The contrarian impulse

I’ve been pondering contrarianism. I’m inclined towards it, but I’m not quite clear why I find it agreeable (notwithstanding tedious personality stuff).

Possibly it is because I don’t think that getting things right – in the sense of believing or accepting something to be true, rather than finding out that something is true (yes, I know – the distinction is complex) – is praiseworthy. Or, at least, I don’t think it is praiseworthy enough to justify the cloying smugness that some people – and groups – manifest when they think that they have got things right.

I once went to a meeting of some kind of skeptic group here in the UK. I went as a skeptic, but left wishing that homeopathy, acupuncture, humanism, and the like, were something other than bunk. The pervading atmosphere was one of narcissistic, self-congratulation. These self-appointed defenders of rationality and the truth were just so pleased with themselves. (Okay, okay – I’m a hypocrite, since I’ve co-authored a book called Why Truth Matters, and I’m permanently pleased with myself.)

My distaste for this kind of thing is motivated by a number of things. But perhaps most significantly I don’t trust the warm, fuzzy feelings that people experience when they think (or experience) themselves as part of a group – real or imagined – that is (seen to be) specially privileged in some way (even if in principle there are no barriers to entry to the group). This is the case whether we’re talking about a humanist group convinced that the methods of rational enquiry are the best way to get at the truth (even if such methods are indeed the best way to get at the truth), or a religious group convinced that it is the locus of revealed truth. My worry here is that such warm, fuzzy feelings link up all too neatly with Us and Them distinctions (worthy and unworthy; right thinking and wrong thinking [where such a judgement is thoroughly enmeshed with the moral] ; the enlightened and the unenlightened; and so on); with a kind of epistemic complacency (namely, a tendency to elide subtle distinctions, to ignore complications and tensions, and so on); and with a kind of moral authoritarianism (where the uninitiated are judged in some sense morally suspect for their refusal to see the light, etc. [obviously this is a subset of the Us and Them distinction thing]).

The contrarian impulse is a valuable corrective to this kind of thing. I suppose the crucial point is that it remains a valuable corrective even if it is directed at truth-claims that are (nearly) universally accepted as being rationally justified. This is possibly a fairly large claim. The contention is that the world is better than it would be otherwise if it contains people who claim that the Earth is flat, God is a giant cheese, the BHA conducts effective polling, dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time as humans, and so on. Of course, it is not to claim that all beliefs are equal; and certainly not that all beliefs should be allowed equivalent moral and political expression. (Yes, there is a tension in my thesis here.) But it is to claim that there is value in disagreement, even where it is clear that such disagreement flies in the face of reason, etc. (I hope it goes without saying that there is value in disagreement in defence of reason). Truth matters, but its rule should not be unchallenged.

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