Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously and thought deeply about the nature of his God and humankind’s proper relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research on Khayyám (which, thus far, is not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding. He tells us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, and necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, through science, religion, or any other means. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Inspired Victorian Hedonists ~ by Roman Krznaric

Omar Khayyam ~ by J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 ~ The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam: Persian poet and astronomer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – by the editors for Muslim Heritage

Umar Khayyam ~ by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Why Spinoza, Why Now?

A Series of Six Essays for Ordinary Philosophy – A Condensed Version of the Ethics – Examined in Detail

Part 1: Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a respected scholar of Jewish ancestry who eventually became known for his philosophy and political writings. For his philosophy, he selected what he hoped would be a straightforward system: the geometrical method. Rather than lengthy and technically oriented arguments and rhetorical mechanisms, he wrote in somewhat simple Latin and in short, clear, concise statements. He assigns unique connotations to his lexicon which present additional challenges to those who attempt to study his writings. But these are not insurmountable.

In order to make his views on metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, and psychology clear and to present them as logically and as unadorned as possible, he selected a method which mimics that used by Euclid in his geometry. He was not seeking any type of mathematical certainty to support his hypotheses. But what he did hope would come through was the logical interconnection in descending inductive order within the axioms, definitions, propositions, explanations, demonstrations, and scholia (explanatory notes added to the margins) which make up the body of the text.

Unfortunately, what Spinoza thought would come across as a self-evidently true and accurately phrased demonstration has been and continues to be viewed as one of the most difficult documents to comprehend in the history of ideas. In order to begin the process of unraveling his Gordian knot of text, this essay presents a type of abstract from Letters to No One in Particular: a Discussion and Illustration of Spinoza’s Fragment or On the Improvement of the Understanding. That means, that to understand clearly and to grasp Spinoza’s intended meaning the study must begin outside the bounds of the Ethics itself.

For this first installment in the six essays which will comprise this ‘condensed’ study of the Ethics, it is critically important to begin with the brief treatise written prior to the it, On the Improvement of the Understanding (or, as it is also called, the Fragment), because it is the only place where Spinoza explicitly details his completely unique concept of ‘idea.’

The intended meaning of his ‘idea’ has effectively eluded and flummoxed even the finest minds that have commented on the Ethics. That is for two reasons: 1- Without an adequate grasp of the details in the Fragment which efficiently serves as the linchpin for the Ethics, Spinoza’s revolutionary grasp of human epistemology and the existence and operating functions of the active mind, will remain out of reach. And 2- Most if not all of the commentators on the subject, pre-supposed that by ‘idea’ Spinoza intended either: a judgment, a mental image, a propositional statement, or an abstraction formed from impressions from the sensible world. But he meant none of these things, and that is precisely why we are here today. An important reminder – In the Fragment [TIE] Spinoza emphasized that the ‘idea’ does not, in any way, involve words. With this firmly in mind, let us continue.

In this essay, an outline and explanation of the main message of the Fragment will be presented which will be accompanied by quotations from one of the true scholars of Spinozan explication, Professor Errol E Harris. The quotes are taken from his Salvation from Despair, A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), pp 87-88.

In the Proemium to the Fragment, Spinoza announces his intention to make known and accessible to the reader the nature of the human character which comprises the innate and organic operation and functioning of the mind. He describes it thusly: ‘What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (TIE). What we need to ferret out is exactly what constitutes this ‘union’.

From that axiomatic starting point, he sets out to discover if there is any possibility that the human mind has any built-in capacity or potential to obtain to any type of knowledge which can be affirmed to be absolutely certain, that is, true. To do this, Spinoza begins by detailing the four kinds of knowledge (perception) which taken together, constitute the spectrum of inputs which every person absorbs from the extended world.

The first three, he discovers, each serves its own limited purpose and can, up to a point, prove useful in everyday living (imagination), in gathering unverifiable information (sensation), and in solving problems and thinking rationally (reasoning). None of these three involves certainty because they are involved with ‘images’, and ultimately Spinoza realized that only with the fourth kind, intuitive understanding, could certainty be achieved. By ‘intuitive,’ he means a type of knowing which includes encapsulating the efficient or proximate cause of the object being considered.

Spinoza discovered that this certainty was only made possible due to the activity and presence in every human mind of the adequate idea. This idea is innate, within the mind, and serves as a tool or agency-in-act, which organically connects and effectively anchors the mind in its union existing between it and the whole of nature. This means that the extended world and the mind are virtually inter-operationally connected. A most startling and revolutionary claim, to say the least.

Let us pause here for a moment to dwell on the enormity of what has just been stated. What Spinoza discovered in the idea runs counter to virtually every depiction of any possibility for human knowledge ever discussed or imagined possible. Every philosopher before or after him and virtually all of contemporary science posit humans as passive receptors of impressions from the sensible world. These impressions then formulate, by various descriptions, mental images which serve as unverifiable judgments or mental entities, usually depicted as some distillation of the empirical paradigm or materialism.

