Putting the Cause Before the Truth

At my old blog, I recently penned a long post explaining in detail why I’m opposed to infantile circumcision. While I was certainly expecting opposition, I never expected the accusations I received in the comments: A few commenters claimed that I was being, to use the words of some Chabad rabbis, tendentious. At first, I was just confused by this: why would I want it to be true that circumcision has no medical benefits? If it turned out to be true that infantile circumcision helped the child, I would be very happy to know that the majority of American children were not [ED: Thanks to Sara Cammeresi for catching the omission of 'not'] mutilated for nothing. In general, why would I advocate an idea if I thought it wasn’t true? It just didn’t make sense to me. After thinking about it some more, though, I think I understand the objection now.

Ideas, properly viewed, are guides to action. Ultimately, the purpose of concepts, principles, and even perceptual knowledge is to guide our action in order to enable us to live a better life. Under this view, it would make no sense to advocate an idea one knows is false, or even to advocate a good idea with false arguments. If your idea is false, advocating or following it has no value and is detrimental to your life. Unfortunately, most people don’t treat ideas this way. In today’s culture, ideas are viewed at best as being irrelevant to everyday life, and at worst as being detrimental. In this mindset, ideas don’t reflect facts of reality, they are either subjective whims or revelations from a supernatural realm. To people with this approach, truth or falsehood is irrelevant and the idea is everything: challenges to the idea can’t possibly have any bearing on the real world, so dedication to your whims or your god becomes more important than any arguments to the contrary. This, more than any potential financial gain or political power, is the motivating force behind those who fudge data, suffer from confirmation bias, cherry-pick evidence, advocate causes without respect for the truth, or, on the other side, claim that anyone with a firm ideology is untrustworthy or that everyone is biased. This is the cause of the view that debates are just about the scoring of points, not about discussing the truth when faced with conflicting ideas. The idea that ideas are more (or less) important than reality, rather than being in harmony with reality, is the idea that must be fought if we want to live free of those who would impose their revealed Truths on us in defiance of the facts as well as those who would claim that ideas are meaningless and that we must be forced to live on the range of the moment.

So why did some commenters think I was being dishonest in my choice of sources? To them, the thought that I might care about the truth is not even on their minds. I have my anti-circumcision ideology, and so of course I will do whatever it takes to try to fight for that ideology. It never occurs to them to ask WHY I have the ideology in the first place, since in their mind all ideas are equally arbitrary. In such a world, the only option left to men is to try to force their ideas down each others’ throats at all costs, even if it means lying to themselves about it. Thankfully, we don’t live in such a world and I advocate my ideas because they are true.

About Shea Levy

  • Kyle Adams

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the issue of circumcision. Even if it were true that it posed some health benefits, that is not the reason for the existence of the traditional practice and it fails justify the continuance of the practice. We are prone to tonsillitis, but we do not think it prudent to remove tonsils from newborn infants.
    That said, I’m baffled by what seems to be an odd blending of epistemological and moral value claims. You claim that the purpose of ideas is maxim formation; i.e., that which we will to do or to be. And then very quickly you move to the claim that this enables us to live a better life. That from this follows the idea that advocating something that is false makes no sense is, I think, questionable. First, your motivation to not advocate a false idea is not an enlightenment devotion to truth-preservation, but at bottom a practical desire for a good life (whatever that means). Secondly, there are a great many examples (especially in the marketplace) of people doing just this and coming out just fine. As they say: money makes everything easier.
    This curious blending of epistemic justification and moral value certainly enables you to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of having a mindset in which “all ideas are equally arbitrary”. The distastefulness of such Randian equivocations aside, the quickness with which you move from an epistemic failure of justification for one issue on your opponents part to a sweeping condemnation of his or her entire cognitive apparatus is at best unfair and at worst an indication of a failing in your justification; namely, that your argument would require such a dismantling of the entire person of your opponent so as to validate the truth of a claim about one issue.
    My point: perhaps rethink the quickness with which you are willing to play in the theist’s game. It has always been the province of religion to let sweeping moral judgements take over where reasoned argument based on evidence ends. In the end you may come out looking the fool as your argument is no less “arbitrary”.

