Thursday, October 28, 2010

what you can't know.

we all have beliefs that are unresponsive to facts and arguments. we all have beliefs that make life as we know it possible (or so we think on some level so deep that it's probably not quite right to call it thinking) and the job of a belief like that is to be unmoving. and notoriously there will be other beliefs whose job it is to buttress those pillars, those supporting beams in the architecture of our belief systems-- to innoculate against doubt. they'll often be things like 'the kinds of people or facts that would challenge this belief are not to be trusted' or 'the more others criticize this view the more steadfast you'll proved yourself by continuing to believe in the face of others' doubt'. and while it's true that what i've said so far about these kinds of beliefs is famously argued by those public intellectuals attempting to explain the religious mind, i've sat in the offices of those public intellectuals who have famously attempted to explain the religious mind and i've talked with them on other subjects, and i promise you: they have their own support beam beliefs, stubborn in the face of facts and arguments, which make life as they know it possible, and which are insulated from doubt in a very similar kind of way. i'm not talking about some of us, i'm talking about us all.

reading about ginni thomas and her damn fool behavior this week, i've been full of feelings. first, obviously and passionately, is the feeling that a lot of people seriously owe anita hill an apology. this was true even before last week, but there's something about the spectre of an apology being demanded from the very person who is actually so deeply owed an apology and has never asked for one that really raises that middle-school feeling of intolerable injustice in the human heart.

but my feelings for anita hill aren't exactly feelings against ginni thomas. her behavior is, i think, deeply human and has been instructive to me. the impulse to philosophical inquiry is deeply human, and so, too, is this stubborn antithetical fear of knowing-- the refusal to know what we fear can't be born. in some meaningful sense i think it's true that ginni thomas can't (or at least couldn't) know the truth about her husband. she's cited in an interview as saying that they got through "that dark time" during the confirmation hearings by pulling the kitchen curtains closed and listening to religious music.

i'm reminded again for the millionth time that the fear i have of knowing myself or others or the facts or where the argument leads-- any fear i have at all-- will undermine my philosophical aims in ways that it would be hubristic of me to think that i'll recognize at the time. the struggle to know more is often enough the struggle to fear less. i hope i never get through anything by pulling the the curtains closed. it's understandable, but i don't imagine it's worth it.

update: a couple of relevant links!
discover magazine - facts don't persuade climate skeptics, so what does?
wired science - stubbornness increases the more people tell you you're wrong

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