An expressivist theory of ethical disagreement

In Fall 2001, at Brown University, for a philosophy course taught by James Dreier, I wrote a short paper about expressivism. In metaethics, “expressivism” is a theory that maintains that ethical pronouncements express attitudes, not facts. For many people, the expressivist theory is counterintuitive because ethical discourse does appear to make truth claims.

Allan Gibbard defended expressivism in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Harvard University Press, 1990, especially Chapter 5, “Normative Logic”), and Dreier reformulated, generalized, and expanded Gibbard’s theory to account for why people often speak of normative judgments as true or false (“Transforming Expressivism,” Nous, 1999).

In my own analysis at the time, I thought special attention should be paid to the moment at which norms are mapped onto propositions. The content of the specific norms and propositions would determine, in my view at the time, whether the Gibbard/Dreier theory could properly be called “expressivist.”

Transforming expressivism: Worlds in which a statement is true

If I say to you, “For goodness sake! Don’t do X. That’s terrible!,” what information am I giving you? Gibbard’s answer: The content of my statement is the set of factual-normative worlds in which my statement is true.


w1: the world in which John is a priest
n1: a complete set of norms according to which it is wrong for priests to drink

In the factual-normative world <w1, n1>, it is wrong for John to drink. There are other possible factual-normative worlds, too, in which it is (or would be) wrong for John to drink. The set of these worlds, according to Gibbard, is the content of the statement “It is wrong for John to drink.”


Sodium chloride is the chemical name for table salt. You know this—if you had forgotten, I just reminded you of it—but imagine someone who does not know it or has forgotten it. They might be alarmed at the idea of putting “sodium chloride” on the table although they accept the norm of using “salt.” Since the terms represent the same substance, these normative judgments are always contradictory. Expressivism, when using “possible world” semantics, fails to account for the contradictory judgments of “don’t eat it” and “eat it.” (The expressivist, for their part, probably doesn’t believe that their ethical expressions are propositions at all and thus does not believe that their expressions can contradict each other.)

To account for the apparent contradiction, Dreier wanted to reorganize Gibbard’s sets of possible worlds (which, again, are the contents of normative statements) into subsets based on a shared norm. The contents of normative statements are “incomplete propositions” or “propositional functions” that can be true or false relative to a set of norms. The statement It is right/wrong to do X is true or false depending on what else is true or false. The set of norms maps itself to some other more detailed proposition that can be more simply true or false.

Indexical theory

The statement “Megan ought to fight” sounds normative. According to indexical theory, as Gibbard pointed out, it really means that a certain set of norms requires Megan to fight. It’s basically descriptive, although it becomes normative insofar as it implies that you endorse the norm you describe.

There are, of course, other sets of norms that do not require Megan to fight. So indexical theory can account for moral disagreement. Conversational context often assumes or creates a shared normative system, relative to which normative propositions can be true or false. When I wrote my paper, I suggested other possibilities for explaining disagreement. The normative statement could express additional information like “we have reason to adopt or obey that set of norms” or “we act as if that set of norms were true.” This is information about which people can disagree.

Indexical theory is a type of cognitivism. However, Dreier thought indexical theory was, on the whole, similar to a noncognitivist expressivist theory (i.e. one in which ethical expressions represent noncognitive attitudes rather than propositions).

My suggestion

Suppose we focus on the speaker’s attitudes rather than their beliefs about external facts. Using a previous example, when an expressivist says “it is wrong to put sodium chloride on beans and right to put salt on beans,” their own ignorance of chemical labels explains why they hold this self-contradictory belief, and this factual ignorance determines their attitude.

In my paper, I pointed out that it is reasonable not to ingest chemicals labeled with unrecognized names. If you don’t recognize the term “sodium chloride,” you inhabit a factual-normative world in which it can, for you, simultaneously be wrong to put one mysterious substance on food (when you don’t recognize the label “sodium chloride”) and right to put another substance on food (when you recognize the label “salt”). This has to do with knowledge, intent, and caution. We are speaking of someone’s feelings and attitudes, not objectively describing chemicals. There is no contradiction.

