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A salad bowl of intellectual garbage (7)

ByDouglas Anele
IN science and mathematics,  issues are ultimately settled by logic and evidence, because here we are dealing with knowledge, not opinion.

Therefore, if you find yourself upset because of an opinion contrary to yours, you should be careful; you may perhaps discover, on further analysis, that your belief is beyond what the evidence warrants. It is also a good idea for us to seek out those whose opinions differ from ours on any particular issue.

Again, we can devise an imagery argument with a person whose bias is different from our own. If, for example, you are a lecturer who supports frequent strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), it would be a good idea if you imagine the sort of arguments an opponent of incessant strikes may present to support his position.

In fact, if you have good psychological imagination, you may, through the application of my suggestion, find yourself becoming less dogmatic and certain through realizing the possible reasonableness of a hypothetical opponent. We really need to be wary about opinions that flatter our self esteem.

There are men and women who marshal cogent arguments to the effect that their own sex is superior. As a man, you are likely to argue that most scientists and Nobel laureates are male; if you are a woman, you can easily point out that most vicious criminals and dictators are male also.

Logically, the issue is inherently insoluble, but self esteem prevents people from realizing this. Similarly, the question of which ethnic group or nation is superior to others cannot be answered, because each group has its characteristic merits and demerits.

Therefore, a reasonable man should accept that the matter does not admit of any solution either way. The best way to deal with the general belief that humans are the highest creature on earth is to constantly remind ourselves that humankind is merely a brief episode in the existence of a small planet in a tiny corner of the universe, a universe that may contain beings “superior” to ourselves as we are to spirogyra. Other emotions apart from gender bias and human conceit also generate false beliefs. Fear is one of the most important generators of silly ideas.

Sometimes fear functions directly by fueling rumours of disaster in times of crisis, or by making people imagine horrifying entities such as demons and witches. Indirectly, it creates belief in something comforting, for example the belief in a blissful heavenly existence for the elect after death.

Of course, fear, like every strong passion, manifests itself in several forms – fear of heights, fear of the dark, fear of death, fear of the crowd, and that generalized vague fear which existentialists call “dread”.

Fear is the tap root of superstition, and one of the primary sources of cruelty. To conquer fear, it is important to be aware of it, and then make genuine effort to conquer its myth-producing power.

Otherwise, it would be difficult to think rationally about many issues that matter to us, particularly those with which religious doctrines are concerned. Russell wisely commented that “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life”.

Humanity is still intimidated by fears it inherited from prehistoric humans, as well as fears that are products of the technological advancement of civilization, including the fear of nuclear annihilation. Collective fear engenders herd instinct, and tends to encourage aggressively towards strangers. As I suggested a moment ago, fear stimulates cruel impulses, and hence promotes superstitious beliefs which appear to justify cruelty.

As a result, neither an individual nor a crowd nor a country can be relied upon to reason sensibly or act kindly under the influence of a great fear. From another perspective, some people find it less painful to die than to face obloquy arising from questioning deep-seated settled beliefs.

But then, we must learn to keep fear in abeyance and boldly state our true opinions, even if the opinions are unpopular or conflict with cherished beliefs of well-respected members of the society. There is no method for eradicating all the unreasonable ideas people have. Indeed, life may be boring if all the genuinely harmless hilarious false beliefs are obliterated.

Thus, I recommend Russell’s counsel that: “A wise man will enjoy the goods of which there is a plentiful supply, and of intellectual rubbish he will find an abundant diet, in our own age as in every other”. The best one can do, as a follow up to the advice above, is to maintain that everyone should endeavour to cultivate a scientific attitude to life.

But what precisely is the scientific attitude? My answer is: it is an orientation that extols skepticism and rejects dogmatic acceptance of propositions for which sufficient evidence is unavailable.

The attitude I have in mind is epitomized in A. K. Clifford’s assertion that “it is wrong always, every where and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”.

If all of us make genuine effort to live up to Clifford’s prescription, the level of intellectual garbage which we carry inside our heads would reduce dramatically, and so would the unnecessary fears and cruelties that have embittered our lives here on earth since the beginning of civilization.


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