Twisting Philosophy into Sophistry
by Thea Halo
In a time of universal deceit,
telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
— George Orwell
In researching for this blog post I realize how difficult it is to convince anyone that what they believe is totally off the wall. It’s easy to tell someone that he/she will one day realize that what they’ve been told is nonsense. However, simply saying it isn’t terribly convincing, especially when so many others seem to share and promote those beliefs. All through history, so much of what we take as fact today, was challenged at the time, and the challengers were just as convinced that they were right as those being challenged. Even when presented with “scientific proof,” it was often futile to try and convince someone he/she may be wrong, especially if their beliefs were either tied to religious doctrine, or were reinforced by others. When religious leaders are those spreading fantasies as fact, the futility is greatly increased, and the belief is sometimes elevated to a pathological fervor.
After reading my blog entry on QAnon, I received an email from someone I thought I knew fairly well, asking me to remove her from my mailing list. She sent me a document, and pointed to a passage in it that she claimed she lives by. It states in part:
“I enjoy [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s Essays and (in my youth) was especially intrigued by a quote on Self Reliance…… ‘To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius.’1 It felt righteous to believe that my own thoughts should be true for everyone… until I reflected on my own life and recognized that my family also believed their thoughts should be true for me. I think that true genius lies in understanding that all thinking and beliefs have merit and consideration.”
To conclude that “all thinking and beliefs have merit and consideration,” actually sounds loving and open-minded, that is if one is thinking and believing that chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla. But to suggest that belief in any number of realities should be accepted as true if someone, or a group of people, believe it, then we cross over into sometimes dangerous ground. If we are to become a society in which belief is as highly regarded as fact, what do we teach our children? Should various realities be taught in our schools, since teaching only one theory or reality might conflict with, or insult those who believe in a different reality?
In fact, there was a time when teaching a specific reality was not only the norm, it was vigorously enforced and, unfortunately, it was not always a reality based on fact or proven by science. For instance, believing the earth is the center of the universe was Church doctrine at the time of Galileo. Consequently, when Galileo suggested otherwise in 1633, he was brought to Rome to face charges of heresy. Had Church elders believed that all thoughts are equally valid, perhaps Galileo would have been saved from being convicted of heresy. Galileo was not only forced by the church to recant his findings, he “spent the rest of his life under house arrest in his villa in Arcetri, near Florence,” and his book, The Dialogue, “was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, where it remained until 1835.”2
“Aristotle (384–322 BCE) provided observational arguments supporting the idea of a spherical Earth…[and] The notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun had been proposed as early as the 3rd century BCE by Aristarchus of Samos…” It took more than two thousand years before Galileo came to the same conclusions as the Greeks, after studying “the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who had put forward the theory that the Earth was not even the center of the solar system, let alone the whole universe.”3
Darwin’s theory of evolution also went against Church doctrine. In fact, some still believe that to teach evolution is ‘blasphemy’. Many remember the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which “a high school teacher, John T. Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.”4 Scopes was actually found guilty and ordered to pay $100, equivalent to over $1,500 today.
There was also a time when almost all believed the world is flat. Some people—which includes a surprising number of famous male athletes— still believe the world is flat.5 Some people believe the bible tells them so. It does not. Should a compassionate society—one that believes everyone has a right to his/her beliefs—simply tell those believers to be careful not to go too close to the edge? And where should we claim the edge exists? In our backyard? In some foreign land? And what of those disturbing images from space that show a spherical world? Are those images, like images of men walking on the moon, just clever manipulations of technology? Some believe they are.
If all theories and beliefs are valid, simply because some people believe each theory, and everyone’s beliefs should be honored, what should be taught in our schools? And how does that effect our advancement of science? Should we have an either/or curriculum for our students? Or an either, or, or, or, curriculum? Where do facts come into the picture? Will history and science be taught as relative to a student’s beliefs?
The above-mentioned document goes on to state:
“We want to respect the thoughts of others without feeling the necessity to justify our own. There are more meaningful interests in life that can be shared and expressed… especially among those who have a lifelong caring connection. In this final chapter of our lives we hope to enjoy harmony with those we love while regarding the differences that exist… if that is still possible in this changing world. We love our family and friends… and we all deserve the unchallenged sanctity of our own true thoughts.”
