Seeing is not always believing

Seeing is not always believing

There is a theory that when a child is born the mental structures are not ready to accept sense data in an organised form. Thus to a baby much of the rush of information appears as confusion. I am not sure how that can be proved or not and there are many who could write with greater expertise on this than I could ever hope to. What then do we accept from the world later in life? Do we ever absorb and organise all information and even arguments rationally? Many believe not. If I see or more generally sense information is it possible that if this is so different from the way I interpret the world that it will not even impress itself on me on a conscious level? What if an argument is presented that is vastly different from views I hold. Do I consider it and open myself to it’s strengths and weaknesses? We often accept ourselves as rational beings but is this always the case? At a societal level whole strands of evidence and/or argument do not register as possible. Here is an historical example written by Thomas Kuhn1

The Chinese, cosmological beliefs did not preclude celestial change, had recorded the appearance of many new stars in the heavens at a much earlier date [than Copernicus]. Also without the aid of a telescope, the Chinese had systematically recorded the appearance of sunspots centuries before they were seen by Galileo and his contempories..’

From this Kuhn is saying that, in Europe at least, various cosmological phenomena did not register with many who viewed them not because they did not see them but their mental schema was not able to process them. There must always have been people who could mentally integrate such physical evidence but a combination of expectation, societal pressure and legal consequences kept them quiet. Where the expectations were different such as in China these issues did not arise. In Europe it took individuals with strength of purpose to break out of this mental straight jacket. As it was with cosmology so it may be with other fields of humane understanding. Where are we today in down playing or even not accepting evidence because it appears outside our understanding? Perhaps it appears solipsist but do we live almost in separate universes? In effect what is the basis for rational argument? This is an over pessimistic view and I really think such narrowed mental processing is really not inevitable but then again?

Here is a thought experiment. Two groups take opposing views on an issue. The first wishes a project to be enacted. They see a problem and wish to address it on pragmatic grounds. It has drawbacks but safeguards are proposed. The other group see the the project as in violation of their strongly held beliefs. To support the project will mean a major re-evaluation of how they see events are actioned. That is an example of opposing world views. Pragmatism versus belief. It is not uncommon. Two universes, two world views. For some on both sides there is a way to bridge the gap. I say some but perhaps not all.

A paradigm shift would imply that one universal view would replace the other. This is as much a psychological statement as one about reality. I could be all wishy washy about this and look for nice compromises between the two world views but in fact certain individuals will need to make the shift others not. The reality could almost be thought of as different universal views. Those living with a Copernican mind set can be thought of as living in a different universe from those in a Ptolemaic one. Those living with a Newtonian mind set can be thought of as living in a different universe from those in a relativistic one. Those living with a strong religious mind set can be thought of as living in a different universe from those in a rationalist one. So it goes. I stress there is always the possibility of individuals or communities to shift their world view. So to reiterate we have the chance to see the world and change our view of it but perhaps reality is not as rational as we might think. Mike Berkoff February 2018

1The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd edition University if Chicago Press page 116


The Politics of the Sea Squirt

The Sea Squirt and Politics:

The wonders of the brain have never fully been understood and may never be. One common feature is the tendency to find a safe set of beliefs and stick to them through circumstances that throw out challenges that at the very least should lead to doubt and self examination. As humans we are supposed to posses a developing and enquiring intellect. Largely this is true but huge numbers of us sink into a quiet acceptance of ideas we found many years ago and that as is said is almost the end of the story. What about non-human animals? David Hume once stated that many species have inductive thinking abilities but they are not as good at these as we are (An Enquirey Concerning Human Understanding). Do some of these species therefore decide like many humans to give up on changing their existing mind set even in light of conflicting realities? One particularly extreme example of this is the sea squirt. Simon Singh in his book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets Bloomsbury ISBN 978-1-4088-4281-2 quotes the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett who wrote criticising the structure of academic appointments, particularly tenured professorships. Not an argument I know much about but the passage I give below* I think it has a wide application:

The juvenile sea squirt wonders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or lump of coral to cling and make its home for life. For this task it has a rudimentary nervous system.

When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain any more so it eats it!”