Now along comes Spinoza and says, no way, my friends, you’ve got it all wrong.

Since the time and space available makes demands on us to be brief, elaboration on this revolutionary discovery by Spinoza will not be possible, for now. It is incumbent on us, to move along and to offer a bit more of detail on this process before signing off. At this point, Harris will assist us to flesh out Spinoza’s revolutionary assertion.

In order to expand on this organic aspect of the mind, its role as agency-in-act along with its element of the ‘idea,’ and its role of potency-in-act, we will lay a bit of groundwork for Harris’ compressed and succinct demonstration of the idea. The role of the idea, both in its role as conduit for the absorption of data cum knowledge, as well as performing as the active ingredient, so to speak, in its function of melding with the world of extension, represents Spinoza’s breakthrough in his discovery of the primary functioning operations in the assimilation and accumulation of an individual human’s knowledge base. One currently ascribed to misapprehension about human experience, which caused Leibniz to posit windowless monads, must be addressed.

As an integral part of the whole of nature, people are not segregated off from the world. We are as interconnected as any other integrated element in nature which comprises the universal system.

We have no problem dealing with animals being able to sense objects outside their visual range and to sense immanent unforeseen dangers in the form of severe storms and wildfire. Why should we believe that humans are walled off inside their bodies like kingdoms within a kingdom?

Once the significance of this comes clear, it becomes possible to begin to accept our active participation in the gathering of knowledge which has effectively allowed for civilization to grow and for science to advance. Now we must ask; How does this work? Enter Harris. Under the sub-title ‘Idea Ideae,’ in Salvation from Despair (p. 87). we find:

‘As the idea of the body is the mind, so the idea of that idea is the idea of the mind. In “de Intellectus Emendatione” [in TIE], Spinoza explains that every idea is the “objective essence” of its ideatum, of which the actuality is the “formal essence.” But the idea is a different entity (or mode) from its object (although they are identical in substance), if only because they exist in different attributes. The idea of a circle has no center or circumference [no properties]. So, he says, the idea has a formal essence of its own, of which the objective essence is the idea of the idea (idea ideae). This is further explained in the Ethics (II, xxi, S) as “nothing else than the form of the idea so far as it is considered as a mode of thought and apart from its relation to its object.” Its relation to its object, we already know, is substantial identity (or, as Spinoza says in some context of adequate ideas, exact correspondence).’

Simply stated, an idea has a real-time life of its own. For example: someone sees a movie, really enjoys it, and relates the entire experience to a friend. When that friend later views the same film, they report back that the experience of seeing the film was exactly the same as the ‘picture’ that formed in their mind when it had been described. That idea of the film was contained within the memory of one mind and conveyed, in its entirety, to the friend.

Thus the formal essence and the objective reality made a perfect match. The ‘idea’ is real. We use them every day; we just remain unaware of their presence and potency. That is, until now!

One final thought from Harris and we will sign off. When Spinoza titled his Fragment [TIE] On the Improvement of the Understanding, what follows is what he had in mind. Harris continues:

‘The inherent self-reflectiveness of consciousness is what enables us to purify the intellect and progress from confused and inadequate ideas [the first three kinds of knowledge mentioned above] to clear and true knowledge [the fourth kind of knowledge, intuitive understanding]. It is because we can reflect upon what we think, and know that we know, that we can criticize and improve our thinking. Idea Ideatum, therefore, is nothing but the consciousness of one’s own thinking, or the idea of one’s own mind. Spinoza speaks of a series of ideae idearum (ideas of ideas) ad infinitum, strictly no regress is involved, only an unlimited capacity for reflection or self-knowledge. The object of an idea and the idea of the object are substantially identical. Both are the same essence, one formal and the other objective. Thus the idea of an idea is strictly the same object or entity merely conscious (or more fully conscious) of itself.’ (Salvation from Despair)

Because it is so vital to see Spinoza’s idea at work in our own minds, let’s consider one more example:

Each morning when a person gets into the driver seat of their car and starts the engine or motor, they have no need to ask themselves if they know how to drive. They know that they know how to drive. Beyond that, if called upon to do so, anyone who drives could teach someone else to do so. This would involve dictating to the learner, from memory, the steps involved, such as: open the door, seat yourself, and attach your seatbelt. Before starting the car, check the mirrors, make sure your field of vision is unobstructed, etc, etc. In fact, many people could prepare a written outline of the entire process which would then serve as a training manual. Once the trainee obtains their operator’s license, it can be said that the instructor captured the idea encapsulated in their mind and transferred that adequate idea of how to drive to another person who successfully absorbed the contents of the idea, made it their own, and re-converted it into the reality of driving an automobile. This transfer of the idea from one mind to another demonstrates that the idea is a quantifiable, measurable entity and fulfills any empirical stricture placed upon it.

This idea exists as a real entity. It is measurable; remember the training manual. The idea (in mind) and the object (driving) are the same things expressed as micro-sets in modality of the two infinite attributes of thought and extension. Finally, the driver’s manual serves as the idea, of the idea (in the mind) of the idea (driving lesson). The manual, which could be used by virtually anyone to teach themselves how to drive, demonstrates the existence of an idea independent of the mind!