I suggested another example with a more obviously ethical application: deciding to donate to charity. An individual donor has different knowledge and comfort levels about how different charities operate. One might propose that it can be right or wrong to donate to a specific charity depending on the donor’s knowledge and feelings about that charity; this is not a contradiction of the form donate and don’t donate.

Am I using an expressivist-compatible propositional theory to explain normative logic (as Dreier suggested), or am I ditching propositional theory altogether and claiming that ethical statements shouldn’t be considered as propositions at all? I left that question open in my short class paper 20 years ago. Perhaps someone today has an idea of where to take this.

What would it take for someone to decide to get the COVID vaccine?

When we are speakers, we may ask: How can I present my argument in a better way? Other times, as seekers, we need to ask what we can do to search, listen, and judge correctly.

A focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump-Republicans

In mid-March 2021, Frank Luntz and Brian C. Castrucci held a focus group by videoconference with “19 vaccine-hesitant Trump Republicans” from “diverse economic backgrounds.” In the United States, fewer than half of white Republicans have already gotten the vaccine or told pollsters that they definitely will accept the vaccine when it is offered to them, so these “vaccine-hesitant” people are representative of a large demographic within the Republican Party. Luntz and Castrucci wanted to know what “ideas and messages” could possibly persuade these people to be vaccinated.

All participants agreed that the virus was real. To the extent that they were disposed to listen to anyone’s advice about vaccination, they said they’d rather take medical advice than ex-president Trump’s advice. Yet they didn’t understand why scientific predictions and recommendations had changed over time, and they felt that competing or changing information caused them to doubt the importance of vaccines.

Furthermore, they had a number of other beliefs that dampened their interest in vaccines. Some had been previously diagnosed with COVID and believed that they were already immune and did not need to be vaccinated. Others were unafraid of the illness or were more afraid of the vaccine (which they called “experimental,” “rushed” and “unproven”), or felt that there would not be sufficient immediate payoff for taking the vaccine (as social distancing restrictions would likely remain in place for a long time in any case). Another complained of “opportunistic politicians” for whom the vaccine was a tool in a mysterious plot for the “manipulation” and “socialization of society.” One said that lockdowns were a method of political “control.”

The group participants needed information and comprehension

The group members were missing basic information. They needed to hear that the vaccine was developed according to existing technologies; that the trials involved an unusually large sample size; that the Trump administration deliberately lifted regulatory requirements to speed up approval; that the vaccine has never killed anyone; that no one who has been vaccinated has gone on to die of COVID-19, either; that almost all doctors are vaccinated when they have the opportunity. Once they absorbed these facts, they were more open-minded toward the vaccine.

Of course people “do not want to be ridiculed, embarrassed or told that their thinking is ‘Neanderthal,’” as Luntz and Castrucci wrote for the Washington Post. As in any dialogue, the discussion needs to focus on the issue and not the person, and people won’t remain in the discussion unless they are treated gently and kindly.

But also: This group was designed within the boundaries of a political affinity

Luntz and Castrucci said everyone in their focus group was “eager to hear the facts.” They described these facts as “apolitical notions” that swayed the participants’ opinions. However, while the facts may have been apolitical, the group dynamics surely were not. They didn’t point this out in their Washington Post article. I am pointing it out.

The focus group itself was a political affinity group. All 19 participants (the subjects, that is) were Trump-Republicans, and we might expect that they were more open-minded and trusting with each other than they would have been in a more politically diverse group, especially given their beliefs that Democratic politicians seek to manipulate and control Americans through COVID policy. It so happens that the focus group was co-led by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden, as well as four prominent Republican politicians, two of whom also happen to be physicians. The focus group participants enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak directly to these people. I don’t think we can assume that they would have been as receptive to physicians’ messages if the physicians had not so thoroughly embodied the imprimatur of Republican leadership. “If we had that kind of time and space with all vaccine-hesitant Americans, we would surely be able to move the needle,” Luntz and Castrucci wrote. Of course. And obviously it’s not possible. Congressional Republicans, governors, and national medical leaders can’t hold the hands of every American in a two-hour personal conversation to catch them up on a year’s worth of news they’ve been choosing every day not to read or listen to.