Who can argue with that? Of course we should not unnecessarily burden our loved ones… unless, of course, one’s “own true thoughts” are not actually true and they instigate a violent attack on the Capital building, in which one’s loved ones take part, because of the warped belief that one’s actions can actually overturn an election that was allegedly stolen from the former president, and any violence committed to stop certification is justified.6 Or one’s loved ones refuse to follow safety guidelines, because they believe the lie that the Coronavirus is a hoax. What then?
In considering the above arguments, it’s easy to see how any philosophical saying—like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson—can be twisted to conform to one’s intended purpose, making them seem to have weight. Here’s another:
“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Imagine that: “To be great is to be misunderstood.” And apparently, one is in good company… Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton. So believing CNN’s Anderson Cooper eats babies simply shows how great one is for believing something others deny, including Anderson Cooper, the alleged baby eater himself.7 Or one believes, as Michael Flynn apparently does, that “vaccines contain Communist microchips” and men … “say they’ve had sex with space aliens.”8
Or believing men walking on the moon, and the attack on the World Trade Center Buildings were simply hoaxes, even if the buildings ceased to exist in less than two hours after the world watched planes crash into them. More recently, “California wildfires were intentionally set by a Jewish space laser.”9 Cool! I want one of those. Soon there will be denial that Perseverance Rover landed on Mars.10
Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us: “Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”
Is Emerson really advising people to simply go forth with any crazy notion or scheme he or she can dream up and follow it, because doing so shows the courage of a soldier?
If any theory or belief is valid, why bother to teach anything in our schools other than a trade? Why waste time on courses in science and philosophy? Why assign literature and the writing of essays, or teach critical thinking? Why bother to teach students to read? Why try to develop vaccines for the CoronaVirus if it’s just a hoax? In fact, why believe there is such a thing as reality? Perhaps we are all living in our own dream. Why wake us up? It’s nice in here. I finally have people who agree with me, so I’m no longer alone.
Yes. Even philosophy can be twisted for one’s own ends. That’s the danger of half an education. That’s the danger of failing to teach students how to actually think and decipher what they are reading or hearing, and to actually search for answers. As William Arthur Ward reminds us: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
That is what we need more of… the great teacher who inspires students to go out and find the answers… to not simply rely on the easy answers that someone hands out like popcorn.
Here’s one to chew on:
It is as fatal as it is cowardly to blame facts because they are not to our taste.
— John Tyndall
- For the entire quote see: https://genius.com/Ralph-waldo-emerson-self-reliance-annotated.
- Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, February 13, 2021. Galileo’s book was called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
- History of the Center of the Universe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_center_of_the_Universe
- Scopes Trial. Wikipedia
- Joey Haverford, 10 Celebs Who Actually Believe The Earth Is Flat (10 Who Believe Worse) The rich and famous believe in some seriously wacky things. The Travel. Published November 05, 2018. https://www.thetravel.com/10-celebs-who-actually-believe-the-earth-is-flat-10-who-believe-other-things/
- Jesselyn Cook, I Miss My Mom’: Children Of QAnon Believers Are Desperately Trying To Deradicalize Their Own Parents. Huffpost. February 11, 2021.
- Catherina Gioino, A Former QAnon supporter apologized to CNN’s Anderson Cooper for thinking he ate babies in a shocking clip aired on Saturday night. The Sun, January 31, 2021.
- Nick Robins-Early, Michael Flynn’s Wild Ride Into The Heart Of QAnon. Huffpost. February 21, 2021.
- Jonathan Chait, GOP Congresswoman Blamed Wildfires on Secret Jewish Space Laser, Intelligencer. Jan. 28, 2021.
- Nasa Science, Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover.
Thea Halo is the author of Not Even My Name; a former news correspondent for WBAI in NYC; and a former member of both the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) and the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INOGS). Ms Halo’s historical papers are published in a number of Academic books: Genocide in the Ottoman Empire; Sayfo 1915: An Anthology of Essays on the Genocide of Assyrians/Arameans during the first World War; and an upcoming anthology on the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks (during the first World War in Ottoman Turkey). You can view one of her presentations at the Boston State House @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzBfcE4PjTM