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.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Abortion Pill and Original Sin

Recent reports indicate there may be a danger of a fatal infection after taking the abortion pill. The question has not been settled scientifically yet, but advance reactions were almost as predictable as the rising of the sun in the East. This from the New York Times, November 23, 2005:

"Wendy Wright, executive vice president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, said that the latest news about deaths involving Mifeprex proved that the drug was unsafe. Ms. Wright also speculated that more women were dying after using the drug but that their deaths were going unreported.
. . .
Dr. Scott J. Spear, chairman of the national medical committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation's largest provider of abortions, said there was no evidence that the vaginal administration of misoprostol increased the risks of bacterial infections."

Hmmmmmm. An anti-abortion group thinks that the uncertain, tentative, problematic report proves that the abortion pill is unsafe, while a group that thinks abortion is a moral option for women is sure that it is safe.

What shall we make of this? Nothing contributes to understanding more than the doctrine of original sin. Here it means that individuals and groups tend to favor interpretations favorable to their own ideology or self-interests.

Note that the doctrine of OS applies to everybody, everybody. These are not evil people. They are people who believe their cause is right and good. Yet both leap on an uncertainty, an unsettled question, with certain conclusions supportive of their beliefs.

What is so clearly illustrated here could be demonstrated in a thousand cases where uncertainties become certainties favorable to interests and outlooks.

So next time you confront conflicting interpretations of this sort, remember the old doctrine of original sin. Hardly anything is more helpful in providing understanding of current events, and it is the easiest of all religious doctrines to practice.