A Weekend Conversation

I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over the past weekend, and while it started on the subject of a set of miniatures that he had recently bought at a convention, it quickly evolved, rather than devolved, a good thing in any case, into a talk on what he’s rather well-versed in — history.

In particular, we discussed the societal conditions and circumstances influencing the development of science from the 18th century onwards. We discussed some of the factors responsible for the scientism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the science of the period was then, just as it is now, influenced more or less by the social pressures and prejudices of the times, specifically those conditions that no longer apply to the present day.

First we talked about early paleontology and its origin, as with other sciences back then, as a pastime of the wealthy and those with wealthy patronage, for then, as now, cutting edge research requires funding. Of course, this was before the days of public funding for research, and a situation that led to the even today popular-but-now-erroneous image of the gentleman scientist. We discussed the social climate’s effects on rigidity and resistance to new ideas, again, conditions differing from the present.

There was the initial refusal during the 18th century to accept the existence of meteorites, much of it being due to an intellectual reaction against any claims that smelled even remotely like superstition, and probably the dominance at the time of aristocratic France on scientific thinking, the French having inherited the mantle from the previous holder during the last couple of centuries, Italy.

There appears to have been a sort of class-bound prejudice against accepting ‘old wives tales from unlettered commoners’ that stones fell from the sky, a situation that was resolved by the results of the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was overthrown and it was now the ‘unlettered commoners’ who were running the show.

On pain of committing an argument from authority, hopefully more of an argument by authority, I trust a good portion of what my friend tells me, for in my experience, he gives me leads to follow up on, and tends to be rather consistent in his factual accuracy when I check up on the leads.

Is this faith?

I would say not — it’s trust, but not blind trust. It’s trust based on the evidence of prior and relatively consistent accuracy in his statements, and so far he’s gotten a good batting average. It’s always a good idea to doubt when given sound reason, but without it, doubt becomes not skepticism, but irrational cynicism and contrarianism.

My friend and I have widely differing views on a number of matters, especially politics, but it’s a good indication that he’s being objective, and probably correct, when both he and I can agree on matters of politically-charged topics like history, and when he can state and address to my satisfaction my positions and any objections I may have to what he says.

Is he merely being a tricky fellow, merely pretending to accurately state and address my views like a skilled lawyer?

I doubt it, and for a good reason: It’s entirely inconsistent with what I’ve known about him over the years, since he’s far too straightforward and sincere, maybe even blunt, about his views and opinions and hasn’t ever shown a shred of duplicity in his motives. Again, doubt should be exercised when and where it’s appropriate, not as a knee-jerk reflex against anything that conflicts with one’s personal ideology and prejudices.

There’s a fuzzy but real demarcation between being a skeptic and being a denier along a continuum of attitudes and intellectual strategies, and in the arguments they use, not just the label. Fnord.

4 responses to “A Weekend Conversation

  1. Interesting that you write about this now, the coincidence factor (? :-) ), with what was on of all places The Daily News yesterday. As a guest John had William Rosen talking about his newest book where he claims that there have been few real inventions, except in the last 200 years. This he cliamed was due to the change of attitude and the idea that ideas could be the property of the discoverer. Hence, the steam engine became the workhorse of the industrial revolution instead of a toy in Egypt.


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