22 May 2007

People want you to believe stuff

In my experience, a lot of people find it uncomfortable to be agnostic. And not just about the existence of a god or suchlike. They seem to find it difficult to hold the possibility of two mutually incompatible ideas in their minds at the same time. They much prefer holding an opinion, even if there is very little evidence to decide. ("Go, Christians, go!" "Go, atheists, go!")

Not only that. People find it uncomfortable if you are agnostic. And they will try to attribute a belief to you, even when you haven't given them any reason to do so, or even when you've tried very hard to make it clear you aren't defending one position or another. Celia Green has written about this in Advice to Clever Children — relevant extract can be read here.

Suppose that you are discussing solipsism with somebody. You point out that it is an irrefutable possibility that no one other than yourself has a consciousness. He will immediately start discussing this as if you had asserted your personal belief that no one other than yourself has a consciousness. (He, almost certainly, will have a quite definite personal belief that everyone who seems to have a consciousness actually has one.)
I have noticed this a couple of times in connection with this blog. For example, in criticising Richard Dawkins, or in satirising The God Delusion, many of the comments I got were from people who seemed to either (a) be agreeing with me because they thought I was defending Christianity, or (b) be critical because they thought I was failing to subscribe to [what they think is] the rational option i.e. atheism. (Although there was a slight variation on this theme from Tony F, who accused me of making "the common mistake of thinking that in any particular argument involving two extreme opinions, the truth must necessarily lie somewhere in the middle". In other words, Tony was attributing to me a third opinion, namely that the answer is "half-and-half".)

In response to my mentioning the modern tendency to treat free will and consciousness as "delusions", someone commented that "I don't agree with the notion that we have free will ... but I do agree that there are and should be individuals with individual selves and consciousness".

Er, "should be"? Actually, I have never (in writing) said that "I believe we have free will" or "I believe there are individual selves which have consciousness". As I said in response to this comment, I was careful in the Mediocracy book to confine myself to highlighting/criticising fashionable ideologies, without getting bogged down in whether or not they are true.

When I did a little cartoon some time ago about climate change scepticism, the first comment I got seemed to assume that I was saying I disbelieve the consensus view. The idea that one could strongly oppose the suppression of dissident viewpoints, while not necessarily subscribing to those viewpoints, seems not to enter a lot of people's heads. They just want to argue about which belief one should subscribe to. And, sadly, the blogosphere doesn't exactly set a good example in this respect. Look at the online comments of most blogs, and you will see debate which in many ways is little different from people arguing in a pub about the relative merits of soccer teams.

spotted on Jeremy's blog:
Celia Green aphorism: "People have been marrying and bringing up children for centuries now. Nothing has ever come of it."
Blog reader: "I think life would be very boring and unsatisfying without relationships and children."
Kind of misses the point.


Paul said...

"...they thought I was failing to subscribe to the rational option i.e. atheism."

Isn't the rational option agnosticism, here ("absence of proof is not proof of absence" and all that bit)? Or are you pointing out their implicit assertion that atheism is the rational option?

Sorry --- that wasn't a very interesting comment, but it's the best I can manage on such a warm day. ;)

Fabian Tassano said...

Clearer now, I hope, with addition in square brackets.

Mitchell said...

cartoon ... about climate change scepticism

At the risk of digressing from the real theme of this post (but is it really a digression, when one is implicitly being advanced as evidence of the syndrome under discussion) - if you are going to liken an intellectual position to Galileo's, it is entirely reasonable for me to think that you mean to suggest, not just that it is persecuted in the present, but that it will be vindicated in the future.

Mister Anonymous said...

"that it will be vindicated in the future".

People can't take too much uncertainty. Infact it is horrible. It is better to become a global warming activist.

Fabian Tassano said...

"it is entirely reasonable for me to think that you mean to suggest, not just that it is persecuted in the present, but that it will be vindicated in the future."
If you thought that, Mitchell, perhaps you should have rapped me across the knuckles for being as dogmatic as the opposition, rather than trying to prove I was wrong? :)

BTW, I note you stuck up for Celia Green on a recent discussion thread which was saying some stupid things about her. For which, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this just part of a wider tendency in society to confuse probability with certainty? A kind of lazy drive towards inflexible absolutes of any kind (terrorism vs. "the free world", christian vs. muslim, israeli vs. palestinian, diesel dyke vs. lipstick lesbian) because, in a deficient brain, it's far easier and "efficient" (in a demented sense of the word) to hold one singular, extremist view or another than to juggle many potentially contradicting ideas at once? Frankly, it's all about "psychological entropy in a vacuum" to me.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you completely! COMPLETELY!!! I could never disagree with you and people who do are stupid and extremist!!