Friday, April 4, 2014

"An Even Bigger Question"

I have often tangled – to at best a draw and more often an “ncomplete” – with the question, “How do we know things?”  Today’s question – and I can sense you are on the ends of your seats about this – is, as the title reveals, an even bigger one.

I have over the years taken numerous Philosophy classes – the most recent ones at UCLA Extension – searching for illumination concerning the question, “How do we know things?”  The answers I have received invariably involved extended speculations as to how, when you see an apple, does that apple exist outside your consciousness, or is it, rather, a projection of “appleness” emanating from your brain? 

Yes, I paid money for that.

The truth is, that was not really what I was interested in.  I honestly don’t care about apples that way; I like eating them, and that’s it.  Such speculations, however, appeared to be the primary focus of a surprising number of philosophers. 

I gave up on Philosophy classes.  They did not appropriately deal with my question, and they often made me hungry.   

(What stayed with me was one philosopher saying a really smart thing on the subject.  He said that if you bump your leg on a table, it is evident – when you went “Ow!” – that that table was clearly outside of your consciousness.  The philosopher indicated – through his tone – that he was thoroughly “over” of this type of investigation and wished dearly that philosophers would finally abandon it move on to meatier things.)

My continuing curiosity about “How do we know things?” took me from Philosophy to Sociology.  I was intrigued about Sociology’s “take” concerning how people – meaning entire cultures, or at least substantial minority subcultures – come to believe for a certainty things that are demonstrably untrue?

(I would provide examples of “mistaken understandings” at this point, but I do not want to besmirch this discussion with ideological bias.  Instead, I invite you to insert specific examples of your own.  I will prime the pump just to get things started:  “Birthers.”)

Studying Sociology, I did not find the answer I was looking for.  I did, however, encounter the essential prototype of the “even bigger question.”

The class was entitled, “The History of The Conservative Movement In America.”  (I was interested in learning how the people I didn’t agree with developed their ideological perspective.) 

At one point, the instructor, who insisted he was neither conservative nor liberal, mentioned a study which concluded that “upward mobility” in this country had become less and less of a realistic possibility.

Immediately, an inveterate blowhard sitting the back of the room bellowed,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”

That’s when it hit me.  That’s the whole ballgame.  Right there.

Our Sociology instructor may not have been a liberal.  But he was indisputably an academic.  (He was teaching at a university!)  The “upward mobility” study was presumably reputable.  They did their research, they crunched the numbers, and they arrived at their conclusions.

Still, the inveterate blowhard sitting in the back of the room’s response to it was,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”  (As if belied could obliterate evidence, like a “spot remover.”)

The interesting thing was that the blowhard sitting in the back of the room – not a personal description; there were numerous complaints about him from fellow classmates – was professionally a gastroenterologist. 

That information confused me.  I was certain that, in the course of his activities, the good doctor had undoubtedly sent out suspicious-looking polyps to a lab to be tested.  What happened, I wondered, when the (scientific) lab results came back positive? 

“I am sorry to report that your lab results indicate you have colon cancer.” 

“I don’t believe that.” 

“Oh well then, never mind.”

Would the inveterate blowhard sitting in the back of the room actually do that?  And if he wouldn’t, then why would he accept scientific information in one context, and reject it on the basis of “belief” in another?

My classroom experience popped back in my mind when I discovered the same issue being discussed on The Financial Page of The New Yorker, written by James Surowiecki.  (“We are going “Uptown” today, people!”)    

The article began with a quote from President Obama, asserting that “upward mobility {in this country} has stalled.”  Surowiecki goes on to report that subsequent studies revealed that “{upward mobility} had remained relatively stable over the entire second half of the twentieth century.”  Meaning that people have had difficulty moving up longer than it was previously understood. 

The implication here is that, with a couple of decadal exceptions, America’s cherished belief in upward mobility has been substantially a myth since the 1920’s, and that “over time, the American dream has become increasingly untethered from American reality.”  Surowiecki goes on to report that “mobility here is lower than in most European countries.”

To which, the inveterate blowhard sitting in the back of the room would undoubtedly respond,

“Conservatives don’t believe that.”    

We are talking about two ways of evaluating information, one, evidence-based, the other based on a belief, each approach leading to a mutually-exclusively differing conclusion. 

The consequences of this conflict are obvious.  The evidence-based faction – based on the evidence – would exhort us to do something about the problem.  On the other hand, the opposing side – not believing the evidence – would insist that, since the problem does not exist, the appropriate “solution” is to do nothing. 

And stop being so negative all the time.  I mean, how’s that going to improve anything?  Not, of course, that anything needs improving.  But still.

Two conflicting approaches, calling for opposite courses of action.  This, for me, leads not to the answer to my original question, but to the formulation of the “even bigger question”, that question being,

“In the context of our understanding of the truth, what matters more – evidence or beliefs?”

On our next visit, we shall explore the neighboring question, “If your belief in something makes you happier and feel better, does it make any difference whether that belief is, in fact, true?

Boy!  Am I ever excited!

Me too.  The difference is you’re being sarcastic and I’m actually excited.

This stuff really turns you on?



1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

You might like to look up Susan Jocaboy's book The Age of American Unreason.

I've spent a certain amount of my life around skepticism - the movement that seeks to debunk paranormal claims - and the same thought processes apply there. People confuse science with belief and don't understand how easily they can be fooled by simple psychological phenomena.

I'd say 'twas ever thus, except that the particular current presentation of this problem in American seems so dangerous.