Should We Bell the Cat?

What should you do at a dinner party if the hostess, say, declares that she believes something that you know to be inaccurate -or worse, that you consider repellent? Abhorrent? Should you wait to see how others respond, or take it upon yourself to attempt to correct her belief? If it is merely a divergence of opinion, it might be considered a doctrinaire exercise -a Catholics vs Protestant type of skirmish- and likely unwinnable.

But, suppose it is something about which you are recognized to have particular credentials so your response would not be considered to be merely an opinion, but rather a statement of fact? Should that alter your decision as to whether or not to take issue with her pronouncement? Would your silence imply agreement -acquiescence to a view that you know to be not only wrong, but offensive? And would your failure to contradict her, signal something about her opinion to the others at the table? If it is an ethical issue, should you attempt to teach?

It is a difficult situation to be sure, and one that is no doubt difficult to isolate from context and the responsibilities incumbent upon a guest. Still, what should you do if, uncorrected, she persists in promulgating her belief? Should you leave the table, try to change the topic, or merely smile and wait to see if she is able to sway those around you to her views?

I can’t say that the situation has arisen all that often for me, to tell the truth -we tend to choose our friends, and they theirs, on the basis of shared values- but what risks might inhere in whatever course of action I might choose? I happened upon an insightful and intriguing article that touched on that very subject in Aeon, an online magazine: It was written by John Schwenkler, an associate professor in philosophy at Florida State University.

He starts, by pointing out that ‘Many of our choices have the potential to change how we think about the world. Often the choices taken are for some kind of betterment: to teach us something, to increase understanding or to improve ways of thinking. What happens, though, when a choice promises to alter our cognitive perspective in ways that we regard as a loss rather than a gain?’

And further, ‘When we consider how a certain choice would alter our knowledge, understanding or ways of thinking, we do this according to the cognitive perspective that we have right now. This means that it’s according to our current cognitive perspective that we determine whether a choice will result in an improvement or impairment of that very perspective. And this way of proceeding seems to privilege our present perspective in ways that are dogmatic or closed-minded: we might miss the chance to improve our cognitive situation simply because, by our current lights, that improvement appears as a loss. Yet it seems irresponsible to do away entirely with this sort of cognitive caution… And is it right to trust your current cognitive perspective as you work out an answer to those questions? (If not, what other perspective are you going to trust instead?)’

You can see the dilemma: is the choice or opinion you hold based on knowledge, or simply belief? And here he employs a sort of thought experiment: ‘This dilemma is escapable, but only by abandoning an appealing assumption about the sort of grasp we have on the reasons for which we act. Imagine someone who believes that her local grocery store is open for business today, so she goes to buy some milk. But the store isn’t open after all… It makes sense for this person to go to the store, but she doesn’t have as good a reason to go there as she would if she didn’t just think, but rather knew, that the store were open. If that were case she’d be able to go to the store because it is open, and not merely because she thinks it is.’

But suppose that by allowing an argument -an opinion, say- to be aired frequently or uncontested, you fear you might eventually be convinced by it? It’s how propaganda endeavours to convince, after all. What then? Do you withdraw, or smile and smile and see a villain (to paraphrase Hamlet)? ‘If this is on the right track, then the crucial difference between the dogmatic or closed-minded person and the person who exercises appropriate cognitive caution might be that the second sort of person knows, while the first merely believes, that the choice she decides against is one that would be harmful to her cognitive perspective. The person who knows that a choice will harm her perspective can decide against it simply because it will do so, while the person who merely believes this can make this choice only because that is what she thinks.’

This is philosophical equivocation, and Schwenkler even admits as much: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question… In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have.’

As much as I enjoy the verbiage and logical progression of his argument, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the concluding paragraph in the article, that seems to admit that he has painted himself into a corner: ‘What’s still troubling is that the person who acts non-knowingly and from a mere belief might still believe that she knows the thing in question: that climate change is a hoax, say, or that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. In that case, she’ll believe that her choices are grounded in the facts themselves, and not just in her beliefs about them. She will act for a worse sort of reason than the sort of reason she takes herself to have. And what could assure us, when we exercise cognitive caution in order to avoid what we take to be a potential impairment of our understanding or a loss of our grip on the facts, that we aren’t in that situation as well?’

