My Wife’s 60th Birthday

On September 12th, 1954 a little girl was born in south St. Louis. One little girl born in one hospital, in one city, on one planet, at one precise moment in the vastness of space and time. A miraculous occurrence that made the world better and more beautiful. Simple words to describe what happened when Jane was born–goodness and beauty increased in the world.

But Jane didn’t keep this goodness and beauty to herself—she shared it by loving. Everyone who has ever touched or been touched by Jane has felt the warmth of her love. The circle of her love and concern begins with family but extends to the whole world. If the world was full of her kind, how beautiful it would be. She is a shining star in a dark world, she is incorruptible, she is impossible not to love.

I don’t know if my love for my wife is important in the whole scheme of things. I don’t know if anything is. But I do know that my life is richer and happier and less lonely and more joyful because of her. And I know that all who have truly known her feel the same way. And I know the world needs more like her because love is the only thing that will ever make life good and beautiful. And I know that uniting her soul long ago abolished my separateness; what began as a glance has lasted a lifetime. I was blessed.

Still my words are powerless to express the love I have for her. Maybe I can say it in a song.


On Vacation

To my regular readers

I have not written for the past few days as I have been preparing for two university courses I am teaching in the fall. I have also decided to take a few weeks off now so that my vacation overlaps with my wife’s. I should resume in about 3 weeks.

In the meantime I suppose the world will continue to burn. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.


The Relevance of Philosophy

Nicolas Kristof’s recent New York Times column, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities,” raised a topic of frequent discussion for one who has spent over 40 years studying philosophy. Kristof asks: “What use could the humanities be in a digital age?” And he answers the question immediately:

University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.

I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world.

Kristof notes how he was influenced by my own beloved discipline: “Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.” Those philosophers are:

Isaiah Berlin, from whom he learned that the world is nuanced and complex, but that this shouldn’t paralyze us so much that we fail to act. We should not become like those pilloried by Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We have doubts, yet we must act. As Berlin put it: “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood.”

John Rawls who wrote the most celebrated work of ethical and political theory in the twentieth century, A Theory of Justice. In it Rawls argues for what he calls “justice as fairness,” which reconciles the competing values of liberty and equality. Rawls invites us to choose our moral principles from behind an impartial “veil of ignorance,” which prevents us from knowing anything about who will be in society. From this “original position” Rawls thought that self-interested individuals would choose a fair system. If we don’t know whether we’ll be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, we are apt to favor a system that distributes the wealth of society quite equally. And finally Peter Singer, who has argued that we should treat non-human animals much better than we now do.

Kristof concludes:

So let me push back at the idea that the humanities are obscure, arcane and irrelevant. These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three philosophers are recent ones. To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas. The same goes for literature, for architecture, languages and theology.

Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us.

So, yes, the humanities are still relevant in the 21st century — every bit as relevant as an iPhone.


As one who has taught both computer science and philosophy majors during my career, I must say that I unhesitatingly advised students with aptitude in both subjects to major in computer science. Unless one is independently wealthy, it is too risky for a student to major in philosophy in the USA. (I would guess this holds around the world as well.) Moreover one can major in computer science, engineering, or related fields and still be informed by philosophy. So I will continue to tell my students not to major in philosophy, unless some new social and economic system arises in which persons can make a good living while philosophizing.

Of course this is a different issue than whether philosophy or the other humanities are worthwhile. Of course they are! We are not fully human unless we know something of philosophy, literature, history, music, religion and art. Surely the world needs informed people who can engage in rational discourse, in Socratic dialogue. Surely we need more people to admit, like Socrates, how much they don’t know.

Most of all, as Kristof notes, we need new ideas. And as I’ve told my students for years, ideas are important—they are not something confined to the ivory tower. Ideas incite revolution and war, they move people to sacrifice themselves, they change science and technology. Ideas change the world. And ideas come from the most unlikely of places, including the humanities. For ultimately the humanities are outgrowths of the human condition, of our need to understand truth, beauty, goodness justice, meaning and more. The study of the humanities paves the way for making us more humane.

