Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Ignorance is Strength

I've long known that what bugs me most about Richard Dawkins on God, or Robert Wright on theology, is that they clearly know nothing about the subject on which they write, and this blissful ignorance is what makes them experts! Clearly it is so, because they are not blinded by the "conventional thinking" that hinders trained theologians and philosophers from seeing what is obvious to the ignorant and unlearned. And since most people have no training in philosophy or theology, clearly someone completely out of their depth, like Dawkins when he strays away from biology, is more knowledgeable on the subject his audience is equally ignorant of, than those trained in the subject. They, after all, have given up reason for indoctrination, and can't hope to see the "big picture" that only those who are completely ignorant can see.

Which, if that assessment sounds harsh, need only be turned around. The greatest complaint wielded against "Creationists" and those who oppose any talk of evolution on religious grounds, is that they know nothing about biology, geology, paleontology, or even science. And it's a fair criticism, and a valid one. But apparently it isn't a valid criticism when those scientists turn their critiques on theology or philosophy. Because, after all, nobody else understands that stuff either, so it must be full of whatever straw men Dawkins and company construct and then set ablaze.

This complaint would all be so much grousing and maybe sour grapes (longing for the days when theology was the "mother of all sciences," perhaps) except that it has application to matters other than why Richard Dawkins is clueless on the subject that has brought him so much recent fame. The real heart of the complaint is the issue presented by Dawkins and Sam Harris and even Robert Wright: it is that expertise is now measured, not by knowledge, but by ignorance. Witness the ongoing debate about the efficacy of torture.

There is clear and compelling evidence, presented before the Congress, that torture does not work. There is clear and compelling evidence from FBI interrogators, experts in getting information from prisoners, that torture is counter-productive and cuts off a flow of information that might be obtained from something as simple and humane as a plate of sugar-free cookies. Indeed, ask any trial lawyer, and the best ones will tell you that cross-examination is an art, not a brutal frontal assault. No one is more reluctant to reveal information than a witness in a civil trial, especially when that witness is the opposing party. Cross-examination is the art of eliciting that information, and the best lawyers at it are the most gentle, the most subtle, the most careful in what they ask and how they ask it. They build a relationship with the witness. What they don't do is engage in an authoritarian smackdown. We all know you get more flies with honey than with vinegar; and yet we are all "experts" on how "torture works" because....well, because we want to believe it. Ignorance is strength, and we want to be strong.

Or perhaps we think torture works because we let Dick Cheney repeat that absurd notion ad nauseum, with no real-time challenge to his lies and base ignorance. But ignorance is strength, because the less expertise we have in the field, the less knowledge we have, the more we can be sure we are right and that the "experts" are blinded by the strictures of the discipline they've devoted their lives to.

I run into this a lot, if only because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is easy to find people who have read, or more likely heard of, Hyam Maccoby's The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, which is, to put it bluntly, crap. No Biblical scholar takes it seriously, but that is, of course, because they have all "drunk the Kool-Aid" and so can't see what people with no background in Biblical studies can. And the people who haven't read Maccoby's book, or heard of it, know that Paul hated women (he didn't; he treated them as equals. It was later Christians who tried to destroy that relationship and lower women's status) because, again, they heard it somewhere, or read one of the pseudo-Pauline letters, or something, and anyway it's what most people think so it might as well be true, and it's easier to blame the Paul of our imaginations than to study church history, so "expertise" is a waste of time, and besides it's dull, and, well, you know.....

Which is not a brief for relying on "experts" because they proclaim their expertise, but it is a call for reason and learning, something most people on and off the Web seem to stop doing just as soon as they've settled on what political or social or religious position they want to take. And frankly, it's tiresome as hell. Not because everyone should know what I know; the more I learn, the more I realize I know almost nothing that is worthwhile. No, my standard is Aquinas, one of the greatest minds of human history, a man whose works Thomistic scholars spend lifetimes studying and never fully understanding. But near the end of his life, Aquinas had a mystical vision, after which, he said, everything he'd written seemed like so much straw. And he never wrote another word.

I aspire toward that level of insight. But I also understand the importance of knowledge, and the weakness of ignorance. The more I learn, the more ignorant I realize I am. Which is why the people who don't realize their own ignorance, really piss me off.

I know, I know; I'm working on it.

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