Poisoning the Well

 Posted by on 24 July 2005 at 12:01 am  Uncategorized
Jul 242005

A “charity refutation” is a refutation of an arbitrary claim, offered in generous kindness to the poor souls possibly taken in by epistemological hucksters. (The term is not my invention; I’ve heard that it traces back to Ayn Rand.)

Consider, for example, the Objectivist arguments against God as the creator of the universe. Because the theist can cite no genuine evidence for it, the claim is arbitrary. So the atheist has no obligation to refute it. Rather, the epistemological burden rests entirely with the theist.

However, regular folks are often confounded by such arguments. A person may be innocently confused by the heavy metaphysics if unskilled in the fine art of tracing implications. Or he may only implicitly grasp the need for solid evidence for claims, such that he cannot explicitly identify and reject the argument as arbitrary. In such cases, explaining how God-as-creator as merely pushes the problem back one more step or endorses the primacy of consciousness can be worthy kindness to offer. Certainly, I have gratefully received many such kindnesses myself.

In general, as Ayn Rand clearly recognized, it is far easier for a basically rational person to get suckered into a bad argument than to originate it himself. That’s one of the reasons why I’m far less likely to offer a charity refutation to the originators or pushers of arbitrary theories. Either such people know well enough that their stated reasons are no more than rationalizations or they are too psycho-epistemologically screwy to grasp the point at hand. That’s been my experience, at least.

Unsurprisingly, Don Watkins offers more than a few charity refutations in his dissection of Neil Parille’s article “Ayn Rand and Evolution.” In reading that article, I’m quite blown away by the fact that Neil never actually considers Ayn Rand’s own perfectly reasonable explanation for her hesitancy about the theory of evolution, namely inadequate study. Instead, he engages in baseless speculations about the supposed implications of evolution she wished to avoid, e.g. instinctual knowledge, determinism, and original sin. The underlying premise of the whole discussion is that Ayn Rand was not an honest intellectual. That’s why we need not consider the possibility that she accurately reported the reasons for her hesitancy or that she grounded her philosophic views in observed fact rather than desired conclusions. Particularly as applied to Ayn Rand, that’s a disturbingly false premise.

Unfortunately, the philosophic style of this article is not an anomaly. Too much published on Ayn Rand in recent years has all the illusion of scholarly inquiry without any of its substance. It is pseudo-scholarship: it substitutes superficial understanding, invented controversy, and detached cynicism for the clarity, depth, and care of good study. (Certainly, my own essay in the Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand anthology betrays far too much of that kind of pseudo-scholarship. Given my skewed standards at the time, the fact that I very much wanted to write a fine essay had little bearing upon the quality of the work I produced.)

The serious study of Ayn Rand’s work — in and out of academia — is only in its nascent stages. If stillborn, our culture is doomed. (So the stakes are high, to say the least!) Whether Ayn Rand’s ideas take hold in academia and the wider culture or not will largely will largely depend upon the work produced in the next few decades. That work will consist of a relatively small number of influential publications produced by a relatively small number of scholars and intellectuals. So at this point, and for many years to come, even a few pseudo-scholars pose a grave danger, as do those who tolerate them. After all, today’s intellectuals would love nothing more than to be able to dismiss Objectivism by means of strawmen erected by its supposed defenders. (Oh, what a sad time that would be!) Such is why promoting the highest standards of objectivity in scholarship on Ayn Rand and Objectivism is not just important, but of particular pressing importance at present. It’s not just some academic game: it’s literally life and death.

Neil’s article represents no great danger by itself, of course. It’s a essay for SOLO — not some massive tome, journal article, or even newspaper column. Yet its unserious intellectual style is a symptom of the very serious problem of pseudo-scholarship on Ayn Rand and Objectivism, a problem very much worth our attention.

Update: Don Watkins offers some further thoughts on Ayn Rand scholarship.

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