*Consciousness Explained (Back Bay Books 1992) (ISBN 0-316-18066-1)

I have yet to read Professor Dennett’s book but my immediate thoughts went not to academic tenure but political dogma. Think of players in the political world not just now but at almost any time and many of them have seized on a few ideas from years/decades back and stuck with them through thick (and I do mean thick) and thin. Pick up a few simple beliefs from 10, 20, 30 years ago and that seems to be it. For some it is not just the mind set but the ego that governs their actions but the basic equivalent of eating their own brain is a good metaphor. Stasis is a very comfortable world to exist in.

This is not confined to one particular position on the political spectrum it exists left, right and centre. Politics like religion can be a great comfort but also a means of cutting out uncomfortable ideas.

Mike Berkoff August/September 2017

Evidence and Belief

Evidence and Belief:

It is important to establish the ground rules when dealing with evidence that may challenge strongly held beliefs. A tried and tested method for closing down debate is to use the ’emotional reaction’ to uncomfortable facts. By this I refer to the response of perceived hurt when someone’s religion or politics are countered with strong arguments. Another defence is based on the power relationships between the challenger and the challenged. Those with power tend to do their best to keep it. This can be the use of violence, sanctions or community pressure. It may be that in more relaxed times the defenders of belief will engage in constructive debate. All to the good I say and I will not demean those willing to argue their case in open and fair discussion. I do the same I hope. While gratuitous or aggressive debate can be painful it is not for most of us to be infantilised into accepting or not challenging ideas we disagree with. I mention religion above but under this title I include secular beliefs as well as the more traditional definitions of the word.

Let me begin with direct statements on some of the commonly held systems that are worthy of challenge. The most widely in the society I live in are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Humanism plus a host of political ideologies.

Christianity has a long history of suppression of challenges from both inside and out. When contradictory scientific ideas appeared the stronger the power of the church the more willing it was to stamp on them. This is not the place for a historical round up of the horrors of religious persecutions. Fill in details of these yourselves. In the present day the there are many Christians who propose enlightened interpretations on their beliefs. Many biblical accounts are claimed to be analogies. This opens the door to discussions and dialogues with scientists and rationalists. This is fine as far as it goes but I think intellectually this is more of a problem for the proponents of such interpretations than those who hold onto the old certainties. Schisms and splits were bound to follow. The traditionalists who hold to various literal interpretations have the comfort of unreality. To accept many of the fanciful stories in their dogma they must ignore evidence and alternatives. That can only be maintained by hiding from genuine examination and debate. Many do this. It is a comfortable if sterile position. In stressful eras like our own it is simple to hold immutable concepts. If a community or individual can dismiss challenges life is perhaps more tolerable. This is a common feature of many who hold onto certainties, not just Christians. There are curiously strong boosts in popularity of literalist movements in religions both theist and secularist at times of stress. Also never under estimate the need of many to hold firmly to what they have proposed in the past simply as a psychological defence mechanism.

At this point I think it is valuable to stress that many religious believers and theologians have well developed and credible positions. In no way do I wish to imply they live in a dishonest way. The debate of belief is complicated and I suggest that no position can lay claim to being definitive.

In Judaism ( the religion I was brought up in) similar traits to Christianity are present. I suppose it would be reasonable to say there has rarely been a period when there have not been a times of stress for Jews. The horrors of the first half of the twentieth century were but a cumulation of millennia of persecution and challenge. Hence there is a natural tendency to either retreat into isolationism, both physical and intellectual or to explore the ideas and be part of the wider world. In the current era serious movements are once again attempting to make anti-Semitism mainstream. This is a subject for anther essay but isolationism is once again a major force among Jews. This can take the form of religious purity. There is an equivalent to the literalism of Christianity mentioned above. An added dimension for Jews is the retreat into community exclusiveness. As I have perhaps indicated this is a long standing feature of Jewish life. The intellectual aspects of this manifest themselves for some in a rejection of modernity and many of it’s awkward challenges. At the same time counter movements of intellectual enquiry also have strong traditions. It has been said that the enlightenment was often lead by dissenting Christians, free thinkers and Jews. These were all groups a bit on the outside of mainstream of European society. For the majority of Jews though (especially those in the hinterlands of the Tsarist and Austrian Hungarian empires) these moves to modernity were not part of their lives until the great emigrations and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For those who are fully committed to religious Jewish lives rationality and religion do not co-exist in a meaningful way. If science provides evidence to contradict Torah then science is wrong. Again as with Christianity some believers try to form a link between evidenced based rationality and religion. As with Christianity there are huge problems this throws up. The intellectual history of Europe has been influenced by both these religions and in turn has been effected by their responses to them. The counter forces against modernity in western societies have been great and are felt across the world as much now as ever. Part of the isolationism in the past has been to reject outside intellectual movements. I do not have the citation but I once read an account of a rabbinical injunction to avoid Greek thought. This was centuries ago and a minority opinion even at that time.

