How to behave virtuously in an irrational world

Below is the abstract of a paper (download here) that I published in the journal Disputatio. It is about virtue epistemology, an approach to knowledge acquisition and communication that might just be helpful in public discourse about science and pseudoscience.

It is no secret that we inhabit an increasingly irrational world, plagued by rampant pseudoscience, science denialism, post–truths and fake news. Or perhaps, human nature being what it is, we have always lived in such a world and we are now simply more keenly aware of it because of easy and widespread access to social media. Moreover, the stakes are higher, as pseudoscience in the form of the anti–vax movement imperils the lives of many, while climate change denialism literally risks a collapse of the human ecosystem. So how do we deal with the problem? How do we talk to otherwise perfectly reasonable and functional people who nevertheless espouse all sorts of nonsense — and vote accordingly? In this paper I will explore a couple of real life conversations among many that I have had with believers in pseudoscience, and then present and discuss virtue epistemology as one approach to ameliorate the problem. No silver bullets are available, unfortunately, but it is our intellectual and moral duty to keep, as Carl Sagan famously put it, the candle of reason lit even when surrounded by the darkness of unreason.

Published by

Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

5 thoughts on “How to behave virtuously in an irrational world”

  1. I liked the second half. Unfortunately, your leading examples are weak. There actually are UFOs, both in a reductive sense (people see literal “flying objects they cannot identify” that are mostly identified later) and in the “classic” understanding. Did you not see the Pentagon release of the UFO? It was somewhat buried in the COVID news. The Pentagon is a pretty strong source… And belief in God cannot be considered irrational, since the existence of God cannot be either proven or disproven. We do not have the means to do either. Belief in God, or any such spiritual force, relies solely on faith.

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    1. Mike, I don’t know whether you are kidding or not, but I assume not. No, there is no evidence of flying saucers in the sense of aliens visiting Earth, and the Pentagon never said there was. Yes, of course there are UFOs in the trivial sense of the word. But that’s irrelevant to the discussion.

      As for god, I think, with Hume and Sagan, that it is irrational to believe in anything for which there is no evidence. Having no evidence of the non-existence of something is, again, irrelevant.

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    2. Let’s start with the easy one. Here’s the CNN story about the Pentagon release on a UFO:
      https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/27/politics/pentagon-ufo-videos/index.html
      That post has links to the footage and an interesting audio commentary. I am not saying that this proves that aliens exist. I am simply saying that someone acknowledging UFOs cannot be deemed “irrational” out of hand. If you wanted to say that believing that aliens exist is irrational, then that is something different from believing UFOs exist.
      The OED defines irrational as “not logical or reasonable,” and reasonable as “having sound judgement.” I suspect you and I differ on what is reasonable. Theories are constructed from beliefs and data points. The more esoteric the subject, the more one will base a theory on conjecture. If you wish to believe that I am unreasonable in constructing a belief system around data points you consider weak (historic events supporting existence of a spiritual being along with personal experiences of what I consider miracles which you might call “happy coincidences”), then we will agree to disagree.
      In case you’d like to know my “ethos,” I have plenty of education: an MD, two masters’ degrees, and over 10 years on a hospital ethics board. Admittedly not a philosopher per se…

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  2. Mike, regardless of your many degrees, I’m sorry, it is not reasonable to consider that sort of video evidence for anything other than “UFOs” in the literal sense of the terms. Which, as I said, nobody ever questioned, and is utterly uninteresting. Now, if you think there is compelling evidence of aliens visiting Earth I’m all ears. But I don’t think you or anyone else does.

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