Tuesday, 24 October 2006

A Dust and a General Disorder

Disbelief is a most useful servant for the glib and shallow soul who might like to impress with the fancy of his sober incredulity. Anyone – even a fool – might discern the obvious, and for want that he be taken as a sage seeing beyond common sight, and for want moreover that his thoughts remain unprovoked by sense, a man may shut off his sight, and set himself immodesty to decrying as myths all threats to his repose. This is the aspect of false scepticism which T.H. Huxley noted:
When I say that Descartes commemorated doubt, you must remember that it was that sort of doubt which Goethe has called ‘the active scepticism, whose whole aim is to conquer itself’; and not the other sort which is born of flippancy and ignorance, and whose aim is only to perpetuate itself, as an excuse for idleness and indifference. [1]
There is another aspect of false scepticism, however, noted by many, and to which G.C. Lichtenberg gave succinct expression:
With most people disbelief in one thing is founded on blind belief in another. [2]
Thereby a man might describe as a persistent myth any fact that stands against his beliefs. I suspect that this aspect largely underlies the other. Whatever the case, with both aspects in full play, we find that a mass of men sets about exploding “myths” all over the place, such that a dust and a general disorder is thrown up around every matter, to which it is then difficult to attract clear and calm attention.
.....
[1] T.H. Huxley, Aphorisms and Reflections From the Works of T. H. Huxley, selected by H. A. Huxley (London: MacMillan & Co, 1907), §.XVII, published online at The Huxley File.
[2] G.C. Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, (Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1984), L.670 from Sudelbuch L (1796-1799), p. 514. [“Bei den meisten Menschen gründet sich der Unglaube in einer Sacher auf blinden Glauben in einer andern”.]

7 comments:

Larry Teabag said...

Please can you give an example?

Second guessing the motivation of people who don't believe in things is a touch too general for me. It might, after all, depend on the thing in question.

Deogolwulf said...

"Please can you give an example?"

Out of all the thousands of people you have met or observed, can you not find one for yourself? (Here's a starter: on the first aspect of false scepticism, one might consider pretension and a disinclination to think too deeply; on the second aspect, you might consider ideology.)

"Second guessing the motivation of people who don't believe in things is a touch too general for me."

I'm very sorry to hear it. Stick to the particulars, then.

"It might, after all, depend on the thing in question."

No doubt.

james higham said...

Another is, "I'm not convinced," not based on any rational set of stats or facts. Another is the all-embracing catchcry. "Ah - conspiracy theorists again," or some such.

Larry Teabag said...

Well I don't get it. In order to explode a myth, you have to actively believe it to be false - this seems different from being sceptical about its truth. Nor do I see that idle or indifferent men are likely to put themselves to the effort of exploding "myths" all over the place.

With most people disbelief in one thing is founded on blind belief in another.

Taking myself as an example of most people, here are four of the infinitely many things that I disbelieve:
- that 1+1=3
- that the earth is flat
- that my mother hates me
- that Jesus rose from the dead

Lichtenberg is right that in all cases the foundation of my disbelief is a belief in something incompatible. But why must this belief be "blind"?

I appreciate that you're talking about *false* scepticism (or disbelief) here - but are you really doing anything other than shunting the question about?

Surely the meat of the matter is to determine when the disbelief is false, or equivalently when the belief in the incompatible proposition is "blind", and when it is not.

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Teabag:

"In order to explode a myth, you have to actively believe it to be false"

And in "exploding myths" (by which I mean that the "myths" in question are not being exploded) we can see two aspects of false scepticism: with the first, there is no particular care to find out the truth or falsity of the matter, only a glib disinclination to put one’s mind to it, and since people have got it into their heads that incredulity is better than credulity, being that it appears more hard-headed, the attitude will be one of “scepticism”. With the second, there is a disbelief in a matter based not on the paucity of evidence, but on an ideological aversion (often the person so inclined raises the standard of evidence (setting a new level of "scepticism") every time evidence is brought forth in favour of the matter).

"Nor do I see that idle or indifferent men are likely to put themselves to the effort of exploding "myths" all over the place."

In the first aspect, specifically applying to idle or indifferent men, such men are hardly putting themselves to any trouble - indeed that is precisely the source of their "scepticism"! It should go without saying, however, that they are not entirely indifferent to their own image.

As for the quote from Lichtenberg, I assumed that he was making the point that rational deliberation is not for most people the basis for believing one thing above another when that thing is still a live choice. Most people would consider to be dead such questions as whether 1+1=3.

“[A]re you really doing anything other than shunting the question about?”

I’m just submitting my simple-minded observations (or the more penetrating observations of others).

“Surely the meat of the matter is to determine when the disbelief is false, or equivalently when the belief in the incompatible proposition is "blind", and when it is not.”

That would be meaty indeed.

By the by, and as Mr Higham elegantly points out, I am not doing science here. If however I were to suspend my judgements until science had given me the all-clear, I would be mentally paralysed – as would we all. There is, moreover, the question of whether science could ever be as subtle or penetrating as personal experience on some matters. As an instance of judgement: I am inclined to the belief that women tend to be better at judging social situations – at least in empathetic terms. Now, this has been observed for many centuries, and is rather a commonplace, but it is not until recently that science has given some backing to the view. Formerly, a (scientistic) person could have insisted that such a commonplace belief was worthless because it had not been backed up with scientific evidence. Our scientistic person could have jumped up and down and demanded that I back up with evidence all the observational experiences upon which the belief was based, when the only evidence I would have been able to provide was precisely those observational experiences!

Larry Teabag said...

D-wulf:

Thanks for your reply.

the "myths" in question are not being exploded

This is rather why I asked you for an example - you clearly have some specific "myths" in mind - the explodedness or otherwise it's rather difficult for me comment on!

Otherwise I agree with much of what you say, especially with regard to scientism.

The only other thing I'd say is that, subject to the myth, it could just as easily be those resistant to the genuine revelations of its exploders who are guilty of false scepticism, for exactly the reasons you outline. No doubt there's enough of it, and a large enough supply of both real and bogus "myths", to go round.

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Teabag,

I read several instances at the weekend that irritated me, but the instance that set me off was someone's assertion that the young today are no more unruly (in terms of being unreceptive to parental and adult direction) than was typical in past societies, which seems to be at odds with the evidence from comparing typical past societies with ours. Now, this is not a question of whether I am right or he is right. It is a matter rather of his attitude, which he assumed to be that of the sceptic (in the modern sense) exploding myths, when in fact it was that of the self-satisfied ignoramus trotting out "the party line", as it were.

"[I]t could just as easily be those resistant to the genuine revelations of its exploders who are guilty of false scepticism, for exactly the reasons you outline."

Indeed.