The the Islamic world is in turmoil and the opposing forces of modernity and literalist religion are creating huge fissures in those societies. It is important to stress that these are there is no single Muslim world but a range of countries and traditions that differ from each other as much as they do from anywhere else. The tragedy of this comes in stark contradiction to a period in Islamic history of major scholarship taking in influences from around the then known world. So different from the narrow misunderstanding of that culture as propagated by certain political Islamic movements that are causing such havoc in our era. Recently a professor of Physics was to lecture in the middle east. When he told the authorities he would be talking on the Big Bang his invitations were withdrawn as such science was deemed to be ‘not halal’. So as with Judaism and Christianity if theories are seen as contradicting belief then they might be repressed. The power of organised religion in the west is severely reduced which tends to allow for wider expression of pluralist ideas. This is not the case in many parts of the world. It would be tempting to claim that it is the monotheist religions that tend to restrict debate more than others but this is not a provable hypotheses. The hyper violence in many parts of the Islamic world can be seen as an illegitimate response to the modernity that challenges ancient accepted ideas. So claiming evidenced based challenges as outside acceptability is a facet of most extremely held religious beliefs.

The literalist religious based groups described above tend to take firmly held views on social issues. Some misogynistic, some homophobic others extreme sectarian or xenophobic. It is a curious phenomenon that certain secularist movements on the left or right make common cause with the most medieval movements while opposing those in religious groups who in theory are closer to their positions. As indicated above it might be a tad unfair to describe literalist extreme religious movements as medieval.

For the most part I will not comment on systems of thought from Asia as I have less contact with them. Confucianism, Daoism, neo-Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism do have a tradition of pluralism but as with Confucianism can be very dependent on ritual. This is a feature they do have in common with Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

There was a version of pre-enlightenment Humanism which was more a description of certain individuals attitude to knowledge and education than a coherent movement. Modern Humanism is a development of the European enlightenment. It should by it’s nature be very open to influence of evidence based rational debate. It tends to be thought of as a version of agnosticism and atheism but that is perhaps a crude simplification. I tend to self describe as a humanist but I recognise that the world itself is probably not rationalist. Developments in science, particularly Physics and neural science seem to indicate that the rationalist project is going through rough waters. So Humanists need to constantly re-examine their beliefs. The militant atheist coming from a political perspective (say Marxism or Anarchism) can be as closed off from evidence based counter arguments as any religious zealot. I do not see these individuals as part of the Humanist tradition. The Humanism I tend to associate with is more to do with standing apart from certainties and from admittedly a pre-accepted viewpoint engage in open debate without the hyper restrictions imposed by set piece dogmatic thought. As indicated above no ideology such as Humanism can provide definitive answers to our worlds conundrums as in reality there are no such solutions. I will stick to a Humanist standpoint for the time being (without really defining it) simply for the want of anything better. This does not preclude me from interacting with opposing belief systems.

I now look briefly at secular systems. There are some such as Democratic Socialism, Liberalism and Conservatism that do not rely on gods and ritual. At their best they work in a relatively open and democratic way. Unfortunately there are times with all these movements when they degenerate into static and corrupt power structures. This may not be built into the basic underlying philosophy of such systems but we humans have this horrible tendency to seek certainty. A big mistake! I do not condemn these ideologies wholesale (in fact I am a Democratic Socialist) but only a naïve would not recognise how corruptible such systems can be. Other belief systems rely on a single or narrow ideas base. Think of Greens. In recent elections in London and the United States some Greens have claimed there is no difference between extreme right wing candidates and their relatively mild opponents. The lack of a wide perspective from such individuals and movements can lead to major errors of judgement. Everything is subsumed to a narrow message. Similarities to sectarian religious belief are many.

