A Pyrrhonist Reply to a Fortrean Review: Part 2, Bernard Wills

Dentith wonders about the form and genre of the book. He attempts to categorize it as an exercise in ‘Fortean’ philosophy to which I suppose I have no objection except that I prefer the label ‘Pyrrhonian’ because ‘Fortean’ would confine me to the topic of the uncanny and that is only part of what I touch on in what is, I admit, a wide ranging and eclectic assemblage of topics.

Image credit: wyrd bið ful aræd via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Wills, Bernard. 2019. “A Pyrrhonist Reply to a Fortrean Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (6): 8-15. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4c0.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Articles in this dialogue:

  • “A Pyrrhonist Reply to a Fortrean Review: Part 1,” Bernard Wills
  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. 2018. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (11): 48-52. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y.
  • Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y.
  • Markova, Lyudmila. “The Place of the Notion of the Weird in Today’s Thinking.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 48-51. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-49n.

Fortean or Pyrrhonian Philosophy?

Dentith wonders about the form and genre of the book. He attempts to categorize it as an exercise in ‘Fortean’ philosophy to which I suppose I have no objection except that I prefer the label ‘Pyrrhonian’ because ‘Fortean’ would confine me to the topic of the uncanny and that is only part of what I touch on in what is, I admit, a wide ranging and eclectic assemblage of topics.

If I have any model at all for a book like this, it would be Montaigne as I hope (on however vastly inferior a level!) to take the reader on a circuitous journey that hopefully leaves her in a less dogmatic and complacent place than before. Both sections of the book are concerned with ideology and dogmatism (from different ends) so the thematic link is ‘Pyrrhonism’ rather than ‘Forteanism’. I am however, in the tradition of Montaigne, as skeptical of skepticism as of anything else and have no problem taking moral stands in print that happen to be urgent to the times we live in. On the other hand, I do like Dentith’s characterization of Fort as a “…a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.” I happen to think that developing a habit of holding complementary systems together in this way is an urgent necessity for the era we live in.

If Dentith’s Fortrean interests don’t carry him through to the second half of the work, I am not concerned. I wrote a collection and a collection is to be put down and picked up when and where the reader pleases. As to why I pursued this and other charged topics like racism and Islamophobia the answer is embarrassingly simple. These are the questions that energize my students and as they come up again and again in my conversations with them I thought them worth ‘ruminating’ on. They want light as well as heat so that is what I try to provide them and other young, passionately committed people. Old and jaded people, I suppose, address the young first and the rest second and if I have an audience at all I suppose it is them. Plus, if Dentith has given up on arguing with right wing people he considers unreachable they, being youthful and pliant, have not and if I can be of any small aid to them in this endeavor I will consider myself happy.

On Religious Faith and Scientific Faith

Now, a housekeeping matter: Dentith registers an important criticism of Chapter 6 and it is a criticism I am happy to address. This concerns a ‘canard’ he accuses me of trotting out about ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’ being the same. Actually, I think what I said (as indicated in the title) is that religious faith and scientific faith are closely analogous. Philosophers are, to be sure, very fond of univocal concepts yet not every comparison of A and B asserts a strict identity of A. and B. My essay explored the boundaries between three kinds of’ faith’: religious, scientific and hermeneutic. Dentith seems to think there is something impermeable about at least one of these boundaries but he does not say why this is so. He seems to be asserting that religious and scientific faith fundamentally differ because I can be ‘doubtful of the gods’ and their ‘prophets’ whereas (I presume?) I cannot be correspondingly doubtful of the entities described by science. If this is what he means, then he is surely wrong.

I can absolutely be as doubtful of the entities of science as I am of the gods and their prophets and I need only point to Descartes’ First Meditation as an example. In fact, no scientist begins her work day with a systematic test of her senses by means of Cartesian doubt and, to that extent, most of the ordinary claims of scientists rest on what Plato calls pistis or opinion. This very same word was used by later Platonists as equivalent to ‘faith’ as in ‘a lively trust in the providence of the gods’. On this precedent I have no problem whatsoever with drawing what seem to me evident analogies between pistis as it exists in different domains.

