An age of Irrationality: Assessing the status of statements
All the content below refers to those statements that have some need for debate rather than the straight forward referencing of the obvious. For example if I were to say that the bird in my garden is eating my fruit and I can see it doing that then it would be reasonable to accept what I say without any great discussion. On the other hand if I claim all birds will eat fruit it is reasonable that I provide some evidence of this. In other words ‘facts’ exist, it is just that we should be prepared to justify our statements about them if they are not obvious. Damn it, some people will not allow even that last sentence but I will continue anyway.
There are major ways that have existed for at least two and a half thousand years of dealing with statements of fact. Roughly speaking one tradition is combining evidence with reason to analyse the status of statements. There is also the use of analogy to see the world and identify ways of putting a context to what appears around us. Another is a sociological or ‘normative’ approach which will see belief as gaining credibility from it’s propagation by communities of adherents.
The first of these allows us not to ‘prove’ facts but gives us ways of analysing how much worth we put on argument concerning the views we are presented with. Some will claim that the strongly held opinions of different individuals are of equal or at least comparable value. The misunderstanding this comes from is that somehow theories are not proved and therefore can be treated as if they are as close to a ‘truth’ as any of their rivals. This is to not understand that statements about the world take precedence when they have a strong evidence base and that evidence is rigorously examined with the best analytical tools available. Much of this tradition of examining statements based on evidence and reason had beginnings in ancient Greek thought and has passed to us over the years with much refinement and development.
The use of analogy has tradition both in the West via Greek thought such as through pre-Socratic Sophist traditions. It was also an underpinning of eastern thought such as Chinese methods of seeing the world. It has great influence in interpreting artistic endeavour and allows us to view aspects of the world by for instance reading works of fiction, looking at the visual arts and drama etc. We develop how to interpret the world as it was, is and how it might be. Analogical thought will always have an important role to play in how we see what is going on around us. Analogical interpretation gives an opening to much critical analysis of commonly held trends. Consider some works of fiction that describe utopian (dystopian) worlds. When ideologues spell out their grand visions for the future it is the fiction writer who describes possible end results of these dreams (nightmares). At this time Orwell is possibly wider read than at any time for a generation. He paints a fictional existence where the logic of centralised power with the control of language and history, is described in a form that through analogical thought is laid in front of us as a warning. Many demagogues attempt try to foist their visions on us. Some will hark back to non-existent golden ages others will claim simple solutions to complicated problems. Analogical interpretation is and will remain an important factor in criticising this.
The third is a ‘normative’ way of seeing the world. The society we live in shapes our views and will often mean that we accept positions others from different backgrounds find hard to accept. A short discussion of the normative view of statements should include that it has had many critics because it points to the fact that we live in an irrational world. This approach comes from the Pragmatist philosophical tradition and may well be a pretty accurate description of what actually happens. It has the major strength of pointing out that when evidence grows that contradicts the dominant belief system (the paradigm) that the community that holds it’s position begins to lose unity and may shatter altogether. In science Thomas Kuhn calls this a revolution. It seems to apply in other places as well. So there is a mechanism for change although intellectual inertia (not always a bad thing) or laziness can prevent change. Communities have a way of policing their members either by a system of controls or by expulsion. Should the basis for the community of belief shatter all sorts of effects can happen. Some not particularly pleasant. For those who take an authoritarian mind set adherence to purity of belief becomes paramount and splits will be regular events. Think of religious or political schisms. Often the smaller the community or sect or group the more the propensity to split. Some communities of belief disappear altogether. Others shrink into insignificance and some adapt to new circumstances. In all these cases it is adherence to a core of belief that defines the community. Faith outweighs evidence for some or allows the community to develop itself in the light of new circumstances. However this happens the interaction with evidence is not the key factor (unless of course it re-enforces what is already accepted). It is worth saying that people cannot change strongly held opinions on a whim, that would be a sign of mental instability, but never the less interaction with the real world should have some effect!
Historically is unlikely there was ever a time when majority opinion was arrived at through strict and rigorous examination of evidence. Faith, prejudice, normative pressure and laziness have always been major players in peoples views of the world but many also use rigour, scepticism based on evidence to develop opinion.
Having said the above I am about to make a claim that at present we need a boost in the use of evidence based analysis of statements concerning the world. In an age that allows many to relegate evidence and analysis in favour of opinion it is increasingly important to press for rigour in debate. At a personal level we engage in disputes of opinion that lead to a break down in genuine communication. We effectively take prepared positions and stick to them despite any opposing arguments. There is a strong tendency for those who strongly and publicly promote a cause to stick with those causes even when evidence denies these views. This is a way of fending off what an individual sees as almost an attack on their self worth. It takes a strong adherence to standards of argument to admit possible errors and change a position. At the level of public dispute the acceptance of poorly evidenced positions becomes literally a matter of faith. Here are a few examples of such strongly held positions.
If climate change exists it is at best a natural cyclical phenomenon and has nothing to do with human intervention
Evolution by natural selection is just one of many competing theories and does not explain the huge variation in forms of life
My political party is hugely successful and on the right track. A few electoral setbacks are nothing to worry about
Medical advice is that I am overweight and I do not have a healthy diet. I seem to function well enough so everything is basically alright
I have publicly and strongly supported a cause which I now have doubts about. It is difficult for me to admit I may be wrong
In every example given it would be reasonable to examine evidence, read thoughtful, well qualified analysis and come to tentative positions based on these. ‘If facts change I change my opinion’ to part quote Keynes. Not every person will come to the same conclusion after examining evidence, how could they? Despite this in promoting a specific view it is important we all have the duty to at least be aware of arguments that contradict that view. Kant believed that at some point faith should supersede reason when it came to matters of religion. This has had huge influence on theological debate but it also allows many to retreat from uncomfortable considerations. Faith can take many forms including views on politics, pseudo science and all sorts of belief systems. There is also the unpleasant use of faith as a cover for deliberate falsification where it may benefit some pre-accepted opinion. The recent hilarious statement in an interview with a Trump appointee that she had ‘alternative facts’ became something of a joke to many but the speaker took the phrase seriously. If this had been a fringe person with little influence it might be ignored. In reality she represented hugely powerful interests and probably has ‘faith’ that whatever she and her compatriots say becomes in some sense true. In this irrational world curiously strongly held belief systems can lead individuals to carry out acts of great value. Witness certain religious peoples actions in opposing tyranny. There are no straight forward prescriptions when dealing with belief.
To have a pluralist world view is a good way to avoid falling into accepting received dogmas without proper scrutiny and this is why a battle against demagoguery and in favour of rigour in dealing with statements needs to be fought.
Mike Berkoff March 2017