But, I think what this teaches me is the value of critical analysis, not only of statements, but also of context. First of all, obviously, to be aware of the validity of whatever argument is being aired, but then deciding whether or not an attempted refutation would contribute anything to the situation, or merely further entrench the individual in their beliefs, if only to save face. And as well, it’s important to step back for a moment, and assess the real reason I am choosing to disagree. Is it self-aggrandizement, dominance, or an incontestable conviction -incontestable based on knowledge or unprovable belief…?

I realize this is pretty confusing stuff -and, although profound, not overly enlightening- but sometimes we need to re-examine who it is we have come to be. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.


Is there nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so?

Sometimes there are articles that set my head spinning. Or my mind. Ideas that I’d never thought of before. Ideas that make me rummage around deep inside, like I’m searching for a pencil, or my internal keyboard where I write the things I should remember. I often don’t, of course –remember them, I mean -how do you summarize and store enlightenment for a day, a week, a lifetime later? Sometimes you just have to explain it to yourself in your own words.

I subscribe to the online Aeon magazine -well, its newsletter, anyway- and I have to say that many of its articles are sufficiently mind-expanding as to qualify as epiphanous. Heuristic.

One such article on belief started me thinking. It was written by Daniel DeNicola, professor and chair of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania:  It questions whether we have the right to believe whatever we want -the abnegation of which is in itself anathema in many quarters. But surely there’s no harm in having the unfettered right to believe whatever.

And yet, as he asserts, ‘We do recognise the right to know certain things. I have a right to know the conditions of my employment, the physician’s diagnosis of my ailments … and so on. But belief is not knowledge. Beliefs are factive: to believe is to take to be true … Beliefs aspire to truth – but they do not entail it. Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. They can also be morally repugnant… If we find these morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.’

‘Such judgments can imply that believing is a voluntary act. But beliefs are often more like states of mind or attitudes than decisive actions … For this reason, I think, it is not always the coming-to-hold-this-belief that is problematic; it is rather the sustaining of such beliefs, the refusal to disbelieve or discard them that can be voluntary and ethically wrong.’

In other words, I may inherit a belief from my family, or the circle of friends I inhabit, but that is no excuse for continuing to hold them if I come realize they are harmful or factually incorrect.

‘Believing has what philosophers call a ‘mind-to-world direction of fit’. Our beliefs are intended to reflect the real world – and it is on this point that beliefs can go haywire. There are irresponsible beliefs; more precisely, there are beliefs that are acquired and retained in an irresponsible way. One might disregard evidence; accept gossip, rumour, or testimony from dubious sources; ignore incoherence with one’s other beliefs; embrace wishful thinking ….’

Here, though, DeNicola issues a caveat. He does not wish to claim, that it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ‘This is too restrictive. In any complex society, one has to rely on the testimony of reliable sources, expert judgment and the best available evidence. Moreover, as the psychologist William James responded in 1896, some of our most important beliefs about the world and the human prospect must be formed without the possibility of sufficient evidence. In such circumstances … one’s ‘will to believe’ entitles us to choose to believe the alternative that projects a better life.’

Our beliefs do not have to be true if it is not possible to know what actually is true, or turns out to be the truth. As an example, ‘In exploring the varieties of religious experience, James would remind us that the ‘right to believe’ can establish a climate of religious tolerance.’ But even here, intolerant beliefs need not be tolerated: ‘Rights have limits and carry responsibilities. Unfortunately, many people today seem to take great licence with the right to believe, flouting their responsibility. The wilful ignorance and false knowledge that are commonly defended by the assertion ‘I have a right to my belief’ do not meet James’s requirements. Consider those who believe that the lunar landings or the Sandy Hook school shooting were unreal, government-created dramas … In such cases, the right to believe is proclaimed as a negative right; that is, its intent is to foreclose dialogue, to deflect all challenges; to enjoin others from interfering with one’s belief-commitment. The mind is closed, not open for learning. They might be ‘true believers’, but they are not believers in the truth.’

