Some thoughts prompted by a question: various people not of a puppy-persuasion (myself included) have tried to engage with the Mad Genius Club over the years. The arc is always the same but the ‘run’ (i.e. how long it is before the person is declared anathema and banned) varies considerably. It’s not obnoxiousness, nor is it contradicting people or even challenging a belief or a idea commonly held. However, sooner or later the person concerned will hit a conceptual mine and the explosions ensue. The final stage is Dave Freer popping up and demanding people follow a nonsensical challenge.
To see how it happens you need to understand various kinds of beliefs. If you challenge a particular kind of belief, KABOOM. The issue is which kind.
The classic or starting-point definition of knowledge in philosophy is a justified, true belief. To ‘know’ something in philosophical terms is to believe the thing, for the thing to be true and for you to have a sound reason for your belief i.e. you might believe there are spiders on Mars and there might actually BE spiders on Mars but you don’t know that there are spiders on Mars because you have no evidence for them.
For online discourse consider another factor: the sincerity of your belief as in, you may sort of believe something but your attachment to that belief may be quite shallow or alternatively quite strong.
Now consider some combinations
- A sincere belief, which is true and which you have evidence for
- An insincere belief, which is true and which you have evidence for (i.e. you have some irrational doubts about the evidence)
- A sincere belief, which is false but which you have evidence for (i.e. a genuine mistake)
- An insincere belief, which is false but which you have evidence for (i.e. you’ll kick yourself when it turns out you should have gone with your gut)
- A sincere belief, which is true but which you have no evidence for
- An insincere belief, which is true but which you have no evidnece for (and presumably that’s bugging you)
- A sincere belief, which is false but which you have no evidence for
- An insincere belief, which is false and which you have no evidence for (sounds absurd but these days this can be sadly common)
The explosions on MGC are an extension of these: challenging beliefs that are:
- Sincerely held – indeed passionately held. It’s not a disposable debate point but something to which somebody has attached their personal honour and integrity on.
- That is not true AND that the person actually knows is not true. Huh? People can do that. It’s probably not good for your brain though.
- That there is no good evidence for and that they know there is no good evidence for.
You may ask, how I could possibly know that about points 2 and 3. Well, you can see it in action. When there is an evidential basis for a belief (even if the evidence is shaky and doesn’t really show what they say it does) they’ll trot out the evidence and then be scornful about any challenge to it. The point has been proved, any further objections are laughable.
On the other hand if the belief is not strongly held then Dave (or whoever) will happily backtrack. The explosion always happens when somebody, no matter how politely asks for evidence on a point that is covered by 1 and 2. The reaction is always that this is a grave insult to the integrity of not just the person asked but the whole blog.