Friday, January 22, 2010

The Suspension of Belief

You may think I've mistitled that, but no, not really. Suppose I put to you two ways to say a common sentiment:
  1. All that glitters is not gold.
  2. Not all that glitters is gold.
Now, put aside all notions of poetic rhythm or provenance. (Or that the original version in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice had "glisters" instead of "glitters." The former comes from Dutch, while the latter comes from Norse. In our day, the Norse version has entirely displaced the Dutch version, but in Shakespeare's day, they both had currency. Or at least so Shakespeare would have us believe.) Does either of these seem "righter" to you than the other?

I've put little quizlets like this to various people and they seem to fall mostly into two groups. One group of people can't see anything at all to recommend one over the other. Moreover, when the particular distinguishing feature is pointed out, they either don't see it or can't see why anyone would care. (You might, if you fall into this group, see if you can figure out before reading on what this distinguishing feature is, if you don't already know.)

The second group, of course, sees a logical distinction between the two and what's more, they're irritated that there's a mismatch between intent and wording. What's still more, they're irritated that the first group doesn't acknowledge this. To this group, the above two sentences are logically equivalent to the following:
  1. All glittery things are non-gold.
  2. Some glittery things are non-gold.
A quick glance at the script for Merchant of Venice indicates that Shakespeare chose the first wording ("All that glitters...") but his meaning is clearly the second. Does this bother you?

OK, that's not really all that important, as we all know what Shakespeare meant. Here's another one:
  1. I don't believe we have a coherent plan for the Middle East.
  2. I believe we don't have a coherent plan for the Middle East.
Obviously, when it's presented this baldly, it's clear what the difference between this two (especially, I hope, in light of the previous example), but I can't count the number of times that people have interpreted #1 (or minor variations thereof) as #2. And honestly, I don't think it's because they can't think logically. I think it's because they're impatient with disbelief.

Nowhere is this more evident than in politics. It's practically a cliché to demand politicians give their position on some issue or another, to the point that it's considered a weakness if they can't immediately spit one out. While I'm all for politicians being prepared for new situations (and as a by-product, for questions from the press), is having a response for all such questions really preferable to being able to suspend belief when the situation warrants? We've seen the dangers that feigned certainty can bring. And it's not as though suspension of belief necessarily means suspension of action. We can act rationally on uncertainty just as well as we can act on strong belief.

As prominent as it is in politics, though, this rejection of uncertainty permeates our whole world, including science, where it has no business. Political truths may last for a generation or two (think about how long the Democratic party has been on the side of civil rights), but scientific truths, once verified, last essentially for eternity, subject only to occasional refinement. Given that, what's the rush to judgment? Why not suspend belief until we know for sure? Impatience with uncertainty is fine as long as it motivates us to reduce it, but not if it forces belief before we're ready.

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