I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I find myself more exasperated and dread-filled this election season than during any other. It’s not that I worry the candidate I favor may lose despite my belief that he is far and away the better choice; I’ve spent enough time with those worries to make peace with them. And it’s not the feeling of powerlessness that comes with living in a state totally irrelevant to the election’s outcome. (Peace has come to that front, too.) Though closer, it’s not even so much the epistemic closure, more hermetic each cycle, of the Republican ecosystem. Rather, Republicans have given up on epistemology altogether. Yes, that’s it.
Epistemic closure is all about restricting (or in many cases generating) facts to only those that support the beliefs and positions held by the inhabitants of that ecosystem. But this restriction still presupposes and relies upon a recognizable evidence-belief relation, one in which truly holding a belief demands having evidence and reasons for it.
Think about it like this. How do we revise our beliefs? Myself, I’m partial to the Duhem-Quine thesis, which pretty much says that our beliefs, knowledge, and experience together form an explanatory web we use to make sense of anything, a web we constantly revise and update based upon experience and reflection. But our experiences and reflections don’t by themselves determine how we should revise our web, and any bit of it is in principle revisable, depending upon how willing we are to adjust the rest of the web accordingly. Watch a magician work, and you’ve got a choice: Conclude that your eyes are being tricked or that a physical object (tiger/elephant/Statue of Liberty) can be made to disappear upon the utterance of the right word. You can believe the latter, but doing so means revising deep and wide in your web — giving up beliefs about object permanence, for example, to hold true the observation. Radical, but possible. For some, letting gays marry undermines central principles about the universe, both material and immaterial, so it’s better to believe children need a mother and father or will grow up to rob liquor stores. Epistemic closure, then, serves as just a type of defense against belief revision.
The Romney/Ryan ticket have gone beyond this defense into epistemic implosure. It’s not that Romney/Ryan create their own facts (which they do on occasion). Rather, they don’t revise in any recognizable fashion. Romney decries Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 2014 on one day, then embraces the timetable wholeheartedly the next. He works hard to help institute universal healthcare in Massachusetts, then attacks the very same model as unsustainable and enslaving. He contends both that government doesn’t create jobs and that he will (somehow) create 12 million jobs as head of government. (And the principle of non-contradiction is one of those center-of-the-web kind of things.)
It’s tempting to conclude (to best preserve one’s own web) that Romney is willing to say more or less anything, that he has no center to revise, and that’s just, you know, Politics These Days. If you’re willing to believe that, you better be willing to give up on believing.