I used to be more of an Enlightenment optimist than I am now. I used to think that clear, cogent argument has immense power to make people more sensitive to the truth.
Now I’m not quite so sure. People’s beliefs are shaped in two very different ways – as illustrated by the two very different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?”
First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief. Why does Jane believe the Republicans will lose the next election? Because she has seen the opinion polls and knows that the causes of the current Republican slump – such as Iraq – are unlikely to disappear in the near future. So, concludes Jane on the basis of this evidence, the Republicans will probably lose.
But that’s not the only way in which we might explain a belief. Suppose Bert believes he is a teapot. Why? Because Bert attended a hypnotist’s stage-show last night. Bert was pulled out of the audience and hypnotized into believing he is a teapot. The hypnotist forgot to un-hypnotize him, and so Bert is still stuck with that belief.
Of course, Bert need not be aware of the true explanation of why he believes he is a teapot. He may not remember being hypnotized. If we ask Bert to justify his belief, he may find himself oddly unable. He may simply find himself stuck with it. He may well say, with utter conviction, that he just knows he is a teapot. In fact, because such non-inferentially-held beliefs are usually perceptual beliefs, it may seem to Bert that he can see he’s a teapot. “Look!” he may say, sticking out his arms “Here’s my handle and here’s my spout!”
So we can explain beliefs by giving a person’s reasons, grounds and justifications, and we can explain beliefs by giving purely causal explanations (I say purely causal, as reasons can be causes too). Purely causal explanations range from, say, being hypnotized or brainwashed to caving in to peer pressure or wishful thinking. These mechanisms may even include, say, being genetically predisposed to having certain sorts of belief.
Of course, both kinds of explanation may be relevant when it comes to explaining why Fred believes P. Fred may believe P in part because there is some evidence for P, though not enough to warrant belief in P, and in part because he is, say, biologically predisposed to believe P. It may be that neither factor, by itself, is sufficient to explain Fred’s belief.
We may flatter ourselves about just how rational we are. Sometimes, when we believe something, we think we’re simply responding rationally to the evidence, but the truth is we have been manipulated in a purely causal way. I might think I have decided that racism is wrong because I’ve recognized the inherent rationality of the case against it, when the truth is that I have simply caved in to peer pressure and my unconscious desire to conform.
There are, correspondingly, two ways in which we might seek to induce belief in someone. We might attempt to make a rational case, try to persuade them by means of evidence and cogent argument. Or we might take the purely causal route and try to hypnotize or brainwash them or apply peer pressure, etc. instead.
What’s interesting about these two ways of getting someone to believe something is that generally, only one is truth-sensitive. The attractive thing about appealing to someone’s power of reason is that it strongly favours beliefs that are true. Cogent argument doesn’t easily lend itself to inducing false beliefs. Try, for example, to construct a strong, well-reasoned case capable of withstanding critical scrutiny for believing that the Antarctic is populated by crab-people or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese. You’re not going to find it easy.
On the other hand, hypnotism, brainwashing, and peer pressure can just as easily be used to induce the belief that Paris is the capital is the capital of Germany as they can that Paris is the capital of France.
Sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs. Admittedly, this filter is not one hundred percent reliable – false beliefs will inevitably get through. But it does tend to allow into a person’s mind only those beliefs that have at least a fairly good chance of being correct.
Indeed, unlike the purely causal techniques of inducing belief, the use of reason is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It doesn’t automatically favour the “teacher’s” beliefs over the “pupil’s”. It favours the truth, and so places the teacher and the pupil on a level playing field. If, as a teacher, you try to use reason to persuade, you may discover that your pupil can show that you are the one, not the pupil, who is mistaken. That is a risk some “educators” are not prepared to take.
[Some “post-moderns” insist, of course, that “reason” is just a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms, for of course there is no “truth”.]
Enlightenment liberals like myself tend to feel uncomfortable about heavy reliance on purely causal mechanisms. Here’s one reason why. When you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you apply purely causal mechanisms, you take that freedom from them. Your subject may think they’ve made an entirely free and rational decision, of course, but the truth is that they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. In effect, by ditching reason and relying on purely causal mechanisms, you are now treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order - as mere things.
Now to a shift in my philosophical view. When I look around the world, I find it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about the power of reason to steer people towards the truth.
Take, for example, the rise of young earth creationism in the U.S. Sixty years ago, the belief that the universe is six thousand years old was the view of a tiny band of religious crackpots. Now it is accepted by almost half of all Americans – over 100 million people. Many are college-educated. Many are at least as smart as you and I. Yet not only do they accept this cranky belief, they think it’s consistent with the scientific evidence. They think they are being rational and reasonable. But they are deluding themselves. The real explanation for why they believe what they do is, for the most part, a purely causal explanation (quite what that explanation is, is an interesting question: part of the answer may be that we have a genetic predisposition towards religiosity that makes us particularly vulnerable to religiously-draped cranky beliefs).
Also depressing is the highly successful psychological manipulation engaged in by rightwing media moguls. Many Americans embrace rightwing belief systems that have almost been injected into their heads by a certain news network. Of course, these people think their views are rational and reasonable, but many have, to a large extent, simply had their strings pulled. Listen carefully to some shock jocks and you can almost hear the cogs and levers of manipulation whirring in the background.
How confident can we be that reason and truth will triumph over such extraordinarily powerful belief-inducing mechanisms? If the answer is “not very”, and if there is a great deal at stake (and there often is), then this raises two uncomfortable thoughts for a left-leaning liberal philosopher like me.
First of all, if the mechanisms that primarily shape belief are mechanisms that philosophical reflection and cogent argument are able to do comparatively little about, doesn’t that make encouraging the public to think and question a largely pointless exercise?
That’s not to say that philosophy is powerless to change the world – big philosophical belief systems such as Marxism or Platonism may indeed have huge impact. But their impact won’t be because they’re inherently more reasonable than their competitors, but simply because they are in the right place at the right time, causally speaking.
It also raises temptation. The temptation, when it comes to shifting public opinion, is to worry less about being rational and reasonable, and more about pressing the right causal buttons. If you really want to change the world, put rational persuasion on the back burner and apply more effort instead to applying those very forms of psychological manipulation that liberals like me have, to date, felt so squeamish about using.
But of course there’s a big “if” driving these thoughts. On my less pessimistic days, I incline more to the idea that the huge global surge in wacky religious and other dodgy belief systems is perhaps not a sign that those who wield reason are losing, but that they are winning. Yes, religious nuttiness is on the rise. But perhaps that’s an entrenchment – a reaction of the remaining faithful to the continuing erosion of faith.
So, at the moment, I still remain cautiously optimistic about the beneficial effects of reason. But I have my worries.