Percipi est esse

“Muslims in Britain are suffering soaring levels of Islamophobia and discrimination based on their faith, rather than the colour of their skin, a report published today says. […] Of British Muslims, 80 per cent said they had suffered Islamophobia.
The Independent, 22 November 2004

Percipi est esse is a (possibly ungrammatical) inversion of Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. Being a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality, it has nothing to do with claims about rises in Islamophobia or the like. However, “to be perceived is to be” neatly captures the way in which people often slide from the fact that something is perceived to be the case to the greater claim that it actually is the case.

Consider the Independent’s claims about the rise of Islamophobia. Their story was about a report which was entirely about the perception of Islamophobia among Muslims. It solely concerned whether Muslims felt as though they had been discriminated against on the basis of their religion, not whether they had been. However, the fact that there had been an increase in the number of Muslims who thought they had been so discriminated against was taken as demonstrating that actual Islamophobia had increased. That is one giant logical leap.

You need only consider other examples where the same inference could be made, to see the flaw. Ask white Britons on council house waiting lists whether they feel they have been discriminated against in favour of asylum seekers and ethnic minorities, and you’ll find a sizeable proportion believe they have, even when the facts show this is demonstrably not the case. If a newspaper were to report that discrimination against white working class people had increased solely on the basis of the perceptions of this group, most would see the error in the logic and object straight away. For the same reason, we should not accept that increased perceptions of Islamophobia demonstrate that there has been a real increase in Islamophobia. (This is not, of course, to deny that there has been such an increase, but merely to deny that the perception that there has been one is sufficient to demonstrate the fact.)

The slide from perception to reality also occurs in claims about religions and the paranormal. People say “I felt God’s presence”, “I heard the voice of my dead mother” or “I felt at one with the universe”, and take these feelings as proof that God is really there, that their mother had contacted them from beyond the grave or that they had indeed become one with the universe. But one need not deny that you felt any of things to doubt whether or not what you felt was actually caused by God, your mother, or a union with the infinite.

Given that the distinction is so clear, why do people fail to maintain it? I would conjecture that there are two main reasons. One is that language misleads. To say “I felt God’s presence” logically implies that God was actually present, just as to say “I saw the Eiffel Tower” implies that the monument you saw was the Eiffel Tower. But in both cases we are simplifying what a completely accurate, and hence more circumspect, report would say. A pedant would insist you said “I felt as though God were present” or “I saw what looked to me like the Eiffel Tower”, neither of which implies that what you thought you felt or saw was really there.

A second reason why we make this error is that often something’s seeming to be there is a reliable indicator that it is actually there. For everyday purposes at least, if you think you saw the Eiffel Tower you probably did. But this is not true of other experiences. With God, since there is no reliable way to distinguish really feeling his presence from merely seeming to, we cannot say that the latter is a reliable indicator of the former. And in the case of prejudice, even if it is true that on most occasions when people believe they are the victims of prejudice they really are, the evidence of perception is still not a reliable enough indicator that the prejudice is actually there.

Some important truths are so simple that rock songs can not only express them, but do so with greater clearly than more sophisticated prose. Radiohead’s song ‘There There’, contains the line, ‘Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.’ Since I can’t improve on this summary of the fallacy I want to describe, I’ve fallen back on an old trick: if you want to make your idea look cleverer than it is, use Latin. But, of course, just because if looks cleverer, it doesn’t mean it is.

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