In other words, for all that the cultural right mocks the desire for “safe spaces” that reduce the likelihood that one’s identity will be challenged, this focus group was the epitome of a “safe space.” And it was only within such a safe space that the group leaders were able to begin to break through a year’s worth of science denial and epidemiologically bad behavior.

People need to take responsibility for their own information diet

Near end of the Washington Post article, this statement was notable to me: one focus group participant expressed interest in more data, while another just needed to hear a single emotionally affecting story.

The latter is a known phenomenon to storytellers, psychologists, and marketing experts everywhere. People generally do respond better to a story. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” the proverb goes.

As for the former phenomenon, the person who craved more information: There are, of course, always people who say they want the statistics and who might really be equipped to begin to make sense of those large numbers. If they are academically interested, or if their intellect gravitates them more toward the logical than the emotional, that is fine.

But what I can’t quite wrap my head around is that these people were speaking in March 2021 rather than March 2020. Now that nearly 3 million people have died worldwide, a half-million of those close to home in the US, with many more people having been seriously sickened from the same disease, we do have the answers. The emotion is there. The logic is there. The answers have been available, and they have been communicated. We don’t need more data before we can decide. We don’t need more people to tell their tales of woe. The right decision is clear, and the right action should follow as a consequence: We need everyone to wear a mask, socially distance, and get a vaccine.

Of course, data can always be corrected and enhanced, and storytelling can always be improved. This is part of maintaining good communication. But the audience also needs to work on reading and listening.

Often the audience isn’t paying attention. It does not help to wield that observation as a deliberate insult, nor to say it quite so directly to someone’s face, as it will be received as an insult. But it is nonetheless true. Scientists and communication professionals have been talking. An important piece of the question is who is listening. If someone doesn’t make an effort to seek good information, pay attention to what they find, and critically evaluate it, they won’t have the knowledge they claim to want. If someone wants epidemiologically correct information, they need to listen to epidemiologists. If a politician whose primary raison d’être is being a racist troll has taken up a media campaign telling people not to worry about a potentially fatal, highly contagious disease, the public needs to assume that the politician is not speaking in good faith, unfollow them on Twitter, and not vote for them again. If the audience isn’t getting what they want from their television series, they need to try a different one. They can’t just sit and complain and blame their own ignorance on the series’ director. For the first week, yes, it’s the television’s fault; for an entire year, no. They are choosing to watch the confusing material. They need to change their own behavior.

Considering the supply-and-demand of good information in the Information Age, the deficit is surely not in the supply. The supply is high-quantity, and people need to learn to weed out the low-quality material. People need to learn to curate what they’re taking in. If someone has had a poor “information diet” for the past year—whether by overconsumption of bad material festering in a terrible corner of the information ecosystem, or by neglecting to read or listen to anything at all—it is their responsibility to change the channel. Ultimately, no one can do it for them.

There are a number of “how-to” books on critical thinking. They come in different flavors: everything from making sound philosophical arguments, to listening to scientists, to escaping cults. A very recent title is Behind the Scoop: Why You Should Think and Act Like a Journalist by the journalist Johannes Koch. It is accessibly written, a manageable length, and it reminds people that they are empowered to clean up their own information diet. It is also a book that you might plausibly give to someone else since it covers other topics, too, beyond just boosting your critical thinking habits.

I can empathize with someone who is wrong, but they are still wrong

I can muster empathy, to a limited extent, for people who are vaccine-hesitant. The part I can potentially empathize with is their general feeling of alienation from some aspect of the modern world—science, politics, culture—or their anxiety that someone is trying to hurt them. I may disapprove of their reason for feeling alienated or anxious, yet, in a far broader sense, I too am a human who knows what alienation and anxiety are. If they say they’re “scared and outraged,” I hear that and I know roughly what they mean.

However: Even if I manage to empathize with them as people and understand that they are having feelings, that doesn’t mean I can tolerate their error. In this particular case, factually, they are simply wrong. We’re all factually wrong about something now and then. Sometimes it’s a tiny detail that can be glossed over. The COVID vaccine is a particularly grave matter, and it is important that we arrive at a general agreement on the indispensability of this virus-fighting tool and that we perform the necessary act of solidarity; otherwise, we will never reach herd immunity from the COVID disease.

