Friday, August 19, 2011

The Egotistically Arrogant Unwarranted Claim to Knowledge

Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame, has written an opinion piece for CNN explaining why he is an atheist and a libertarian. It rests on the fact that there are a lot of things he does not know – and he does not (will not) pretend to know. Apparently, theists and “statist” (the libertarian word for people who advocate government or “state” solutions) pretend to know things they do not.

"I don't know" - Penn Jillette

Penn actually presented three major themes, all of which are worthy of discussion.

(1) He argued in favor of the virtue of saying, “I do not know”

(2) He says that his lack of knowledge (lack of belief) about how we got here justifies his atheism.

(3) He says that his lack of knowledge about how to help the poor and sick justifies his libertarianism.

I am going to split this into three separate posts, each taking on one of these topics.

I will start with the virtue of “I do not know”.

On this, Penn is entirely accurate.

If I were asked to present a plan that would best deal with the government debt and high unemployment at the same time, I would answer, "I don’t know".

I do a lot of reading on economics. Actually, I spend about 5 hours each week listening to serious economics podcasts and lectures, which doesn’t count the time spent on keeping up with current events. I know the theories. I haven't seen any knock-down proof of any of them. I do not know which is best.

Yet, I am surrounded by people who have done a lot less studying than I have done (none, in fact) who assert that they, unlike me, know exactly what is to be done. They are so certain that they are right that they condemn any and all attempts to compromise with anybody who dares to question their keen intellect and shining wisdom.

In spite of my professed ignorance, there are still some things I can know. I can know that the argument that Jeffrey Miron gave us that I commented on in a previous post is garbage. Whatever the truth if the matter is, Miron is too ideologically blind to help us find it. He is too arrogant and intellectually reckless to care about the potential for ideological blindness. Ultimately, his muddying the waters will do far more harm than good.

Miron would do better to say, "I don't know. I am willing to work with you to try to find out. Because these garbage arguments don't help, I won't use them. Here's some arguments that seem to make sense. Let's look at those."

"I don't know (and you don't either)" is the foundation for my argument for political compromise. When Democrats and Republicans meet to determine the best course of action to take regarding the debt, the truly vicious (in the classical definition - which means exhibiting a trait that is the opposite of a moral virtue) ones are those who arrogantly pretend to a certainty they have no justification for. A tad bit of humility should drive them to the conclusion, “We will try some of this, and some of that. We will compromise.”

Opinion polls are filled mostly by ignorant people claiming to know things that they cannot possibly know. On the vast majority of questions that show up in opinion polls – e.g., a poll on legalizing drugs – the responsible person must answer, “I do not know" or not answer the poll at all. The people who give an answer, for the most part, are people claiming to know things they do not, and are too arrogant to admit this fact.

Ironically, I would wager that if a test were given on the facts relevant to answering the question, those who answer, "I don't know" will score significantly higher on average than those who pretend to know. This is because they have learned enough to realize, "This is a really complex issue, and there us a huge amount written on this subject I haven't had the time to look at yet."

The more you know, the more you realize how much stuff there is out there you do not know.

Besides, the first step to looking for answers is admitting that one does not know. The egotistically arrogant don’t need to waste time studying a question they already know an answer to. It's the intellectually responsible person worried about the possibility of being wrong who goes out and does the research.

So, I hold that the unwarranted claim to knowledge – egotistical arrogance - is one of the most significant vices that we find in America today.

It’s said that widespread moral vice is bad for a community. Moral deficiencies lead to suffering, social decay, and, ultimately, the downfall of those societies. This is why we must be diligent in defense of virtue and in opposition to vice.

Unfortunately, way too many people apply this principle to traits that are not virtues (blind faith) or are not vices (homosexuality). However, when it is applied to true virtues and true vices, the conclusion does follow. The egotistically arrogant unwarranted claim to knowledge is extremely harmful and can - depending on the knowledge people are pretending to have - destroy a nation. This is a true vice.


Robert Affinis said...

Very poignant piece. It reminds me of what Clarence Darrow said in the Scopes trial in 1925:

"I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of".

Fundamentalist fervor always upholds the arrogance of the day.

mojo.rhythm said...

For your War on Drugs example: it is not an arrogant claim to certainty to suggest that legalisation would be a lesser evil than prohibition.

There is evidence for it. Look at what happened when they tried to outlaw alcohol, etc. Also, Portugal has had some moderate success with their legalization program.,8599,1893946,00.html

My feeling is that education and regulation is a much more sensible way to combat rampant drug use. We do not put alcoholics in prison for being alcoholics. Why should we do the same for people addicted to pot and other drugs?