Hapi, God of the Nile

May 22, 2010

New Scientist has a somewhat silly article on the origins of denialism. It is probably worth agreeing, at least, with this completely realistic hypothesis:

Here’s a hypothesis: denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Most denialists are simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right.

Okay, sure. Denial is largely a product of the way normal people think. Among many problems with this “hypothesis,” however, is the tacit implication is that there are non-normal people who somehow see the light, or who somehow have more acute powers of perception and inference.

Another problem with this hypothesis is its fixation on a psychological explanation. It’s fine to offer up a psychological diagnoses, of course, but it trivializes the problem to suggest, somehow, that denial is a manifestation of “how we think psychologically.”

But yes, denial is largely a product of how all people think. My own view of denial, I’d like to believe, a little less facile: denial is largely a result of vagueness in reasoning.

Disclaimer: I don’t generally traffic in the explanatory, but I do dabble.

It seems to me that denial, whatever it is, is not properly understood in psychological terms, but rather should be understood in coherentist terms. And it seems to me, at least, that denial, insofar as it can be identified as a phenomenon, often amounts to divergence in inferential standards. It’s not simply that I may refuse to validate some observation that conflicts with a deeply held belief of mine, it’s that I have to make inferential leaps from that observation to the point at which these observations hang together with the rest of the often tightly woven observations and inferences that otherwise make-up my body of beliefs. Moreover, sometimes it’s the case that there is a direct conflict not in observations themselves, but in what counts as an acceptable inference.

Here, for instance, is an incredibly widespread manifestation of denial: religion.

There can be no greater community of deniers than those who insist on believing in some supernatural God. Much as the evidence might lead the rational among us to believe that there is nothing supernatural going on, the evidence is not — and can never be — enough to overcome the powerful tug of the appeal to ignorance and the slicing-dicing of Occam’s razor. If an interlocutor just flat-out rejects that either of these count as fallacies, then almost no amount of fact presentation will bring them to see the light. Just think about how hard it is to try to persuade the true believer that God doesn’t exist.

Now then, the above are but two, among many, fantastic and important principles of reasoning, but (a) they’re not uncontroversial, (b) it isn’t always clear when they are to apply, and (c) they can be undermined by other principles of inference. Hashing out problems in these areas is most of what philosophers do all day long.

I’m not at all suggesting that one throw up one’s hands and abandon the principles of reason. I’m only saying that the so-called problem of “denialism” runs deep, and it’s not a psychological problem. It’s a problem associated with what counts as an acceptable inference, given the huge range of other acceptable inferences that more-or-less make up our body of background knowledge. That’s where we are with most of our political discussions; and it’s also where we are with regard to most of the rest of our so-called “denialism” discussions as well.

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