I don’t need to actively, directly, personally insult individuals who are vaccine-hesitant. At the same time, when someone holds a dangerously false belief, it’s necessary to be blunt (either with them or about them). They need to begin listening to the general agreement of the scientific and medical community. There is just no way around that outcome. Unfortunately, not everyone has an invitation to a focus group in which they get to have a two-hour personal conversation with the former director of the U.S. CDC, so they need to find another pathway through roughly the same information that will lead them to the same conclusion.

If I were to make (in this context, anyway) too many suggestions about how to think critically, it would sound patronizing. Anyway, I’m neither a scientist nor a science communicator. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how to make a choice about a vaccine. People know how make good decisions about the health of themselves and others. They just need to do it. Critical thinking is a choice about who to trust, what to care about, and when to put the time in. Now is a good time.

[Image of COVID vaccine by Reckmann Tim from Pixabay]

‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’ sees hope for conspiracy theorists

Mick West’s 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole promotes respectful dialogue with your friends and acquaintances who might happen to be in the grips of a conspiracy theory. People sucked into communities that promote elaborate false beliefs may “get out much quicker if they are helped by a friend,” West says.

The psychological need for a ‘conspiracy theory’

A conspiracy theory is a false set of ideas, but it may seem appealing for various reasons. It may relieve the stress of unanswered questions; it may make a person feel clever or important because it tells them that they have privileged information or a higher state of awareness; or it may take hold in their lack of education or their extreme political beliefs.

Current events tend to breed strange stories to “explain” new developments. West classifies the subtypes of event-based conspiracy theories “in increasing order of implausibility”: (1) The conspirators didn’t cause the event but are pleased that it happened and will exploit it for their own ends. (2) The conspirators were aware that something would happen and they allowed it to happen. (3) The conspirators took action to cause the event. (4) The media has faked the entire event, and anyone supposedly affected is an actor. (This four-part classification feels almost theological to me—as if it were a parallel to types of theodicy?)

West discusses four specific conspiracy theories in detail: chemtrails; the notion that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition; the suspicion that various violent incidents (like mass shootings) are “staged” as “false flags” to place blame on one’s enemies; and the claim that the Earth is flat.

How to intervene

Some conspiracy theories can be burst by focusing on a single salient feature. So, for example, an early timestamp on a breaking-news tweet might seem to indicate that an action was somehow known before it happened or was said to have happened, but a person won’t draw this conclusion if they’re aware that a tweet’s timestamp displays differently in different timezones. Or a person might be startled to hear of the toxic content of everything that surrounds them, until they learn that basically all chemicals have “chemical safety data sheets” because anything can be toxic depending on the amount and concentration.

Each conspiracy theorist typically has a “line of demarcation” between what they think is sensible skepticism and what goes too far for their tastes. “Be clear,” West counsels, “that you are not trying to lump them in with people on the other side of their line. Tell them (honestly) that it’s good that they haven’t been sucked deeper in,” and do so in a way that doesn’t mock them. Question “the aspects of their belief that are very close to the line,” and ask them whether the authority figures in this community meet their standards of reasonableness.

Some people may, as West puts it, be “simply unaware” of the “conventional explanation” for why the world works a certain way. If they are provided with the accurate explanation in a digestible format, they may readily embrace it.

Normal recommendations for civil dialogue apply in these situations, including the recognition that you won’t be able to convince or change everyone.

Mick West. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. New York: Skyhorse, 2018.

Exploring the shadows in Plato’s Cave: ‘Tricks of Light’ by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Detail from the book cover of Tricks of Light. Hands cast shadow rabbits over the face of a real fox.

How do we know what we know? When will we be sure? Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Tricks of Light (2020) explores these questions in poetry.

There are a number of themes in this book, which contains over 80 poems. One theme is human connection. Rutkowski admits to not having many social needs, though he finds it important to keep friendships alive so they don’t dissolve into memories (“Drifting Apart”). He describes becoming an empty nester and having no need to fill the space with a pet (“Empty Nest”) and of sometimes wanting to get away from even himself (“Being Alone”). He leans into the subtle distinction of accepting a hug or reciprocating it (“Personal Space”). An animal, too, he notes, reacts to the way it is held (“Holding the Chicken”).