Exhausted yet? Have no fear, this is extraordinarily difficult to track and to take in whole.

Take all the time necessary to reflect on this information, it is admittedly difficult to absorb and perhaps even challenging to accept. Find ways to see it operating in your own life. Once you have successfully accomplished this task you will stand ready to join those of us who understand that a human being is much more than a passive receptor. We are full-fledged and engaged participants in one of the universe’s most unique and ever-evolving possibilities, the creata!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always dare to know!)

Charles M. Saunders

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Damasio, Spinoza and our Current Confusion about Cause and Effect, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

In this article, Charles M. Saunders considers Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, N.Y., 2003)

In 2003, one of our most capable and respected neuroscientists went searching for Spinoza. What Antonio Damasio found is both enlightening and alarming. It is laudable that an empirical scientist had the interest, care, and capability to analyze the sequencing and behaviors associated with what Spinoza terms ‘the Emotions.’ This is clearly a positive development. When our neuroscientist friend recognized that something about emotional response is measurable, he made strides for the entire scientific community. But by focusing his analysis only on chapters 3 and 4 of “The Ethics”, Damasio sidetracks Spinoza’s metaphysics, chapters 1 and 2 while presenting Spinoza as some sort of intuitive materialist. The alarming part in all of this is that chapters 3 and 4 are linked inexorably to 1 and 2 wherein Spinoza insists that our thoughts are as real as our experience. As notable as Damasio’s respect for Spinoza’s psychology may be there is a tremendous distance from his awakening to the import and physical reality of the emotions to an adequate understanding of the full impact of Spinoza’s discovery, that the human mind has the ability to form replications of objects so accurate that these ideas are essentially the same thing as the objects they represent.

This is an astounding claim that Spinoza makes and to this day, it has been overlooked or dismissed in light of the advances in contemporary science and its ability to “reduce” everything in its purview through observation and measurement. But cause and effect are not observable within the same time and space.

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the neuroscientist-researcher connects electrodes to a patient to monitor brainwaves there is no question that the observable patterns that emerge are exciting and are indicators of some brain activity related to behaviors that correspond to the patient’s emotional state and mood changes But to conclude from this that the patterns and their location in the brain somehow indicates the cause of the thinking process is a leap that indicates faulty reasoning and bad science. To draw a conclusion about the source of the thinking process from an electroencephalogram is akin to a person who while standing atop the tallest building in a large city before dawn observes the pattern of traffic lights below and concludes that the pattern of lights is the cause of the flow of traffic. No matter how many thousands of lights make up the discernable pattern of the flow of traffic, the actual cause of the traffic is not observable. The cause of the traffic resides elsewhere. It originates in the reasons that each individual driver leaves home and enters the flow: going to work, driving a friend to the hospital, making deliveries, police responding to emergencies and countless other actions are the actual cause of the traffic and they are entirely disconnected from one another. There is no common cause to be observed and reported on here.
This analogy demonstrates the confusion inherent in the empirical process. There is no argument about what the scientist sees during the study. But there is a strong argument against what he claims to have observed. If this mistaken insistence that causality must be observable resided solely in speculative neurobiology the harm might not be that negligible. Unfortunately for us, this curious misunderstanding of cause and effect permeates most of our scientific theory and practice, including applications in healthcare diagnosis and treatment.

Perhaps one of the most debilitating misapplications of the empirical process lies within the field of genetics and the supposed causal link observable in DNA. Crick and Watson never assigned any causal agency to their brilliant discovery. They clearly understood DNA for what it is; a marker not a cause. Assigning cause to DNA strands came later after arrogance and the same faulty reasoning process employed by Damasio came into play. Whether a person suffers from cancer or obesity or a predilection towards baldness, DNA is not the cause of the affliction it merely marks the presence of the condition. To carry the traffic lights/scientific research analogy a bit further, just as we can clearly understand that no matter how complicated or advanced the light pattern and system flow technology might be it cannot be said to be the cause of the traffic. That flow can only be understood by seeing the individual actions and behaviors that are the actual cause. So with DNA, it is a marker that notes the presence not the cause of disease.

The upshot of all this is that our current empirical/materialist science system that has brought about some of the most significant advances for humans in medicine and other sophisticated technologies contains a seriously flawed view of cause and effect. But by insisting on a research focus only on the world of external experience it ignores the rich world of experience’s counterpart and co-equivalent, the Human Mind. This now outmoded way of explaining our planet and our relationship to it must give way to a more sophisticated view. This view will credit the mind as the source and wellspring of any scientific achievement that we’ve ever accomplished and that it is the mind which provides us with the most magnificent tool at our disposal for unraveling Nature’s mysteries.

Charles M. Saunders

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine (born on June 25th, 1908), there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

Umar Khayyam –  by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 – The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam – Encyclopædia Britannica.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – by Sajjad H. Rizvi for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – for Muslim Heritage

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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