August 18, 2011

"I Don’t Know" Only Goes So Far

Penn Jillette, half of the famous magic duo and a co-host of Showtime’s mostly brilliant Bullshit!, has a new book out called, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. So he’s been making the rounds on the TV book circuit. Last week, he went on Piers Morgan’s show and was grilled about his atheism and libertarianism. In this column at CNN’s website, he follows up on that conversation (at least he didn’t walk off in a huff like Christine “I am not a witch!” O’Donnell did last night).

Jillette’s main point is the power of being able to say “I don’t know” about something and how that lead him to both be an atheist and a libertarian. I certainly agree that not only recognizing that you, personally, are ignorant of some things (in a humble sort of way), is important, but so is being comfortable with that fact. After all, there are a lot of “God of the gaps” arguments deployed be believers that basically comes down to their inability to accept “I don’t know” as an answer for the universe’s big questions. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, don’t have that problem. I can see the intersection there.

I’m not convinced that what applies in one arena applies in the other. Questions about the existence of God, how the universe came to be, or why we’re here are important (and fun!) ones to consider, but they’re also largely irrelevant to daily life. God or no God, everybody’s got to find food, shelter, clothing, sex, and provide for the needs of their families. That I don’t believe in God impacts the rest of the world not at all.*

Here’s how Jillette explains it:
What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.
That argument doesn’t really lead to libertarianism, though, or any other political ideology. What it really leads to is political disengagement. It’s somewhat similar to what Ilya Somin often writes about at the Volokh Conspiracy – the rational ignorance of voters (put simply, that a single vote means so little that the voter casting it has little reason to educate himself before casting it). Staying out of the political process because “I don’t know” makes some sense in that case.

But it’s not a persuasive reason to become a libertarian. Libertarianism isn’t disengagement with the political process. It’s an affirmative ideology that holds certain base principles and applies them to the real world. You’ve got to “know” stuff in order to sign on to those base principles. The same is true of any political ideology.

If anything, a rigorous adherence to a skeptical “I don’t know” position should lead one away from a fixed political ideology. Dogmatic adherence to ideology is rarely the best answer to every question, regardless of the venue. Politics is no different. Skepticism would counsel questioning all the first principles and examining the evidence of how a particular problem has been solved (or not) in other places.

We’d all be better off if we could get ourselves comfortable with giving “I don’t know” as an answer to questions big and small. It would lead to people being more open to rational solutions to problems and less reliant on the knee-jerk responses common to ideologues of all stripes. So I applaud Jillette for embracing his not knowing. I’m just not why it leads him to drink the libertarian Kool-Aid.

* Acting on beliefs, regardless of what they are, is a different story, of course. But we’re just talking about belief itself, or lack thereof, right now.

1 comment:

  1. Athiests are smart alics who think they know everything when CLEARLY they dont. look around you at the amazing world God created. What more evidence could you possibly need?