One of the virtues of my Human Science program is that it taught me some serious epistemological humility, which is to say that I have learned caution in my criticism of other ways of knowing. The downside is that I get extremely annoyed with people who arrogantly deny other people’s experiences, making claims that are themselves unverifiable in their absolute certainty—faith, really—that because those other folks’ experiences cannot be verified, they cannot be true.
This particular arrogance arises from a positivist approach, if not positivism itself, where positivists assert that the only acceptable way of knowing is through a limited repertoire of methodologies favoring experiments under controlled conditions, but heavily relying on statistics and correlation when such experiments are not feasible. Other knowledge is subjective or unverifiable, therefore disdained. This epistemological construction is circular: We know what we can know, as best as we can know it, by limited means, but then spurn any other knowledge gained by means we disapprove of, so we only know what we can know by the methodologies we approve of.
And it’s not actually scientific. A scientific approach recognizes its limitations, that we are only able to explore certain phenomena in an area limited to that which we can somehow observe or test; and really that we can have little to say about that which we cannot observe or test, neither that such phenomena occur, nor that such do not occur.
And so it is with this CNN story about the people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and say that they have received communications from the dead. If I am honest, I am grateful they have found some comfort even if I don’t know whether their experiences are ‘real’ in an ontological system I do not myself grasp.
But if I am dishonest, I am angry and disrespectful, certain that they are hallucinating or fantasizing and I am entirely too anxious to tell them so. Because I am certain I have ‘science’ on my side. Perhaps you recognize this as ‘gaslighting’ and it certainly stems from a similar impulse: I am right and therefore superior. They are wrong and foolish to believe otherwise, therefore inferior.
Honesty lies in epistemological humility. I get a little more of the story that way and, more importantly, I get the parts of the story that are important to people.
Because people who claim to know what they cannot know, really don’t. And anyone who thinks they are smarter for a lack of compassion is a fool.
- David Benfell, “The faith of zealous skepticism,” Not Housebroken, April 2, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/04/02/the-faith-of-zealous-skepticism/; David Benfell, “Agnosticism, Atheism, and Theodicy: Yours truly the blasphemer,” Not Housebroken, May 31, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/05/31/agnosticism-atheism-and-theodicy-yours-truly-the-blasphemer/↩
- Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).↩
- John Blake, “They lost their loved ones to Covid. Then they heard from them again,” CNN, June 20, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/20/health/supernatural-encounters-pandemic-loved-ones-blake/index.html↩