Friday, November 25, 2005

Believing What We Want To

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no shortage exists of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone wants to believe.

In the previous entry I quoted two good people who effortlessly turned a tentative, disputable scientific finding into a dogmatic certainty that was favorable to the outlook of each. They could not know the truth because it is not yet known, but they spoke as if they were already in possession of it. They were not lying in the sense of deliberately misrepresenting things, but they made claims that betrayed nothing of the uncertainty in the actual situation. One of them may be proven right or more right in the end, but the outcome is not known at the present.

This is one example of a widespread phenomenon. A president announced that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by a reckless, cruel dictator justified a preemptive strike lest we be suddenly attacked. The claim we now know was false, but the harm has been done. Precious lives have been needlessly lost, billions of dollars wasted. Now we find ourselves in a situation that permits no easy resolution, and the nation is bitterly divided.

Did he lie deliberately to justify a move he intended to make on some real or pretended premise anyway? Was he honestly misled by faulty but sincere intelligence? Did he interpret the available information in the way most favorable to his purposes? He claimed to know more than he did and was shown to be mistaken.

Where does honest ignorance end and willing, complicit conviction begin? When does sincere belief in the presence of uncertainty take on an element of deceit that produces truth claims held with unjustifiable certainty? To what extent does desire turn a objective possibility into a subjective reality, a hypothesis into a firm belief communicated as a certain truth? Does wanting it to be true make it seem so real that we cannot deny it? Somewhere in these murky areas in where much of our public discourse transpires.

How much credit should be given to the massive tax cuts mainly benefiting the ultra-rich for whatever economic upturn we have experienced? Tax cutters and their supporters know for sure. We may safely surmise that to some extent political dogma turns what must remain an economic uncertainty -- given the complexity involved -- into a indubitable truth.

Environmentalists know that global warming is attributable in a major way to human activity. Polluters and their defenders know that the phenomenon -- to the extent real at all -- is due mainly to natural cycles.

Since this is a blog and not a book, I will cease, only urging that other instances of the tendency to believe with more certainty than is warranted what we want to believe can be readily found all about us in public and private life.

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