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                                             Facts and fairy dust

                                                                                                     AC Grayling

                                                                                                  July 10, 2007


Blogging on CiF is like visiting the tropics: swarms of gnats come out at dusk (the shadows of anonymity) to pierce flesh with the proboscises of disagreement.

An odd asymmetry results; most of the bloggers on CiF appear to discuss ideas, whether to criticise or expound them, whereas many of those who post responses mount personal attacks on the bloggers, often with a degree of venom that prompts concern over those posters' mental stability or at least security. This is especially apparent among those stung by criticisms of religion and religious belief: the charity, the turned cheek, the love even of sinners, enjoined by those verses in their holy texts not dedicated to encouragement of smiting and destroying, seem to have been much overshadowed by the venomous.

Yesterday being a day on which the press reported efforts by the Taliban to close schools in Afghanistan by shooting schoolgirls and their teachers, the insecure defenders of superstition might expect a return to the familiar fray by this blogger.

Instead they are, with due diffidence, to be offered a view about epistemology, and a view about ethics. (To offer a view, in case anyone does not see the point, is to engage in a conversation, not to legislate or dictate terms. The simplest and least requirement governing responding views is that they need to respect the ethics of rational discourse, a lesson some CiF posters might do well to learn.)

If knowledge is defined as true belief, in which the belief is arrived at on the basis of watertight justification, then the scope of knowledge is limited to domains over which that species of justification is obtainable, and where strict constraints are placed on Gettier-type defeaters for the verification procedures that apply. In the case of knowledge in formal domains (mathematics and logic), if "knowledge" is the right term, the luxury is that the justification procedures are themselves constitutive of what is known. In the case of the spatiotemporal universe which empirical experience is ambitious to explore, most knowledge is (to employ Bertrand Russell's useful distinction) knowledge by description, not acquaintance. At its most responsible and secure, descriptive knowledge is either inferred from, or rationally controlled by, empirical acquaintance at its root. What this, in short, means is that in an arena of open-textured enquiry where a great deal remains yet to be investigated and understood, hypotheses have to be disciplined by properly rational grounds for them. "Ratio- nal" means what it says: a proportioning of the hypothesis to the grounds for advancing it, a ratio between the degree of credibility and the strength of the evidence.

Take a classic case. Until very recently in human history there was widespread belief in the existence of a class of supernatural agencies variously known as fairies, gnomes, goblins, pixies, elves and sprites. They were "supernatural" because their properties and powers did not lie under the government of natural laws of physics and biology: some of them could fly, be or become invisible, cast magic spells, make people disappear if they stood in "fairy rings" in woodland groves, and much besides. The folklores of different cultures conceived of and named these beings in different ways; for example, Ireland's leprechauns (and their very troublesome thieving relatives, cluricauns) were said to be fairies, though leprechauns take the form of tiny wizened old men, generally inebriated, though not enough to prevent them from making shoes, which is their chief occupation; whereas the fairies of England were (somewhat true to the sources of their main avatar in sublimated Victorian eroticism) naked or diaphanously dressed miniature nubile young female shapes with dragonfly wings and pre-Raphaelite hair. These latter were seen, even "photographed", and believed in not only by the majority of countryfolk, who blamed them for missing pins, agues and other minor troubles, but by such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who seemed himself to lack the powers of logical deduction he attributed to his chief literary creation.

No doubt there are still people about (will we hear from any here?) who believe in fairies (the little dragonfly-wing ones), if only after the manner of the charming old Irish lady who, when asked whether she believed in leprechauns, said, "I do not; but they are there anyway".

But if so, they will be of that class of people whose desire to believe in fairies is so strong, so rooted in psychological need or shaping by (for example) inculcations in childhood, that they cannot bring themselves, or allow themselves, to think rationally (proportionally, fitting grounds to hypothesis) about their conviction.

For to do so they would need to converse with themselves as follows: First, let me be clear about what it is whose existence I here hypothesise. What properties do I ascribe to these entities? On what grounds do I ascribe them? What would have to be false or different about the regularities observed in nature and described in terms of powerfully established theories in physics and biology, for it to be even minimally conceivable that there could be the powers and properties defining of these entities? What actions and intentions do I ascribe to these entities? How do these fit with the historical and sociological facts of human existence? If there were such beings and they did such things, how would they fare in (say) a human court of law, or merely before the bar of human kindness and generosity? And so on.

It is of course open to fairyians (or perhaps fairyists, or fairylims?) to say that fairies are so mysterious and various, so enshrouded in obscurity, so beyond human comprehension (though not enough for us to know, with utter conviction, that they exist, of course, and even what they want - enough conviction, when occasion demands, to kill a few afairyists or different-fairyists) that it is pointless to engage in any effort to understand them and make them consistent with the worldview by which we daily make our toast, catch our buses, use our laptops, cure our coughs, fly to Ibiza, etc etc, in almost all of which cases we are jolly glad that strange and supernatural things do not happen - for example, as we come in to land at Heathrow, where the steady and predictable laws of physics, and reliable principles of engineering are so vastly preferable to the suppositious ministrations of goblins. Who would rather depend, in such a case, on what can be gleaned from the Brothers Grimm, in preference to the science of aeronautics ("twice iota and the minimum angle of glide")?

The point to extract from these thoughts is that every belief or hypothesis depends for its respectability on how it was arrived at, how open it is to test, and how it consists with what is powerfully established and repeatedly (a billion times repeatedly) confirmed in our common sense and scientific views of the world. Beliefs about fairies are anecdotal and fanciful, emerge from different folkloric traditions rooted in the ignorant past, and were mainly sustained by the unlettered, though they attracted their Conan Doyles. Had the institutions of political power needed belief in them for governing the populace, motivating them to war, or any other such purpose useful to rulers, there would today be official Fairy Rings, an Archgoblin of Chanctonbury, and daily readings of Hans Christian Andersen in schools.

But of course, the fairies had competition. Until the Church of England got going with its
primary schools in the 19th century, largely as it happens to extirpate this rival to the credulity it required for itself, belief in fairies was commonplace and universal, a fact now forgotten, so successful was C of E elementary education. The church achieved this more by demonising folkloric beliefs than by offering rational analysis of them, and helping people to proportion evidence to them. This last would, presumably, have proved too swingeing in its result. But it certainly prompts a hopeful thought...

Is there anyone alive today above the age of nine, and halfway sane, who would assign a prior probability of 50% to the existence of fairies on the ground that "we do not know whether or not there are fairies"? Is there anyone who satisfies these conditions who seriously thinks that we do not know that there are no fairies?

And so to the ethics point. In debates that crucially affect the wellbeing of the world, ideas and beliefs should be open to tough challenge and hard discussion. Let someone state a view, and let the view be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, no holds barred, and no pleas of offence, hurt feelings, self-proclaimed sensitivities, "sacredness" or any other excuse allowed to stand in the way. But with a strictly governed exception, namely, an office-holder speaking ex-officio, let no individual be the target of attack, and even then neither abuse nor ad hominem attack.

There is no excuse for ill manners and insults, though of course there is an explanation: usually, the impotence and weakness of the insulter and his or her case. Insult an idea or an institution, by all means, if you have serious grounds to do so; but not individuals: that is the bottom line.

Some observance of this would make debate on CiF threads more pleasant than they sometimes succeed in being. And some reflection on the above epistemological points might just possibly send some posters on these threads "homeward", as the lovely Scottish song has it, "to think again": which would be, by far, an even greater boon.


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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