  • Kyle Adams

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the issue of circumcision. Even if it were true that it posed some health benefits, that is not the reason for the existence of the traditional practice and it fails justify the continuance of the practice. We are prone to tonsillitis, but we do not think it prudent to remove tonsils from newborn infants.
    That said, I’m baffled by what seems to be an odd blending of epistemological and moral value claims. You claim that the purpose of ideas is maxim formation; i.e., that which we will to do or to be. And then very quickly you move to the claim that this enables us to live a better life. That from this follows the idea that advocating something that is false makes no sense is, I think, questionable. First, your motivation to not advocate a false idea is not an enlightenment devotion to truth-preservation, but at bottom a practical desire for a good life (whatever that means). Secondly, there are a great many examples (especially in the marketplace) of people doing just this and coming out just fine. As they say: money makes everything easier.
    This curious blending of epistemic justification and moral value certainly enables you to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of having a mindset in which “all ideas are equally arbitrary”. The distastefulness of such Randian equivocations aside, the quickness with which you move from an epistemic failure of justification for one issue on your opponents part to a sweeping condemnation of his or her entire cognitive apparatus is at best unfair and at worst an indication of a failing in your justification; namely, that your argument would require such a dismantling of the entire person of your opponent so as to validate the truth of a claim about one issue.
    My point: perhaps rethink the quickness with which you are willing to play in the theist’s game. It has always been the province of religion to let sweeping moral judgements take over where reasoned argument based on evidence ends. In the end you may come out looking the fool as your argument is no less “arbitrary”.

  • http://www.newclarion.com/ Bill Brown

    You’ll find a far simpler cause behind most examples of cherry picking, confirmation bias, and their ilk than the venal motives you ascribe: intellectual laziness. It takes a lot of effort to be objective and validate one’s beliefs. Those epistemological issues arise from stopping too soon.

  • http://www.newclarion.com/ Bill Brown

    You’ll find a far simpler cause behind most examples of cherry picking, confirmation bias, and their ilk than the venal motives you ascribe: intellectual laziness. It takes a lot of effort to be objective and validate one’s beliefs. Those epistemological issues arise from stopping too soon.

  • http://www.shealevy.com Shea Colton Levy

    Mr. Brown,

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have made it seem like I think all cases of those ills involves an improper view of ideas. Other causes may and probably do exist, and I was probably a bit too sweeping in this post. I do think the view that ideas are disconnected from reality is a major factor, though. In particular, why are people intellectually lazy? Sometimes it’s because they are evading effort they know is necessary, but often it’s because either a) they don’t think ideas are that important so they don’t think it merits much attention or b) they’ve never been taught to be intellectually active, because their teachers think ideas are not that important.

    Mr. Adams,

    I’m not sure I understand your comment. I will try to address what I do understand and ask questions about what I don’t understand later today.

  • http://www.shealevy.com Shea Levy

    Mr. Brown,

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have made it seem like I think all cases of those ills involves an improper view of ideas. Other causes may and probably do exist, and I was probably a bit too sweeping in this post. I do think the view that ideas are disconnected from reality is a major factor, though. In particular, why are people intellectually lazy? Sometimes it’s because they are evading effort they know is necessary, but often it’s because either a) they don’t think ideas are that important so they don’t think it merits much attention or b) they’ve never been taught to be intellectually active, because their teachers think ideas are not that important.

    Mr. Adams,

    I’m not sure I understand your comment. I will try to address what I do understand and ask questions about what I don’t understand later today.

  • http://www.rollingdoughnut.com/ Tony

    I think Bill’s explanation is correct for those who accept the findings of those who engage in cherry picking, confirmation bias, and so forth. They find an expert who agrees with what they want to believe, so it must be correct. This explains why the Chabad rabbis sent you a link to Dr. Schoen. He says what they want to hear, not what is objectively true and logical.

