Stephen Law – On Beliefs, Baloney, and Intellectual Black Holes at the Swindon Festival of Literature 2017

We like to believe that we’re set strong and stable in our opinions and beliefs, don’t we?  In truth our so-called certainties are built on feet of blancmange.  There exist a multitude of external mechanisms  that be used to try to suck us into ‘intellectual black holes’ i.e. belief systems based on demonstrable fallacies.

Stephen Law is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of London and editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal, Think.  He came to the Swindon Festival of Literature, in concert with the Swindon Philosophical Society, last night to talk about his most recent book: “Believing Bulls**t: How not to get sucked into an intellectual black hole.”

What are the best mechanisms for shaping belief?  This was one of the first questions that he posed to the Swindon audience.  The suggestions offered included  pier pressure, emotive manipulation, isolation and repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition (etc.)  What the audience were able to broadly agree on was that reasoned argument was by far the worse way to try to change someone’s beliefs.  This is in line with the thoughts of many post-modern philosophers who consider Reasoning to be just another mechanism (and an inefficacious one at that).

Stephen Law disagrees.  He thinks Reason should be top of our list of ways to shape belief.  He argues that Reasoning is different because it strongly favours beliefs that are true.  Cogent argument is sensitive to the truth.  As a result Reason cuts both ways so that the “pupil” can use reason against the “teacher” and both “pupil” and “teacher” on a level playing field.  You have to be very sure of the substance of your argument to rely on pure, unadorned Reason.  All the other mechanisms used to shape belief rely on the persons’ filter of Reason and Critical Faculty being disengaged.

Law argued strongly that young people should be taught how to think autonomously and critically, encouraged to ask a barrage of “Whys” from an early age.  He thinks that a child’s guileless curiosity should be treasured however wearing it might feel.  Then, and only then, can they hope to develop an immunity to the cant, anecdotal argument and sly indoctrination that adults are subjected to on a daily basis.  He even sited evidence that if you teach 5 year olds group critical thinking it improves their capacity for learning in general.

Can you hope to fight the gravitational pull of Intellectual Black Holes using pure Reason?  Stephen Law admitted at the end of his lecture that this is slightly unrealistic.  The other mechanisms are powerful and it would be naive to think that we can persuade people with Reason alone.  But basing the foundations of any argument on Reason should hopefully mean that if and when these other crass ornaments are cast down all that will be left – hopefully – is the unadorned truth.

Stephen Law’s books – including ‘The Philosophy Gym’, ‘The War for Children’s Minds’ and ‘Believing Bulls**t’– are available from all good book retailers.

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