Some of my students have “crazy” views. Then again, I have some crazy views.
The question is, is it possible to dismiss all strange, unusual, “extreme” or weird views at once? Or must one examine them case-by-case?
For my part, I try to consider each weird view individually. So far as possible, given time constraints, I try to judge “weird” views (bigfoot, fairies, UFOs, ghosts, demons) one by one, examining its individual merits rather than judging the whole set at once.
Furthermore, I try to judge all “official” views (western science, religious monotheism, political democracy) one by one rather than accepting the whole set at once.
I call this ‘case-by-case epistemology.’ Keep your “Overton window” huge, with narrow slices of “unthinkable” views on the sides. The wide range alternatives to present policy are all fair game, even if they seem ‘weird’ at first, so long as there are arguments to support the view that can survive scrutiny.
Case-by-case approach to weird views doesn’t mean you are confused. I am a persuaded Christian, Platonist, rationalist, traditionalist, conservative with fairly thought-out views about religion, politics, morality, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and so on. What it means is that I do see intrinsic value in remaining willing to hear out both (or multiple) sides of an issue and take it case-by-case. As I read him, that willingness is how Plato’s Socrates lived.
So I take atheism seriously. And pantheism. I take ethical egoism seriously. And moral nihilism. I take the politically progressive or so-called culturally Marxist ideology seriously. And anarchism. And monarchy.
The major benefit of this approach is relational: when I converse with people with “strange” views in class or in church or the proverbial water cooler, I enjoy the discourse and try to learn something, and criticize their views charitably. (They usually find my arguments delightful, if exotic, as well.) And converse I do. In the last five years in class and work and life, I have come across conspiracy theorists, flat earthers, Tarot card readers, anarchists, alt-right, Russian Orthodox Christians, scientific atheists, Nietzschean nihilists, a person who lives in a haunted house, prophets and miracle workers, religious nuns, religious “Nones”, and others. With each person, I strive to really dialogue – to listen and to talk. I strive to take their thoughts seriously, to disagree without condescension, and generally to have a roaring good time.
To dismiss views because they are weird is oftentimes a genetic fallacy (how could anything good come from X?) or a fallacy of appeal to personal credulity (how could anything be true that strikes me as odd?)
A second major benefit is intellectual. I have learned a lot and had to think a lot harder about my metaphysics and epistemology. Why, for example, if I take eye-witness testimony to be authoritative in most cases, do I believe X when he reports A but not Y when he reports B – even of both are non-experts but personal friends whom I trust? If universals are not real, then why do arguments for nominalism assume realism in the very form of the language? If democratic involvement is so essential for liberty why does less than half the U.S. population vote?
You can even learn something talking to conspiracy theorists. A lot of such theories affirm conjecture when agnosticism would work just as well. But I still debate them (for at time!). And if their bad arguments challenge me to come up with good arguments, it’s not a waste of time to debate. It’s like swinging a bat with weights on it – it’s “unnecessary” work, but has a payoff.
For example, how do you disprove an unprovable theory? Here’s one way: assume that people are tremendously bad at keeping secrets. By this hypothesis, any alleged conspiracy that involved intimate knowledge of more than 5 would eventually be leaked, on purpose or on accident, and become publicly known. Any alleged event (such as a fake moon landing) that would have required the secrecy of more than 5 people did not happen. Some small conspiracies are not automatically disproved by this argument, but many large ones are.
For whatever this argument’s merits, it’s the kind of thought I only had because of talking to the conspiracy folks and refusing to dismiss their weird views with ad hominems or bullying.
A third benefit is moral: I have to cultivate and exercise virtues such as charity, the benefit of the doubt, and undying patience. The dialectic grinds slowly, but it grinds effectively.
The major downside is it takes a long time. It is much quicker to categorize views according to “families” and develop a well-reasoned position about all “theisms” or all “atheisms” all at once. But the danger of mis-categorization makes the extra time worth it.
It’s not that I go out of my way to research radical views all the time. Rather, when I come across people who hold radical views, each one gets a full and hopefully fair hearing. ANd a hearing takes more time than a sneering. Chesterton says (in Dumb Ox) of Thomas Aquinas that he refused to sneer:
“It is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.”
A second downside is that people think I hold the weird views I’m just entertaining. For example, I had an argument with a close friend about the “alt-right” this last election cycle. I am not alt-right, if I understand the term, but he was trying to define ‘alt-right’ as ‘evil’ and thus demand a disavowel. I’m still trying to understand what the term means and get a correct definition, so I was trying not to dismiss those who identify that way with simple epithets. He assumed my refusal to disavow them amounted to an endorsement. It is unfortunate, but inevitable, that sometimes people will demand you affirm or deny something you haven’t decided on. I take this demand to be (sometimes at least) mere bullying, so you’d have to resist and put up with being misunderstood, insulted, or slandered.
Another downside is that I don’t get to feel arrogant. I don’t automatically presume that I’m the intellectual superior to everyone who disagrees with me. I don’t presume that you’re either stupid-and-wrong or intelligent-and-right but assume that some people are intelligent-but-wrong.
It’s a big loss, because it’s fun to feel superior. But so it goes.
Are there any other downsides I’m missing?