Sunday, 22 January 2012

Evidence Based?

There have been a number of recent letters from humanists in the JEP, mostly adopting a rather belligerent tone, and calling for beliefs to be "evidence based". And yet there are a number of beliefs which we all take for granted, as basic axioms, or "common ground", as the lawyers would state it, which philosophers know cannot be proven but have to be taken for granted. These cannot be "evidence based", and yet they form the basis for living together on this planet; without taking these assumptions largely for granted, it would be impossible for society to function. I do wish some of those letter writers studied a few philosophers before putting pen to paper, and thereby shooting themselves in the foot.

These assumptions were enumerated long ago by G.K. Chesterton in his article "philosophy for the schoolroom", and here they are, as he put them, because I probably could not do it better, and certainly without the wit that he brings to the argument. But they have been the subject of debate and concern among professional philosophers from Plato to David Hume, from Hume to Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. Here they are - matters which are not "evidence based", and can never be:

All of us believe in St. Paul's Cathedral; most of us believe in St. Paul. But let us clearly realize this fact, that we do believe in a number of things which are part of our existence, but which cannot be demonstrated. Leave religion for the moment wholly out of the question. All sane men, I say, believe firmly and unalterably in a certain number of things which are unproved and unprovable. Let us state them roughly.

Every sane man believes that the world around him and the people in it are real, and not his own delusion or dream. No man starts burning London in the belief that his servant will soon wake him for breakfast. But that I, at any given moment, am not in a dream, is unproved and unprovable. That anything exists except myself is unproved and unprovable.

All sane men believe that this world not only exists, but matters. Every man believes there is a sort of obligation on us to interest ourselves in this vision or panorama of life. He would think a man wrong who said, "I did not ask for this farce and it bores me. I am aware that an old lady is being murdered down-stairs, but I am going to sleep." That there is any such duty to improve the things we did not make is a thing unproved and unprovable.

All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self, or ego, which is continuous. There is no inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount "I" is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.

Lastly, most sane men believe, and all sane men in practice assume, that they have a power of choice and responsibility for action.

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