Friday, June 06, 2014

Honesty cannot win

It might seem ignominious to believe something on compulsion, because I can’t help believing it ; when reason awakes in a man it asks for reasons for everything. Yet this demand is unreasonable : there cannot be a reason for everything. It is mere automatic habit in the philosopher to make this demand, as it is in the common man not to make it.
George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith

I think Santayana was right, there cannot be a reason for everything and it is unreasonable to assume otherwise. The world is exceedingly complex and full of rational voids over which human reason cannot, and in some cases may never build bridges from cause to effect.

In many ways this is our biggest unsolved problem - our penchant for inventing spurious bridges across rational voids. I don't mean your penchant of course, nor mine. I mean their penchant - those creepy charlatans who spoil every decent human endeavour. Human nature abhors rational vacuums, so charlatans fill them to overflowing with an infinite cascade of sweet nothings.

Unfortunately rational voids have features and regularities which seem to promise rather more than they deliver so yet again charlatans jump in with both feet, muddying the waters for the rest of us. Yet if we could devise a science of imperfect knowledge then maybe we'd make some progress.

Aspects of the same situation may even contradict each other while remaining valid within certain caveats. To take a rather weak illustration, I could say it is pitch dark outside. You might say I’m going for a walk – I love walking under the stars.

Two aspects of the same situation, both valid but mildly contradictory in that they stress different aspects of a dark night. It may be dark, but there is enough visibility for a walk beneath the stars. 

Does it all begin in childhood when we reward children who give answers over those who don't? Do we condition ourselves to give answers and carry it over to situations where no answer can be given? Are we hopelessly entangled in our own conditioning?

Maybe we are, but the question itself is too complex for simple answers like this. To avoid being hoist by our own petard, we have to be tentative over the diagnosis and recognise its incomplete nature. So it isn't even possible to diagnose the problem with assurance.

Complexity may be a battleground where honesty cannot win.


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Paddington said...

I do not believe it's conditioning, but a deep-seated in-built for certainty. Most people are satisfied with the (sometimes) easy answers that religion gives, others struggle to find data and logical explanations.

A K Haart said...

Paddington - you may be right, although I'm not sure we could tell the difference.

We may well be hard-wired to seek situations where as far as possible there are no surprises - ie certainty.