The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
[George Orwell, 1984
In Robert M. Pirsig’s generally mis-appreciated work of intellectual exploration, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he speaks of several important truths about human nature. Perhaps the most important of them is this one:
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
Now, Pirsig had his own beliefs and biases, some of which are implied by the material that follows that ringing statement. However, the observation itself is critical: It is the introduction of dissent that causes the hardening of beliefs into dogmas.
In his compilation of essays titled Heretics, Gilbert Keith Chesterton elucidates this process:
Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape. We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.
The conclusion of that amazing paragraph has become famous, owing to Giorgia Meloni’s citation of it in a recent speech. Yet it omits something of immense importance, or perhaps leaves it for the reader to discover for himself. Perhaps it’s most openly implied by this sentence:
It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them.
I can almost hear Bishop Berkeley (“The tree’s not a tree, when there’s no one out on the quad!”) and Samuel Johnson (“I refute it thus”) dueling as I write. For what, ultimately, does Chesterton intend reasonable, as he uses it above, to mean? Only that the processes of reason are tools, not immutable truths that can never steer you wrong. Your premises are all-important – and your premises, by their very nature, are impossible to prove. If you get to choose whatever premises you prefer, you can assert or dispute anything.
We have the great Clive Staples Lewis expounding on this very point:
If by Reason we mean the process actually employed by Gaius and Titius when engaged in debunking (that is, the connecting by inference of propositions, ultimately derived from sense data, with further propositions), then the answer must be that a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so. And no less rational. Neither choice is rational — or irrational — at all. [From The Abolition of Man, of course]
And we have this, from the greatest of all speculative-fiction writers:
Logic is a feeble reed, friend. “Logic” proved that airplanes can’t fly and that H-bombs won’t work and that stones don’t fall out of the sky. Logic is a way of saying that anything which didn’t happen yesterday won’t happen tomorrow. [Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road]
Great minds really do think alike, don’t they?
Since the mid-Nineties, I’ve been engaged in a great philosophical struggle, the greatest in all of history. (And you thought I was just trying to make a little money by writing books.) It centers on a proposition that nearly everyone would agree with – and on disputing it as well:
But it’s okay to disagree,
If you’re willing to accept the consequences.
You can’t study physics – especially general relativity, which was my specialty – without being forced to confront that pair of seemingly opposed statements and accepting both.
The physicist doesn’t ride out to battle, visor lowered and lance poised, to impose his beliefs about reality on anyone…at least, not if he’s an honest man. He merely explores their implications for other properties of matter and energy, does his damnedest to design experiments that will test his inferences, executes them if he can, and ponders the results. That’s science: the refusal to insist that we know anything with perfect, unquestionable certainty…coupled to the determination to learn more anyway!
The greatest thinker America has yet produced said that it’s quite all right to question everything. He capped his statement by saying “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” (Thomas Jefferson)
To return to the Chesterton citation, when he wrote:
Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.
…I doubt that he actually expected people to go to war to establish that those things are never to be questioned. Rather, he was defending his right, and the concurrent right of others, to believe that reality is real – objectively true and reliable as such – and to speak and act on that basis.
Yet to question it all, and to be prepared to confront evidence to the contrary, must remain a vital and protected activity.
I can’t imagine what you’re thinking as you read the above, Gentle Reader. “Porretto’s in one of his moods again,” most likely. Yes, I do get them. But I value them more than you might think “reasonable.” Among other things, their “what ifs” generate books. This one is at the root of three novelettes and four full-length novels: the Futanari Saga, which I’m minded to regard as the most important of all my fictions.
There are evils abroad, no question about it. They currently hold a great deal of sway over us. But there are good things as well. Some of them are rising to challenge the evils. They trumpet our cause in voices that resound like a chorus of angels marching to war.
That’s a lot of words (and far too many quotes) for it all to come down to a statement of reassurance. Yet that’s all they do.
Yes, the Sun will rise tomorrow. Yes, two and two make four, and the leaves on the trees are green in summer. Yes, reality is real, even though some may question it, and though we must allow them to do so. Be not afraid.
Thank you. There are too many times I end up doubting the evidence of my senses after reading the news.
Beautiful, Francis, just beautiful. It’s fulminations such as this that first attracted me to Philosophy and Theology (rightly understood, nearly the same thing, for who lies behind both?)
Besides: Chesterton, Heinlein, & Lewis all in one short commentary? How could I resist?