Thursday, May 31, 2018

What Becomes The Thinker

     The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. – Bertrand Russell, Mortals And Others

     The famous allegory of “Plato’s Cave,” while its aim is fanciful and unattainable, does tell us something of importance:

     To do anything of consequence, thinking included, we must make certain assumptions. The first of these is the assumption that the evidence of our senses is trustworthy. Thinking – the use of data to formulate abstractions and reach further conclusions from the use of those abstractions – requires data. Moreover, the data must be reliable: an accurate report on some aspects of the objective state of reality.

     But our sense organs aren’t our only source of data, and a good thing, too. We include in our data stores:

  • What we’ve been told by others;
  • What we’ve read, or heard on some medium that conveys information;
  • Earlier conclusions we’ve drawn, or that trusted sources have drawn and conveyed to us.

     To the extent that we employ data provided by those sources in our thinking, we tend to treat them as essentially equivalent to our sense impressions. But there’s a problem there: the statements and conclusions of others might not be reliable. It can take quite a lot of work to determine whether those others have conveyed accurate information to us...and whether they intended to do so in the first place.

     Men believe in the professions as they believe in ghosts: because they want to believe in them. Fact-blindness – the most common sort of blindness – and the resolute lying of respectable men – keep up the illusion. – George Bernard Shaw, Dramatic Opinions and Essays
     “There are indeed, in the present corruption of mankind, many incitements to forsake truth: the need of palliating our own faults and the convenience of imposing on the ignorance or credulity of others so frequently occur; so many immediate evils are to be avoided, and so many present gratifications obtained, by craft and delusion, that very few of those who are much entangled in life have spirit and constancy sufficient to support them in the steady practice of open veracity.” – Samuel Johnson

     The gulf between accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation is infinitely deep. It’s carved by motive: the desire of the person on the other end to inform or to deceive. Determining which of those motives is at work can be difficult approaching impossible.

     Many are the good-hearted and well-intentioned who innocently propagate falsehoods: usually, falsehoods originally pressed upon them by others. But the not-good-hearted and not-well-intentioned are out there as well. This makes it critically important that we create a division, in our minds at least, between what we’ve personally witnessed and what others have reported to us. We deem data from the former sources trustworthy ab initio, though illusions and hallucinations are possible. We must not grant 100% credence to the latter group.

     This is much on my mind because of an exchange I had just yesterday with someone I like and admire. I mentioned a historical figure, relatively minor as such figures are reckoned but nevertheless a player in an important event, who seemed to me to be an example of high character in a dark place and time. My interlocutor differed on the basis of sources he did not name. When I said that my own reading seemed to differ from his, he replied rather snippily that I should “contemplate the word ‘whitewash.’” I was somewhat taken aback, but in the interests of amity I pursued the subject no further.

     Now, this is an unimportant matter in the grand scheme of things. However, I consider myself extremely well read; at least, the 13,000 volumes steadily forcing me out of my own home should count for something. But my interlocutor has a good claim to that status too – and we differ on a point of historical interest to both of us. We have different sources for that point. Whose sources are closer to the objective facts?

     That question, not its answer, is the point of this essay.

     Historians are human. They have their own biases and their own axes to grind. Some have the unholy habit of dismissing and discarding sources, including first-hand witnesses, whose accounts clash with their own preconceptions. Now and then, as with Michael Bellesiles, one such is discovered and discredited, but not always.

     It’s likely that some, at least, of what I’ve read and taken to be accurate history is false-to-fact. I do try to remember that when one reads a history, he’s not really looking and listening to the past, but rather absorbing an account written by another – quite possibly someone who has himself been misinformed or deceived. It would be well if everyone who writes op-ed for others’ consumption would keep that in mind.

     The Bertrand Russell quote at the head of this essay strikes me as transcendently important, even vital to the serious thinker. We must retain a measure of doubt about anything we have not personally witnessed. It’s an ethical obligation. Not to do so is to join the “cocksure,” and perhaps to take part in “the resolute lying of respectable men.” That’s a role I don’t want to play.

     Anyone can be wrong – and when he’s been misinformed or deceived, he surely will be, at least for a time. Keeping that firmly in mind is a great aid to the maintenance of modesty.

     Allow me to recommend yet again Jean-Francois Revel's masterpiece The Flight From Truth, one of the most important works of the Twentieth Century.

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