Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ahmadinejad and Radical Skepticism

The controversial statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to the US embody the classic philosophical thought experiments in radical skepticism. Instead of expressing a few, discrete points of disagreement, factual or normative, Ahmadinejad's statements evinced a wholesale rejection of our epistemic worldview. His radically contrary set of beliefs pose epistemic problems similar to those of the great skeptics. Descartes argued that it was logically possible to doubt every belief (1); Hume asserted that perception and reason are insufficient to prove the existence of the external world (2); Ahmadinejad soberly rejects seemingly universally held, patently true beliefs, but does so with coherent and cognizable reasons. All of these positions contemplate a radically skeptical theory of justification.

Of course, some of Ahmadinejad's remarks can be written-off as tactful political maneuvering (e.g., his assertion that Iran has not been supplying weapons for attacks on US soldiers). But many other statements seem to come from a completely different epistemic ballpark. On the existence of gays in his country, he rejected the common sense view and stated simply that "in Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country…. I don't know who told you that we have [homosexuality]."(3) He criticized an Amnesty International report (4)that documented the flogging of journalists and the shuttering of 11 newspapers in Iran by claiming that the "people who prepared the report are unaware of the situation in Iran," (5) despite evidence to the contrary (6, 7). On his recent sponsorship of a convention for holocaust skeptics (8), he defended the event with a methodological critique that "there has been more research on physics than… on the holocaust, but we still continue to do research on physics… [and there] is nothing wrong with doing it." (9)

What is striking about his epistemic and methodological assertions is not their veracity but, rather, their coherence within his own web of belief. A la Quine, his assertions may be contrary to the commonly held beliefs of many Americans (amongst others), but they are not necessarily contradictory as they are corroborated by different supporting propositions. Quine noted that no statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, will admit of confirmation at all. Rather, our "statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body." (10) This is to say that the verification conditions for each statement are spelled-out by the theory, or web of belief, of which it is a part. For example, the statement "the boiling point of water is 100° C" cannot be verified as true or false without a rich theoretical context that contains, among other things, knowledge of the effects of pressure on boiling point, of the proper methods to take such measurements, and the existence of reliable instruments to produce the desired readings.

Ahmadinejad's statements challenge not just the veracity of a few isolated propositions, but of an entire epistemic framework -- of an entire web of belief. Much to popular astonishment, he has reasons for his beliefs. Whatever else may be said about them, his beliefs are coherent; his links between belief and justification are logically plausible and, aggravatingly, are hard to distinguish from our own conventions of epistemic justification.

Why does he doubt the report on the imprisonment of journalists? Because the report's authors were misinformed. Why does he promote scholarship that is skeptical of the holocaust? Because even accepted doctrines can benefit from additional research.

Coming from someone else on other issues, these positions could be perfectly acceptable to most of those that have taken issue with Ahmadinejad. And this, of course, is the problem. On a purely formal level, Ahmadinejad seems to have done all of the right things to stay in good epistemic graces. However, on the substantive level of his individual beliefs, he is an extremist who holds beliefs antithetical to those of a free society.

It follows that the conventional disagreement with Ahmadinejad's beliefs is a normative issue – i.e., it is a disagreement over value as opposed to process. There certainly is thoughtful criticism to be found regarding his epistemic methods and the manner by which to hold an honest dialogue (11). However, most of the instinctive, gut reactions that have populated the discourse over his recent visit have merely expressed contrary normative principles (12, 13), and not the more interesting and convincing arguments about method.

Of course, Ahmadinejad has made his controversial assertions not as epistemic critiques but as factual counterpoints to prevailing opinions. As such, he is just as vulnerable to the above meta-critique as those whom he has assailed. Put another way, raising epistemic conundrums does not immunize one against them.

The radical skepticism presented by Ahmadinejad is just as relevant to his own web of belief as it is to those with whom he has taken issue.

(1) Descartes, Rene. “Meditation II.” Discourse on Method. 1637.

(2) Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 1739.

(3) Wright, Robin. "Iranian Leader Fails to Ease Tensions." The Washington Post, September 27, 2007.

(4) Amnesty International. Annual Report on Iran 2007.

(5) Milbank, Dana. "Live From New York, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Unreality Show." The Washington Post. September 25, 2007.

(6) Reporters Without Borders. "Iran -- Anual Report 2007."

(7) Boswell, Randy. "Iran Shuts Down Leading Reformist Newspaper." August 6, 2007.

(8) Fathi, Nazila. "Holocaust Deniers and Skeptics Gather in Iran." The New York Times. December 11, 2006.

(9) Wright, Robin. "Iranian Leader Fails to Ease Tensions." The Washington Post, September 27, 2007.

(10) Quine, W. V. O. From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. 41.

(11) Editorial. "Mr. Ahmadinejad Speaks." The New York Times. September 25, 2007.

(12) Nauert, Heather. "Reflecting of Ahmadinejad's U.S. Visit." The Big Story w/ John Gibson & Heather Nauert. September 26, 2007.

(13) Cotler, Irwin. "Ahmadinejad and International Law." Jerusalem Post. October 2, 2007.

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