There are some secular movements such as Marxist-Leninism and Fascism that take on many characteristics of narrow religion. Unshakeable dogmas, personality cults, conspiracy theories, hate figures or groups and the rest. In times of social stress and instability like religion, these find an appeal. Simple solutions in a complicated world. One common characteristic that Marxist-Leninism shares with Fascism is the admiration of authoritarianism. The radical challenge posed by scientific and evidence based arguments are a direct threat. Hence they may be suppressed. To take an extreme example, in Stalin’s time Darwinism was seen as not fitting in with current ideology. A more compliant theory from a scientist called Lysenko became official policy in Soviet Biology. According to his theory individuals in some way learned physical traits and passed them on to their offspring. There is no evidence for this but it fitted in a curious way with what was is ‘scientific materialism’. Some may know the Jewish joke that for countless generations baby boys have been circumcised but somehow new male births insist on having foreskins. How reactionary is that?

Similarly in Nazi ideology Relativity, Quantum mechanics and Freudianism (along with much other psychology) was rejected as ‘Jewish Science’. Admittedly Freudianism has major question marks attached to it but not because of Freud’s lineage.

To conclude I claim that strongly held belief systems can easily degenerate into systems for the rejection of evidenced based challenges. The firmly held set of dogmas can certainly add a form of coherence to peoples view of the world but when that is taken to the level of rejection of any challenge or rejection of evidence that counters belief, then real dysfunctions occur. There may be no definitive set of ways of interacting with the world but at the very least scientific method tries to link evidence to theory and allow for development. Many will use methods to close down debate but certainty can be a counter to reality. The world is complicated and nuanced unfortunately to make sense of it takes more than a set of fixed certainties.

Mike Berkoff July 2017

The Problem of Certainty

The Problem of Certainty :

A huge debate on extremism is understandable in the light of awful events here and around the world, but extremism is a subset of a larger phenomenon which is certainty. Certainty comes from strong belief systems. Of themselves there is nothing wrong with strongly held beliefs but there also needs to be scepticism. If an element of doubt is present our ability to recognise alternatives to our views should prevent much of the behaviour we witness. Certainty can lead to blame. Religion seems to thrive on certainty as do certain secular world views such as strong politics.

A short discussion of scepticism and it’s opposite, dogmatism is useful. Organised into strong power structures religions (including secular ones) nearly always treat unquestioning adherence as a central tenant. Ritualistic patterns of activities tend to include statements of blind acceptance of the particular dogmas. Among the strongest accounts of how we see the world is came from David Hume when he described how we impose psychological patterns seen in nature. Event A follows event B on numerous occasions and often B is claimed as the cause of A. This is called inductive thinking. Of course B may well be the cause of A but by linking the two events from observation does not prove this. It is reasonable to accept the best explanation of cause and effect based on the available evidence. It would be strange to use alternative explanations if they are based on weak evidence bases. This is done by numbers of people for a range of reasons. The fact of the matter is that behind all the evidence based explanations used there should be at least the awareness of doubt. We just might be wrong. It happens. Hume’s is one description of scepticism that has never really been seen off. Dogmatism is a form of acceptance of a belief despite any counter examples thrown at it. This can be called a paradigm (Thomas Kuhn) or a project (Imre Lakatos) or simply blind faith (religions or politics). Evidence does not account in the recognition of the value of a belief, there is usually a kernel of dogma at the heart of any notion. It has the role of providing an anchor to the acceptance of it. This is necessary. In order to function everyone must have a level of acceptance of certain ideas. Even so these may change over time. Certainty the purpose of this blog is about the wider unquestioning use of certain ideas that rules out all exceptions.

So I think both scepticism and dogmatism have their role. Certainty is much more than dogmatism. It is a mental state, despite any evidence, of refusal to think of any ideas that may contradict current belief.

We are entitled to criticise any religious or political views (the idea that some perceived slight or insult preventing those expressing opposing views to a religious belief is ridiculous) provided this occurs in a form of dialogue without threat or bigotry. Pluralist societies may respect different view points but does not ban reasonable debate of them. Recent events have occurred in some universities where small groups seek to censor or intimidate those they see as opponents . Such groups entirely ignore that limits on freedom of expression are in place to protect the vulnerable from violence or other unacceptable behaviour (John Stuart Mill – On Liberty). The traditions of open debate go deep in this country.

