JR'S Free Thought Pages
by A C Grayling
It has been well said that one should not be so open-minded that one’s brains fall out. This is a good admonition to those who, for example, pusillanimously declare themselves agnostics when the only rational alternative to belief in the existence of supernatural beings can be atheism. This is because the basis of belief in the existence of gods and goddesses is no different from that for belief in pixies, namely legend and credulity; and the grounds for entertaining the thought that something might exist (footprints, fur snagged on fences, grunting in the night, actually seeing the creature in question bounding upon a hillside), require much better and more consistent supports than the pre-scientific fictions invented by our ancestors to explain what they did not understand.
People forget how strong the belief in the Little People was until quite recently - they were a feature of things well into Victorian times, and even later. They were blamed for much, such as missing pins and curdled milk, the lights seen on the marshes, and various aches and twinges suffered by old ladies. As reason diffused its happy light over the Western hemisphere - and courtesy of the growth of literacy in those same times - belief in pixies and their ilk faded.
But superstition has strong talons; a lady of Cork, literate and generally sensible, was once asked whether she believed in leprechauns, and replied, ‘I do not; but they are there anyway,’ thus beautifully capturing the spirit of agnosticism in all its faint-hearted fence-sitting tendentiousness; for it is premised on the fact that since no one has proved that X does not exist, X might exist, as if this in any way followed, and as if responsible and disciplined intellectual endeavour does not show the fallacy of thinking that, for example, the fact that no one has proved the non-existence of Tolkein’s Hobbits means that they therefore might exist in some Middle Earth after all.
Still: it remains important to be open-minded, though with a disciplined readiness to subject what is offered for our intellectual assent to stringent evaluation by the light of probability and experience. These two latter are indispensable servants of thought. They explain the difference between the assiduity with which some seek the Loch Ness Monster, while no such expense of cameras and microphones, boats and planes, bearded researchers and photo journalists has ever clustered around the possibility that a woodland grove might be the scene of moonlit pixy parties. For the idea of large marine beasts has a plausibility endowed by whales and manatees, while the idea of antique such beasts has its plausibility from sharks and coelacanths, both of them survivors from hideous depths of zoological time.
Oddly, it is the credulous who are least open-minded. They accept dogma, and dogma closes - even indeed punishes - enquiry thereafter. Voltaire says that he honours the man who seeks truth, but despises the man who claims to have found it. That saying touches the essence of the difference exceedingly well, and should be the motto of anyone who aspires to intellectual honesty.
From The Heart of Things 
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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