Truth and Justice

In a previous post I promised to discuss two great ideas—truth and justice. A lifetime of study wouldn’t suffice to properly discuss these two ideas, but I wanted to offer something.

There are many great ideas. The philosophical popularizer of last century, Mortimer Adler, wrote a massive tome entitled: THE GREAT IDEAS: A SYNTOPICON OF GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD, VOLUME II, MAN TO WORLD (1952). It contained 102 great ideas which Adler later paired down to six in his book, Six Great Ideas (1981).

Those six were: truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice. Adler distinguished these in triads: truth, beauty, and goodness are ideas we judge by; liberty, equality, and justice are ideas we act on. I think the organization of the triads is illuminating.

1. Truth

Adler holds that truth is the sovereign idea by which we judge. He believes that beauty is a special kind of goodness, which is itself a special kind of truth. He also holds that truth—by distinguishing certain from doubtful judgments, and by differentiating matters of taste and matters of truth—provides the ground for understanding beauty and goodness. Whether this is true or not I’ll leave for the reader to consider. 

Yet there is something intuitively plausible in this analysis. If we know what’s true, we would know what was truly good and beautiful. (This depends on the Adler’s acceptance of philosophical realism and a correspondence theory of truth.) But knowing what’s good or beautiful does not seem to entail that we know what’s true—the relationship is not symmetrical. Thus truth seemingly regulates our thinking about goodness and beauty; it is the one to which the other two are subordinate. And, as I’ve stated many times, if the truth isn’t important, then nothing much else is either. Truth is surely one of the greatest ideas.

2. Justice

As for the ideas we act on, justice reigns supreme. Here I find Adler’s argument especially compelling. He argues that justice is an unlimited good, while liberty and equality are limited goods. The distinction comes from Aristotle. Limited goods are goods we can have too much of, while we cannot have too much of an unlimited good. Societies can have too much liberty or equality, but not too much justice.

The argument is straightforward. For political libertarians, liberty is the highest value and they seek to maximize liberty at the expense of equality. They want near unlimited liberty even if the result is irremediable inequality, and even if large portions of society suffer serious deprivations. They may favor equality of opportunity, knowing that those with superior endowments or favorable circumstances will beat their fellows in the race of life. The resulting vast inequality doesn’t deter them, for in their view trying to achieve equality will result in the loss of the higher value, liberty. On the other hand, egalitarians regard equality as the highest value and willingly infringe upon liberty to bring about equality of outcomes. In their view equality of opportunity will not suffice, since that will still result in vast inequality, the supreme virtue in their eyes.

The solution recognizes that liberty and equality are both subservient to justice. An individual should not have so much freedom of action that they injure others, deprive them of their freedom, or cause them other serious deprivations. One should only have as much freedom as justice allows. Analogously, should a society try to achieve equality of outcomes even if that entails serious deprivations of human freedom? Should we ignore the fact that individuals are unequal in their endowments and achievements? No says Adler to both questions. We should only have as much equality as justice allows.

Regarding liberty, justice places limits on the amount allowed; regarding equality, justice places limits on the kind and degree it allows. Thus justice is the sovereign idea among those that we act on—it places limits on the subordinate values of liberty and equality. Too much of either liberty or equality results in an unjust society. I agree with Adler, justice is the ultimate idea of moral and political philosophy.

How Should We Spend Our Time?

I have promised posts on the topic of “truth and justice” and “cognitive bias.” I will deliver in the next few days on the former topic, but I won’t have time for the latter. (For those interested, two sites about cognitive bias are: Overcoming Bias, the blog of Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University,  and Less Wrong, the brainchild of Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher at Machine Intelligence Research Institute.)

Speaking of a lack of time, today, as I was reading multiple threads on multiple topics by members of the research group with whom I’m affiliated, (Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Group in Belgium) I was struck by the importance of deciding what one will read, think, and do in one’s lifetime. Why? Because there is too much material to read and think about for any one person to be acquainted with, much less master. It would be a full-time job just to digest all the material on my email threads. Moreover, at the moment there are at least 20 topics in my blog post que, and ten books waiting to be read. It is overwhelming. One must pick and choose, so that one doesn’t waste their precious time on triviality. Life is short. But according to what criteria do we pick and choose?

