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.)