One of the most interesting features of certain writings in philosophy is the inclusion, by their authors, of specific characterisations of humanity. Although this is not their main goal philosophers (perhaps with the help of the research findings from psychology) advance propositions that tell us what people – what we humans – are really like. Geoffrey Warnock, for example, asserts that humans are subject to various limitations – such as limited rationality, limited co-operation and limited sympathy and that the function of ethics is to combat these limitations.
A more general characterisation of humanity is found in Richard Taylor’s wonderful text on ‘Metaphysics.’ I have spent many hours thinking about some of Taylor’s observations and, after referencing some of them, I shall draw a conclusion about something that worries me.
First, Taylor introduces his readers to the branch of philosophy called ‘metaphysics’ by rejecting, point blank, the idea that people in general have any genuine grasp of philosophy or philosophical thinking. He thinks that whilst ‘it is true that all people have opinions, and that some of these – such as views on religion, morals, and the meaning of life – border on philosophy and metaphysics few people have any conception of philosophy, and fewer still have any notion of metaphysics.’
Second, through his way of clarifying the nature of metaphysics Taylor leads us to an observation about humanity: he turns to William James who defined metaphysics as ‘nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly’ and he asserts that not many people think like this, and do so only where ‘their practical interests are involved’; he then moves on to propose a general characterisation of ‘humanity’ by recognising that ‘what first claims the attention of all creatures is the need to survive and, this being reasonably assured, the need to exist as securely as possible. All thought begins there and most of it ends there.’
If there is such a thing as a pure ‘anthropology of the psyche’ I imagine that this would be one of its central findings: we worry about a) survival and b) security; and if the idea of security is expanded to include securing our wealth, status, position and power – then it seems plain that these concerns occupy much of our thinking. Taylor goes on to say that ‘we are most at home when thinking of HOW to do this or that.’ I think he is correct. My sense is that, in general, people are most concerned with the practical problems of living – and continually ask questions about how to solve their problems of living. This includes dealing with all the people that they encounter. (And this may be very troublesome!)
In contrast to this most general and characteristic way of thinking, metaphysical thinking is reserved for those relatively ‘rare’ reflective creatures who concern themselves with the ‘whys’ – ‘with questions that it is perfectly easy never to ask in ones whole lifetime.’ These questions consider the most basic problems of existence – such as ‘identity’, the apparent distinction between body and mind, – and death, with language and thinking, with the possibility of God, with fatalism, with freedom and determinism, time, causality and so on. But by implication, and following William James, Taylor is really saying that metaphysical thinking is not whimsical; like good art, it is sustained hard work.
Third, Taylor asserts that although we are potentially creatures of reason – and that we are distinguished from most other animals through our rational powers we, in the main, do not deploy these powers to anything like their full extent. After noting that metaphysical thinking begins not with things that are proved but with things that are believed he provides a paragraph containing a rather devastating remark in which he reveals a particular and enduring feature of humanity:
‘Now the intellects of people are not as strong a their wills (their wants), and they generally believe whatever they want to believe, particularly when those beliefs reflect upon their own worth among others and the value of their endeavours. Wisdom is thus not what they first seek. they seek instead, justification for what they happen to cherish…’
Sadly, I think Taylor is correct. People, as he asserts, ‘generally believe what they want to believe’ – even in the face of facts that might, in principle, contradict or negate their beliefs. And if those beliefs are particularly cherished then the resistance to alternative points of view or to contradictions is even stronger.
This makes for a sobering reflection: as the students of human behaviour, such as Leon Festinger and Gerard Egan, have pointed out, humanity is proportionately more arational than rational.
In the end what worries me is not only my own inclination to ‘hold on’ to certain beliefs that remain un-inspected (or are based on a very inadequate mix of fact and information) but also that most of our information sources are partial and much of what we absorb is biased. Our psychology does not, in the main, equip us for understanding. It helps us solve the practical problems of living but what we believe is not necessarily founded on fact or arrived at through reason.
And if, super-added to this, is the tendency of people in general ‘to believe what they wish to believe’ then it may be very unwise to ask a nation’s citizens to make hugely important decisions – especially decisions involving the future of that nation. After reading about the reasons people gave for voting in the 2016 referendum held in the UK (about whether or not to remain in the European Community) it is plain that what counted were their pre-existing beliefs. Yet it is clear that many of these beliefs, many of which were ‘cherished’, reflected limited knowledge of the ‘facts’ as well as the international arrangements constituting the European Community. Worse, most had no idea about the conditions which gave birth to the very idea of a united Europe …
If people are inclined to believe what they want to believe – and if those beliefs incline them to remain blind to the facts – then it is impossible for me to conclude other than that it was a very bad idea to hold such a referendum.