Some poems describe a sense of otherness, as when he is asked if his dental work was done in another country (“Foreign Fillings”), or no one has heard of his small hometown (“Where I’m From”), or other people of color don’t seem to accept him (“Nothing in Common”), or he’s asked to perform a domestic task on the Jewish Sabbath (“God Will See”). In our lives, more generally, we encounter so many situations in which the conflicting expectations of two people are juxtaposed, and this type of situation, too, is brought up. Who’s encroached on whose lane: the motorist or the bicyclist (“Close Call”)? Who’s suffering culture shock: the tourists or the locals (“In the Valley”)? For that matter, how do we even know when we are inhabiting our own words and not merely someone else’s interpretation of them (“Owning My Speech”), especially when a word like “afraid” cannot encompass everything we feel (“Compulsion”)?

Loss is a common theme in literature. Words, after all, are shortcuts to recall what we’ve once known. But loss is even more primal than language, as even a turtle wordlessly remembers her eggs that were taken (“Brief Life”). Almost anything can remind us of a loss, big or small. When we break a glass, we are upset not so much about the glass but about being reminded of something else that has broken (“Glass and Tears”); similarly, the name “mourning dove” is assigned because the bird’s call is a sad sound to our ears, though the bird itself is not sad (“Farmers and Dove”). Such illusory losses can be confusing, and we may have to wait for an answer. Like fishermen, often we don’t know whether we have caught something or nothing at the end of our lines (“Man Fishing”).

Tricks of Light includes musings on money. Rutkowski keeps track of his own pennies and spends them on candy, yet he won’t bend to pick up a penny, an act that somehow feels different to him (“Pennies”). He is willing to give away money, but he recognizes that someone must first give him money before he can pass it on to someone else, as money flows in a circuit (“When Will I Get Something to Give?”).

And, yes, there are mysteries and tricks: of sound (“Seal Sounds,” “Noise to My Ears,” “Beef Brisket”), of light (“The Speck,” “Lights in Darkness,” “Moon and Airplane”), and of velocity (“View from a Bridge”). Sometimes we simply do not know whether we are looking at a snail or a wad of gum until we lean in closer (“Mimicry”). This kind of sensory illusion gives the book its title. But the idea of “tricks of light” is also, I think, a more general commentary on knowledge. A great deal of what we think we know, whether from direct experience or otherwise, is illusion—shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

Understanding our being in terms of our place: Poems in ‘Rift Zone’ and ‘Last West’

“What is being?” Philosophers often ask this, but when the proposed answers are shrouded in jargon, the effort may cloud more than it reveals.

We already know in our bones what being is because we are. “To be” is to exist in a place, to grow, to break off, to feel how this ties you to what has come before and what is still to come. That’s why I often turn to poetry. It’s both sensory and intellectual. It awakens the personal core to new ideas, or to old ideas perceived from new angles, and it freshens the question of Being with a sense of immediacy.

An old-fashioned car in the California desert. Black-and-white photo. Image from Tess Taylor's poetry book Last West.
Detail of a photo in Tess Taylor’s Last West.

Tess Taylor’s new poetry collection Rift Zone is titled after California’s geological fault lines. “Continents are milk skin / floating on cocoa,” she writes. (“Preface: Pocket Geology”) Next, she homes in on “a radiolarian outcrop / of Jurassic limestone” near where the Golden Gate Bridge is today, where one may find “Hidden in a cave, Ohlone petroglyphs,” the site of a town eventually populated with a “bowling alley, Wild West Gun Shop.” (“Song with Schist & County Line”)

Taylor remembers girls who, in high school,

Decorated each other in white reindeer lichen.
Recited the Tao Te Ching. Had sex on a cliff.
Reindeer lichen was the revolution.
Our new breasts in rain were revolution.

