Who needs an expert, anyway?

So the headlines tell us we are living in a post-fact world. And the expert is declared — DEAD.

We are witnessing, what I like to call, the ‘argument from conspiracy’ rapidly shift from the domain of crackpots and closet bigots to the dominant (i.e., loudest) mainstream position. This argument assumes that a conspiracy — some clandestine, usually nefarious, ulterior motive — underlies claims of fact, especially those facts that undermine the assumed conspiracy, or oppose claims consistent with it. It follows that no such fact is to be trusted, nor the source of that fact trustworthy.

At its most extreme, no fact is indeed fact. ‘It’s all a cover up!’ Hence, we are now post-fact, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The basic argument from conspiracy is:

Posit a conspiracy, let’s say (pertinently) that ‘a certain democratic election is rigged’. It is concluded that any associated claim of fact is evidence of that conspiracy. Significantly, it follows that any, indeed all, facts that go against it — such as, evidence that there is a just/transparent/independent voting system — are now deniable. Along with the related sources of these facts automatically deemed conspirators; as they, of course, are all ‘in on it.’ On it goes, because the experts’ aim is to divert us from the conspiracy (some self-serving secret ‘evil plan’) the argument’s catch-all response becomes ‘ahh, well, they would say that wouldn’t they!’

By first positing a conspiracy, such arguers set themselves apart from the (alleged) conspirators. They establish themselves as the trusted voice calling out a deception, which appears to afford an unquestionable legitimacy to their view. It skews logic to make the moronic — statements like ‘it is legit if I win, rigged if I lose’— look oxymoronic; the incredible look credible. Conversely, any examination now looks like victimisation. For those who wield it, the argument from conspiracy is dangerously infallible. No actual evidence, no genuine facts of the matter, can ever counter it. Unassailable — BULLSHIT.

Besides being faeces on every level, the problem with the argument from conspiracy, and unfortunately its appeal, is that it masquerades as addressing a real worry when actually it is just perpetuating an unfounded fear. I have discussed this fear before; it is the wilfully ignorant’s deep anxiety of being infected by the taint of the educated. This time these champions of common sense believe they are just too clever to be fooled by expertise.

However, these conspiracy-bullshitters are usurping the real concern of all beginners, including us new to being a philosopher. In general terms the worry is how do we judge the trustworthiness of facts and experts? How do we discern the legitimate from the convincing crank? Especially so, when we have no existing expertise of our own! But also, when we are often expected to take the expert’s view for granted and are treated like an idiot if we don’t. (The half of the population without a penis will be familiar with this from having had their car serviced, or plumbing fixed, or you know, questioning what they have been told by a penis, ‘luv’.)

Last time I showed that philosophical integrity is not only thinking right but feeling right too, and that genuine liking and understanding are inextricably linked. But when we start out learning to be philosophers we only have our uncultivated likes to go on. Nervous of getting it wrong, it seems we need the experts to tell us what’s what whether we like it or not. Again, bullshit.

Now I do not mean that we never need defer to philosophical expertise. For me to think that would be to repeat the mistake of the arguers from conspiracy. Instead, I am saying that blind deference is in no way necessary, nor desirable (which happens to be the opposite of what ‘just trust me’ bullshitters expect from us).

No-one can be a philosopher, especially start out becoming one, on their own. Like mechanics and plumbers (welders too), our philosophical apprenticeships need skilled mentors, good examples to imitate. However, notice, when I previously introduced imitation, it is the imitation of ideas not individuals.

Individual humans are complex, inconsistent, contradictory beings. For all his wisdom, Socrates proved a terrible husband, while for all his integrity, Wittgenstein made for a frightful friend. I could go on and on and on. There is no individual philosopher beyond fault, beyond failing. We are human after all. Not one of us can be trusted in every way, nor taken unquestioningly whole.

Accepting these human limitations, it still appears right to ask who do we choose?

Actually, you will have little choice. Luck and accident will dictate your first encounters with philosophy. Even once you have worked at it for some time, factors outside of you will probably have most ongoing influence over where, what, and importantly, who you end up with as your potential philosophical guides.

Rather, what does remain within your control is the who from your own chance assortment you do choose to imitate, and to what extent; and equally who you definitely choose not imitate. (For my own example of one to imitate, recall my special edition ‘My Philosopher To Be’.)

No, unfortunately, there aren’t standard rules for making this choice. Only learning from choosing wrong, repeatedly.

Nevertheless, the best guide for choosing that I have learnt from my own very best teachers is to look out for the philosophers who — no matter how desperately you just want to be told — will never tell you what to think. Moreover, no matter how much they want you to get a thought right, will show you how you might be getting it wrong.

In this way our early trust in philosophical experts need not be completely blind. Remembering that being a philosopher is coming to know ourselves, look for those who help us find our own thoughts not dictate them. That way we may become experts of our own selves.

Otherwise it is just more bullshit.

Next time: The Best Worst Mistakes of my Life.


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