Dangers of Dogmatism

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What we need now is something for which there isn't a precise word; a form of interpretation in which conviction is compatible with the misgiving that should accompany it.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 106


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Dogmatism: unfounded positiveness in matters of opinion; arrogant assertion of opinions as truths.

Dogmatism is an enemy to peace [...] In the present age [...] it is the greatest of the mental obstacles to human happiness.

The demand for certainty is one which is natural to a man, but is nethertheless an intellectual vice. If you take your children for a picnic on a doubtful day, they will demand a dogmatic answer as to whether it will be fine or wet, and be disappointed in you when you cannot be sure.

The same sort of assurance is demanded, in later life, of those who undertake to lead populations into the Promised Land. 'Liquidate the capitalists and the survivors will enjoy eternal bliss.' 'Exterminate the Jews and everyone will be virtuous.' 'Kill the Croats and let the Serbs reign.' 'Kill the Serbs and let the Croats reign.'These are samples of the slogans that have won popular acceptance in our time. Even a modicum of philosophy would make it impossible to accept such blood-thirsty nonesense.

But so long as men are not trained to withhold judgement in the the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans.

To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgement the best discipline is philosophy.

Dogmatism and scepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.

Instead of saying 'I know this', we ought to say 'I more or less know something more or less like this'. It is true that this proviso is hardly necessary as regards the multiplication table, but knowledge in practical affairs has not the certainty or the precision of arithmetic.

Suppose I say 'democracy is a good thing': I must admit, first, that I am less sure of this than I am that two and two is four, and secondly, that 'democracy' is a somewhat vague term which I cannot define precisely. We ought to say, therefore: 'I am fairly certain that it is a good thing if a government has something of the characteristics that are common to the British and American Constitutions', or something of the sort. And one of the aims of education ought to be to make such a statement more effective from a platform than the usual type of political slogan.

Thinking that you know when in fact you don't is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetising diet.

Ancient and medieval authors knew all about unicorns and salamanders; not one of them thought it necessary to avoid dogmatic statements about them because he had never seen one of them.

Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias.

If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do.

If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.

So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

A good way of ridding yourself of certain types of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own [...] If you cannot travel seek out people with whom you disagree, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is not yours.

[Bertrand Russell]
Unpopular Essays ('Philosophy for Laymen', 'An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish'), p.38, 39, 115, 116


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2 comments:

  1. So are you saying that dogmatism in the natural sciences is still respectable--like in arithmetic? And, if so, is not the religious dogmatist not responsible for much of their dogmatism? It was secular society who made it necessary. if i give 3 as the answer to 1+1 i will dogmatically be failed. Should one have to first show that math and hence the natural science method is quazi-empirical before their dogmatism cease and subjective assumptions have value? It seems like you are criticizing the dogmatist on grounds that the scientific method can cure dogmatism but is not the certianty of much natural science born of the scientific method universal--and forced upon people as universal-by academia? All said thanks for you essay. i read it 3 time. i hope the tension i invite does not rupture your positive threshold. Your response would greatly affect the direction of my writing project.

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  2. Hi there, thanks for your thoughts. Firstly, the text above is from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and I am not he!

    I think Russell is pointing to the fact that we are unable to be absolutely certain about most things in this world, and he is cautioning us to not take our "certainties" too literally - to remember that, no matter how convinced we may be of something, we must always allow room for doubt. Certainty is nearly always provisional. In religious terms, certainty is the priviledge of the Creator.

    I think arithmetic - and mathematics in general - is probably one of the few things that we can be certain about. Mathematics springs from our forms of knowledge (time, space & causality) - is a priori - and thus is not reliant on empirical verification. If it were, we could not be certain about it. In this sense, maths is like a system that floats above reality - it is ideal, and can only talk in terms of ideals.

    I'd hazard that the scientific approach to reality generally encourages a dogmatic view of things. Science seems to talk in terms of certainties - of proofs - and yet, because it is based upon empirical experience (a posteriori) it can only ever be provisional.

    I hope this answers your questions, but please keep probing if anything is unclear or seems untrue.

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