There is always the issue of competence. On those occasions when important decisions need to be made facts should be an important factor. This might sound obvious but that important part of all our mental schema is dogmatic core of belief. How far we stick with that core varies from person to person. There is a time in all our lives when change of ideas happen, whereas most of the time much of our basic ideas are stable. There is a parallel with Thomas Kuhn’s talk of revolutions in science and normal science. The inclusion of what Lakatos calls auxiliary hypotheses, that is those more peripheral concepts that in order to protect the main thesis can be rejected. For a religious follower the role of certain ‘miracles’, whatever that means, can be downgraded or ditched to protect the idea of a deity. Coming back to competence it is a serious matter to allow decisions to be made purely from idealogical reasons even when those decisions are clearly harmful. So certainty can lead to forms of behaviour that clearly have only the merit of the preservation of a strongly held belief system. It is true that an adherent to any world view could argue that given enough time an answer may be found to the antinomy that presents itself and therefore certain ideas or facts can be parked until the problem is resolved. This is not a permanent problem solver and another ‘solution’ is the creation of ad hoc theses. This will satisfy those with certainty but at the same time the original troublesome facts will eventually return. The decisions made based on a faulted certainty could well prove disastrous or at least unbelievable.

I also wish to discuss the sociological or normative pressures that may play a big part in forcing members of a group to accept without question the certainties they espouse. It cannot be underestimated that group pressure can have an effect on individuals when they begin to reject the norms of the groups they are part of. In an idealogical (especially in a religious community) real enmity can be shown to any who seek an alternative path. Excuses are put forward by community adherents or sympathetic outsiders for what in many cases is really the exercise of power. The normal rules of behaviour from one group are abandoned when dealing with another. Because of societal pressures somehow it is deemed acceptable to ignore the suppression of individuals in what are perceived as a vulnerable community. The usual enlightenment values which form the standard for many are pushed aside for expediency. This is not a paradigm shift away from these enlightenment beliefs but ad hoc adjustments to usual norms. Pluralism is set aside and somehow minority populations are described purely in homogeneous terms. This is particularly true when dealing with religious or ethnic minorities. A side effect of this is to empower extreme elements in the group at the expense of those seeking to interact with wider society. A pretty distasteful phenomenon but fairly widespread at the far ends of the political spectrum. The certainty principle again re-enforces these tendencies. These are serious matters that need further discussion but perhaps elsewhere.

I now briefly turn to intellectual integrity. There are some examples over the years of when certain individuals or groups have displayed high levels of honesty when dealing with evidence, even at considerable cost to themselves. I have been hugely impressed by the story of how Gotlob Freige a mathematician and logician dealt with a fatal blow to work he had spent decades on. He had authored volumes on ‘The Foundations of Arithmetic’ which was an attempt to place logic at the centre of mathematics. In the early years of the twentieth century he was about to publish a seminal work on this subject when he received a letter from a young Bertrand Russell. Russell with A. N. Whitehead had been working on their Principia Mathematica. This was intended to put mathematics/arithmetic on a sound basis (believe it or not it was not and still might not be). Russell pointed out a paradox in what is known as naive set theory. The technical details of this need not concern us here but it has been described analogously as ‘Who shaves the barber?’ It works as follows:

A barber lives in a closed community where he and only he shaves all those who do not shave themselves. He shaves no others. The question is who shaves the barber? If the barber shaves himself then he cannot shave himself. If he does not shave himself then he must shave himself.

The paradox at the level of naïve set theory ( which Freige was relying on) is unsolvable. The honesty of Freige meant he immediately accepted these findings, although he did try to continue work on the problem in later years. Never the less unlike so many he was prepared to see the work of decades as flawed. Such honesty! Such an admiral attitude! Certainty just not need to go unchallenged.

Incidently both Russell and Whitehead went on to highly productive careers. Russell’s life is well documented and Whitehead studied eastern philosophy in later years gaining many important insights. He also championed what he called ‘Organic Realism’ a set of ideas that posited a continuum of awareness from inorganic to organic matter. A bit contentious that and I will leave it uncommented on.

Those who hold certainties can take illogicalities to extreme ends. They become what has become commonly known as fundamentalists. A fundamentalist strips everything back to it’s basic original statements. Admittedly writing about scientific endeavour, but I think the quoted statements work in a wider context, Nancy Cartwright the physicist and philosopher states

‘Fundamentalists see matters differently. They want laws; they want true laws; but most of all, they want their favourite laws to be in force everywhere. I urge that we resist fundamentalism. Reality may well be just a patchwork of laws.’

