On skepticism

Eid mubarak!

First off, in reference to my last post, I have to add a link woodturtle posted in her Friday roundup, about a Canadian television reporter who wore a niqab on his show because . . . really, for no reason at all, except sort of, kind of as a response to hearing that an Egyptian news program was going to start featuring women in niqab to discuss issues that affect women.  Between this and the Vice article, I’m starting to think there’s a whole secret world of non-Muslim Westerners desperate to experience wearing a niqab.  I’d say ‘yay’, but only if we can start doing this in a slightly-less-culturally-insensitive sort of way.

Okay, I want to talk today about an article from Paul Harris about skepticism, but first a couple of caveats.  Firstly, this post has nothing to do with Islamic history directly, so if you’re in this for the purely educational bits, please feel free to skip it. Secondly, the article in question was, in its first incarnation, a speech to a skeptics society, and I understand that context matters, and that people speak more freely with their own community, and thus are more likely to say things that aren’t *quite* what they meant, because everyone in the audience knows what they mean[1].  So I’m not criticizing the speech per say, but reading it brought up some points that I think are worth discussing, which are particularly relevant to discussions of the humanities in general, and Islamic studies in particular.

I admit, in general, I am made to pause whenever someone says that humans are rational. I don’t deny that we’re capable of rationality – after all, we came up with the concept, and we rarely give name to abstract concepts that we don’t employ in one way or another – but nor do I think humans are essentially or even primarily rational.  We are capable of rationality, but so too are we capable of passion, spirituality, stupidity and ecstasy.

I come to this belief in part because I am a historian, and much of our development across history lacks a clear rationale.  In particular, as a Late Antiquarian and Medievalist, I’m often struck by how the very existence of history itself is irrational – in Europe, for most of the Middle Ages, books were made from vellum, and vellum comes from sheep or calves[2].  Vellum is made from the skin of juvenile animals, and, at best, presuming nothing goes wrong in the preparation process, one animal could only yield a few sheets.  So any book is made up of several herds of animals, who were killed young, and even if their meat was also made use of, those animals were no longer producing wool, milk, or manure.  Thus, each individual book represents an incredible cost in resources, and, I would argue, did not equal that cost in its effect on the day-to-day life of your average person in the Middle Ages.  But we continued on with the process, in part because we believed there would be some kind of long-term benefit, in part because a more authoritarian governmental system allowed for regulation of resources superseding individual benefit, but also in part because we wanted the books.  There was no essential rationality behind it – we were transmitting the stories of Virgil, which preserves a theology and cosmology no one in Europe had believed in centuries, if at all – but we still wanted them.

So I admit, I am already inclined to approach the skeptical movement with, well, skepticism, because I don’t really agree with their underlying assumptions.  But also I think the skeptical discussion that argues for the use of rationality to solve problems, particularly as it is often applied to try to pit science and religion against each other, misses a fundamental aspect of study – some questions do not have answers.

Paul Harris, in his speech, explains that he came into skepticism at an early age because of his parents, and perhaps I should make a similar claim – as it happens, I was raise in part by a woman with degrees in both philosophy and mathematics, and although as a child, I didn’t really enjoy being raised on the Socratic method, I do believe that my mother’s background did instill in both my sister and I a fundamental understanding that the first step in any scholarly pursuit must be to understand ‘what was the question?’  Because its the question that frames the answer, and, again, some questions do not have answers.

And many more questions do not have a single answer, which is where the study of the humanities comes in, and why it frustrates so many.  Admittedly, I work in the field of the humanities that comes the closest to having set answers – because history works from physical sources, there are limits to what can be said to be accurate.  I wouldn’t pass a student who tried to argue that the Qur’an was written in 1945, unless she had some *really* compelling evidence.  On the other hand, I would be hard-pressed to argue with a student who claimed that Napoleon invaded Russia due to a deep-seeded fear of squirrels if she offered any kind of evidence to support her claim, as 1.) Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was a stupid idea and 2.) motives are essentially unknowable.  It doesn’t affect the history all that much if Napoleon invaded Russia because of a fear of squirrels, or because space aliens told him to, or in order to impress his unfaithful wife – the outcome is the same in any case – but it’s still an interesting question, just a potentially unanswerable one.

The problem with the skeptical movement is that it tends to presume that all questions work the same way, and that, more problematically, in any given debate, we’re all asking the same questions.  As I’ve tried to argue any number of times in discussions of Creationism, the problem with biologists addressing Creationists is that the two groups are talking about two entirely different things.  Creationists aren’t talking about biology.  They are, but the question they’re trying to answer isn’t “why are there so many kinds of beetles?[3]”  They’re having a discussion about the development of Christian thought in the last century and a half, in particular in reference to nineteenth-century German Biblical criticism, so talking to them about biology is never going to go anywhere.

I’m also happy to concede that the fact that some questions don’t have answers, or don’t have answers we’ll ever be able to find just doesn’t come up for most people.  Unless you’re trying to prove advanced mathematics or looking for evidence of long-dead cults, it’s just not something that’s going to matter to you.  But I still think it’s important to point out from time to time, if for no other reason than because our ability to appreciate that fact is every bit as much a part of our humanity as our rationality.

[1] And as Lewis Carroll observed, “I say what I mean, or at least I mean what I say” really aren’t the same thing at all.

[2] To the hardcore manuscript experts who might be reading this, yes, I am aware that by modern historical standards, ‘true’ vellum only comes from calves, but since the term was used more generally in the Middle Ages, I’m going with that usage.

[3] I still maintain that one of the most brilliant theological observations comes from Michael Mock – ‘God loves variety.  Also beetles.'[4]

[4] Wow it’s nearly impossible for me not to write beatle.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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