    (It could also be a complete lack of empathy. They like circumcision, so everyone must like circumcision.)

    For those who push silly ideas (or offensive ideas like non-therapeutic infant circumcision), it seems to me they’re treating knowledge and truth as faith. They’ve taken the time to look at the data, unlike the passive behavior of most people who accept their findings. The advocates have the training to understand the issue and the counter-factuals to their beliefs. Yet, they attach significance to only the bits that fit their pre-determined conclusion. It’s the mindset of an evangelist. ‘Science’ says the Earth is billions of years old, but the Bible says otherwise. ‘Science’ must be wrong. It’s what allows an otherwise intelligent person to say that a healthy person – an objective, scientific fact – needs a surgical intervention simply because that intervention might achieve something.

    For example, someone like Schoen or Brian Morris rambles on about what women prefer in their sexual partners, an unscientific claim. To them, a preference by 80% of women is a preference by 100% of women because it confirms what they believe. They won’t see the 20% or the implications that flow from it because that knowledge challenges their faith that circumcision is ‘good’.

  • http://www.rollingdoughnut.com/ Tony

    I think Bill’s explanation is correct for those who accept the findings of those who engage in cherry picking, confirmation bias, and so forth. They find an expert who agrees with what they want to believe, so it must be correct. This explains why the Chabad rabbis sent you a link to Dr. Schoen. He says what they want to hear, not what is objectively true and logical.

    (It could also be a complete lack of empathy. They like circumcision, so everyone must like circumcision.)

    For those who push silly ideas (or offensive ideas like non-therapeutic infant circumcision), it seems to me they’re treating knowledge and truth as faith. They’ve taken the time to look at the data, unlike the passive behavior of most people who accept their findings. The advocates have the training to understand the issue and the counter-factuals to their beliefs. Yet, they attach significance to only the bits that fit their pre-determined conclusion. It’s the mindset of an evangelist. ‘Science’ says the Earth is billions of years old, but the Bible says otherwise. ‘Science’ must be wrong. It’s what allows an otherwise intelligent person to say that a healthy person – an objective, scientific fact – needs a surgical intervention simply because that intervention might achieve something.

    For example, someone like Schoen or Brian Morris rambles on about what women prefer in their sexual partners, an unscientific claim. To them, a preference by 80% of women is a preference by 100% of women because it confirms what they believe. They won’t see the 20% or the implications that flow from it because that knowledge challenges their faith that circumcision is ‘good’.

  • http://www.shealevy.com Shea Colton Levy

    Mr. Adams,

    I’m still having trouble grasping what you were trying to say, but I’m going to try to see if I can address it. If I interpret anything you said incorrectly, please let me know.

    You said:

    “That said, I’m baffled by what seems to be an odd blending of epistemological and moral value claims. You claim that the purpose of ideas is maxim formation; i.e., that which we will to do or to be. And then very quickly you move to the claim that this enables us to live a better life. That from this follows the idea that advocating something that is false makes no sense is, I think, questionable.”

    My goal with this post was not to demonstrate/prove that my stance on the value of ideas is the correct one, I was stating it as a given: this is my view. Also, I’m not sure I’d say that the purpose of ideas is maxim formation: one’s actions can be guided by one’s knowledge without being guided by maxims. Given that I DO think the sole purpose of knowledge is to guide action and that the best way to act is in accordance with knowledge, it is not questionable to say that to advocate something I know to be false would make no sense. If you question that given, fine, but that wasn’t the essence of this post.

    You said:

    “First, your motivation to not advocate a false idea is not an enlightenment devotion to truth-preservation, but at bottom a practical desire for a good life (whatever that means).”

