Sunday, March 30, 2014

In Defence of Unsophistication

This (well, most of it, anyway) came up in my Google Plus stream yesterday:

It is no defense of superstition and pseudoscience to say that it brings solace and comfort to people [and that therefore we "elitists" should not claim to know better and to take it away from the less sophisticated.]
If solace and comfort are how we judge the worth of something, then consider that tobacco brings solace and comfort to smokers; alcohol brings it to drinkers; drugs of all kinds bring it to addicts; the fall of cards and the run of horses bring it to gamblers; cruelty and violence bring it to sociopaths. Judge by solace and comfort only and there is no behavior we ought to interfere with.
Isaac Asimov, The Humanist
Mr. Asimov was perfectly correct in saying that solace and comfort are not the sole standard by which we should judge behavior. But what this quote lacks is any indication of the standards by which we should judge. The standard that comes immediately to my mind, that of unwarranted and/or unjust harm or cost to others, is independent of whether or not the behavior that caused it is rooted in superstition, pseudoscience or some other form of irrationality. In this regard, superstition and pseudoscience do not, in and of themselves, define "behavior we ought to interfere with." Or to my way of looking at it, even behavior that we have an affirmative right to interfere with. The simple fact that a belief can be demonstrated to be false, or that it commonly understood to be, is not enough reason to campaign against it. Smokers, drinkers, addicts, gamblers and sociopaths, while they may be disagreeable people, are not automatically barred from solace and comfort. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs, the fall of cards, the run of horses, cruelty and violence should not be interfered with simply because we don't like the people who engage in them, but because we have identified a harm that is being visited upon people unwillingly. If a sociopath can somehow indulge in cruelty and violence without bringing hurt to the unwilling or breaking the law, what business is it of mine? Therefore solace and comfort need not be a defense against a charge of superstition and pseudoscience because it is no indictment of a person's solace and comfort to say that it is rooted in superstition and pseudoscience.

This is not to say, however, that given solace and comfort, all things are permissible. Or that all beliefs are of equal merit or worth. It is simply an argument for defining beliefs that we should take away from "the less sophisticated" and "behavior we ought to interfere with" by a more consequential standard than whether or not we, as the self-determined intellectual élite, understand its genesis to be rational. The fact that we may know better than those less sophisticated than ourselves does not grant us authority to dictate to them what they should understand about the world. If it is important to us what they believe, then we should be prepared, not simply to debunk their superstition and pseudoscience, but to demonstrate to them, on their terms, that we can provide the solace and comfort they sought in them just as well.

P.S.: Part of the problem with quotes, perhaps especially those found on the Internet, is that divorced from the remainder of the context in which they were first made may or may not mean what we understand them to mean. I do not know where this quote by Asimov first appeared, and so have not read the whole of the work in which it was included. One thing that I have noted, though, is that when many secular people post this, the section between the brackets [] is absent. it was presented to me this way, and so even though I have supplied to quote in its entirety, I bracketed the section that had been missing.

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