Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why skeptics (sometimes) miss the point

From an article [] on the ancient Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus that appeared in the February Atlantic:
And yet, as Thucydides would have been the first to note, reality cannot be reduced to neat equations, whether moral or analytical. The world as it exists often rejects rationality, spare narratives, even truth. If we have learned anything during this age of speedier and increasingly numerous interactions between peoples with different historical experiences, it is that facts matter less than perceptions, especially perceptions informed by raw emotions. It is what people believe that is crucial, not what they actually know. What is needed, therefore, beyond guiding philosophical principles, is a vivid appreciation of just what's out there, in the form of the myths, passions, and irrationalities that in any age are central to decision making and, in a larger sense, to the human spirit itself. Romance, rather than being antithetical to realism, is a necessary component of it...

Herodotus sees himself as a preserver of the memory of civilizations that in some cases had been, and in other cases would yet be, obliterated—in an epoch when record keeping was virtually nonexistent—so he divorces himself from the urge to judge men and events. He knows that nothing is more important than preserving what people said and believed: the myths, the fables, and even the lies that they lived by. Because human beings cannot function without their illusions, the vital truth, he suggests, lies in causation—the strands of perceptions and misperceptions that lead people to take the actions they do.
Skeptics busy themselves pointing out falsehoods, and in doing so often miss the point. The difference, for example, between kashrus and an Incan superstition might* be abitrary, but arbitrary and nonexistant are not synonyms.

There are reasons why one is on my radar and the other is not. As I put it to a friend of mine yesterday, the "What" of kashrus might* be false; the why (as in why it matters to me) is not, nor is it easily or properly ignored.


* I said "MIGHT"

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