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1102 PlusCaChange

1102 PlusCaChange

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Published by Richard Ostrofsky

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Published by: Richard Ostrofsky on Feb 17, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Plus ça change . . .
from Richard Ostrofskyof Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed)www.secthoughts.comquill@travel-net.comFebruary, 2011The world changes so quickly these days that it is easy to forget howslowly some things change. Reading up post-modern philosophy, as I waswriting my first book,
Sharing Realities
, I was repeatedly struck by theextent to which French, German and English thought today was still preoccupied and shaped by issues that go back to the days of the FrenchRevolution, if not to the Reformation, if not to the Roman Empire and itsfall. Reading the news each morming, I'm struck repeatedly by the extentto which American foreign policy and global affairs are shaped by mythsand events and conventions that go back hundred and thousands of years.For example, one powerful American myth is its attitude that historydoesn't matter – an attitude that goes back to colonial times – the 18
century and even earlier – when immigration to that portion of the newworld, meant opportunity for religious and political experimentation, rapidaccumulation of wealth, and a fresh start. (To Canadian settlers it meantsomething rather different – a fact that partially explains some differences between the U.S. and Canadian societies today.) Similarly, Frenchthinking is noticeably shaped by memories of the 30-years war and then of Louis XIV, when France was the hegemonic power in Europe. Britishthinking too is shaped my memories of the good old days of Empire in thetime of Queen Victoria, if not to that nation's struggle for unity andautonomy in the days of good Queen Bess. The Russians are stillstruggling to maintain the hard-won centralization and unity achieved byIvan the Terrible, and still playing catch-up ball with Western Europe as inthe days of Peter the Great. The Chinese do not forget their humiliation atthe hands of Western powers in the time of the Opium Wars, nor its ownEmpire at the Ming heyday when it could see no other real civilizationthan itself. One could go on and on this way, for every country in theworld. All have their durable preoccupations, memories and myths.Anyone who thinks that history is a dead subject in this age of modernscience and high technology doesn't understand, doesn't begin tounderstand, the world he's living in.And yet, I believe Americans are right on the whole that the peoples of the world would be better off if they could forget past glories and
grievances to focus more clearly on their current realities and materialinterests – though they themselves are not doing so, and are mad to think this will happen because they want it to.The question I would raise here is this: How is it possible for certainfeatures of our mental lives to be so durable given that knowledge,technology and society itself are changing so rapidly? Why do peoplecling so durably – so stubbornly – to their favorite myths, in the absenceof supporting evidence, and indeed, with a good deal of evidence to thecontrary?To answer these questions, I would begin by drawing a distinction between mere
which express and are vulnerable to empiricalobservation, as against
which are not. If I see a cat sleeping on my bed, I say that the cat is on my bed and believe that this is the case. If thecat wakes up and jumps down my belief is readily changed, and I willhappily change my belief and say the contrary.But when Galileo's observations of the phases of Venus (seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phases_of_Venus) were published andverified, people could not immediately discard their beliefs in Ptolemaicastronomy – for the reason that rotation of the sun around the Earth wasmore than just a belief. Rather, it was a full-fledged verity, in the sensethat people's mental lives and allegiances and thus society itself dependedon it being the case. Mere observation could not immediately alter thecommitments and relationships involved.More generally, we might define a verity as a belief with structuralsignificance – a belief to which people's epistemologies, worldviews andexistential commitments are pinned. With this definition, it is hardlysurprising that we doubt reported facts and observations sooner than our verities. Thus, if Daniel Dennett, a skeptical thinker whom I greatlyrespect, were to report having witnessed the teleportation of a ball or the bending of a spoon by mental power alone, I would still sooner doubtDennett's observations or his sanity than my belief in (what I understandto be) the relationship between physical and mental events. I am not socommitted to these verities as to rule out the possibility that Dennett might be correct, but it would take many more such observations and reports tochange my mind.With this distinction in hand, it becomes entirely understandable thatverities change so slowly, and that people cling to their verities all themore ferociously in the teeth of rapid change. Verities change slowly because they are structural members of their social systems and of people'slives within those systems. Typically, they are also self-confirming: notonly dependent on, but strongly reinforcing an epistemology andauthority-structure which makes it easy to muster evidence and argumentsin their favor, but very difficult (if not mortally dangerous) to muster arguments against. And such verities are needed all the more, not just as

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