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Lasers or witchcraft?

February 10, 2010


Tact aside, why should we give a fig what primitive tribes think? For that matter, why should we care about the beliefs of our own primitive forebears? Why pay attention to the ignorant, the confused, the superstitious, the unenlightened, the benighted and the backward? We have string theory, vaccines, and lasers; they have witchcraft.

Well, there are worse hobbies, I suppose. We might collect fallacies just as we collect butterflies or antique bottle-caps. And primitive beliefs have a certain pedagogical utility. We can scare our children with them: “study your logic, you don’t want to end up like the Azande tribe.” Finally, don’t forget that looking down on others gives a real boost to one’s self-esteem!

But none of this is taking primitive beliefs seriously, and deep down we know that we should. We have a nagging sense that we are not all that different. Just as our bodies bear the marks of our primitive biological origins—what Darwin famously called ‘the indelible stamp’—so too perhaps our advanced intellects share certain features with those of primitive peoples. The atavistic features have merely been altered and augmented, not discarded. The scientific revolution was no separate creation. And even if we are miles ahead on the path of intellectual evolution, who knows how long that path is? In the grand scheme of things, our advantage may be negligible. Primitive peoples might see our technology as the work of beings of a higher order, but that doesn’t mean we should too.

What could it mean, though, to take primitive beliefs seriously? It certainly cannot mean debasing our own ways of believing and knowing—those simply work too well to be qualified or abandoned. No one seriously thinks that we should teach shamanism in place of science. Any answer that would have us simply adopt a neutral stance toward primitive beliefs and our own is going to be a non-starter.

Perhaps it would help to draw on other, more familiar situations. Is it like taking other people’s aesthetic and gustatory tastes seriously, as when two people respectfully disagree about the merits of Dali or foie gras? Or like case where competent physicists disagree about, say, the black hole information paradox? How the situation between Democrats and Republicans? Perhaps, but note that these are all cases where disagreement is occurring more or less within a single belief-system. (However bizarre their customs, your political opponents aren’t that far gone.) So these cases needn’t tell us much at all about conflict across belief-systems, and they probably don’t.

This, then, is the real issue: short of demoting our own belief-system, what can it mean that other belief-systems should be taken seriously? It’s a really hard problem, and the post-colonial politics surrounding it only make it harder. Partly because of this, people are resort to very blunt tools to get their points across. The conviction that primitive beliefs should be somehow taken seriously gets twisted into the hyperbolic claim that those primitive beliefs, in legends, witches, and spirits, are in every sense just as good as modern science.

Thus are the battle lines regrettably drawn. The question becomes not “How can we respect other belief-systems without demoting science and common sense?” but rather “Should we demote them: yes or no?” Paul Boghossian’s book Fear of Knowledge (Clarendon, 2006, 137 pp.) intervenes in this narrower, polarized debate on the side of science. He wants to show that the arguments of certain philosophers, Richard Rorty in particular, purporting to show that we should demote science to one belief-system among them, really show no such thing. I’m inclined to think Boghossian’s counterarguments are correct and a valuable contribution as far as they go. My concern is that they don’t really get anywhere near the important question, the question of how we can sensibly take primitive beliefs seriously, not whether we should. You might read Boghossian’s book and get the impression that the relevant issues about science and primitive belief have been settled, at least till we have compelling reason think otherwise, when in fact the important questions have hardly even been tackled. This shortcoming is all the more serious in a book designed to present the issues to the general reader.


One way philosophers and lay people alike have traditionally tried to honor the thought that primitive beliefs should be taken seriously is with the thesis that all facts are socially constructed. Thus, we have our facts, they have theirs. It’s with this proposal that Boghossian begins his assault.

“Facts are socially constructed”: there are two ways of thinking about what this might mean. You might think of facts as akin to artifacts, that is, throwing sticks, sculptures, and the like. Or you might think of facts as akin to fictional entities, that is Sherlock Holmes, Middle Earth, etc.

The facts-as-artifacts view faces problems. Surely there were facts about dinosaurs long before we came along to fashion them! And if we can construct the fact that the earth is 5 billion years old, other people can in principle construct the fact that the earth is only 5,000 years old. But how can it be a fact both that the earth is 5 billion years old and that the earth is only 5,000 years old?

The facts-as-fictional-entities view avoids these problems. For dinosaurs to pre-date us, it simply needs to be part of our accepted story that they do. And if we say the earth is 5 billion years old and others say it’s 5,000, well that simply means that the two groups tell different stories about the same thing—no contradiction there.

