S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:-
He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.
His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.
~Tolstoy, quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
In old times, whenever a philosopher was assailed for some particularly tough absurdity in his system, he was wont to parry the attack by the argument from the divine omnipotence. ‘Do you mean to limit God’s power?’ he would reply: ‘do you mean to say that God could not, if he would, do this or that?’ This retort was supposed to close the mouths of all objectors of properly decorous mind. The functions of the bradleian absolute are in this particular identical with those of the theistic God. Suppositions treated as too absurd to pass muster in the finite world which we inhabit, the absolute must be able to make good ‘somehow’ in his ineffable way. First we hear Mr. Bradley convicting things of absurdity; next, calling on the absolute to vouch for them quand même. Invoked for no other duty, that duty it must and shall perform.
~William James, The Pluralistic Universe
If we reflect upon the various ideals of education that are prevalent in the different countries, we see that what they all aim at is to organize capacities for conduct. This is most immediately obvious in Germany, where the explicitly avowed aim of the higher education is to turn the student into an instrument for advancing scientific discovery. The German universities are proud of the number of young whom they out every year, –not necessarily men of any original force of intellect, but men so trained to research that when their professor gives them an historical or philological thesis to prepare, or a bit of laboratory work to do, with a general indication as to the best method, they can go off by themselves and use apparatus and consult sources in such a way as to grind out the requisite number of months some little pepper-corn of new truth worthy of being added to the store of extant human information on that subject. Little else is recognized in Germany as a man’s title to academic advancement than his ability to show himself an efficient instrument of research.
~ William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals
Filed under Academia, Books
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change minds. In fact, quite the opposite…when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely change their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Fact…were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”
~Joe Keohane, “How Facts Backfire”, quoted in Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists
I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn; whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe.
~Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir
When the inevitable topic of consciousness is approached in the light of modern brain research, the experienced student has come to brace himself for the mellifluous intonations of someone’s personal experience and ideas on the matter, as opposed to data.
~Gazzaniga & LeDoux, The Integrated Mind, p. 141, quoted in Tulving’s “Memory and Consciousness”
I daresay the statement holds true today as well.
It is a significant fact that in order to appreciate the peculiar place of habit in activity we have to betake ourselves to bad habits, foolish idling, gambling, addiction to liquor and drugs. When we think of such habits, the union of habit with desire and with propulsive power is forced upon us. When we think of habits in terms of walking, playing a musical instrument, typewriting, we are much given to thinking of habits as technical abilities existing apart from our likings and as lacking in urgent impulsion. We think of them as passive tools waiting to be called into action from without. A bad habit suggests an inherent tendency to action and also a hold, command over us. It makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do. It overrides our formal resolutions, our conscious decisions. When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit.
~John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct
For what it’s worth, this quote is relevant to recent debates over Jason Stanley’s defense of intellectualism. Dewey would say Stanley’s arguments apply only to “technical” aspects of skill; the “propulsive power” at the heart of habits is surely not “intellectual” at its core.
The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again.
~Dan Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking