Saturday, April 25, 2015

On Error

THERE is an elusive idea that has floated through the minds of most of us as we grew older and learnt more and more things. It is an idea extremely difficult to get into set terms. It is an idea very difficult to put so that we shall not seem nonsensical; and yet it is a very useful idea, and if it could be realized its realization would be of very practical value. It is the idea of a Dictionary of Ignorance and Error.

On the face of it a definition of the work is impossible. Strictly speaking it would be infinite, for human knowledge, however far extended, must always be infinitely small compared with all possible knowledge, just as any given finite space is infinitely small compared with all space.

But that is not the idea which we entertain when we consider this possible Dictionary of Ignorance and Error. What we really mean is a Dictionary of the sort of Ignorance and the sort of Error which we know ourselves to have been guilty of, which we have escaped by special experience or learning as time went on, and against which we would warn our fellows.

Flaubert, I think, first put it down in words, and said that such an encyclopaedia was very urgently needed.

It will never exist, but we all know that it ought to exist. Bits of it appear from time to time piecemeal and here and there, as for instance in the annotations which modern scholarship attaches to the great text, in the printed criticisms to which sundry accepted doctrines are subjected by the younger men to-day, in the detailed restatement of historical events which we get from modern research as our fathers could never have them—but the work itself, the complete Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Ignorance and Error, will never be printed. It is a great pity.

Incidentally one may remark that the process by which a particular error is propagated is as interesting to watch as the way in which a plant grows.

The first step seems to be the establishing of an authority and the giving of that authority a name which comes to connote doctrinal infallibility. A very good example of this is the title "Science." Mere physical research, its achievements, its certitudes, even its conflicting and self-contradictory hypotheses, having got lumped together in many minds under this one title Science, the title is now sacred. It is used as a priestly title, as an immediate estopper to doubt or criticism.

The next step is a very interesting one for the student of psychical pathology to note. It seems to be a disease as native and universal to the human mind as is the decay of the teeth to the human body. It seems as though we all must suffer somewhat from it, and most of us suffer a great deal from it, though in a cool aspect we easily perceive it to be a lesion of thought. And this second step is as follows:

The whole lump having been given its sacred title and erected into an infallible authority, which you are to accept as directly superior to yourself and all personal sources of information, there is attributed to this idol a number of attributes. We give it a soul, and a habit and manners which do not attach to its stuff at all. The projection of this imagined living character in our authority is comparable to what we also do with mountains, statues, towns, and so forth. Our living individuality lends individuality to them. I might here digress to discuss whether this habit of the mind were not a distorted reflection of some truth, and whether, indeed, there be not such beings as demons or the souls of things. But, to leave that, we take our authority—this thing "Science," for instance—we clothe it with a creed and appetites and a will, and all the other human attributes.

This done, we set out in the third step in our progress towards fixed error. We make the idol speak. Of course, being only an idol, it talks nonsense. But by the previous steps just referred to we must believe that nonsense, and believe it we do. Thus it is, I think, that fixed error is most generally established.

I have already given one example in the hierarchic title "Science."

It was but the other day that I picked up a weekly paper in which a gentleman was discussing ghosts—that is, the supposed apparition of the living and the dead: of the dead though dead, and of the living though absent.

Nothing has been more keenly discussed since the beginning of human discussions. Are these phenomena (which undoubtedly happen) what modern people call subjective, or are they what modern people call objective? In old-fashioned English, Are the ghosts really there or are they not? The most elementary use of the human reason persuades us that the matter is not susceptible of positive proof. The criterion of certitude in any matter of perception is an inner sense in the perceiver that the thing he perceives is external to himself. He is the only witness; no one can corroborate or dispute him. The seer may be right or he may be wrong, but we have no proof—and only according to our temperament, our fancy, our experience, our mood, do we decide with one or the other of the two great schools.

Well, the gentleman of whom I am speaking wrote and had printed in plain English this phrase (read it carefully):—"Science teaches us that these phenomena are purely subjective."

Now I am quite sure that of the thousands who read that phrase all but a handful read it in the spirit in which one hears the oracle of a god. Some read it with regret, some with pleasure, but all with acquiescence.

That physical science was not competent in the matter one way or the other each of those readers would probably have discovered, if even so simple a corrective as the use of the term "physical research" instead of the sacred term "science" had been applied; the hierarchic title "Science" did the trick.

I might take another example out of many hundreds to show what I mean. You have an authority which is called, where documents are concerned, "The Best Modern Criticism." "The Best Modern Criticism" decides that "Tam o' Shanter" was written by a committee of permanent officials of the Board of Trade, or that Napoleon Bonaparte never existed. As a matter of fact, the tomfoolery does not usually venture upon ground so near home, but it talks rubbish just as monstrous about a poem a few hundred or a few thousand years old, or a great personality a few hundred or a few thousand years old.

Now if you will look at that phrase "The Best Modern Criticism" you will see at once that it simply teems with assumption and tautology. But it does more and worse: it presupposes that an infallible authority must of its own nature be perpetually wrong.

Even supposing that I have the most "modern" (that is, merely the latest) criticism to hand, and even supposing that by some omniscience of mine I can tell which is "the best" (that is, which part of it has really proved most ample, most painstaking, most general, and most sincere), even then the phrase fatally condemns me. It is to say that Wednesday is always infallible as compared with Tuesday, and Thursday as compared with Wednesday, which is absurd.

The B.M.C. tells me in 1875 that the Song of Roland could have no origins anterior to the year 1030. But the B.M.C. of 1885 (being a B.M.C. and nothing more valuable) has a changed opinion. It must change its opinion, that is the law of its being, since an integral factor in its value is its modernity. In 1885 B.M.C. tells me that the Song of Roland can be traced to origins far earlier, let us say to 912.

In 1895 B.M.C. has come to other conclusions—the Song of Roland is certainly as late as 1115 ... and so forth.

Now you would say that an idol of that absurdity could have no effect upon sane men. Change the terms and give it another name, and you would laugh at the idea of its having an effect upon any men. But we know as a matter of fact that it commands the thoughts of nearly all men to-day and makes cowards of the most learned.

Perhaps you will ask me at the end of so long a criticism in what way error may be corrected, since there is this sort of tendency in us to accept it, to which I answer that things correct it, or as the philosophers call things, "Reality." Error does not wash.

To go back to that example of ghosts. If ever you see a ghost (my poor reader), I shall ask you afterwards whether he seemed subjective or no. I think you will find the word "subjective" an astonishingly thin one—if, at least, I catch you early after the experience.

~Hilaire Belloc: in First and Last

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