My main criterion is to pursue, as far as possible, timeless topics like the meaning of life and love, the importance of truth and justice, the advancing science and technology, and the course of cosmic evolution. Obviously these topics are themselves much too broad–one is going to have to specialize further to make much progress. Still I remember reading Isaac Asimov’s advice that we eschew specialization so that we can be polymaths. I think there is much to this. If our focus is too narrow, we miss the proverbial forest for the trees. Nonetheless no advice is truly adequate here. There is an almost infinite amount of existing knowledge which increases daily, and our minds are finite.  As I’ve said many times our best hope for synthesis of this knowledge is to increase our mental capacities. Until then I would advise thinking about as many timeless things as possible while maintaining physical vigor and mental health.

In addition to intellectual life, there are also obligations to family, to making a living, to bettering the world, and more. Here too we must make choices—there are more things to do than we can do. But we should do what we generally enjoy, with the caveat that we are bad at predicting our own happiness. Still life is too short to make ourselves and others miserable by pursuing some supposed, but despised, duty.

In the end we must strike a balance. This idea was well captured in the opening pages of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, David Hume penned this remarkable paragraph:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: But so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions. Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: but neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them. Man is also an active being; and from that disposition, as well as from the various necessities of human life, must submit to business and occupation: but the mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry. It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Being A Deep Person

Yesterday’s post advocated for personal growth, the means by which humanity’s desperate need for better people might be satisfied. Today I read an article in The Atlantic that provided additional insight into the topic. It summarized a talk given by the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Normally I agree with almost nothing Brooks says, but here I found his thinking somewhat insightful. 

Brooks argues that American culture overemphasizes attaining happiness, rather than “a different goal in life that is deeper than happiness and more important than happiness.” We focus on power, wealth, and professional success, instead of cultivating the kind of personal qualities that will be discussed at our funerals. As Brooks says, we put “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.” Instead of emphasizing happiness and resume virtues, we should search for inner depth, for eulogy virtues.

For Brooks, the American rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik captured the dichotomy between resume and eulogy virtues in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith. In it Soloveitchik differentiates between “Adam I” and “Adam II.” As Brooks explains:

Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam … Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world … Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for … We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I … We’re taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our brains. To get likes. To get followers.”

But how do we nourish depth? What does it even mean to be deep? Brooks says:

I think we mean that that person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence … In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.

Brooks also thinks deep people tend to be old, and I agree. “The things that lead you astray, those things are fast: lust, fear, vanity, gluttony … The things that we admire most—honesty, humility, self-control, courage—those things take some time and they accumulate slowly.” He lists: Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis, and Mother Teresa as examples of deep people.


Although I do believe we ought to become deeper people, I object to much of Brooks’ characterization of depth. “Large and sonorous emotions” and “spiritual presence” often hinder a life of depth. The Stoics and Buddhists believed (roughly) that fervent emotions impede a good life, and no one can accuse either group of not being deep. As for spiritual presence, the notion is extraordinarily vague. Perhaps Brooks uses the term to describe deep feelings generally. I’m not sure. But I can say unequivocally that strong emotions and religious attachments often fetter personal growth.

“A set, permanent philosophy” can also be a hinderance to depth. If this philosophy results from a lifetime of serious searching and impartial inquiry, then it is a sign of depth. But in the vast majority of cases a set, permanent philosophy is the first one to which the individual was exposed, which is practically the opposite of being deep. Also, an unreflective, permanent acceptance of the first philosophy to which one has been exposed often leads to dogmatism. And a dogmatic, unreflective person is essentially the opposite of a person of depth.

