George Walford: Letters to the Editor (44)

Sir: [Nobody has yet begun a letter to IC with “Sir,” but one needs some standardised way of starting it off as a letter].

Sir: On the back page, of IC43, I wonder whether you are not being unfair to the SS Prod committee in asking them to produce evidence showing something directly. If we needed direct evidence to be sure of anything, we would need to suspend judgement on almost all we think we know.

In practice, we all use four principles for making up our minds in the absence of direct evidence (perhaps more than four, but four are all I can think of).

The uniformitarian principle: we assume that processes of nature, which go on here and now, go on in the same way at other places and times.

The parsimony principle: we assume that the least complicated explanation of anything is the correct one.

The witness principle: we assume that people tell the truth about their own experiences, especially in certain formal contexts. (Every scientific paper uses the principle in citing references, which is why faking data is considered a dreadful offence among scientists.)

The faith principle: we believe propositions because there is merit in believing them and demerit in disbelieving them.

The faith principle is distrusted by atheists because it is given too much importance by the religious, for whom it tends to outweigh the other principles, and even sometimes direct evidence, in forming their opinions. Nevertheless it is generally useful. In my own case, for instance, I believe that there is no connection between skin colour and morality. The disproportionately high numbers of black people in prison might be held to indicate that a dark skin goes with a tendency to a low ethical standard, but I reject this the absence of better evidence) because I think it would be an awful thing to believe.

My opinion as to fact is influenced by what I think right. And there is nothing wrong with this provided faith is kept in its proper place, well below direct evidence, and probably below the other principles, in importance.

I think the SS Prod committee uses faith quite correctly in forming the opinion that the workers can operate the means of production by themselves. To produce direct evidence contrary to this opinion would be a sound argument, but simply to show that they have no direct evidence for it, is not.

Is “faith” as I have described it the same as ideology? I ask for information.

Yours etc.
Donald Rooum, London SW2.

(It is to Donald Rooum that we owe the Wildcat cartoons in Freedom)

IC agrees with Donald that when speaking of “socialism” the Party and all its organs operate by faith. It is they who deny this, maiming to be scientific socialists and insisting that their confidence in the feasibility of their proposals comes not from faith but from socialist understanding. His contribution, helpfully though it is meant, seems likely to annoy them quite as much as anything IC has ever said.

In speaking of the Party’s ‘opinion’ that the workers are capable of operating the means of production by themselves he is again in disagreement with them. They claim to be putting this forward not as a mere opinion but as a proposition whose validity they can support, and in asking for their evidence IC is asking them to make good this claim. So far they have failed to do so.

On the general question of evidence and certainty we would go farther than Donald, holding that nobody ever has good ground for being absolutely sure of anything. (It has been reported, of Russell’s first meeting with Wittgenstein, that they were arguing this point and Wittgenstein would not admit to being absolutely certain there was not a hippopotamus in the room – not even after they had looked under both the beds).

Faith seems to be less an ideology than a feature common to all ideologies (though more readily accepted by some than by others). We can never be absolutely certain that things are as they appear to be but must always take them to some extent for granted, assuming for example that what appears to be a car bearing down really is one and not a holographic projection. (As Donald puts it, we have to make judgements in the absence of sufficient evidence to provide certainty). This is so whatever our ideology, and this taking-for-granted might well be termed an act of faith.

The problem here is why different people make different assumptions (put their faith in different things) and it is this that systematic ideology sets out to explain, at least for socially significant groups.

Many thanks for sending me a copy of IC. I enjoy your logical filleting of party-political ideologies, but my interests really lie elsewhere. My father… was Treasurer of the Common Wealth party during the war, so that our house was always full of idealistic socialists. With some experience of the present-day idealistic New Age movement, I can say with some confidence that these people were the absolute salt of the earth, the kindest, wisest, wittiest and most generous people it would be possible to meet. They contrasted sharply with the cultured shits who for the most part comprised the parents of the children with whom I was sent to private school.