Perhaps, though, he objects to me using the word faith at all in the context of speaking of science but here too he seems to me to be incorrect: faith, at the end of the day, is (at least for the traditions I work within) an assumed attitude to undemonstrated or non-thematic truths and this attitude is a structural part of human experience in any domain scientific religious or otherwise. Thus, unless I have completely misunderstood his objection I do not think it is well taken.

Dentith has a couple of other quibbles. He complains that: “… in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being on par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts” (51)? Now this might be a bias of mine but I see no difference at all between ‘things discovered by religion’ and ‘things discovered by philosophers working in a religious system’ for religions include the latter as a whole includes the part. ‘Religious philosophers’ are in fact what I study when my formal scholar’s hat is on and I don’t view them at all as a phenomenon distinct from religion as a whole nor do I see why anyone would.

Nor do I see why a discovery cannot initially take the form of a stipulation or an edict. I may ‘discover’ the existence of a rhino to you by shouting the edict ‘look out!’. In the same way the career of Socrates (and pretty much all philosophers since) may take its start from the injunction of the Delphic oracle. The point I made about hermeneutic culture is that these edicts, stipulations and so forth do not simply remain as such but are launch pads for the internal reflection that leads to insight. This is their demonstrable historical role. Of course, the relationship between these ‘revelations’ and the discursive reflection built upon them is the whole history of philosophy in late antiquity and the middle ages. But if Dentith wants take up the matter he can begin with Plato’s brief and delightful Ion.

Dentith does not, however, think Believing Weird Things entirely a loss. Indeed, his comments on the first half are on the whole generous for which I heartily thank him. In fact, from his “Fortrean” standpoint he has divined some of my intentions quite well. Clearly, he has found this section more suiting to his taste and interest and on that score I have no complaint (a collection of essays can be sampled or read through as the reader’s interests dictate). Indeed, he tells us that: “The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for” (50). I take this is as a generous compliment coming from someone who: “ … was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations” (48-49).

In sum, Dentith, the ‘Fortean’ liked the ‘Fortean’ portions of Believing Weird Things. That the book was not ‘Fortean’ through and through is perhaps unfortunate as I do enjoy writing in that vein. However, this, like so many things, is the fault of Donald Trump. I could easily have continued on with ghosts and exorcisms and raining frogs all manner of odd phenomenon but alas, I found other things began to press upon me. If therefore I made the mistake of writing two books instead of one as both reviewers of my book have complained, it is a mistake I can live with. To conclude, I thank Dr. Dentith for both his praise and blame and for the time has taken to review my book.

Contact details: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Bianco, Marcie. 2016. “Brazen Sexism is Pushing Women out of America’s Atheism Movement.” Quartz. https://qz.com/613270/brazen-sexism-is-pushing-women-out-of-americas-atheism-movement.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. 2018. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (11): 48-52. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2018. “Rebel or Reject?” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/06/04/how-sexual-harassment-allegations-against-guest-speaker-rocked-santa-barbara-city.

Newman, John Henry.  1992. Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent. University of Notre Dame Press.

Oppenheimer, Mark. 2014. “Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?” BuzzFeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/markoppenheimer/will-misogyny-bring-down-the-atheist-movement.

Robinson, Nathan J. 2018. “The Intellectual We Deserve.” Current Affairs: A Magazine of Politics & Culture. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/the-intellectual-we-deserve.

Shermer, Michael. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Henry Holt.

Stedman, Chris. 2018. “Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right.” Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/3k7jx8/too-many-atheists-are-veering-dangerously-toward-the-alt-right.

Torres, Phil. 2017. “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How ‘New Atheism’ Slid Into the Alt-Right.” Salon. https://www.salon.com/2017/07/29/from-the-enlightenment-to-the-dark-ages-how-new-atheism-slid-into-the-alt-right/.

Warnock, Mary. 2015. “Does Philosophy Have a Problem with Women? The Guardian.  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/25/philosphy-women-warnock-baggini-debate.

Wills, Bernard. 2015 Why Believe: Essays on Religion, Rationality and Belief. Montreal: Minkowski Institute Press.

Wills, Bernard. 2018. Believing Weird Things. Montreal: Minkowski Institute Press.

Wills, Bernard. 2018. “Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (10): 31-36. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41T.



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