“Berkeley in the Nineties”

This immediacy and specificity is where we affirm and cannot argue against our being. These experiences are as far from illusion as we can get. What algorithm today can give us wild horses, “the rippling ponies / that roamed outside Fremont?” (“Train Through Colma”)

As a poetry collection, Rift Zone is split by personal markers of threat and survival: the killing of a classmate, a husband’s illness, the environmental risks inherent in homeownership, the protection of a newborn, an organized hate group…an elk skeleton. “Now ferns glisten, redwoods blacken. / Now cold buckeye seed & lemons come.” What of these redwoods? They measure the passage of time; they undeniably exist. “Each ring is still a living record; / a transitive, ongoing, / giant conjugate for being…” (“California Suites”)

We are tied to the place where we live, this place of “Blackberry, wild plum, all overhung” (“Song with Wild Plum & Thorn”) and also to other continents from where our ancestors came. “Our gravestones are signposts to everywhere: / Yun, Kobayashi, Menendez, Revere.” (“Song with Poppies & Reverie”) To be finally buried in one place forever is also to open up an imagined everywhere. “Our life is splattered star.” (“Song in Which We Yet Sidestep Disaster”)

Book cover: Rift Zone by Tess Taylor
Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

Another recent book of Taylor’s, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, is also rooted in California. It celebrates Dorothea Lange’s 1930s cross-country travel out West. After choosing to stay in California, Lange photographed migrant workers during the Depression and, later, she documented the internment of Japanese Americans. What Lange saw then is juxtaposed with what Taylor sees today.

It is a story of the “industrial almond fields” and the people who are “unhoused, / unsheltered also migrant / also escaping fleeing / or being moved along—” They work with the “hard rhythmic toss of kale; / & row by thorny row”. The detention facility for immigrants is “Surrounded by at least three gates. Four levels of barbed wire.” This, too, is a question of being; after all, it’s about what it means to “get treated as real people”.

When you live beside train tracks
you pause so much between the trains

it changes how you think.

In Inyo County, there are “mineral mountains / goldenrod & rabbitbrush. / Burnished creosote rusts away for miles—” Any of this natural landscape may be photographed, but “what does it mean to photograph home?”

Book cover: Last West by Tess Taylor
Last West by Tess Taylor

Part of poetry’s power lies in how it raises the question of being, reminds us that there are many words with which to describe our being, and helps us to feel our existence and thereby assures us that we are here right now.

When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

Turtles All The Way Down: Finding Truth in Emptiness

“Everything must have a beginning,” as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley introduced her novel Frankenstein, and that beginning, in turn, “must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand upon a tortoise.” In the introduction to A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking told the story of an old woman who questioned an eminent scientist on his understanding of the cosmos. The Earth, as the woman understood it, “is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” When the scientist asked smugly, “What is the tortoise standing on?” she replied, “You’re very clever, young man, very clever…But it’s turtles all the way down.”

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz understood this myth as a wise commentary on our own ignorance about the cosmos. On that point, we can take a few lessons.

Don’t try to chase things back to some pure origin.  

The humorist Dave Barry warned against yardsale furniture which, when brought home, leads you to find that “after just a few hours you have scraped away a small patch of that hideous orange paint, and underneath it you find…a layer of hideous green paint!” There is no consolation, only the inevitable admission of defeat: “You repeat this process for two, maybe even three more layers of paint, and finally the truth dawns on you: This is not really a bureau. This is an enormous, bureau-shaped wad of paint.”

The advice applies to our investigations of our own personalities. The word “person” derives from the Latin per sonare, to project sound through—that is, personality is the voice that comes through an actor’s mask. We still use the word “persona” to emphasize a character performance, distinct from the “true self” underneath. But is the true person different from the performance? How? Peering inside ourselves, if we are lucky enough to find a “true self” there, when we try to express that personality, don’t we nonetheless stumble across masks all the way down? “Stare into a mirror long enough,” Benedict Carey wrote, “and it’s hard not to wonder whether that’s a mask staring back, and if so, who’s really behind it.”

Recognize illusions to gain power over them.

Realizing the lack of anything there was the basis for Neo’s enlightenment and omnipotence in the science-fiction movie “The Matrix.” Discovering the absence of any hard reality, Neo could bend nature according to his imagination. A psychokinetic child prodigy mentored Neo: “Do not try to bend the spoon [with your mind]. Only realize: there is no spoon.”

