Table of Contents
In this chapter, the author talks about people’s opinions and how we might avoid the foolish ones. He tells us to keep our beliefs in check, and elaborates about controversies and customs. He also mentions things that affect people’s opinions, such as self-esteem and fear, and how we might get past them.
The Ways to Avoid Foolish Opinions
To avoid foolish opinions, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep us from silly error. If the matter can be settled by observation, we must make the observation ourselves. Aristotle could have avoided thinking women have fewer teeth than men if he told Mrs Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.
Thinking that we know something when in fact we don’t is a big mistake. Many matters are less easily brought to the test of experience. If an opinion opposite to our own makes us angry, it is a sign that we actually have no good reason for our opinion. If someone has very stupid and wrong opinions, we feel pity rather than anger.
The worst controversies are about matters which have no good evidence either way. A good way of ridding ourselves of certain kinds of rigid beliefs is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from our own. If we cannot travel, we should find people with whom we disagree, and read newspapers belonging to a party that is not ours.
But becoming aware of foreign customs does not always have benefits. In the seventeenth century when the Manchus conquered China, it was a custom for Chinese women to have small feet and for Manchu men to wear pigtails. Instead of each dropping their own foolish custom, each adopted the foolish custom of the other.
For those with good imagination, it is a good plan to imagine an argument with a person having a different opinion. Mahatma Gandhi disliked railways and steamboats and machinery and would have liked to undo the industrial revolution. In Western countries most people take the advantage of modern technology for granted so it is rare to find someone with this opinion. But to make sure we are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, it is a good plan to test the arguments by considering what Gandhi might have said to them.
Self- Esteem and other Passions
We should be very wary of opinions that flatter our self-esteem. Both men and women are very convinced of the excellence of their own sex. There is abundant evidence on both sides. The question actually cannot be solved, but self-esteem hides this from most people.
All people are convinced that their own nation is the best. Again, there is no right answer to the question about the best nation. The only way of dealing with this general human vanity is to remind ourselves that man is a short episode in the life of a small planet in a little corner of the universe, and other parts of the cosmos may contain beings much superior.
Other passions besides self- esteem are common sources of error. For example, fear sometimes operates directly, by inventing rumours or imagining objects of terror, but sometimes it operates indirectly, by creating belief in something comforting, like heaven for ourselves and hell for our enemies.
Fear and Superstitions
Fear has many forms. Until we admit our own fears to ourselves, and guard ourselves against their myth-making power, we cannot think about matters of great importance, especially concerning religious beliefs. Fear is the main source of superstition and cruelty. To defeat fear is the beginning of wisdom.
The two ways of avoiding fear are by persuading ourselves that we are safe from disaster and by the practice of courage. The latter is difficult, and the former has always been more popular. Primitive magic has the purpose of securing safety. Belief in such ways of avoiding danger survived through many centuries but science has now lessened it.
No man or crowd or nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear. But superstitions are not always dark and cruel and often add to the happiness of life.
The author talks about a certain prophetess who lived in Northern York State in 1820. She told her numerous followers that she could walk on water, and said she would do it at 11 o’clock on a certain morning. At the stated time, her followers assembled. She asked them if they were all convinced that she could walk on water. They replied that they were. So, she announced that there was no need for her to further prove it.
The world might lose some of its interest and variety if such beliefs were fully replaced by cold science. A wise man will enjoy a plentiful supply of good things and an abundant diet of intellectual rubbish.
We must avoid blindly believing anything without concrete reason. We should confirm the things that we can with observation, and hear out the opinions of other people regarding controversial topics. Self-esteem greatly affects opinion but it can be checked by reminding ourselves of our place in the universe. Fear is also a common source of error, but it can be conquered through courage.