Monday, June 15, 2015


One of the main topics of Theodore Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice is pointing out the many weaknesses and hypocrisies of those arguments which purport to only believe those things which are based on evidence.  In fact no one does this, but picks and chooses instead. I had not known that the word nihilism comes from this determination to reject all inherited authority and belief, in favor of those things one can either prove with one's own eyes, or deduce from facts known to him. (Coined by Ivan Turgenev.) The current meaning is a bit different, but I think a natural result of the original philosophy.

The skepticism of radical skeptics who demand a Cartesian point from which to examine any question, at least any question that has any bearing on how they ought to conduct themselves, varies according to subject matter.  Very few are so skeptical that they doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though they might have difficulty offering evidence for the heliocentric (or any other) theory of the solar system.  These skeptics believe that when they turn the light switch, the light will come on, even though their grasp of the theory of electricity might not be strong.  A ferocious and insatiable spirit of inquiry overtakes them, however, the moment they perceive their interests are at stake - their interests here being their freedom, or license, to act upon their whims.  Then all the resources of philosophy are available to them in a flash, and are used to undermine the moral authority of custom, law, and the wisdom of ages.


terri said...

I'm not sure these examples undermine his opponents' views. People don't doubt that the sun will come up because they have daily evidence that it will. They have seen it with their own eyes, can deduce it from their daily experience...etc. The same with light switches and lights. If they lived someplace where electricity was scarce and only on at certain times of the day, they wouldn't necessarily expect the lights to come on.

These aren't examples of blind faith or taking it on someone else's authority. These are demonstrable, testable examples.

If his point is that prejudices are experience-based beliefs, then maybe these examples might work....but if he is speaking of general prejudices that have been handed down by societies and not personally experienced by individuals, then I'm not sure these examples are making his case.

Korora said...

We HAVE to take 99% (at least) of what we know on the authority of others. Because I have not traveled far enough south to be able to see it, I have to take it on authority that there is such a star as Alpha Centauri, or that the south circumpolar constellations are what the books show. And I even have to take it on authority that the world is round, goes around the sun, and is the size the books and maps say. And my screen name is the Maori word for a penguin of the genus Eudyptula, but I have to take it on authority that there are such birds as the little blue and white-flippered penguins, and that kororā really means what the books about penguins say.

I don't deny that authority is fallible. But if we reject all knowledge based on the authority, we make ourselves exceedingly ignorant.

Texan99 said...

I take most things on authority, no doubt. I think the real challenge comes in confronting facts that defy expectations. Granted that a single anomalous fact isn't enough to overturn a whole system of thought that's been carefully worked out by a lot of my worthy forebears, it's still the case that it's very wrong to refuse to acknowledge the fact merely because it doesn't fit. It's up to me to figure out if I'm mistaken about the fact, or about how it fits in, or about the traditional system I had been led to believe was true.

james said...

I suspect that in 2am bull sessions in college they'd have experimented with doubting that the sun would come up, but Dalrymple is largely correct: skepticism is more of a tool to repulse outside-the-tribe crimethink than a philosophy of life.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ terri - yes, believing that the earth goes around the sun would have been a stronger example.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

This suggest that Texan99 is not under water - or not yet.

Texan99 said...

Do you mean from that little tropical system? What a complete dud that was. We barely got any rain. Even Houston didn't get THAT much, and it was on the wet side. The "eye," such as it was, drifted in about 45 miles east of here.

terri said...


You exaggerate for effect. Yes, there are some things that we take on the authority of other people. I have no real understanding of how the computer I am typing on works other than a basic, general idea. I know the earth goes round the sun because of what I have been taught, read, absorbed through scientific TV shows.

However..If I so decided that I had to convince myself that these things were absolutely true...that I had to somehow prove them to myself..I could. I could learn the math. I could study the process for determining the earth's orbital path. I could study the stars with my own telescope, chart the path of earth over the course of the year. etc.etc.

Do I want to spend so much time doing that? Not really. But it is possible. If I want to do it, I can.

So..even these examples are not great examples. Dalrymple is conflating scientific ideas/truths with social ideas/truths.

It would be better to simply drop the whole facade of these examples and declare that he thinks certain social ideas and customs are right simply because they appeal to him and he thinks they are socially desirable and successful. I have the sense he doesn't want to completely do that because he will lose a path for arguing his point.

William Newman said...

"confronting facts that defy expectations"

I would say it tends to be not only facts that defy expectations, but more especially facts that seem to advance someone's agenda. It doesn't even need to be someone we oppose, or a political or sinister agenda. David Friedman has remarked (from vague memory) that we should be particularly careful of historical facts that make too good a story. To cast that in the terms above: someone's agenda of telling a good story might have taken priority over transmitting the facts honestly.

There is quite a lot of intuitive art and rational social technology of overcoming natural distrust, most particularly including distrust of that sort. Some of it is simple and near-universally reinvented, like the idea of a military leader leading from the front. Beyond that, our culture borrowed some nontrivial tech (written law, and also double-entry accounting, if I understand correctly) and created quite a lot more nontrivial social technology for it, starting earlier than I can discern (500AD?) and running up to about the Scottish Enlightenment. Since the S.E., though, our culture seems to have tended to dismantle or unthink it more than create it. (Rule of law vs. rule by purely discretionary permits in zoning or firearms or pharmaceuticals or whatever; 'nullius in verba' vs. the techniques that the modern Royal Society chooses to convince people of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change; a scientific culture of carefully documented reproducibility vs. uh whatever the murky heck we are evolving toward in grant-funded academia today; open ballots vs. secret ballots, and then onward to increasingly arrogant disregard for making it hard to cheat; the option for a victim to prosecute crimes vs. absolute prosecutorial discretion; the well-developed folk public choice theory on display in the Federalist papers vs. the fashionable dogma of government regulators as inherently benign in twentieth century academic economics...) So I grant that among receivers of information there is a lot of pure wilful blindness to solid facts out there, but I believe the problem is significantly compounded by how common it is for people transmitting information to be arrogantly unwilling to be even slightly serious about addressing well-founded doubts. (And the years up to maybe the mid-1800s, as above, are full of reminders of what it looks like when people get serious about addressing well-founded doubts: not as universal practice of the time, certainly, but as somewhat-ordinary best practices that would be remarkable anomalies today.)

FWIW, the academic philosophers seem to have stampeded off into cant and nonsense (Marxist, vaguely postmodernist, and probably some other stuff I don't recognize) since Popper, but the techies have continued to make further progress on thinking about inductive logic. They are particularly motivated to do so by issues like learning from 100k recordings of customers saying "yes" and "no" a rule to decide automatically whether today's customer is saying "yes" or "no", but the fundamentals also apply to more traditional deep questions like how confidently we should act as though the sun will come up tomorrow. So if any of y'all happen to be just fascinated by such questions, and are also comfortable with math up through at least basic statistics, I recommend Vapnik _The Nature of Statistical Learning Theory_ for one interesting approach, and Gruenwald _the Minimum Description Length Principle_ for another.