I agree that persons of depth often have “commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime,” but so too do Nazis, fascists, and Fox News anchors. Being committed to tyranny, oppression, slavery, or racism does not make you a deep person. Or if it does, it surely doesn’t make you a moral one. Yet Brooks says, “In the realm of morality, they [deep people] have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”

This is the fundamental flaw in Brook’s description. We can imagine the most committed Nazi, slave owner, exploitative capitalist or Fox News pundit having deep, spiritual-like emotions about philosophies which they consistently hold, and which they hope will continue on after their lifetimes. But few of us would call such people deep or moral.

This suggests that Brooks analysis only works if morality as ordinarily understood is not part of a deep life. By “morality as ordinarily understood,” I’m thinking of the late philosopher James Rachels’ account, in his best-selling university textbook, of “the minimum conception of morality.” The generally agreed-upon starting point for any moral philosophy is: 1) an effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons; and 2) giving impartial consideration to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct. Needless to say the committed Nazi and their ilk do not subscribe to this minimum conception. Thus Brooks idea of depth doesn’t preclude the immoral, as surely he intended it to do. 

The implications of Brooks’ view would also come as a surprise to Buddhists who advocate loving kindness, or to religious traditions which advocate beneficence, or to the majority of moral philosophers who believe that compassion for and connection with our fellows is a large part of being “deep.” Yes, you could talk about intellectual or aesthetic depth without reference to morality, but I don’t think this is the depth Brooks has in mind.

I also object to Brooks brief list of deep persons. It’s hard not to notice that three of the four persons he mentioned are Catholics. (Albert Schweitzer was not Catholic and rejected much of traditional Christianity. Still he might be called a Christian mystic or a death-of-God theologian.) Combined with Brooks’ references to “spiritual presence,” this suggests that he thinks depth may be related with religion. The objections to this line of thinking are so apparent they hardly need noting. I am not saying a religious person cannot be a deep, moral person, but I am saying there is not a shred of evidence that suggests the religious  persons are any deeper than the secular ones. I actually think that conventional religion is generally an impediment to depth and morality, although this claim would take defending. (As an aside, critics have claimed that Mother Theresa was no moral exemplar.)


I have noted some strong objections to various aspects of Brooks thinking. Yet for the most part I agree with his overall sentiments. The deep, moral life is the one most worth living, and we generally do not cultivate or value the search for it. Such a life can be found in many ways: taking care of your children, doing relatively menial work, singing, dancing, playing, creating, or in some combination of activities. As for happiness, when directly sought is often missed. Rather it is the unintended by-product of a life explored as far as possible to its depth. Seek to live  deeply, morally, and meaningfully, and you will have the best chance of living well.

A Final Caveat

I do realize how trite the above advice is for those who are destitute, incarcerated, oppressed, etc. As I’ve said many times, following Aristotle, one needs a good government to have a good life—the good life cannot be achieved by individual effort alone. Aristotle didn’t think that government could make people virtuous or happy, but good government by definition must provide the conditions under which all its citizens can flourish. This is how adjudicate between good and bad governments. Judged accordingly, the US government is better than some African governments, but much worse than any Scandinavian government or almost any European government at providing the conditions in which all  people can flourish.

For those who are systematically oppressed I have little to offer, except to advise you to do your best to find some opportunity in the injustice which surrounds you. That it surrounds you is a great stain on all of us, and our more advanced descendents will look back with horror that we tolerated so much injustice. It makes me ashamed of being human. Please accept my apologies along with most fervent wishes that you find inner peace nonetheless.

The World Desperately Needs Better People

When I went back to graduate school, I gave up making good money as a casino dealer for the poverty of graduate school. But what was the point of dealing cards no matter how good the tips were? I didn’t want to spend my life that way. I wanted to do graduate work in philosophy. I didn’t want to die and know Buddha’s or Aristotle’s names, but not their philosophies. And I knew that I I would succeed, since it was what I really want to do. Most of us do best and are happiest doing what want to do.

