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Propensity To Believe

Agnosticism is quite often the best policy. This was the principle that governed the ancient skeptics, the Pyrrhonists, and it is a principle that I suggest ought to be employed more often, both in everyday discourse and even, occasionally, in the professional academic community. The propensity toward belief is especially evident in ordinary situations where many claims are believed without proper critical analysis and sometimes on hearsay alone (e.g. gossip). People seem to be more inclined to assent to rather than suspend belief when evidence is lacking. Some have suggested an evolutionary explanation for this phenomenon. The idea goes something like this. Within early human tribes, all knowledge claims, especially those with survival-value, were passed down orally. If these humans did not uncritically accept the claims of their elders and their peers, they were less likely to survive. I don’t wish to comment on the validity of this explanation. However, this does foreshadow a potential problem within academia itself.

In the past 150 years, the theory of evolution has grown to be more successful in the field of biology than could have ever been imagined by Darwin or his predecessors. It is one of the strongest—most attested—theories in science. This may explain why evolutionary explanations have become popular (perhaps all too popular) in other fields as well, including my own field of philosophy. Our society seems to be obsessed with the evolutionary meta-narrative: it is invoked to explain everything from ethics to language. And I wonder if this is not simply a case where our propensity to believe—and with that our desire for solutions—has become a bit too strong. Perhaps we should be more willing to admit that either (1) we simply don’t have any solutions or (2) our solutions are not quite as satisfying as we would like. Both are preferable to uncritically accepting explanations on account of the fact that similar explanations have been successful in another field. There is nothing wrong with agnosticism.

This thinking also applies to other fields, like history. Very often there is little or no evidence for a given event in history. Perhaps that is because there are very few sources available (written or otherwise) or because it is unclear how reliable our sources are. And while it is the job of the historian to speculate, there seems to be little emphasis within the historical community that, in many cases, we simply have no idea what happened or how it happened. And while it may be reasonable to assent to the belief that seems most plausible based on the available sources, no such thing is required. Agnosticism is always an option.

I like Thomas Nagel’s response upon rejecting all current proposals regarding the existence of our advanced intellectual capacities. What is his alternative? What is his answer?

The answer is that I don’t have one, and I don’t need one in order to reject all existing proposals as improbable. One should not assume that the truth about this [or any particular] matter has already been conceived of—or hold onto a view just because no one can come up with a better alternative. Belief isn’t like action. One doesn’t have to believe anything, and to believe nothing is not to believe something.

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