She refers to the domain of ideas. That is where such ideas are valid. The universalism so accepted by those with certainty often at best only has limited specific ‘truth’. Different circumstances, different times, different initial conditions: all these limit the scope of how we can view specific ideas.


The use of terms such as certainty, dogma etc. may lead to some confusion. They are not the same. Certainty is a state of mind. It refers to a set of beliefs that are unchallenged by the holder and further more cannot be questioned under normal circumstances. Dogma are accepted ideas that are the kernel of a belief system that forms the anchor of a wider system. To have a dogma in common parlance has become thought of as unhealthy and indeed some dogmas that have degenerated despite rivals are the source of avoidance of proper examination of life’s experiences. Despite that it is difficult to imagine an individual holding on to a sane existence without some consistency in their views. Therefore dogma has it’s value. I have made some reference to scepticism as a bulwark against certainty. The thought that we might just be wrong about something has the chance at least of accepting that our own behaviour needs examination from time to time. Outside dogma the concept of what has been termed ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ is useful in observing how we defend our core beliefs. Some of these lesser concepts may be abandoned or modified to protect the central dogma. The dogma itself is not immune from rejection but in those circumstances a major event has come about in a world view. All this fits in with Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift in science but I think has wider application. The idea of scope as outlined refers to the non-universal application of concepts. The Janis tradition of logic refers to aspects of reality. See an event from one point of view a certain ‘truth’ appears. Change the surrounding circumstances and the truth appears different. This is becoming incorporated in western thought now but has existed in other (particularly oriental and Indian) traditions for many centuries. Certainty and scope do not easily coexist.

I think that certainty as outlined here causes huge problems in our lives. On a grand scale it leads to bigotry in religion and politics. At a more limited level our way of living and interacting is put on a poor footing if we force our certainties on others.

Certainty of itself is a limiting factor in our views of reality.

June 2017

One way communication

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In the seventeenth century the Jesuit missionaries in China decided that to succeed in their aims they would need to change the way the local population actually thought and reasoned.

To quote from ‘Anticipating China’ David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames State University of New York Press p120:

Matteo Ricci… very well understood the necessity first to teach the Chinese to reason properly, that is, to distinguish between substance and accident, the spiritual soul from the material body, the creator and his creation, moral good and natural good. How else could the Christian truths be put across?

So for the missionaries more than two thousand years of developed Chinese thought counted for nothing except as a barrier to their ideology. This is a case of a one sided view of the world. The concept of genuine exchange of ideas was not on the table. Instead only their ideas mattered. In no way is this attitude restricted to Christian evangelicals or even to religion as a whole (spiritual or materialist) but it is an example of an authoritarian mind set that has plagued humanity throughout history.

There is nothing wrong with firmly held beliefs but the interaction that a community of believers has with others is crucial in the meaningful interplay between individuals, groups and whole populations. So we can draw on historical examples of holders of belief systems playing their part in suppressing rivals. It does not always happen there are cross currents of thought that have developed in many places. Ideological and religious purity (a form of certainty) rises and falls in different societies at different times. There can be a cross over between the rise of certainty and wider crises happening. When pessimism is common there may be attraction to demagogic suggestions of simple solutions to complex problems. Optimism may well act to present different outcomes. The strong willed with rigidly held ideas in some circumstances make progress influencing those looking for solutions to life’s problems.

Let us return to the suppression story exampled above. The Jesuits failed in China and in later years were severely attacked by the local populace. At other times in other parts of the world they succeeded at least temporarily. There are no sure fire patterns of events in history.

The evidence is that it probably is not the veracity of ideas that ensure their wide acceptance. It can often be the underlying power relations that decide who are the winners. Does this mean that strong evidence based ideas rigorously argued have no better chance of acceptance than weak opinionated ones? Well not always. There is this thing called reality that gets in the way. Eventually ‘facts’ or to more precise the real world can puncture any structure. This unfortunately does not always happen and in any case may take a long time but those who shout loudest do not always win in the long term.

