Ask yourself: Do I want this to be true?
My previous blog on Steven Pinker provoked a welcome set of responses, including a few that implied I was only arguing against Pinker because I didn’t really want his theory to be true. This may well be the case, but if so, I am not the only one.
As Matthew Taylor put it yesterday: ”On a personal level, as someone who has all my adult life said that my reason for being is ‘to change the world’, the news that the world may be changing perfectly well without my intervention is potentially soul destroying. This is why I cling on to the idea that a great deal of the credit for the world getting better in modern times is due to those people who insisted that without action it could only get worse.”
Pinker made a smilar point when he said, “for some people, good news is bad news.”
And today I notice the Guardian’s George Monbiot is at it too: I won’t deny it: my first reaction on seeing the results of Chris Goodall’s research into our use of resources was: “I don’t want this to be true.” Obviously, I’d like to see our environmental impacts reduced, as swiftly and painlessly as possible. But if his hypothesis is right – that economic growth has been accompanied by a reduction in our consumption of stuff and might even have driven it – this would put me in the wrong. I’m among those who have argued that a decline in our use of resources requires less economic activity, or at least a transition to a steady-state economy.
What is going on here? I suspect it is just a healthy first step in argument, before you pretend to dispassionately seek the truth, to ask yourself- what do I WANT the outcome to be? I think you’ll find that more often than not you want the argument to turn out a certain way.
One response is that this kind of loading of your rational dice is a fault, but is it possible to give a more humane assessment?
Rather than assuming that reason drives values, what if our values drive our reason? Should we subject our desires to reason, or is it more honest to use reason to justify our desires.
David Hume, no less, seemed to see all this(and much more) coming when he said: “Reason is, AND OUGHT TO BE, the slave of the passions.”
And I fear I want that to be true.