Thursday, March 27, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 7, part 2

This is part 2 of what I imagine will be 3 parts summarizing "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish." This part covers pages 96 to 108.

The habitability of earth will end, and humans will become extinct. Then why should the whole terrestrial experiment have been run? “The importance of Man, which is the one indispensable dogma of the theologians, receives no support from a scientific view of the future of the solar system [p. 96].” People love to believe in other marvels, too, as can be seen in the accounts of ancient, reputable historians. Men are considered mad if they put credence in a myth that they have created, if the myth is peculiar to themselves. In wartime, emotions are collective, and myths can be widely shared. Accusations of Jews committing ritual murder have never been based on any evidence, but are nevertheless often believed, and used as an excuse for cruelty and torture. False medical beliefs (including old “cures” for madness) also tend to involve suffering for the patient. There has been resistance to anesthesia as undoing the will of God. Myths about race and blood have a long provenance. “The whole conception of superior races is merely a myth generated by the overweening self-esteem of the holders of power [pp. 100-101].” Maybe someday there will be real evidence that one race, on average, is more intelligent than another. But there is no such evidence now.

Further, races are thoroughly mixed, and the more the mixed, the higher the level of culture, it seems: look at the ancient Greeks, whose culture emerged from a melting pot. “The supposed merits of racial purity are, it would seem, wholly imaginary [p. 101].”

Soviet Russia has countered false theories of race and blood with false theories about the superiority of some forms of social origins. “There were two theories that had to be reconciled: on the one hand, proletarians were good and other people were bad; on the other hand, communists were good and other people were bad [p. 102].” So a proletarian was redefined as a supporter of the government: hence Lenin was a proletarian, and a kulak was “any peasant who opposed collectivization [p. 102].”

Economics fosters its own sets of superstitions. Why is gold thought to be so peculiarly valuable? Its value only lies in its ability to buy goods, and if you renounce that use, gold is worthless. After World War I, “There was supposed to be some mystic virtue about gold that made it worth while to dig it up in the Transvaal and put it underground again in bank vaults in America [p. 103].” In the end, this mystical property attributed to gold brought on the great depression.

“Politics is largely governed by sententious platitudes which are devoid of truth [p. 103].” The claim that human nature is unvarying is a cover for the inability to see beyond your own narrow environment. Anthropological evidence on marital and sexual customs around the globe shows the falsity of typical claims about unvarying human nature. Some hermits have even done all they could to minimize the roles of food and sex in human life. “There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action [p. 104].” The ability of governments to produce belief in falsehoods seems greater now than in the past, as the situation in Russia, Germany, and Japan prior to WWII makes clear. “No one can deny, in the face of the evidence, that it is easy, given military power, to produce a population of fanatical lunatics [p. 105].” One could imagine a similar ease in producing reasonable people, but this does not cohere with the self-interest of politicians, who will not be admired by reasonable people.

The belief that war is inevitable is a highly problematic form of the permanence-of- human-nature fallacy. If institutions could be developed to make war unprofitable, people would get along quite well without it. “Exactly the same arguments that are now used about the impossibility of preventing war were formerly used in defence of duelling, yet few of us feel thwarted because we are not allowed to fight duels [p. 106].” Give Russell a lever – that is, a large army and enough resources to reward followers above the common run – and he can move the world to believe any absurdity you name. Of course, many people would recognize the foolishness, but it would not be spoken of publicly.

The falsity of dogmas foisted upon populations by governments would not be so bad if all governments taught the same false dogmas. But as they teach differ ones, they generate hostilities.

While much conventional thinking is nonsense, so is much unconventional thinking. “There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths [p. 108].”