Arrogant Ignorance

I can have sympathy with those who are ignorant. After all, we're all ignorant about many things, right? And someone who is smart but arrogant about it is understandable to. But it drives me crazy to find people who are arrogant about their ignorance. I will start today's tirade with a parable:

A man lives in a searing desert. The only water he has ever seen in his life bubbles out of small springs in the cliffs.

One day, a trade route is established through his land, and he begins to meet many strangers. One thing he hears about from them is swimming. He has never conceived of such a notion. Secretly, he is jealous that all of these people have experienced something he's missed out on. But he won't admit that, even to himself. Instead, he proclaims that what these people are saying is irrational superstition, and that there supposed experiences of swimming are just self-delusion.

He begins to ask these people, with a sense of smug superiority, just how one goes about this "swimming." One traveler describes breaststroke to him, another backstroke, another the crawl, another butterfly, and so on. At this point, he exclaims "Aha! This proves these people are talking nonsense. Although they claim 'swimming' exists, they can't even agree about how its done!" He takes the fact that there are many ways to swim as proof that there is no way to swim!

If you decided that no one could combine such arrogance and ignorance, you'd be wrong.


  1. I have to admit, I was expecting Julian to say that the fact that there are so many different religions, proves that God doesn't exist. But that's not at all what he was arguing in that blog post.

  2. Anonymous11:48 PM

    It might be worth pointing out that for Christians God is a fact, not the answer to a question. Philosophers assume there is a question to be asked and some answer to be found, so it goes both ways.

  3. No, one of the commenters argued in that fashion, however.

  4. Anonymous7:38 AM

    I was unable to post this on Julian Sanchez' blog due to apparent problems with his server, so I'll post it here. Julian Sanchez was making a point that professors tend to be atheists more than the rest of the population, to which one blogger replied that professors are only experts within their limited field and Julian replied:

    "Fair enough; that would seem to suggest either philosophy or theology. But theology at worst assumes the answer to the question, at best is subject to a very strong selection bias, insofar as I doubt very many people pursue theology doctorates without a powerful preexisting conviction that God exists. That leaves philosophy. I've got no numbers here, but I'd lay money that there's much, much more disbelief among philosophers at elite institutions than among either the general population or academics in general. Of course, part of the problem here is deciding what counts as "expertise." If you think belief in religious propositions is a matter of faith generated by some kind of direct apprehension of their truth, then training in syllogisms is not going to count as providing the relevant expertise. But then, philosophers are also the ones who devote a lot of energy to debating things like whether that counts as a sound method of belief formation."

    To which I replied:

    If your goal is an honest discussion, there are a couple bones of contention here. Theologians do not usually see themselves as "assuming" God exists and working from there. They believe he does, that God precedes all questioning. I understand that you think the belief is erroneous, but to categorize it as an assumption is to make a sort of assumption yourself. If God does exist and it's a simple fact, then it makes sense that there would be people that study God and the relationship between man and God, no? The theologian that sees that God exists does not believe himself to be making an assumption, but something more like a judgment or an affirmation.

    Philosophy is not a well defined discipline (although neither is theology in the sense that God cannot be defined) and you may be right that most modern philosophers would not consider themselves believers in God. But if you consider this to support the atheistic stance, you are making two assumptions:

    1) That the majority of philosophers are correct and superior to theologians in result and method, in that rather than starting with God and working it out from there (as theologians might be said to do), philosophers begin with themselves and their own experience, ask questions and answer them as precisely and fairly as possible.

    This first of all ignores those philosophers who do believe in God, for various reasons. If there was a vote among academic philosophers as to the existence of God, the result has no impact on the truth. The assumption here, which might rely on a sort of Okham-like razor, is that the valid starting point is one's own experience, or even that the only starting point is one's own experience. This is opposed to the opposite approach, taken by some theists that our own experience can only exist within the context of a greater Experience. If we are all asleep or close our eyes, something is still thinking us through the night. This is a poorly stated idea Berkeley put forth (and he of course was a philosopher). There's no point in debating the validity of Idealism, but the fact that the majority of philosophers reject isn't really relevant to belief in God.

    2) That God is the answer to a question. I am speaking only of my own understanding, but when you begin to try to find a question to which God is the answer, you will inevitably begin to sound like a sage from the Tao Te Ching. It is my humble opinion that what most philosophers do these days has little to do with wisdom and that the very notion that wisdom may be real is quite alien to many people that describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. And that may be the root of the matter.

  5. Anonymous3:05 PM

    Is there a word for arrogant ignorance like the term "hubris" that describes aggresive overconfidence?

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