There’s an important distinction – one too many critical thinking instructors fail to make – between, on the one hand, what’s likely to be true, and, on the other, what one’d be well advised to believe. 

For example, that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate is highly unlikely. But if Torquemada’s on his way into town, I’d be well advised to believe it. So though 1) “Believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate or you’ll be burned at the stake!” has no probative force whatsoever for the conclusion that 2) Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate – the standard example of an argument ad baculum – it’s pretty close to a slam-dunk argument for 3) I’d be well-advised to believe Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate. The move from (1) to (2) is indeed a fallacy. But the move from (1) to (3) is about as sound as an argument gets.

Moreover, what’s the difference between a law of physics punishing me severely for believing I can fly, and a canonical law burning me at the stake for denying Jesus? In the first case I’m believing a falsehood. In the second I’m believing a truth. But surely what dissuades me in both cases are the consequences of what I believe. And why would we bother believing anything, other than in deference to the anticipated consequences of that belief?! 

I grant that one consequence of believing Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate is believing a falsehood. And if all one cares about is having all and only true beliefs, I can only wish her God’s speed. But as the case of those who failed to become Moriscos or Marranos makes clear, natural selection can deal as unkindly with the truth-obsessed as it does with people who think they can fly. So how was the Inquisition any more cruel than the law of gravity? In fact isn’t this precisely why we say of some people, “He’s a force of nature!”?

Categories: Critical Thinking, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. But don’t leave out of the analysis something that doesn’t require you to believe anything, merely to profess a belief or to keep your mouth shut about a belief you don’t have. It’s called hypocrisy. A much used state of being by university administrators and faculty in the age of cancel culture and DIE (diversity, inclusion and equity).


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