Of course the chance to do what we want to do, rather than what we have to do, depends in large part on whether we live in a society which provides an opportunity for all its citizens to flourish—that is what makes a society a good one, as Aristotle taught me. But if one is lucky enough to have the opportunity and ability to do what they want—then they should seize the moment, accept the challenge and grow. The world so needs people who have grown, who have evolved, who have increased their awareness. The world desperately needs better people more than it needs anything else. To those embarking on this journey I say—go forth and travel.


The Author

Kieran Snyder (Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania) has spent the last decade leading teams of software designers and engineers. She is also a mother who has written two recent articles for Slate magazine. (Where does she get the time?) Here is her description of those articles:

Last week I published an article in Slate that looked at gender and conversational interruptions in preschoolers. It was a follow-up to an earlier article I’d published, also in Slate, about gender and conversational interruptions in the corporate tech setting. Taken together, the two mini-studies draw a line between the girls who learn not to interrupt in childhood and the frequently interrupted women that they become.

Hate Mail Regarding the Follow-Up Article

She has also written a recent follow-up piece to those articles in response to some particularly negative comments she received. Ms. Snyder notes:

The corporate tech article had many thousands of Facebook shares, significant Twitter activity, and lots of discussion around town … Most of the several hundred direct messages that I’ve received about it have been encouraging …. The children’s article has had much less pickup. Although the topic and dataset are quite similar to the tech study, fewer readers have discovered it, and those that have are mostly not sharing it the same way …

Yet, despite being less widely circulated, the article on children has generated hate mail! She has been called: “a dumb mom who should go back to playgroup; a bitch who should learn to shut up; just another dumbass mom who thinks she’s a “scientist;” and more. She notes that these are not questions about methodology or the sample size—reasonable concerns she agrees—but specific attacks on her as a mother. For example: “As loath as I am to given much credence to the “data” compiled by a mom with a vested interest in the topic watching her kids play; or, It’s bad enough so many of these things we read about are based on small scale studies of college students motivated by extra credit, now we have parents doing “studies” on their kids. Too bad this woman’s ego outweighs her professionalism.”

On hearing all this I read the article and found it quite tame. Why then evoked such a reaction? Synder notes that there is much criticism of the anecdotal nature of her data regarding preschoolers, but none regarding the women in the tech article. This despite the fact that, “The datasets for both articles are quite similar and have similar weaknesses. If anything, the child dataset is somewhat stronger because some of it is validated by an independent judge.” A major difference between the two articles is that the article about pre-schoolers “highlight[s] the fact that I am a mother several times throughout the article.”

Her Response 

Could it be that her being a mother is the source of much of the vitriol? Perhaps. As Snyder says: “People hear tech and they think interesting.People hear mother and think go back to playgroup.”  Maybe that explains a reader who calls her a “dumbass mom who thinks she’s a “scientist.” But why do many readers make the connection between mother and professionally unqualified? Snyder suggests “It’s probably for the same reason that the tech industry where I work famously asks people, “But would it work for your mom?” as a way to evaluate whether a product design is acceptable for unsophisticated users.” (This is particularly amusing in our family. I’m a humanities scholar who can barely turn my computer on, while my wife is a senior database developer with an M.S. in mathematics. My kids, who work in software, ask: “Would it work for dad?”)

Snyder notes that she is proud of being a mom, just as she is proud of being a linguist, and of her software career and marathon running. But being a mom, contrary to the critics, doesn’t detract from or invalidate her other accomplishments:

… becoming a mom made me better at my job, not worse. I am a better manager in terms of both delegation and empathy. I have less time, so I prioritize more effectively. That benefits me, the individuals on my team, and the business overall … Becoming a mom has also developed my specific professional interests. Like the way that having a kid of my own has taken me back to my roots in empirical linguistics and child language development, which has in turn led me to apply those same statistical techniques to studies of gender in the tech workplace where I spend most of my time.

She concludes by noting that,

Moms I know who have left corporate tech careers to raise their children include public advocates for the Chicago school system, journalists winning awards for their coverage of domestic abuse, and founders of educational nonprofits. All of them have taken their professional skills and applied them in domains motivated heavily by their motherhood. Any one of them has enough rigor to take your “dumbass mother” and shove it.


