Over at Three Pound Brain, Scott Bakker has an interesting post up discussing the conundrums and challenges of pluralism (and I assume that all of us want to advocate some form of pluralism). Pluralism must be in the air lately, as I’ve been thinking about it myself all week. The question that’s been haunting me is that of the degree to which anyone can genuinely be a pluralist. First, it’s worth noting the ways in which I’m a pluralist or think I am. I readily recognize that different critters and humans experience the world in different ways. Cats perceive differently than mantis shrimp. They have entirely different perceptual universes, so we can also say that they have different umwelts. Many things that are there for a mantis shrimp just aren’t there at all for a cat, and vice versa. Autistics like Temple Grandin also experience the world differently than people who have different neurological structures.
There’s also pluralism at the level of universes of meaning. A Christian fundamentalist, for example, interprets the world differently than a naturalist such as myself. If he’s suffering from alcoholism, for example, he might explain this in terms of demonic possession (in the United States there’s been a huge increase in exorcisms to treat such issues). Whereas, the naturalist would explain alcoholism either in terms of neuro-chemical addiction or in terms of attempts to deal with difficult life circumstances, past trauma, or some combination of both.
Now were I still practicing as a psychotherapist, treatment would be different in both cases. As an analyst, you bracket your beliefs about “true reality” and work within the universe of meaning held by your patient. Your job as a therapist isn’t to teach your patients what true reality is, but to work with their symptoms. Were I treating a Christian fundamentalist, I would probably work with their universe of meaning and perhaps even suggest that they get an exorcism because I would be working within the constraints of how their transference is structured. Of course, none of this would be because I think their ontology is true, but because I understand how meaning works in relation to symptom formation in people. It just happens that what is true or false here isn’t particularly relevant (for treatment). The situation is the same with the ethnographer. The ethnographer doesn’t go to the new tribe and try to disabuse them of their metaphysics. The ethnographer merely attempts to understand that metaphysics.
The question, however, is to what degree any of us can genuinely be pluralists. I can very well understand another person’s or groups ontology, but that’s quite different than treating it as true. At the end of the day, I’m going to think that the ontology of the Christian fundamentalist or the Aztec is fundamentally mistaken as an account of reality and I’m going to side with naturalism. I readily recognize that my naturalism is fallible, that I too can suffer from all sorts of biases, and all the rest; but I also feel that in matters pertains to nature, biology, and psychology, it’s the best method we’ve yet devised for getting somewhere close to reality and that I’ve never seen similar successes from religious doctrines and whatnot. I just can’t bring myself to see it as legitimate or even plausible to explain yesterday’s tornadoes as divine punishment.
The other problem I see is that pluralism as a philosophical position often seems to be non-pluralistic. The radical pluralist says that there are only competing theories of reality and we can’t decide between the truth of these various points of view. In this way, the pluralist hopes– I think –to establish something like tolerance for differing and competing worldviews. If we only understand the epistemic limits of our own worldviews and recognize that there are different worldviews, the pluralist says, then we will be more tolerant and there will be less war and violence.
The problem is that pluralism as a position seems incapable of genuinely appreciating the plurality of perspectives, because it misses what is crucial to something being a perspective. The crucial feature of something being a perspective is that it is lived by the critter or person that has that perspective as reality, as what is real and true. Yet it is precisely this that the philosophical position of pluralism cannot abide. Confronted by any claim of something to being real or true, all the pluralist ever seems to say is that that person’s position is “just a perspective” and that there are others. In other words, the pluralist paradoxically calls for every perspective to abandon its perspective, thereby abolishing the very thing that makes a perspective a perspective. In the worst cases, we get a sort of “pluralist superego” that commands “let no one claim that something is true!” What began as a defense of perspectives or different points of view, ends up erasing all perspectives. “Thou hast defended a perspective and therefore violated the commandment of the pluralist superego!” If a pluralist is truly a pluralist, for example, how can they ever argue with another position, for if they are logically coherent they have to recognize that position as being as legitimate as any other.
The problem, then, is that we simultaneously need pluralism but that pluralism is an untenable position that is impossible for anyone to genuinely hold. One thing worth noting is that there are different pluralistic issues. When we’re talking about how the perceptual experience of different critters is organized, it doesn’t make much sense to argue about which form of perception is “more true”. Temple Grandin’s way of perceiving the world is not false, it is just different. Mantis shrimp or bat perception is not more true than wolf perception. We need to be attentive to these differences to properly attend to beings other than ourselves. This is a very concrete and basic thing. My ex-wife is a pediatric nurse. Every couple months she’ll get an infant that was brutally beaten by its mother’s boyfriend (it’s always the boyfriend) and that is either brain dead as a result or has suffered severe brain damage. The story is always the same. The infant was crying too much so the boyfriend beat it to shut it up. These sad stories are examples of what happens when someone is not a pluralist. The boyfriend believes that the infant is cognitively structured in the same way he is and that it is thus capable of drawing cause and effect associations between being beaten and crying. Yet infants just haven’t reached that point yet. A person who has some awareness of the world of infants would understand that beating the crap out of them will make the crying worse.
When we enter universes of meaning or theories of reality, however, matters become different. Recently some faith-healing parents allowed a second child to die because they held that it is sinful and contrary to god to pursue medical treatment, and that if it is God’s will the sick will be spared. Here we are dealing with a theory of reality and causality. It is one thing to understand another person’s or group’s theory of reality or ontology, and sometimes it is appropriate to even leave that ontology unquestioned as in the case of psychotherapy I outlined above, but it seems difficult and wrong to just take these theories at face value because we recognize the fallibility of our own positions. Death resulting from ontologies such as those advocated by the faith healer are probably pretty unusual, but we find similar phenomena in the case of the anti-vaccination movement. There a series of doubts about the soundness of vaccination science, discredited beliefs about the link between vaccination and autism, and somewhat justified views about pharmaceutical corporations, are leading thousands of people to refuse vaccinations for their children. Not only does this endanger the children, but it endangers entire communities of people. Can we really say that vaccination denialism and studies of vaccinations that indicate their safety and efficacy are on equal footing? Are we really willing to take our pluralism that far?