A potential consequence of believing there is no giver of forms outside of ourselves or the storyteller, however, is that we might give up caring altogether. As philosopher William Ian Miller put it in Faking It: “The risk is that irony ends in self-involved shallowness, irony all the way down, a chronic refusal to take anything seriously. Ultimately there may be no there there.” What we may wish to do, then, is to choose carefully what images we replicate and amplify and also to admit that even our good-faith attempts at knowledge may be inadequate and illusory. David and Nanelle Barash wrote in Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “In his advice to the traveling players, Hamlet suggested that the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to nature—not, as some theorists would have it, to hold a mirror up to another mirror and thereby reflect only the infinite emptiness of mirrors.”

The question of whether God exists may not address what we really need to know.

As the mathematician John Allen Paulos framed it in Irreligion: Either there is a foundation—the world itself, or a tortoise that supports the world, perhaps—or else nothing is the foundation, in which case even God, if God exists, has a creator who in turn must have an origin.

“Now, do you or do you not believe that one of those turtles must necessarily go all the way down?” asked the character Ram in Richard Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2. “That’s it. That is the single question we are granted to ask while in this body. East, West, North, South. Is there a base terrapin or isn’t there? Cosmology. This is the issue dividing us. The one we must each answer.”

Some long-established theologies maintain that God exists but can’t be described. “Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) spoke eloquently of the via negativa,” as Stephen Prothero explained in God Is Not One, “the ‘negative way’ to a God who is beyond space and time and description and therefore can only be said to be, as Hindu thinkers put it, neti neti (‘neither this nor that’). Even Aquinas admitted that ‘it is easier to say what [God] is not than what He is.'” Aquinas, in turn, labeled Maimonides an agnostic for going a step further and “deny[ing] that we could say anything positive about God’s nature (though we could speak positively about what God did),” since “there is nothing to compare God with and we cannot know literally what God is ‘like,’” as Eugene B. Borowitz put it in Renewing the Covenant. That is why asking whether God exists may not get at our true question. Suppose God exists; we still want to know what God is like, and this is much harder to answer.

A better question—one we hope we can actually answer—is what we want to do with our lives.

Often part of the answer is that we simply don’t know, and cannot know, because there is no final answer. We have to pass through this phase (or this level) of not-knowing before we can get at the type of knowledge that lies beyond.

Richard Kearney said in Anatheism: “One thinks of the apophatic breakthroughs of theologians like Dionysius the Areopogite and Gregory of Nyssa or the various professions of mystical unknowing by the likes of John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Ruzbihan Baqli, and Meister Eckhart (who went so far as to ask ‘God to rid him of God’). Almost all the great mystics and sages attested to a moment of agnostic abandonment as crucial transition to deeper faith. They called it by such names as Abgeschiedenheit, Gelassenheit, nada. Such anatheist suspensions of theistic certainties allowed for a return (ana) to a second kind of faith, a faith beyond faith in a God beyond God.” (Although there is a long Christian tradition of this type of thought, terms like “nescience, unknowing, negativity, apophaticism, using reason to defeat reason” were, as of the 1990s, “unlikely to appear in a university catalogue” in the West, according to Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody in Mysticism.)

“Somehow this process of the via negativa, the ‘negative way,’ in which we wander down divergent paths exploring what something is not, brings us closest to the place we want to go,” Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham wrote in The Spirituality of Imperfection. “We discover a helplessness before the very word [spirituality], the powerlessness that is the necessary beginning of spirituality itself.”

Indeed, when Shakespeare’s Cordelia stood up to her father, King Lear, speaking her truth although she knew she would be punished for it, she was recognizing that a person “must travel by way of the via negativa as a precondition to having life,” as Eric Rhode put it in On Hallucination, Intuition, and the Becoming of O. The emptying of ego and the willingness to let go of social bonds can be a necessary step toward becoming a better, stronger person.

That is what we open ourselves up to discover and live when we acknowledge there is no final turtle. The turtle on which we are standing is never the last turtle. There is always another one to reach. Setting our sights on the next turtle and moving toward it is the way we will live.