Thursday, February 18, 2010

Freethinking Seldom Is

See, even when posting on my own site in my own home that natural skepticism just emerges. A much grabbier title would have been Freethinking Isn't, or Freethinking Ain't. Good bumper-sticker stuff. But I look at the pithier versions and think "Well, sometimes it is. Seen it myself. And there might be some freethinker out there who really tries hard and deserves better..." So I hedge.

A very fine psychiatrist I have worked with for several years is leaving tomorrow to work at Concord Hospital instead. It is a great loss for our hospital. He gave me a parting gift, Doubt: A History, inscribed "To my favorite skeptic." This may seem odd coming from a Unitarian to an Evangelical, and he laughed at that himself. But he is correct. It is my natural cast of mind to look at what "everyone knows" and challenge it.

That has its own dangers, of course. If someone makes a really bad argument in favor of something I tend to counterreact and think well, that must be untrue then, if knuckleheaded arguments are the best they can muster. That is equally foolish, for even true things have defenders who make no sense. Progressives, freethinkers, 60's liberals, granolas, and alternative medicine adherents think they agree with me on this skeptical approach, seeing themselves as the ones willing to challenge received wisdom. (There is overlap among those groups, but folks usually tend to specialise in one skepticism.)

In fact, the opposite is true. The members of those groups - in general, mind you, not universally - tend very much to question their own beliefs very little. They see the conventional wisdom as being what their parents believed, or their childhood church, or their fifth-grade history book, and they are very proud of not believing that, proving how fearless they are. To be sure, there are many people who still do believe those older conventional wisdoms who deserve to have their ideas challenged. They live and move among us.

But the milk-and-water skeptics who reject those things have a new set of conventional wisdoms they adhere to. Not very new, either, just newer than the 1950's. They reveal themselves at the spot where they are challenged. They cannot conceive of anyone disagreeing except as a representative of the Old School. They argue with you as if you must be defending the POV they abandoned upon leaving their parents' home. You must be an ignorant person who just hasn't read up on where ideas have gone since then. That you might have considered their ideas seriously - in my case have believed them for many years - and moved on simply does not compute for them.

I do have hopes for this particular book. I read the blurbs - Howard Zinn, Garrison Keillor - and scanned the table of contents. I know already a lot of what will be in this book. Voltaire, Freud, Hume; a collection of Jewish writers, tending strongly to the mystical and the reformed; Buddhists and related Chinese writers; a few Marxists and Existentialists; as the author is female there will be a collection of feminist writers. Physics will be dragged in inappropriately, showing that in the 20th C we learned that everything is relative, because hey, even Science admits of uncertainty now. Chesterton, Lewis, Wright, Flew, will be studiously avoided. Jesus is mentioned as an example of a doubter. We know where that's going.

I left the book at work so I can't check if I'm correct. But you know I am.

There were some chapter titles and references which were new to me, however. Huzzah! There may be something new here after all. I certainly hope so. I'm really hoping there will be something that knocks me back.


Der Hahn said...

I’ve seen a number of people make the claim that independent thinking is equivalent to taking an unpopular position, leading to my (probably completely unoriginal) reaction that contrarians still base their direction from the crowd.

Sam L. said...

Our friends are not always right, and our enemies are not always wrong.
The same goes for those who not in either category.

Ugly oysters can produce pretty pearls.

GM Roper said...

"...milk and water skeptics."

A new term for me. But then, I always learn something when I drop by.

Oh, and can you change the URL for my blog on your blogroll? I've moved to Wordpress.

Steven M said...

Jennifer Hecht is smart, witty, and insightful. I don't share all of her politics, but the book is a pleasure to read and think about.

David said...

"Physics will be dragged in inappropriately, showing that in the 20th C we learned that everything is relative"

I understand that Einstein *almost* called the Theory of Relativity the Theory of Invariance, referring of course to the invariant speed of light..probly would be a lot better if he had...

Anonymous said...

Jennifer Hecht is fat!