Thought experiment

Jeremy has a maddeningly interesting thought experiment at Talking Philosophy. It’s interesting partly, I think, because it’s full of holes – if that’s a meaningful thing to say about thought experiments, which perhaps it isn’t, since the terms are whatever the experimenter says they are. And yet – some inspire people to say ‘Yes but’ and others don’t. This one seems to inspire a lot of ‘Yes but’ (although I have to admit that a lot of the ‘Yes but’ting is mine). But it’s also interesting partly because of the issues involved. Quick summary (read the original for the details, it’s not long): imaginary world: harmoniously religious, and happy; no real education; renegade group which educates some children about “a new-fangled way of finding out about things called ‘Science’” so “they’re taught all about scientific procedure (you know, hypotheses, evidence, testing, black swans”. After a few years they go back to their world and try to pass on what they’ve learned but can’t, and they alienate everyone; they miss their old life but can’t return to it; “they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives.” Questions: were they brainwashed? And were they victims of child abuse? And are there any implications for our world?

Part of what interests me is the fundamental implausibility of the imagined world, especially as portrayed via the children’s nostalgia for it:

It is a thoroughly and harmoniously religious country (though in fact belief in God is no more rationally justified in this world than it is in our world). People live happily. They sing hymns together. Burn incense. They share the fruits of their labours…The converts’ initial enthusiasm diminishes, and they find themselves longing for the old ways: for the happy singing, the joy of worshipping the God they no long believe to exist, the togetherness engendered by a shared belief.

I try dutifully to imagine such a world for the purposes of thinking about the thought experiment, but it’s hard, because we’re not like that (and, I suppose, because it seems to give religion the credit for being able to do something that in fact can’t be done, so it makes me twitchy). There is no human group (let alone entire country) that is all happy, all joyous, all blissful togetherness. Some of us are temperamentally too damn fond of apartness for that to work, just for one thing, even before beliefs come into play. But more to the point, there is never that much uniformity and agreement. There are always dissenters, doubters, novelty-peddlers, rebels, askers of questions, jokers, teasers, runaways, stirrers up of trouble.

Another part of what interests me is the (delayed) revelation that the point of the experiment is not (as I thought it was) the question whether or not social isolation is too high a price to pay for (say) enlightenment, or education, or scientific education, but that scientific education is indoctrination. I dispute that, but to no avail. (Well, say not the struggle naught availeth; I think I’m right, so that will have to do.

I’m interested in the first question though. I think the answer is much more mixed and patchy than it can be in this experiment. Social isolation is a higher price for some people than it is for others, and enlightenment or education is worth more to some than to others. It is simply an assertion that “they live lonely, miserable, friendless lives” – that is the thought experiment; but in reality, people in such a situation would have a more mixed experience. Some might be lonely and miserable but others might be a little lonely and not miserable and excited about the new mental horizons they’d discovered, and others still might be actually happy. Education can cut people off from others, that’s well known, but it can also unite them with different others, and/or give them other and very satisfying rewards. It’s the same with religious belief – not having it can cut people off from others, but so can having it. It’s never a matter of X plus all good things on one side and Y plus misery on the other (well, almost never). So the experiment is interesting in being irritatingly oversimplified, so that it provokes thought.

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