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Free Belief, Free Speech & Criticism: All are Important

First page of Areopagitica, by John Milton

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I’ve often said that criticizing the claims of others, even when those believe the claims to be true, does not infringe on their personal rights, whether to freely express those claims within legally-defined limits, nor their right to believe them, and finally, that those freedoms, essential in a pluralistic society, do not also entail protection from criticism.

I’ll attempt here to show why those statements are not just pronouncements from the proverbial chair.

Criticism of an idea alone does not impose on anyone’s right to hold true or express that idea, no matter how vociferous the criticism, for the simple reason that no coercion or deception is involved in such a critique given in honesty, and thus no undue compulsion to accept or reject the idea, nor censorship of it, is being exercised by the critic. There is no attempt to subvert the will or freedom of choice of the advocate of the claim, who may continue to believe the claim, or come to abandon it, on his or her own.

Lack of duress &/or trickery = Lack of violation of anyone’s rights.

Also, within certain constitutionally-defined limits in the U.S., one may freely express a belief or promote an idea without penalty, including critiques of other ideas so long as those critiques are both fair, lawful, and demonstrably true. This right does not imply acceptance of one’s claims.

Freedom to criticize is itself freedom of expression, and those who attempt to restrict it by claiming violation of their rights are themselves violating the right to free expression of their critics. Sorry, but you don’t get to have your proverbial cake and eat it too. If you don’t like what some mean old skeptic will say about your idea, don’t publish it.

Otherwise, get a thicker skin. Valid criticism is good because it improves the rigor of our arguments and tests the robustness of our ideas. The world is tough and if an idea cannot withstand the scrutiny of its critics, then it’s probably not worth the effort of defending it.

Imagination’s Limits

I have in my spare time a rather active fantasy life, and this is one of many reasons that I’m an avid tabletop role-player.

In both my daytime and nighttime musings many things are imagined, even, on occasion, entirely new fictional characters and even worlds from whole cloth.

Many of the events of these adventures are possible only within the realm of the fantastic, and this is where it’s a good idea to draw a clear and definite line on the proverbial floor or otherwise embrace madness, word to ya, James Randi…

It’s essential to keep in mind the difference between what is merely imagined and what one holds to be true in the world outside of one’s head.

Let’s face it, when taking a break from work or study, cruising the galaxy in a stolen alien starship while exercising a bit of willing suspension of disbelief is fun, but when it’s over, and the bad guys have had their butts bashed, when it’s time to get back to work, the lights come back on and my brain gets back into business mode…

…which brings me to this: What is imagined, what is only pictured in one’s head with no real reference to the world until shown otherwise is not knowledge unless and until it is tested against reality and found to be valid, once it has passed both its fair hearing and evidential muster.

Every idea ever conceived deserves the first, but few merit the second, since most of everything that has ever been imagined, or can be, has been shown demonstrably wrong when examined in anything approaching an objective manner.

Imagination is a fantastic source of ideas, one among many, but has no way in and of itself to assess their truth-content, and so is not a path to knowledge, merely the starting point of the journey.

For that, you need science, whether done professionally or not, whether done in the lab, in fieldwork, or in the home in everyday life.

Science, or an understanding of it’s methods, are for everyone, not just academics with doctorates, who just use it more systematically than most.

Don’t get me wrong — imagination is definitely needed to come up with new ideas, to weave explanatory patterns of facts into model, hypothesis and theory — but it’s critical scrutiny of observational data that actually gauges the likelihood of a claim’s worth and how well it fits into the tapestry of our understanding, what we can honestly say we know.

Once the idea and it’s means of testing have been decided upon, wonder and imagination take the back seat and let skepticism take the wheel, doing what it needs to do in revealing our fantasies, wishes, illusions and delusions, our errors, for the missteps they are, and in so doing, asymptotically correcting our picture of the world as it really is, not as we want it to be.


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