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Useful is better than true

October 23, 2014
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To reflect a bit more on astrology…I wonder why exactly my mother should embrace modern cosmology and reject Hindu astrology. Would it make even the slightest improvement in her life? Would she have gotten higher grades on her medical exams if she weren’t a devout Hindu? Would her medical practice suddenly become more effective? Even if you could show that abandoning Hinduism would bring her some benefits, I’m not sure how to weigh it against the costs. As I said before, Hinduism is useful and beneficial to her. Scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily count more than personal experience, and in this case it’s perfectly okay to reject the former for the latter.

I’m reminded of these passage from Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Natural Reflections (emphasis added):

 The tendency to retain one’s beliefs in the face of what strikes others as clear disconfirmation appears to be a very general phenomenon. It is not restricted to the naïve or uneducated, nor is it altogether eradicated by scientific training or good-faith efforts at objectivity. Once we have framed an explanation of some puzzling phenomenon, we are strongly inclined to be most alert to what confirms it. The physician will tend to find alternative diagnoses of a set of symptoms implausible; the scholar will find different interpretations of a text strained.

Although the tendency to belief-persistence is often clearly disadvantageous to the believer, it cannot be considered simply an intellectual defect or pathology. Rather, it must be seen as fundamentally ambivalent in its operations. Sometimes, in some ways, the tendency is personally limiting or injurious. At other times, in other ways, it is advantageous, ensuring the stability of our empirical generalizations and preventing the possibly costly volatility of our ideas, impressions, and related behaviors.

And later on she critiques the idea that religion should be promoted only because of its putative psychological benefits:

It could be maintained that scholars and scientists are obliged to give people the benefit of their discoveries about the primitive psycho-biological springs of religious ideas and practices. But it could also be maintained that, as scholars and scientists, they are obliged to act in accord with the knowledge they have of the positive value of religious ideas and practices, especially since it is a value that they have good reason to think is not only individual and subjective but communal and substantive in its effect. This latter sort of empirically grounded recognition of the value of (other people’s) religious convictions is not the same as “liberal pluralism”, “multiculturalism”, or “cultural relativism.” But is it not altogether different from them either.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    October 29, 2014 1:49 pm

    Really meaty stuff here. I like.

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