So, do we accept the right of the bearers of those beliefs to silence the rest of us, or should they merely be allowed to coexist in the noise? DeNicola wants to think, ‘[T]here is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs – and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe.’

But, I wonder if the ethic is truly assignable -the noise can be overwhelming, and those who are the most persistent in its production end up deafening the rest of us. And although any responsibility for their belief should imply accountability, to whom are they accountable -to those in power, or to those who also share the belief? Do those with firmly held beliefs read articles like the ones in Aeon? And would they be swayed by the arguments even if they did?

Is it my responsibility to convince my opponents that my beliefs are right, or rather to set about proving that theirs are wrong? A fine distinction to be sure, and one that seems inextricably embedded in the web of other beliefs I have come to accept as valid markers of reality. And yet I think the thesis of DeNicola’s argument -that a belief, even if possibly untrue, should at the very least, not be dangerous, threaten harm, or prevent others from believing something else- is the most defensible. If nothing else, it carries the imprimatur of several thousand years of wisdom: the concept of reciprocity -the Golden Rule, if you will: what you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself. Or, in the Latin of the Hippocratic Oath: Primum non nocere -First of all, do no harm.

Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

I’m puzzled –it seems to be happening a lot nowadays despite my age. But maybe that’s what retirement is for –to sort through things previously deemed obvious but which, on closer scrutiny, are not. Or, at least, not anymore… Same thing, I suppose.

The latest effort of digging roots seems to have arisen after telling a friend that I hadn’t visited a recent exhibition of a famous painter because I’d thought the admission price was a bit steep for something which I could admire in as much detail online. My friend, of course, was shocked and subjected me to an unwarranted rebuke for thinking the two modalities were in any way comparable.

I have to admit to a certain agnosticism in the matter of Art, but, as art is wont to do, it started me wondering. What qualities, if any, does the original of anything, have that is so special that it has to be experienced in person? But I’m not advocating virtual reality, or proxy visitations, so much as an explanation of what makes the thing-in-itself seem so valuable.

I’m reminded of a podcast discussion I once heard about an exhibition of a Viking long boat. To see the real boat, the host of the program said -even if it was displayed behind a rope fence- was like experiencing the boat pulled up on a beach in Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. when they first raided Britain.

“But some of the boat had to be restored,” the expert explained. “In the original style and using the same type of wood, of course…” he quickly added, lest the magic seem to slip away. “But you’re right, it’s a Viking boat that they used for raids.”

Then someone –another expert, perhaps, spoke up. “So… Just to add a note of caution here… Let me ask how much of it was restored?”

“Pardon me?” The first expert seemed aghast that it would even matter.

“How much…? I mean, if you restored, say six boards on the deck, but the rest was original, could you still call it the original boat…?”

“Of course,” the first man blustered.

“Suppose you replaced the entire deck as well as a few boards of the gunwale? Still the same original boat…?”

“Yes…” he replied, but hesitantly. He could see where these questions were leading.

“Tell me,” the skeptic said quietly. “At what point –at what board, if you will- does it cease to be the original boat?”

I don’t remember the answer now, so many years later, but it was an interesting point. What is it about the ‘real’ thing that fosters the awe? If someone had simply built another boat, even using the same techniques and period tools, it would be admired, I’m sure –but not in the same way. Something would be missing… But what? For all intents and purposes, it would be the ‘same’ thing as the original.

Upon deeper reflection, I am reminded of another concept that intrigued me as a much younger student: Plato’s idea of Forms –a simple example being that of, say, triangleness; all triangles are examples –manifestations- of this, but not the thing-in-itself which is unknowable. Or, perhaps more illustrative: boatness. How is it that we can recognize a thing as a boat, even though boats have many designs, sizes, and shapes? What is it about boatness that permits its attribution to something, even if we have never seen anything like it before?