Regarding the data itself, the criticisms are unfounded. Snyder states that “The data here is only directional, and as with the adults in tech study, needs further investigation.” That is a significant and conscientious disclaimer. We might also remember that Jean Piaget’s groundbreaking theories of cognitive development—probably the most famous ever done—were developed after “careful, detailed observations of children. These were mainly his own children and the children of friends.” I conclude that Synder’s results, while provisional, need to be carefully considered. 

Regarding the disparaging remarks about motherhood, we must be careful. There are racists, bigots, misogynists, and more in this world. Hatred seems to be an essential element of our existence, and out-group hostility is a well-known phenomenon. In this case, I would guess that the confluence of at least three factors explains the vitriol directed toward the article about children.

First is misogyny. For reasons that would take a dissertation to flush out, many men see women as sexual objects or things to dominate or keep in their place. The biological and cultural roots of these attitudes are, to say the least, complicated, and I don’t have the time or expertise to investigate them here. (And yes there are women who don’t like men too.) Moreover, some men are simply annoyed by successful, smart, competent women—jealousy is endemic to the human condition. Snyder has a PhD from Penn and has worked in some of the best high-tech companies in the world—enough to make the most talented man or woman envious. But there is no doubt something leftover in the mammalian male brain from millions of evolution that predisposes men to more aggressive talk and behavior.

The other reason has something to do with motherhood. In the contemporary Western world we often make the assumption that full-time mothers are not as smart or competent as career women. If a woman could make a six-figure income at work, why would she stay at home? Doesn’t that violate our notion that earning money is the measure of a man or woman? The conclusion many draw is that she can’t make such an income—that’s why she stays at home—although that is obviously not true in Snyder’s case. Quite frankly, in the US today, the role of motherhood and parenting has relatively little prestige compared to making a large income. At first glance though, I surmise that something about consumerism and materialism plays a role in denigrating parenting in general. It is hard to measure the value of being a good parent.

The final and most important reason for the heated responses to Snyder’s post probably has to do with what I’ve been writing about in my recent posts–people’s inability to believe what they don’t want to believe. If I don’t like the implications that follow from little boys interrupting more than little girls—boys should cease and desist or men should think more about abusive language—then I’m not going to believe it. I’m not sure what follows from Snyder’s very mild observations but some, probably men, were threatened. When our cherished beliefs are threatened, most of us dig in.

All this reminds me of a quote from William James, which I long ago committed to memory.  “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”

True and False Beliefs

Pursuant to our recent posts concerning differentiating truth from falsity, especially in science, I happened upon a piece in the New York Times titled “When Belief and Facts Collide.” The author is Brendan Nyhan, PhD in political science from Duke and currently Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth. (Nyhan has been described as a “liberal to moderate” political blogger, although in 2006 “he came under attack from the editors [of The American Prospect] for unwarranted criticism of liberal pundits.”1)

Nyhan begins by asking “Do Americans understand the scientific consensus about issues like climate change and evolution?” The answer, Nyhan found, is no. Moreover, “… beliefs on both topics are divided along religious and partisan lines. For instance, 46 percent of Republicans said there is not solid evidence of global warming, compared with 11 percent of Democrats.” This suggests that people may not be aware of the scientific consensus on such issues and need to be better informed. They many not know that evolution is as certain in science as gravity or that 97% of climate scientists believe human activities are causing global warming.

However some studies have found that knowing about the science makes little difference in people’s beliefs. They may know the science but be unwilling to believe it when it contradicts cherished political or religious views. “This finding helps us understand why my colleagues and I have found that factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing misperceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass destruction, health-care reform, and vaccines. With science as with politics, identity often trumps the facts.”

What should we do? Nyhan suggests we might “try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues–for instance, by making clear that you can believe in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican … or an evangelical Christian …” He also argues we “need to reduce the incentives for elites to spread misinformation to their followers in the first place. Once people’s cultural and political views get tied up in their factual beliefs, it’s very difficult to undo regardless of the messaging that is used.” To dissuade purveyors of misinformation we might increase “the reputational costs for dishonest elites might be a more effective approach to improving democratic discourse.” (Or let or similar groups play a bigger role in informing the public. Whether this will work is another matter.)