    I don’t know enough about Enlightenment philosophy to be sure I’m understanding this correctly, but it is certainly true that I don’t advocate the truth for the sake of advocating the truth, rather I advocate the truth because of a practical desire to live a good life. That being said, I don’t hold that there is a conflict between the moral and the practical, or between the theoretical and the practical. I am dedicated to the truth on principle for moral reasons: I have an abstract understanding of how ideas are formed and what their relation to reality is, and based on that understanding I know that it is in my self-interest to put the truth above ideology. It is theoretical because it is based on the facts. It is moral because it promotes my self-interest. There is no disembodied Truth out there that needs to be deserved for its own sake. There is reality, and I preserve the truth, on principle, for my sake. As for your question about “whatever [a good life] means”, it is way out of the scope of this post to address that but for now I will say that there is an objective way to determine what a good life is, and if you want to know the arguments for that claim I can direct you to some useful sources.

    You said:

    “Secondly, there are a great many examples (especially in the marketplace) of people doing just this and coming out just fine. As they say: money makes everything easier.””

    I disagree that they are doing “just fine”, but that’s not something I expect I can convince you of in this comment section. Suffice it to say that it is my view that unearned money cannot buy long-term happiness, and that receiving compensation in return for advocating falsehoods is not earning that compensation.

    “This curious blending of epistemic justification and moral value certainly enables you to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of having a mindset in which “all ideas are equally arbitrary”.”

    I never said that anyone who disagrees with me has that mindset. I said that those who say that I am arguing my position while knowing facts to the contrary have that mindset. Now, perhaps I was too broad and should have left room for other possible reasons that people may make that claim, but nothing in my post can be taken to imply that disagreement with me qua disagreement implies a mistaken view toward ides.

    You said:
    “The distastefulness of such Randian equivocations aside, the quickness with which you move from an epistemic failure of justification for one issue on your opponents part to a sweeping condemnation of his or her entire cognitive apparatus is at best unfair and at worst an indication of a failing in your justification; namely, that your argument would require such a dismantling of the entire person of your opponent so as to validate the truth of a claim about one issue.”

    Nowhere in my post did I make a claim about the validity (or lack thereof) of the arguments FOR the anti-circumcision side. My claim is that the idea that I would willingly advocate falsehoods for the sake of an intellectual cause, an idea that is clearly communicated by some of the comments on the original post, entails a mistaken view of what ideas are for (or, perhaps, a mistaken view on how I view ideas). I never attacked the entire person of anyone, I merely stated that a certain type of claim betrays a certain type of methodology, which is not an absurd claim. As I’ve already said in these comments, perhaps there are other factors that could lead to these types of claims, but I still maintain that this mistaken view of the nature/purpose of ideas is a major cause of these types of claims. If you disagree with that conclusion, fine, but that doesn’t make what I said an attack on a total person.

    You said:

    “My point: perhaps rethink the quickness with which you are willing to play in the theist’s game. It has always been the province of religion to let sweeping moral judgements take over where reasoned argument based on evidence ends. In the end you may come out looking the fool as your argument is no less “arbitrary”.”

    I’m not sure I understand this part. Where did I “play in the theist’s game”? I made no moral judgments in my post: I identified an epistemological deficiency that I think leads to a certain type of argumentation. I did not address the cause of that deficiency, though I think it may be due either to honest error or to willful evasion. You may disagree that that epistemological deficiency is what leads to that type of argumentation, but that doesn’t make my claim arbitrary: I grounded my argument in the evidence I have. If I’ve made a mistake or lack relevant evidence, then I am wrong, not arbitrary.

  • http://www.shealevy.com Shea Levy

    Mr. Adams,

    I’m still having trouble grasping what you were trying to say, but I’m going to try to see if I can address it. If I interpret anything you said incorrectly, please let me know.

    You said:

    “That said, I’m baffled by what seems to be an odd blending of epistemological and moral value claims. You claim that the purpose of ideas is maxim formation; i.e., that which we will to do or to be. And then very quickly you move to the claim that this enables us to live a better life. That from this follows the idea that advocating something that is false makes no sense is, I think, questionable.”