Actually, these two problems are just a sideshow to the main issue, which is that either way socially constructed facts need to be constructed out of something. It could be other socially constructed facts, but not all the way down. At bottom, the basic building blocks have to be absolute facts, that is facts that are NOT socially constructed. For example, if facts about dinosaurs depend on the facts about what our dinosaur-story says about dinosaurs, what do those facts depend on? Either they don’t depend on anything and they’re absolute or they depend on further facts about some further story, which are themselves dependent on some further story, and so on all the way down. But this latter possibly is hard to even comprehend. Alternatively, if facts are akin to artifacts, how are they made? Most plausibly, the same way other artifacts are made, by artfully arranging pre-existing materials. Indeed, the way philosophers typically argue that facts are socially constructed is by arguing that there is set of pre-existing absolute facts which we then group in ways that suit our particular needs while others group them in a way that suits their needs. For example, when we talk about giraffes, the concept ‘giraffe’ is basically just a convenient way of grouping together a bunch of basic facts, say facts at the subatomic level, in a way that makes sense for us. If there were intelligent amoebas, no doubt they would find other, very different groupings convenient. But either way both of us would be choosing from among the same set of basic, absolute facts constructed by neither of us.

Faced with these problems, perhaps it’s not so much that primitive beliefs are just as true as our own as that they are just as rational: they make just as much sense even if they’re false. You can make this idea more precise by noting that we justify our beliefs by adverting to epistemic principles, principles about what it is correct to believe on the basis of which evidence. To give you the idea, a relatively simple epistemic principle might be something like: “If it seems to you that there is a dog before you, and you have no reason to believe otherwise (you haven’t taken a hallucinogen, are not in funhouse, etc.) then you are justified in believing that there is a dog before you, with the caveat that new evidence may require you to revise this belief.” We arrive at beliefs about what is true by applying, if only implicitly, principles that tell us when a belief is justified. More importantly, our only access to the truth, assuming we have such access at all, is via the particular epistemic principles that we accept.

So we have our epistemic principles and the primitive tribes have theirs. At this point, though, doubt creeps in: whose are the right ones? Is it possible to show ours correct, theirs incorrect? Well, we can’t just step back and ask whose principles yield beliefs that are really true, for the only access we have to the truth is via the principles that we accept, and it’s not yet clear that those principles are indeed the correct ones. Similarly, we can’t just step back and ask whose principles are rational. For principles tell us not just what is true but what is rational or justified, so the only access we have to what is rational is again via the principles that we accept. But as before it’s not clear that those principles are the rational ones—in fact, that’s precisely the question we’re trying to answer!

It now looks as though there can be no common ground between us and the primitives. Neither of us is able to justify our respective principles to the other. What’s worse, neither of us is able to justify our respective principles to ourselves. The most we can do is repeat to ourselves that they are principles that we accept, and no matter who is saying it, that’s not saying much. We are each safely, sadly cocooned in our own belief-systems, equally isolated from reality and from each other.

Boghossian thinks he has a way out of this predicament. He thinks we can after all justify our own principles over those of the primitives. This is because it’s actually perfectly kosher to use your principles to justify themselves, but only provided you don’t have legitimate reason to doubt those principles in the first place. And, Boghossian thinks, simply seeing that primitives have different epistemic principles gives us no legitimate reason to doubt our own. What would give us grounds for doubt is if those primitive principles were to yield a science and technology more impressive than our own, but they clearly don’t. Again, lasers…or witchcraft?


It’s easy to come away from Boghossian’s book with a kind of empty confidence. You’ve been reassured on issues about which you never in serious doubt. Whew, you don’t really have to give credence to Zuni creation myths! Meanwhile the real issues remain untouched. It’s almost certainly true that we have no reason to doubt our accepted belief-system, at least where this means doubting in the straightforward “fact or falsehood?” sense. But this just shows that the doubt we feel belongs to some other, more elusive category. For we certainly do feel doubt of some kind when we see that there are radically different, if unenlightened ways of seeing the world. How could we not? But Boghossian’s book invites us to simply dismiss this feeling instead of bringing it into the light. This task is important but, as I say, it’s also extremely difficult. Most of our well-worn metaphors will probably have only limited utility. The most useful vocabulary may be that of organic rather than constructed things. Perhaps what it’s closest to is seeing that the human species, however special, is still just a race of apes. As with every other creature, God never touched us. But properly viewed this fact doesn’t debase us and it doesn’t elevate chimps into peers either. Likewise our science is not touched by Promethean fire—nothing is—but this doesn’t reduce it to the level of mere opinion, and it doesn’t raise superstition to the level of science either.

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