Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The need to be right

Debating with religious people, and irreligious ones, on Stephen Law’s philosophy blog and elsewhere is convincing me that the one propensity which unites almost all human beings is the compulsive need to be ‘Right’ – to reassure themselves that their world-view is the only correct one, and that their opponents are not only sadly misguided, but in many cases positively wicked.

What I think I am right about is that this egocentric attitude is a major cause – if not THE main one – of most of the strife and conflict in the world. It is also extremely boring: I do my best, when communicating, to convey my views as clearly as possible – sometimes combatively but never, I hope, aggressively - and to learn from the insights and opinions of others. Unlike many bloggers and other controversialists, I do not seek to beat my interlocutors into abject submission.

I first came across this repugnant debating style as a student, when I remember an earnest young lady saying with great vehemence: “Nothing is absolute! Everything is relative!.“ I am inclined to think she may be right, but I would never assert it with such finality. Nor am I able to bring the dogmatic attitude which many do to the ‘Big Questions’ of whether or not there is a God, or gods; which religion [if any] is the true one; whether the universe was created and, if so, how; the nature of reality; and the mechanisms by which we know [or think we know] anything.

Many of the squabbles around these issues seem to me to be mere verbal hair-splitting. They involve disputes about the meaning and significance of words. They recall the medieval controversies between ‘nominalists’, who said that ‘universals’ such as the abstract concepts of perfect archetypes posited by Plato were simply thoughts inside human minds, and ‘realists’, who maintained that such concepts denoted actual realities which did exist independently of the persons thinking about them.

In that sense, theists who maintain that there is a Creator, and other supernatural beings, are realists, while those who dispute the actual existence of such unverifiable beings outside the minds of those who believe in them are ‘nominalists’.

Taking one of the most profound of these enigmas – where did the universe come from, and why is there something rather than nothing – I am increasingly of the opinion that this is a non-question, because time, space, and existence are all concepts which shed no light on the indisputable fact that we are each aware that we are here. So there is now something, and the question is, was there ever a time when there was nothing? What was there before the Creator God or the Big Bang? Put in these terms, the question is unanswerable for certain. So why not simply conclude that there may never have been a time or space where there was nothing, and that existence is and always has been, eternal – as we are told by theists to believe God is?

That would dispose of the Creator vs. Big Bang conundrum, and we could all of us – theists and non-theists alike - agree to stop disputing over speculative abstractions, and get on with solving the human-made dire messes which abound in this imperfect world that we find ourselves living in.

But I fear it isn’t going to happen. Too many people have a too big self-important investment in being ‘right’. As the historian A.L. Rowse once said, “those who believe nonsense must expect awkward consequences”. Trouble is, the awkward consequences are all too often visited upon those who don’t believe the nonsense.


Richard W. Symonds said...

To my (imperfect) mind, it would be absurd for anybody to hold a view which they consider to be wrong - so, in that sense, everybody holds views which they consider to be right.

The trick, it seems to me, is to hold views considered to be right at the time, but be prepared to change those views if others appear my plausible.

No easy task for anybody, it seems - especially Sun-standard mental defectives who have no ability to think clearly for themselves.

bwook said...

As a young maths-grad rrom my old college in Mpls, MN, says, "it all adds up!" That's cryptic I know, and I am just popping in at a dead-run to say 'Hullo!'

Chief Constable (/retd/) Wook

ChrisC said...

While most atheists "respect" believers at least to the extent that they do not wish to interfere unduly with their beliefs, the problem of course somes the other way round, with believers frequently seeking to impose their views (or the consequences of their views) on others and/or seek pivileges for themselves simply on account of their beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Two words: Cognitive Dissonance

Jose said...

How possibly can one be right if everything is relative?

Really intelligent people are always assailed by doubts.

My opinion of course.

Terence said...

While I agree that we all do want to be "right" -- as correctly pointed out, no one desires to hold wrong views -- I think the problem doesn't stem from the need to be right, but the degree of certainty we have in our beliefs (the firmness of our belief) and how that relates to the available evidence and critical examination.

Of course, I could be wrong. ;)