Monday, February 11, 2008

I might be wrong

I might be wrong. So what?

I might be wrong about anything I think is the truth. Under the scientific method, you can be absolutely convinced only that you're mistaken; you can't ever be absolutely convinced you're correct about any specific proposition. I might be delusional. Any of my experiences, experiences that I'm convinced are reliable and veridical, might simply be deranged fantasies. I could be wrong that I'm a rational person. I might think I'm a rational person, but if I'm not rational, if I can't use logic effectively, I would still think I was rational. I could even be wrong that rationality itself is reliable and veridical.

All of my moral and ethical beliefs, my evolved and socialized judgments, might be completely wrong. The war in Iraq, a patently aggressive war of imperialist conquest, might be the right way to conduct international affairs. Slavery could be the key to a perfect society. Rape might be the best way to have sex. Women might be nothing more than walking uteri, for whom lobotomy would probably be a kindness. Torture might not only be acceptable, but should be routine, perhaps even to extract confessions for traffic violations; it might even be that we should consider a confession reliable only extracted under torture. Perhaps the world of 1984 is a Utopia, not a dystopia.

The ancient Greeks went down this road a couple millennia ago, and from them we have the root of Big-ess Skepticism: We don't know anything, and if you're not perfectly certain — and you can't be perfectly certain — you have no ethical or epistemic warrant to do anything but shrug your shoulders and say, "I dunno." This nihilism applies to everyone: the religious can no more be certain they are choosing the right scripture, or interpreting it correctly than can the rational scientist or philosopher be certain that rationality is reliable.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Yeats is not expressing a norm here, he is making a complaint.

Nobody ever takes this sort of Skepticism to its logical conclusion of total ethical and epistemic nihilism and paralysis. It is always those who disagree who lack the warrant to draw conclusions.

So I don't put on an air of faux tolerance. To be tolerant just because I'm uncertain is to tolerate not just different opinions, but everything: stupidity, lies, rape, murder, torture, slavery, genocide, wars of aggression and conquest, and mopery on the high seas. I have beliefs, I've drawn conclusions, I approve of some things and abhor others. If it sounds stupid to me, I'll call it stupid. If it shocks my conscience, I'll howl with outrage.

I do the best I can with what I have, If I'm wrong, so what? I'm wrong. Not the end of the world.


  1. This attitude makes even more sense when you consider the incredible weakness of truth in general. Like gravity in the universe, truth is probably the weakest force possible in political and social matters (albeit the force with the longest reach). So just say what you believe already.

  2. I'm not against truth; indeed I care a lot about the truth, and I do what I can to make sure that I do indeed speak the truth, or at least refrain from lies and bullshit. But that's all I need to do: what I can.

    I'm not, however, going to sit around with my thumb up my ass until I'm certain.

  3. Oh, I'm not against the truth either. I love figuring out the truth, and thinking about it, and getting deeper and deeper. I just appreciate the weakness of the truth in society.

    The truth is useless.
    You have to understand this right now.
    You can’t deposit the truth in a bank. You can’t buy groceries with the truth. You can’t pay rent with the truth.
    The truth is a useless commodity that will hang around your neck like an albatross — all the way to the homeless shelter.
    And if you think that the million or so people in this country that are really interested in the truth about their government can support people who would tell them the truth, you got another think coming.
    Because the million or so people in this country that are truly interested in the truth don’t have any money.

    -Jeb Bush, 1986 re: the Iran-Contra scandal
    from “Bushwhacked: Inside Stories of True Conspiracy” by Uri Dowbenko
    New Improved Media Corporation, September 2002

    The really sad thing is, Jeb Bush is almost right.

    Whaddya think... am I too cynical?

  4. Brilliant. Truth is, largely, subjective. We can never know for certain. Not anything. Heisenberg showed us that. All we can do is formulate a set of principles by which we choose to live. And bugger the rest.

  5. All we can do is formulate a set of principles by which we choose to live.

    And live them. And, perhaps most importantly, continually use our best efforts to improve and refine those principles.

  6. This reminds me of a quote by The Cat in Red Dwarf:

    "I think everybody's right. Except me."


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