A Pro-Bono Offer To Teach Brett Stephens Some Epistemology

This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.

Greetings,
I’m a professor of philosophy of Brooklyn College and I’m writing to offer to teach epistemology (the study of knowledge) to Brett Stephens, your Op-Ed columnist. His last three essays (‘This Revolution Too, Will Eat It’s Children‘, ‘This I Believe About Blasey vs. Kavanaugh,’ ‘Believability is the Road to National Ruin‘) have shown an alarming ignorance of some basic principles of epistemology–the kind that we introduce to our beginner undergraduate students in elementary introductions to philosophy or in our elective epistemology class. (The study of epistemology goes back all the way to Plato and a firm grounding in its fundamentals is essential for any student, not just philosophy majors.)

To wit,  Mr. Stephens does not understand the relationship between beliefs and action. He does not understand the difference between belief and knowledge. He does not understand the difference between different epistemic standards employed in differing contexts–as such, he does not understand the difference between legal standards of belief and knowledge, and how they pertain to legal decisions, and ‘normal’ or other standards of belief and knowledge and how they apply in different contexts. These are elementary distinctions and everyone, especially every adult and every responsible citizen of a democratic republic, should be aware of them. It is entirely possible that Mr. Stephens has never taken a class in philosophy or epistemology and perhaps he has never been introduced to the notion of ‘epistemic standards’ and how these might vary across different ‘epistemic contexts.’ But that is no reason for him to remain ignorant of them.

Which is where my pro-bono offer to teach Mr. Stephens some basic epistemology comes in. I also teach philosophy of law, and would be happy to introduce Mr. Stephens to some basic jurisprudential debates about the nature of belief formation in legal contexts and how even within legal domains, there can be differing epistemic standards that generate varying epistemic contexts.

I write in the spirit of offering to perform my civic duty. Mr. Stephens has a prominent and powerful pulpit from which he can address the American people, and he is, as I am, concerned about the state of the American Republic. I believe, as I’m sure he does, that his writing would be improved if he did not trade in the sorts of elementary confusions that are on display in his writing. Mr. Stephens indicates in his pieces the need to keep an open mind; I appreciate that spirit, and in keeping with it, would like to help educate Mr. Stephens.

I do not have contact information for Mr. Stephens and would appreciate it if you could please forward this email to him. I can be reached at my work email address above. I look forward to hearing from him, given his avowed commitment to open inquiry and fair thinking.

best,
Professor Samir Chopra
Department of Philosophy
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210

 

Ross Douthat is Feeling Sorry for Bigots

Ross Douthat doth protest too much:

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.

I have news for you, Ross: you are being self-pitying. This bemoaning a straightforward victory for common-sense–the vetoing of Arizona’s benighted SB1062–is a particularly pathetic exercise . An entire Op-Ed to tell us bigots are on the run, and will be ‘forced’ to do so?

What makes this response [to Arizona’s benighted SB1062] particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

This is sophistry. Call a spade a spade; it’s “carving out protections for bigotry.”

If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job.

What would really help is supporters for traditional marriage renting a clue and reading a book or two about marriage’s historical origins and its placement within the political economy of society, its role in the subjugation of women and the enforcement of patriarchy. Then perhaps this utterly profane institution will be demoted from the ranks of the sacred and take its rightful place among other social customs, each with its own historical origin, each rooted in human needs, and each serving very particular ideologies. Also: why not replace “traditional marriage” above with “the bigoted exclusion of gays from social rituals”?

Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Here are the exceedingly simple terms of the surrender: stop being bigoted assholes; stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Ross Douthat, Sophistry, and Getting Philip Larkin Wrong

Folks familiar with Ross Douthat’s writing over at the New York Times should be well clued-on to his style, which produces bits of meandering sophistry that include a sentence or two toward the end giving away the game. In those sentences, Douthat reveals the tension of maintaining the appearance of a sophisticated intellectual conservative is too great to bear and rips off the mask to grant us all an unmediated audience.

The latest exhibit in this portfolio of pretense-and-revelation is on display in Douthat’s attempts to enlist the recently departed Christopher Hitchens into the ranks of the believers. Douthat’s arguments do not rise above the level of suggesting Hitchens’ attitude toward religion was a case of Freudian reaction-formation. But, as promised, the real kicker is at the end, where with delightful predictability, Douthat reveals his true agenda:

When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that “death is no different whined at than withstood.”

This is a classic-threefer.

In turn: “Marxist fairy-tales”? “Techno-utopian happy-talk”? What are these? Button-pushes, I’m guessing; rallying cries to enlist the faithful. “Rigorous atheism” does not require either fairy-tales or utopian promises; au contraire, it aims to dispense with the need for those anti-humanist, teleological, and eschatological narratives that Douthat apparently needs to sustain himself.

Then there is the tired old claim about atheism making “human hope and endeavor” impossible. The breathtaking arrogance on display here is almost too much to bear. The only one with the impoverished view of the human condition and the only denier of the infinitely varied human ability to make and sustain meaning is Douthat himself. Mankind has shown itself capable of meaning-construction in myriad, countless ways; belief in the existence of a Supreme Being has never been necessary, sufficient, nor in many cases, desirable. Historical ignorance and pathetic parochialism are the least of Douthat’s sins here.

Finally, just to round things off, Douthat gets Philip Larkin wrong. Those who will admire Douthat for his erudition in quoting a poet in an Op-Ed should read Larkin’s poem for themselves. How Larkin’s ode to the challenge that death lays down for all our attempts to reckon with our temporary, transient foothold in the cosmos can be read as an indictment of atheism is beyond me. If anything, Larkin’s pessimistic vision can be read as the starting point of a new hope; having dispensed with all false promises to make death palatable, one is finally ready to face its irrevocable, everlasting, mysteriously-contoured sentence.