Their Method is Reasonable and Inevitable

Their Method is Reasonable and Inevitable

And it is doubtless true that there is a distinction between believing a thing because one is told it by an expert, and believing it because one has been into the evidence for oneself.

It is precisely the distinction between the man in the street and the original investigator, philosopher, physicist, mathematician, or whatever he may be. But the objection which we are considering puts a peculiar interpretation on this distinction. Because a man has once been a learner, it maintains, he cannot become an independent investigator unless he first forgets what he has learnt.

If he attempts to philosophise about God, he must first cease to believe in his existence. But is this reasonable ? Must we celebrate the beginning of our research into a subject by denying all we have been taught about it ? “Not perhaps by denying, but certainly by questioning.” Yes, no doubt: by asking whether we do believe : and, if we find we still do, by asking why we believe. Philosophy may start as well from one place as from another: and the fact that a man does actually believe in the existence of God, or of his fellow-man, or of an external material world, is no barrier to his becoming a philosopher.

The modern “broad-minded” critic would have him dissimulate these convictions, if he cannot get rid of them; and maintains that to come on the field with opinions ready made is to be hopelessly prejudiced. But the alternative, to come on the field with no opinions at all, is unfortunately impossible. It does not matter where you start, but you must start somewhere; and to begin by making a clean sweep of all your beliefs is only to deprive yourself of all material on which to work. Or rather, since the feat can never be really accomplished, it is to put yourself at the mercy of those surreptitious beliefs and assumptions which your broom has left lurking in the darker corners.

We are dealing not with abstract ideals, but with the ways and means of ordinary life and everyday thinking. No actual man can ever claim that his mind is, thanks to his sedulous avoidance of prejudice, a perfect and absolute blank as regards the matter he proposes to investigate. There is only one course open to any critic : to discover what he actually does think, and then to find out, if he can, whether his first idea was just or not; that is, to prove it or to disprove it. Systematic scepticism is the essence of all philosophy and all science; but scepticism, if it means pretending not to entertain convictions which in fact one finds inevitable, soon passes over into systematic falsehood.

Bearing in mind, then, that the preliminary statement of belief must be already, to some extent, critical, we can see that the method of argument to which exception was taken is not only inevitable in practice, but theoretically sound. The kind of thinking which accepts truths on authority is not “passive” not fundamentally distinct from that which criticises every step in detail. The authority is not accepted without some reason, and the fact that it is accepted does not incapacitate us from analysing the reasons for acceptance and from discovering further reasons.