Sunday, May 29, 2011

Midgets on my shoulders

I have previously mentioned my failed search for a 'thinking master', a reliable guide to approaching and assessing the most important intellectual and moral questions. Perhaps it was a good thing that I never found one; perhaps even seeking such a guide is a sign of intellectual indolence. Certainly, George Steiner's study of maîtres à penser and their disciples which I cited in that previous post suggests that the vast majority of such relationships end in disillusionment. This is not to say, however, that we are not utterly dependent on what others have discovered and thought and said.

Isaac Newton wrote that he had seen further than other men only because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Steven E. Landsburg cites an anonymous variation on this saying: "If I have not seen as far as other men, it is because midgets are standing on my shoulders."

Landsburg may or may not be an intellectual giant but - to his great credit - he is not afraid of addressing the big questions, and often brings to bear upon them a refreshing candor and directness coupled with ruthlessly rigorous logic (usually).* I have a few reservations about some of his positions, but I believe his general approach is well grounded.

One of his most interesting ideas relates to what people really believe. Wisely, he is very skeptical about what people say in response to survey questions, and he thinks that much of today's anti-religious literature (including Richard Dawkins's efforts) is based on the false premise that people really believe what they say (and perhaps think!) they believe.

According to Landsburg, "Dawkins undercuts his own position when he points to statistics showing that ... there is no correlation between religiosity and crime. His point is that religion does not make people better, but he misses the larger point that if religion doesn't make people better, then most people must not be terribly religious."

Different parts of our brain can in effect 'believe' different, incompatible things, and it's often only when circumstances require or force a single choice that the inconsistency is noted and resolved - one way or the other. So most purportedly religious people only believe in the tenets of their religion when there is no real cost to them. They believe that they believe, but it doesn't matter all that much so their beliefs are what Landsburg calls "disposable".

"Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person," he writes, "ask him, 'Are the tenets of your religion true?' and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I'm guessing that nine times out of ten, you'd find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there's rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters."

*See The big questions: tackling the problems of philosophy with ideas from mathematics, economics and physics (Pocket Books, 2010). See also