    My goal with this post was not to demonstrate/prove that my stance on the value of ideas is the correct one, I was stating it as a given: this is my view. Also, I’m not sure I’d say that the purpose of ideas is maxim formation: one’s actions can be guided by one’s knowledge without being guided by maxims. Given that I DO think the sole purpose of knowledge is to guide action and that the best way to act is in accordance with knowledge, it is not questionable to say that to advocate something I know to be false would make no sense. If you question that given, fine, but that wasn’t the essence of this post.

    You said:

    “First, your motivation to not advocate a false idea is not an enlightenment devotion to truth-preservation, but at bottom a practical desire for a good life (whatever that means).”

    I don’t know enough about Enlightenment philosophy to be sure I’m understanding this correctly, but it is certainly true that I don’t advocate the truth for the sake of advocating the truth, rather I advocate the truth because of a practical desire to live a good life. That being said, I don’t hold that there is a conflict between the moral and the practical, or between the theoretical and the practical. I am dedicated to the truth on principle for moral reasons: I have an abstract understanding of how ideas are formed and what their relation to reality is, and based on that understanding I know that it is in my self-interest to put the truth above ideology. It is theoretical because it is based on the facts. It is moral because it promotes my self-interest. There is no disembodied Truth out there that needs to be deserved for its own sake. There is reality, and I preserve the truth, on principle, for my sake. As for your question about “whatever [a good life] means”, it is way out of the scope of this post to address that but for now I will say that there is an objective way to determine what a good life is, and if you want to know the arguments for that claim I can direct you to some useful sources.

    You said:

    “Secondly, there are a great many examples (especially in the marketplace) of people doing just this and coming out just fine. As they say: money makes everything easier.””

    I disagree that they are doing “just fine”, but that’s not something I expect I can convince you of in this comment section. Suffice it to say that it is my view that unearned money cannot buy long-term happiness, and that receiving compensation in return for advocating falsehoods is not earning that compensation.

    “This curious blending of epistemic justification and moral value certainly enables you to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of having a mindset in which “all ideas are equally arbitrary”.”

    I never said that anyone who disagrees with me has that mindset. I said that those who say that I am arguing my position while knowing facts to the contrary have that mindset. Now, perhaps I was too broad and should have left room for other possible reasons that people may make that claim, but nothing in my post can be taken to imply that disagreement with me qua disagreement implies a mistaken view toward ides.

    You said:
    “The distastefulness of such Randian equivocations aside, the quickness with which you move from an epistemic failure of justification for one issue on your opponents part to a sweeping condemnation of his or her entire cognitive apparatus is at best unfair and at worst an indication of a failing in your justification; namely, that your argument would require such a dismantling of the entire person of your opponent so as to validate the truth of a claim about one issue.”

    Nowhere in my post did I make a claim about the validity (or lack thereof) of the arguments FOR the anti-circumcision side. My claim is that the idea that I would willingly advocate falsehoods for the sake of an intellectual cause, an idea that is clearly communicated by some of the comments on the original post, entails a mistaken view of what ideas are for (or, perhaps, a mistaken view on how I view ideas). I never attacked the entire person of anyone, I merely stated that a certain type of claim betrays a certain type of methodology, which is not an absurd claim. As I’ve already said in these comments, perhaps there are other factors that could lead to these types of claims, but I still maintain that this mistaken view of the nature/purpose of ideas is a major cause of these types of claims. If you disagree with that conclusion, fine, but that doesn’t make what I said an attack on a total person.

    You said:

    “My point: perhaps rethink the quickness with which you are willing to play in the theist’s game. It has always been the province of religion to let sweeping moral judgements take over where reasoned argument based on evidence ends. In the end you may come out looking the fool as your argument is no less “arbitrary”.”

    I’m not sure I understand this part. Where did I “play in the theist’s game”? I made no moral judgments in my post: I identified an epistemological deficiency that I think leads to a certain type of argumentation. I did not address the cause of that deficiency, though I think it may be due either to honest error or to willful evasion. You may disagree that that epistemological deficiency is what leads to that type of argumentation, but that doesn’t make my claim arbitrary: I grounded my argument in the evidence I have. If I’ve made a mistake or lack relevant evidence, then I am wrong, not arbitrary.