I think it’s easy to get lost in this, especially for an amateur like me, but I suspect that what I am wondering is whether ‘original’ might capture some of this idealized yet still intangible feeling of Form.

I tried the idea out on a couple of friends one evening at a pub. It was probably not a great place to discuss anything as nuanced as Plato, or Viking boats, but I get excited about things.

“Why is it better to see the actual painting in an exhibition rather than a picture of it?” I had to yell, because there was a lot going on around us that night.

“We were talking about Facebook news… How did art exhibitions get into this?” John, who was a recently retired lawyer, usually wanted to talk about politics, so I’m not surprised he was the first to notice my not so subtle segue.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what triggered the painting thing –maybe it was John’s insistence on going to the original news source and not relying on third hand copies. He had a point I thought, but I wondered if it also applied to paintings. And if so, why?

“But that’s a good example of why you go to the source, eh?” he added, smiling broadly at my perspicacity.

“With news, yes,” I yelled, as someone shrieked with laughter close by. “But why is it the same with a painting? Why isn’t it just as good looking at a high-quality photograph of it? They’re identical, aren’t they?”

Jason, a retired accountant put his empty glass on the table and tried to signal a waitress. “Are they?” he asked, turning to me when the waitress ignored him.

I shrugged. “I don’t know… that’s why I’m asking. Why are they different, Jason?”

He leaned over the table so we could both hear each other in the melee. “A photograph is just a copy.”

“Is what the painting contains –the image, the colour, the composition, and so on- not exactly the same in the photo?”

He thought about it for a moment, but started shaking his head. “I don’t know… somehow, there’s something missing in the photo, don’t you think?”

“What?” I was hoping he could narrow it down for me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe it’s that the painter –the creator– actually touched it…”

I smiled and had a sip of my wine. “Do you remember Plato from university?”

“I remember the allegory of the Cave… Loved that one…” John piped up, but quietly and Jason and I had difficulty hearing him.

I was thinking more of his Forms. Remember?” The blank looks on both their faces told me they didn’t. “Triangleness?” I offered as a hint.

“Oh yeah,” John said, obviously pleased at himself. “The ideal -of which something like any triangle you could draw would only be an example…”

“Didn’t Kant…” Jason was deep in memories. “… Something about noumena… Oh yeah, and the ‘thing-in-itself’ or whatever…”

“Uhmm, what I remember about his Critique of Pure Reason, I could write on a grain of salt,” John yelled to nobody in particular.

Jason mounted a condescending smile and launched his eyes on another search for the waitress.

“But I did love the Cave thing,” John continued, this time turning to me. “I always got it mixed up with the Forms, because I figured they were actually saying the same thing.” He leaned over the table so he wouldn’t have to talk as loud –I think he found the topic an embarrassing one for a pub. “I mean, think about it. All those prisoners in the cave chained so they can’t see the fire behind them, or the people holding up puppets that cast shadows on the only wall the prisoners can see. Naturally the prisoners think the shadows are the authentic world. And then one of the prisoners slips his chains and escapes to the sunlight outside and sees the real thing –not copies of it…”

Jason had given up by now and stared at John. “So, where do the Forms come into it…?”

It was John’s turn to look haughty as he rolled his eyes. “He sees reality, Jason. In a sense, he sees the Forms… the prisoners only saw the facsimiles –the copies, if you like!”

Jason just blinked at him. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he didn’t understand. “You know, this all started with G’s question about why it was better to see a painting in an exhibition than a copy of it somewhere else… How did we get to Plato’s Cave?”

“I think we just answered his question,” John said quietly, as we all leaned over the table to hear him in the noisy room. “It’s like experiencing reality, rather than the shadows it casts.”

“But…” I could see Jason was struggling with the idea. “…But couldn’t the prisoner just go back into the Cave and tell the others what he saw? That they were just looking at copies…?”

John smiled his best lawyerly smile. “Would they believe him if they hadn’t experienced what he had?”

I sat back in my seat with a big smile on my face and finished my wine. Sometimes it’s good to have a drink with people. Sometimes you just have to leave the Cave…