Professor Quassim Cassam, of the University of Warwick's Department of Philosophy, writes for The Free Think Tank on whether dogmatism affects our efficacy as freethinkers:
In 1969 Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon. The collapse of the two World Trade Center Towers on 9/11 was caused by aircraft impacts and the resulting fires. During the Second World War, the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Jews with the aim of exterminating the Jewish population of Europe. These are all things I know. But I also know that each of these claims has been questioned by conspiracy theorists and others. There are people who seriously believe that the moon landing was faked, that the twin towers were brought down by a controlled demolition and that the Holocaust is a myth. There are people who not only believe these things but present what they regard as evidence in support of them. How should I respond to this evidence? What should my attitude be?
I might reason as follows: since I know that Neil Armstrong did set foot on the moon it follows that any evidence that suggests that he didn’t has to be misleading. Similarly, I can infer from what I already know that the “evidence” that aircraft impacts didn’t cause the collapse of the twin towers must be misleading. In that case, why should I bother with it? Why should I waste my time responding to evidence or arguments that I know, in advance, are no good? Indeed, one might go even further: it’s not just that I am under no obligation to engage with the alleged evidence against what I know to be true, I should firmly resolve to avoid it. If I can’t avoid it then I should ignore it. The philosopher Saul Kripke describes this as the ‘dogmatic attitude’ and argues that this attitude can be both rational and justified.
- Can dogmatism protect knowledge?
The case for dogmatism is that it can protect our knowledge. Suppose I know what really happened to the twin towers on 9/11 – they were brought down by aircraft impacts – but a conspiracy theorist bombards me with data that supposedly prove that aircraft impacts couldn’t have been responsible for their collapse. If I am sufficiently bamboozled by the data I might give up my belief that aircraft impacts brought down the towers. As I result, I now no longer know something that I previously knew. My knowledge has been undermined by the conspiracy theory. If I want to avoid losing my knowledge in this way I should steer clear of conspiracist websites. By the same token, I should avoid reading books by Holocaust deniers.
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