Quo Veritas?

Change Your MindI remember from my philosophy days that some 20th century thinker (Russell? Quine?) made the distinction between “wanting to be right” and “wanting to have been right.”

A person should want to be right. Should want to believe what’s true and not believe what’s not true. And if that person finds that something they believe is not true, then they stop believing that; or if they find something is true that they don’t yet believe, they start believing it. They will admit they were wrong, and then change what they think so that it’s right. That’s what it means to want to be right.

To want to have been right means that you don’t care if you’re right or wrong, you want to preserve the belief that you were right –and if at all possible the impression in your listeners that you were right — even when you said or did something that, as it turns out, wasn’t right. The person who wants to have been right will fight and fight to keep from admitting that they were/are ever wrong.

People who refuse to admit when they are wrong, and do dishonest things to make it look like they were right when they actually were wrong, are enemies of free speech, and enemies of truth, and ultimately enemies of humanity.

This in turn puts me in mind of a story.

There once was a man who thought he was dead. Nothing anybody could say could convince him that he wasn’t dead. Finally his wife took him to a shrink to try to convince him he wasn’t dead.

The shrink tried every argument in the book to prove to this guy that he wasn’t dead, but he was not buying it. Finally the shrink gave up the direct approach and moved on to something else — to get the man to agree that dead people don’t bleed.

They read books, they talked to doctors, they even visited the morgue and cut cadavers. And the man finally had to agree that dead people don’t bleed. So they go back to the shrink’s office. She takes out a blade and nicks the skin on the man’s arm, and he (of course) bleeds.

The guy looks at his arm, then at the shrink, then back at his arm, and says, “What do you know! Dead people *DO* bleed!”

A man who has bought a theory will fight a furious rear guard action against the facts. – Joseph R. Alsop, Jr.


Turns out it was Quine, from The Web of Belief, which I just re-read last year. (Thanks to FB friend Jonathan Lundell for the tip!) Here’s the quote I was remembering (and yet, sadly, not remembering):

‎”The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.” —W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief, p. 133

Which book, by the way, lays out the most useful and understandable epistemology I have ever come across. Well worth a read for anybody who is interested in what “belief” and “knowledge” mean, and how they interrelate. In other words, who is interested in epistemology. Its prose is very approachable; it’s not like reading the Summa. (Although I guess that isn’t saying much. It’s a lot not like the Summa.)

Copyright © 2011-2012 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

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