When it comes to evaluating the opinions of others, most of us are programmed to gauge whether they are regarded by the rest as reasonable or not. This is not always the case, as we have a different approach where we have personal investment in the issue. In particular, we are not programmed, at least as a primary function, to evaluate the value or legitimacy of another’s ideas so much as their reasonability. That’s probably just as well, for few of us are knowledgable enough in the many differing areas we encounter daily to make direct judgments on the ideas themselves.
In this regard, I think humanity, as a whole, functions very like our own brains.
For example, we regularly ascribe to known facts, not because we know them, but because people we trust more than ourselves have taken positions supporting those facts.
Such may, itself, not reflect reality, but that is not what motivates our own position anyway. There is more than a little utility in our doing so. Many of us may have no understanding why x = [-b +/- square root (b squared – 4ac)]/ 2a whenever a times x squared + b times x + c = 0, but few of us truly needs to know why, anyway.
In fact, the more of us who do know why may correspond to the fewer of us being able to reel off the important part of the quadratic formula. That would, arguably, be a bad thing.
What started as frustration because I apparently was no longer able to derive the quadratic formula, a routine proof I used to expect of all my students, turned last night into a realization that we make assumptions based upon perceived truths which may not be true. So, for example, I was mistakenly assuming that the quadratic formula has more definitiveness than it does.
The formula is that x = [-b +/- sq rt (b squared – 4 a c) ] / (2 a) if a x squared + b x + c = 0. But nothing in the theorem indicates this is the only way to reach the solution, just that you can always resort to it if you need to. Techniques that differ in approaches are, in fact, also taught. So we would never think of applying the quadratic formula to solve an equation of the form x squared = 25, despite the possibility of doing so.
What is wrong is for us to lose track of the possibility.
What is more important, though, is that those of us who can logically derive the conclusion from the hypothesis of the quadratic formula, are worthy of the trust the rest of us put in them. Nothing about the quadratic formula is meant to be more than symbolic here. The point is that we have to trust the experts, so it is understandable that we have to have ways of evaluating ideas, not on their own merit, but on their acceptability amongst the experts.
Unfortunately, this is a two sided street not always recognized by those of us (i.e., everyone) who regularly travel it. Those of us who are in the subset of the whole who are qualified to verify the validity of the ideas bear an unusual burden to independently verify the results we are asking the rest of us to believe in.
So we may, for example, confuse the degree to which we trust those who willingly put their stamp of approval upon an idea with an approval of the idea itself. Most of us do not question the quadratic formula beyond whether it is quoted correctly or not, whether we, personally, could verify its validity or not. Likewise, we may reject a line of thinking merely because others do so. These I regard as measures of an idea’s cultural acceptability.
The ideas we identify as religious tend to be ideas that, within a certain culture, are very widely accepted on this level. You may accept the idea that Christ was born to a virgin or not, but whether you do or not is more nearly a statement about the degree to which you trust those who teach, or attack, this idea than it does to your trust, or lack thereof, in the idea itself. The degree to which people regularly have this confusion on such points often do
mbfounds me. Why would anyone die for beliefs that are really little more than someone else’s beliefs? Yet they do–willingly. Not to mention the happiness with which so many gladly kill given no greater motivation.
This has had real application to what I have been working on for some time. As many of you know, I have long advocated an argument that “We are not going to make it, we’ve got to get off.” (The quotation marks reflect how I came by this idea–they are unimportant to the present argument.) What I have been doing is making the case for the idea that we are not going to make it, defining just how large my understanding of “we” is, in this context, and making a case for there being the possibility of our getting off. In other words I have mainly been making the argument for my ideas, not for the buy-in of the group of experts whose support I need if I expect the rest of you to take those ideas seriously.
This is partly because I think the ideas themselves are pretty widely accessible and partly because I have a sense of rebellion against those who would like to keep their monopoly on what our culture is, or is not, willing to accept.
Let’s look briefly, at the one aspect of gaining support amongst my colleagues which is most frustrating to me: the almost universal response I get to the proposal that we might be on a path to killing this planet is that doing so is beyond our capability. I spend a great deal of time, and a good many words, trying to get the reader of my book to acknowledge just how axiomatic our assumptions along these lines are. Until such time as the experts acknowledge just how axiomatic such a position is, though, there is virtually no motivation for the rest of my readers to regard the warnings as anything but the ravings of a fringe element.
Here, I think, the responsibility of the experts in the fields is central: Until the experts acknowledge just how tenuous their assurances are that awful things, far beyond our current projections, cannot happen here, there is virtually no reason for the layman to take my warnings any more seriously than the followers of Aesop should worry about a wolf beyond the horizon or the sky falling down.