It is a bit of a shame that Grayling perpetrates such ignorance with respect to theology right at the end.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...