Is not falsified a good argument?
What does proof of love look like? In Shakespeare’s play, Othello wants proof of Desdemona’s love for him. Because his love for her is so vivid, so all-consuming, his life has become intolerable in its vulnerability and dependence. And being a soldier, he is not used to that. But what would firm and solid knowledge be in this situation? Iago plants a terrible thought in Othello’s head suggesting that while her love may not be provable, it is surely falsifiable. Infidelity would be solid evidence of Desdemona not loving Othello – it would constitute that desperately needed “ocular proof” (act III, scene 3). And so evidence of infidelity is sought as means of anxiety reduction for Othello’s furious insecurity. Thus the tragedy begins a course to its murderous conclusion.
This was the start of my argument at a pub gathering of the Westminster Skeptics last Monday night. I had little idea what to expect from a group of sceptics other that they styled themselves as promoting an “evidence-based approach”. And I assumed that, for some, an “evidence-based approach” was going to mean hostility to all things religious. So I thought I’d try and argue for a more sceptical approach to scepticism, pinching the arguments of the philosopher Stanley Cavell, and suggesting that what Othello is all about is the ways in which scepticism, and indeed the “evidence-based approach” generally, can sometimes work with a very diminished conception of what it is to know something. Indeed, that through the demand for “ocular proof” we can turn intimate others into distant strangers.
Another’s love is not something that is susceptible to empirical scrutiny in the same way as knowledge about cancer or thermodynamics. To know it is a different sort of knowing – Cavell calls it acknowledging – and there is no scientific test for it. For the most part, the sceptics disagreed….
What I respect about the sceptics – and not all of them are science-fiction reading Dawkins geeks – is that they recall the church to the full scale of its proclamation: the word and works of God. They won’t let us camouflage such claims behind a (waning) reputation for general benevolence and being expert drinkers of tea. Much of the atheism I experience in the parish is little more than shoulder-shrugging indifference. You don’t get that with the sceptics. They sting the church into a defence of the full ambition of its calling. Amazingly, unlike many in the church, they actually want to talk about God.