In a recent article at The New York Times (“Why We Believe Obvious Untruths”), two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, claim that dispersed knowledge is a ready and overriding explanation for why people profess belief in foolish things (Noah’s ark rests on Ararat, global warming is a conspiracy of the Chinese, vaccines and genetically modified foods are dangerous, etc.). In other words, the authors claim that humans have a natural, evolutionarily favored, habit of thinking thusly: So-and-so in my community knows this, so I know this. It’s part of what makes us successful as a species. If we cast our lot with group reason, as opposed to individual reason, we’re likely to be more successful than otherwise.
But this strikes me as an inadequate explanation for why people believe weird and ridiculous things. Certainly, it’s a piece of the puzzle, but a bit too glib as a total or near-total explanation, functioning as the key signal in the noise. I’d like to suggest that if humans were taught the tools of critical thinking (Occam’s razor, etc.) and practiced them from a young age (say, starting around ten), then we could do better than the current, sorry state of affairs.
But perhaps I’m too optimistic about the possibilities of basic education, and the toolbox of intellectual strategies it offers, as resistance to fanciful claims. Clergymen, politicians, and advertisers all have an interest in people not thinking too clearly or closely, and maybe there are enough manipulative tools in their own toolboxes to guarantee that most people don’t.
Clergymen, politicians, and advertisers–like the poor–will always be with us, perhaps. But must they win the arms race between their manipulative tools and our critical thinking ones? Resistance is not futile. I hope we won’t cede the field to the Kellyanne Conways of this world, but instead find ways for people like Steven Novella and Michael Shermer to win an ever larger audience.
Is it too late in history to rediscover the optimism of Emanuel Kant in his 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, in which he writes, rousingly, the following:
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is the tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sepere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’–that is the motto of enlightenment.
The Promethean milk has spilled. The intellectual tools are there. We live after the Enlightenment, not prior to it. Rationality doesn’t have to be in the back seat the way it is. We need only to share intellectual tools with one another and pick them up ourselves.
Do you suppose I am a fool to believe this?
Very interesting. I hope you don’t mind if I ask how this squares with what seemed to be at one point your causal connection between following one particular religion and terrorism?
Are you suggesting that Islam does not represent a threat to Enlightenment modes of thought? I recognize that other ideologies/religions do as well (Trumpism, for example).
I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that. But Islam is a threat in the context of Abrahamic religions being a threat. So it’s not unique or special.
I don’t agree with you that Islam does not have unique, contemporary characteristics that distinguish it from other monotheisms. It’s not functioning today as just another contemporary subset of ho-hum monotheism.
We need to make a careful distinction between (1) criticizing monotheism and (2) bigotry toward monotheists. Just because you and I might think the beliefs and practices of monotheists are ludicrous, I’m sure it’s true for both of us that we would not in any way support restraint on people to be monotheists, advertise their monotheism, or practice monotheism (so long as that monotheism is nonviolent and does not interfere with other people’s option to decline to be monotheists or to ridicule monotheism).
Of course, what singles out Islam in this respect is that one can mock and parody other monotheisms without consequence of life or limb, or leave other monotheisms without threat to life or limb. Not so with Islam. If you leave the religion (and live in a Muslim majority society), draw Muhammad, or write a book applying critical methods to the Quran, you risk your life. In this respect, contemporary Islam has some catching up to do with the monotheisms that have evolved in the West, thanks to the Enlightenment, toward a more tolerant expression.
And Islamic civilization, as it exists now, is not readily adaptable to feminism or gay equality.
Of course, we might also notice that Russian Orthodoxy is happy to back Putin’s authoritarian crackdown on gay people, so maybe the distinction is: religions that have evolved in the West have different contemporary characteristics from religions that have evolved in the East.
On the other hand, Western Christians are responsible for Donald Trump, who might well incinerate the planet before he’s done. Trump wouldn’t be in power, but for Christian monotheists. (So maybe I’m wavering in my disagreement with you about Islam’s place within monotheism.)
Having said all this, in the age of Trump, it’s tricky to criticize Islam because it gives energy to bigotry toward Muslims living in the West.
In the election of Trump, contemporary Christianity has shown itself to be capable of being every bit as fanatical and dangerous as Islam, so maybe you’re right that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two.
The interesting angle to me is that “Western” religions are as brutal and destructive. The women in my family lived through Spanish National Catholicism. They didn’t have the right to sign checks and needed written authorization from their husbands to work or travel. Gay men were sent to prison. Birth control and divorce were illegal. Dissent of any kind was punished harshly and censorship was de rigueur. So the distinction isn’t in the quality of the religion itself (how about the mass graves found in Ireland recently? Or Spain’s stolen babies.) The religions are equally egregious, the operative factor is the separation of church and state. That’s what saves the average citizen from the authoritarianism of the big three.
You’re convincing me as to your position. Good points about Spanish National Catholicism. Steve Bannon’s worldview is informed by conservative Catholicism. I do think you’re right that Christians, not just Muslims, have a propensity, when the wall between church and state comes down, of not showing much desire for self restraint. All this past year in American politics, there seems to have been no bridge too far for Evangelicals and conservative Catholics as far as Trump goes. He may blow us all up before it’s over, and if so, that won’t be the fault of Muslims.
What an interesting and intelligent set of arguments! I suppose the bottom line is that group psychosis is a common factor acting upon any community arising out of any institutionalised organisation, be it patriotism, religion or equality to name a few. Emotionally identifying with any cause and neglecting reason seems to inevitably lead to unspeakable horrors or socially divisive practices. By group psychosis I mean it to be the indefatigable belief, as Bob Dylan once coined it, as “having god on your side”. I know these are vast generalisations but I did want to add to the discussion in the humblest of ways.