But I never became a socialist myself. At the time idealistic socialism shared much ground with communism and (with knowledge of those parents) I was puzzled as to why communist literature never contained any reference to fat ladies with blue hair and small nasty dogs, who whether you liked it or not comprised a large and influential slice of the community and were so constructed as to be totally impervious to any ideas of cooperative social welfare other than those applied for the benefit of household pets. No serious political movement, in my view, could claim to have a coherent manifesto that did not address the phenomenon of the blue-rinse lady. I did not care whether Harry Pollitt intended to put them all into re-education camps or more simply machine-gun them: to say nothing about it in his manifesto was tantamount to intellectual dishonesty, because without a policy of some sort, communism was dead in its shoes.

As I grew up I began to realise socialism’s problem: like mathematicians, it thinks its theories address real life – a very profound philosophical error. As G. B. Shaw said, when socialism becomes possible it will no longer be necessary. It does not address the phenomenon of personal initiative, because it confuses it with greed and rejects it, whereas greed is only one (in my opinion, in most cases, a minor) ingredient. If you put the decision-making power in the hands of central committees, you remove the incentive for anyone else to give a damn.

Much more importantly, you reduce the brainpower and sheer opportunity for happy chance through diversity that the involvement of everyone brings to a virtual nothing. This is true of all committee-making: it never has the voices that the whole of society has. I’m an activist of the narrow-gauge Festiniog Railway in Wales and for nearly 30 years we lived with the apparent immutable circumstance that railway carriages take 5 or 6 man-weeks to overhaul and repaint. It was like saying water was wet. It tied the whole organisation down to a highly conservative regime of liveries (since it took years for a change to work its way through the fleet) and encouraged parsimony which resulted in overall shabbiness. If we had listened to our experts nothing would have changed. But one young painter had worked in a car factory and said there was a particular spray paint they used for repairing the baked finish which lasted nearly as long and we should consider using it. The experts held that used on wood it would not resist Welsh weather and would be a waste of effort to try. We went against the experts, the result was a coach that looked as though it was new and since it only took a few days to do, we did six in one year, creating a whole train of brilliance It very nearly didn’t matter whether it resisted the weather or not: but it did, and within three years the entire line looks re-equipped and the cost of maintenance has halved. I’m damn certain a Central Railway Policies Committee would never have countenanced it. You must have room to make mistakes and competing diversity allows that.

The syitem of thinking that I mentioned [in a letter to another journal, Ed. IC], is perhaps this idea pursued to its ultimate: no theory is ultimately valid because there is no truth other than the truths we make for ourselves (the apparent universal truths of chemistry and so forth only being the historical rules of the universe up to this moment). You end up able to see the universe as what would have happened if certain basic rules applied, rather than what has happened: this frees us to step into a million other and maybe better ones, because the whole boiling is imaginary anyway. I grant you that by the rules of the people who are determined to hold that the universe is what has happened, this is madness, but I think we nudge alternative universes every time we think.. One day I’ll get time to write some of it down; I’m not currently convinced I have the right way of expressing it.

Yours etc.
Dan Wilson, Kent.

This seems likely to provoke replies from readers. Do mathematicians (without exception) believe that their theories address real life? Hans Hahn says “The propositions of mathematics … say nothing at all about the objects we want to talk about, but concern only the manner in which we want to speak of them” [1] and he was “on the scientific and mathematical side” of the Vienna Circle. [2] But does that make him a mathematician in Dan Wilson’s sense? Does the involvement of everyone exclude the use of committees? Does socialism reject personal initiative? And is room for making mistakes always a good thing? Clapham, Kings Cross and the Zeebrugge ferry suggest otherwise.

[1] Hahn H. “Logic, Mathematics and Knowledge of Nature” in Ayer A.J. Ed. 1963 Logical Positivism Glencoe: Free Press of Glencoe 158.
[2] Ibid 3.

from Ideological Commentary 44, March 1990.