Mike Berkoff April 2017

Statements in these irrational times

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

Facts in An Irrational World

Not a rational world – When facts contradict opinions

We make decisions such as supporting certain policies, campaigns or individuals. If later these are demonstrated as dishonest, naive or just plain wrong you would expect us to change our minds and perhaps take a contrary position. In fact a rather strange phenomenon often appears.

Being confronted with evidence that contradicts our earlier belief often we may become entrenched in the original mind set. This is particularly the case if we had been very public in our pronouncements. I include myself in this. Basically it can be very hurtful to our self image and to the view others take of us when we admit that we were perhaps wrong or misjudged a situation. We can be quite irrational in admitting that facts contradict opinions.

The events above are well described for instance in science by Thomas Kuhn in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. He talks of communities holding on to paradigms in the face of ever increasing counter arguments. So strong can this be that individuals and groups can be effectively ‘expelled’ from the community by not supporting certain dogmas. We see this of course in religion and in politics as well. This is not to say that individuals, groups or communities do not change their stance given strong enough evidence. It does happen from time to time but this is not an automatic process. The Kuhn argument is part of what is called the Pragmatist philosophical tradition and has been increasingly influential over the years. What is being said is that much assessment of evidence or debate can be irrational. Again I stress that the stronger and more public the original beliefs are, the less most of us are willing to accept contrary evidence.

J. M. Keynes put it well when he said:

‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’

He also said:

‘There is no harm in being sometimes wrong – especially if one is promptly found out.’

We are going through a time of great worry and economic uncertainty which opens the door to populist movements and existing or new religious certainties. These have differences but one common feature is that the adherents to such movements often form an extreme loyalty. Usually a central figure is promoted to cult status. The leader can do little wrong. Great faith is put in certain individuals and personal critical faculties are sublimated to the wider cause. Other historical epochs have had such events sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Getting back to my main point, the downgrading of evidence when it weakens the faith in orthodoxy is harmful to individuals and those affected by them. Group splits, schisms and the rest of it will appear especially when failure happens. Some individuals originally attracted but perhaps more questioning will peel off but others will either reattach themselves even more firmly to their loyalties or seek new certainties.. For those outside these movements great challenges are presented.

Of course group psychology has been a hot field of study over the years and here are two example definitions that may contribute to the current discussion.

*Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the losing of self-awareness in groups. Theories of de-individuation propose that it is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation and decreased evaluation apprehension that causes abnormal collective behaviour.

*Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.

It is a huge temptation for those outside the community to belittle those inside. If anything this can be counter productive and lead to an almost ‘cultural’ divide between opponents. Certainly linguistic differences may be so great that communication between proponents and opponents may see a breakdown of any proper dialogue. There are ways out of this though. Firstly presenting alternative viewpoints and actions in a friendly and inclusive way possibly in a neutral context will work with some. Being open about ones doubts on our own views is both beneficial to ourselves and for some seen as a way of reopening reasoned argument. Secondly providing arguments and actions that open up common ground again will be effective for some (not all). Self examination of beliefs should be a common feature of any active mind. It puts our beliefs under sensible scrutiny and may strengthen our critical faculties.

Let us consider where we can go with all this. Adopting some soppy ‘let us all get on with it’ or ‘live and let live’ attitude misses an important point. Actions and opinions can do real harm. If A says B is worthy of attack (not necessarily physical) then C who agrees with A might carry out that action on B. This is documented when extreme views are allowed to be normalised such as now in many a place across the world. Good old David Hume had a great deal to say about strength of belief and is worth study (See An Enquirey Concerning Human Understanding ). In a different context George Orwell pointed to the way mass movements manipulate world views. Finally a good example of those to challenge would be anyone who claims to have all the answers or refuses to accept that they just might be wrong.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas S. Kuhn


University of Chicago Press

Publication date

1962 (50th Anniversary Edition: 2012)

Media type

Print (Hardcover and Paperback)





An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Oxford Philosophical Texts)

David Hume

Published by Oxford University Press, USA, 1999

ISBN 10: 0198752482 / ISBN 13: 9780198752486

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell : Volume 4 : In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950 Paperback 26 Nov 1970

by George Orwell  (Author), Sonia Orwell (Editor), Ian Angus (Editor)

An example of his writing.

* Boundless. “Group Behaviour.” Boundless Psychology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 25 Nov. 2016 from