And, as Nyhan notes,

The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals, especially when political parties and other identity-based groups get involved … Those groups can help to mobilize the public and represent their interests, but they also help to produce the factual divisions that are one of the most toxic byproducts of our polarized era. Unfortunately, knowing what scientists think is ultimately no substitute for actually believing it.

In the end, I find myself at an impasse. As I argued in my last post,“When Should We Argue?, some arguments are futile because, as E. O. Wilson said, people don’t want to know, they want to believe. I find this all so depressing. Still I will conclude as I did in my previous post.

… as I age I find myself, as Thornton Wilder said, being weaned away from life. During this process we should try to better the world, while sustaining the hope that new generations will continue the endless fight for truth and the justice. (In a future post I hope to address two of the greatest ideas in the history of human culture–truth and justice.)

And in my next post I will discuss these two great, great ideas. 


When Should We Argue?

I have touched on this topic before, but advancing age and the the finitude of life has caused me to think about this again. A few months ago my post “On Belief and Skepticism,” elicited this response from a reader:

… I too am a dedicated skeptic, but find it difficult sometimes to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Many people I disagree with most fundamentally are the ones I love most profoundly. Do you maintain close relationships with people holding drastically different beliefs? It’s hard to separate the person from the ideas they hold especially when there is so much vested emotionally in those ideas. I hate the idea of “agreeing to disagree.” I’m not going to dance around the issue; We are adults and honesty is important. How do yo approach these relationships?

That comment elicited another post, “How Far Should We Go in Agreeing with Others.” There I distinguished between insidious and trivial beliefs, the former worth arguing about and fighting against, while the latter should usually be ignored. Next I considered disputes about relatively settled scientific issues. Here is an excerpt:

Now suppose I encounter a gravitational, germ, or evolutionary theory denier. In such cases I should be willing to enter into a polemic because any educated person knows these are well-established scientific ideas. Furthermore rejecting these ideas might entail someone’s jumping off a building and thinking they’ll fly; not washing their hands before handling food, or counting on last years flu shot to work this year … Of course you probably won’t change their minds since so many persons are willfully ignorant.

Now suppose you encounter a climate change denier. You can tell them that the intergovernmental panel of climate scientists now claim with 97% certainty that humans are the main cause of global climate change. But you probably have to leave it at that. The fact that they are mistaken when they don’t believe in it, (and arrogant to think they know more about the subject then the world’s experts), probably doesn’t matter that much. True you might convince them not to vote for a climate change denier, but one vote isn’t that significant anyway and their mistaken view is unlikely to change anyway. And again that’s because you rarely change people’s minds because of the emotional attachment they have to those ideas as you mentioned earlier.

In retrospect I’m not sure why I thought you should let some false beliefs about a scientific consensus slide and not others. In fact, denying climate change has more potentially catastrophic consequences for the species than denying more abstract theories. At any rate the main point was that it is important for the species to have well-founded beliefs inasmuch as they often determine our actions. (In a future post I hope to address the source of many false beliefs–cognitive bias.)

Conclusion – Still I find that disagreement about abstract issues, including scientific truths, less important as I age. I often resign myself to the world’s fate, as well as to human ignorance, including my own. On the other hand, important truths seem worthy of a polemic. Thus we arrive at a paradox of life. If we engage in it, if we are active, we fight a seemingly unwinnable fight, frustrating ourselves in the process. If we disengage, if we are passive, we give up the fight and our lives become seemingly irrelevant. I don’t know what we should do or whether it matters what we do.

I do know that as I age I find myself, as Thornton Wilder said, being weaned away from life. During this process we should try to better the world, while sustaining the hope that new generations will continue the endless fight for truth and the justice. (In a future post I hope to address two of the greatest ideas in the history of human culture–truth and justice.)