Friday, July 2, 2010

P. G. Wodehouse on evidence and belief

From Uneasy Money (I am listening to the librivox recording of this while exercising, mowing, etc.):
'I do believe it,' he said. 'I believe every word you say.'
She shook her head.
'You can't in the face of the evidence.'
'I believe it.'
'No. You may persuade yourself for the moment that you do, but after a while you will have to go by the evidence. You won't be able to help yourself. You haven't realized what a crushing thing evidence is. You have to go by it against your will. You see, evidence is the only guide. You don't know that I am speaking the truth; you just feel it. You're trusting your heart and not your head. The head must win in the end. You might go on believing for a time, but sooner or later you would be bound to begin to doubt and worry and torment yourself. You couldn't fight against the evidence, when once your instinct—or whatever it is that tells you that I am speaking the truth—had begun to weaken. And it would weaken. Think what it would have to be fighting all the time. Think of the case your intelligence would be making out, day after day, till it crushed you. It's impossible that you could keep yourself from docketing the evidence and arranging it and absorbing it. Think! Consider what you know are actual facts. ...'
There is more, but that would make this post into a spoiler.

Actually, I think Elizabeth (the female speaker) underestimates the power of volitional belief.


Trent Dougherty said...

This is a great quoteq, I like a lot of it a lot. The only thing I think is off is the failure to include the delinerances of instinct in one's total evidence. It's part of a package of foundational justification without which we have no rational moorings.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that while she doesn't call deliverances of instinct a part of "the evidence", she clearly treats it as an appropriate ground of belief, and I think as an epistemic justifier. (Especially if you look at the parts of the conversation that I didn't quote lest I provide a spoiler.)

I think her point is that the deliverances of instinct don't have the stability of other evidence. That's a nice psychological insight. Remembering that instinct had delivered p just isn't as impressive to us as remembering that sight or hearing had delivered p.

I think in some cases there is an explanation of this. If I am in as good present state to observe E as I was in the past, I will favor my present failure to observe E over my apparent memory of having observed E. In the case of sense perception, I am often no longer in as good a state to observe E as I was when I apparently remember observing E. But in the case of instinctive insights, ceteris paribus, with experience I am in a better position for observing, and hence the present absence of an instinctive deliverance may override my memory of a past instinctive deliverance.

I also think, however, that in some cases the phenomenon Elizabeth describes involves a failing. We need to trust our past insights much as we trust our past sense perceptions.