Reading this book is like watching Barcelona dismantle their opponents on the football pitch. You don't need to know much about the beautiful game to appreciate the simplicity of the passes, the fitness of the players, the intricacy of the dribbling, and so on. Likewise, anyone with a modicum of reason will enjoy Stephen Law's masterclass in how to steer clear of "Intellectual Black Holes". Perhaps as important as the detailed analysis is seeing reason in action - one of the best ways to appreciate the beauty and power of reason itself. In football, the cynical player resorts to foul play to stop a great team. In life, the sloppy or cynical thinker - the cult leader, the purveyor of quack medicines, the dodgy financial advisor - simply has to "raise enough intellectual dust" to put their opponents on the back foot. Law identifies eight strategies - including playing the mystery card, going nuclear, pseudoprofundity - which are the intellectual equivalents of the two-footed tackle, the shoulder barge, and so on. He unpacks and explains these key strategies in pungent and entertaining detail, and provides us with enough rational rocket fuel to keep our minds from being sucked into the reason-free zone that is an Intellectual Black Hole.
"Why does it matter if some people happen to believe absurd things?" It matters if they are in positions of power, in government or in the media. President Bush, for example, famously relied on the "God-sensing faculty" in his gut to guide the ship of state. It also matters if they are powerless or vulnerable to exploitation. We should protect children from the more dangerous religious beliefs of their parents, and we should look out for those who are coerced or duped into, say, wasting "both cash and emotional energy seeking out reassurances about lost loved ones that are, in reality, worthless". So, apart from sheer curiosity, both self-interest and compassion should motivate our inquiry.
The title may strike some as being less than serious. Studying bullshit is, however, respectable philosophy, the subject of Harry Frankfurt's excellent essay On Bullshit
. As Law emphasizes, it's not the content of a bullshit belief system that is necessarily the problem (since the content may, on occasion, be true), but "the manner in which its core beliefs are defended and promoted". The bullshitter says whatever suits his purposes, "without any care as to whether what he says is true".
The bullshitter would prefer you to share his freewheeling attitude, and although he may seem neutral as far as truth is concerned (it's not his primary goal), he certainly doesn't welcome reason or clarity. The reasonable person can't help but care about the truth, since reason itself is "truth sensitive" and functions "as a filter on false beliefs". So, because reason is bound to unmask the bullshitter sooner or later, anything capable of disrupting "the truth-detecting power of reason" will naturally be embraced. Hence, the popularity of these eight strategies.
Most of them also function as conversation stoppers (precisely what is needed by anyone losing an argument). How do you respond to someone who just knows they have psychic powers? Is there time to move the semantic goalposts back into position (assuming you noticed them being shifted in the first place)? Has untangling all that pseudoprofundity sapped the will to live? Understanding what's going on is half the battle; putting that understanding into practice to keep the conversation going in a reasonable direction is the other, more tricky half. Bullshit artists don't tend to hang around once they've raised "enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape".
Going nuclear is perhaps the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card, since it stops reason itself. If you can cast doubt on reason, then any conclusion that is not to your taste can simply be dismissed as groundless. Law identifies two main variants. The skeptic "lays waste to every rational argument, bringing every belief down to the same level", alluding along the way to the genuine philosophical puzzle of how beliefs are justified, and typically finishing with a flourish: "ultimately, everything is a faith position!" The relativist, in contrast, likes the truth so much that we can each have our own: there's your truth, my truth, his truth, and oh, yes, if you insist, scientific truth, just one among many, all of which are equally "valid".
The problem is, those "who press the nuclear button rarely do so in good faith". They'll "rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument" but as soon as things turn against them they'll start jabbing that finger, demanding that you "show a little humility", and pointing out, with an air of resignation, that there are more things in heaven and earth "than are dreamt of in your philosophy". What adds to the frustration of having a perfectly good argument maligned is seeing your opponent strike a sanctimonious pose, exuding "an air of calm intellectual and spiritual superiority". Such people are not very nice, to put it mildly, and this personal dimension is brought out wonderfully in the Tapescrew Letters at the end of the book, which lay bare the kind of instruction a senior guru might hand down to an apprentice.
One minor quibble is that Law too readily signs up to Hume's idea that we can't get an "ought" from an "is". Recent work (e.g. Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays
and Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape
) shows that this question is still open. To be fair, the context was not an in-depth examination of the supposed dichotomy; he was making the point "that there may well be questions science cannot answer". His conclusion, that "scientism is probably false", is a position few would disagree with.
Real black holes are dangerous objects far enough away for them not to keep us awake at night. Intellectual black holes are much closer to home, and the cause of real harm. While those of us lacking robust intellectual and other psychological defences are most easily trapped, "we're all potentially vulnerable". Stephen Law has provided a booster jab for the brain, to keep us all that little bit safer.