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More Commitment

Entry 1645, on 2014-04-17 at 17:04:06 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

I recently listened to a podcast in the interesting "Philosophy Now" series which discussed commitment. You might think that commitment has got to be a good thing, but like many superficial analyses, this is not necessarily true.

For a start, what is commitment? It's the tendency to have loyalty to a view or activity, or to have allegiance to a group to a greater extent than would normally be the case. I think when put in such matter of fact terms it doesn't sound quite so attractive.

Clearly this is all about balance. There are appropriate levels of dedication to a view, then there is lack of perseverance at one end and stubborn refusal to change at the other end of the spectrum.

There are plenty of examples where an individual has persisted against prevailing views and even against the preponderance of evidence and has ultimately been proved right. But there are far more examples of the opposite: where a view against the evidence and majority opinion has just turned out to be wrong.

So maybe commitment is good or bad depending on the reason for the commitment. If a person is committed to a view because it fits with their political or religious ideology and for no other reason, then that is probably bad. Note that their beliefs may actually be right but even if they are it would be more through luck than knowledge, logic, or skill. And in general they are far more likely to be wrong.

On the other hand, if a person has a commitment to an idea because they have looked at the evidence in a different (and more accurate) way, or they have found new evidence, or have developed new techniques which aren't yet widely supported, then commitment to the idea against the mainstream is probably a good thing.

Of course there are many examples which fairly clearly fall into those two categories but there are others where a person's motivations aren't quite as clear, and that's where things get tricky.

So now I want to list a few examples of commitment of the different types I have listed above. First, what about bad commitment? I see a lot of this. Some people have commitment based on political or religious ideals.

For example many religious people have an unrealistic and harmful commitment to their holy book. They believe evolution can't be true because it contradicts Genesis, or that gay people are evil because the Bible says so, or that we don't need to be concerned with the environment because their god will look after it.

Others might have commitment to a political cause or group. They believe Obama is a socialist because a conservative politician has said so, or that global warming is fake because that's the prevailing view in a particular political clique they identify with, or that allowing a free market is the only good way to have the economy work efficiently because some ideologs on the particular TV channels they watch said that.

Note that those things aren't necessarily false (although most of them clearly are according to all good evidence, but I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which) but even if they are true the supporter has arrived at the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

What about examples where a person's commitment has been for the right reasons?

Copernicus was convinced the Sun was the center of the universe (actually this isn't true, but it is the center of the Solar System) because it just made more sense when the conventional ideology was removed from the equation. He was committed to that idea and finally saw his ideas in print on the day he died. He was right, and was committed to the idea for good reason.

Fred Hoyle was a great astrophysicist who was well known for his support of the Steady State Theory of the Universe. He supported this idea well past the point where any reasonable person would have given up, mainly because it just seemed more philosophically elegant. He was committed to that theory for a bad reason - and he was wrong.

String theorists are convinced their ideas are true even though there is little, if any, empirical evidence supporting them. From a mathematical perspective string theory is very compelling (from what I am told because I have never tried to understand the maths) but is that enough to commit your professional life to an idea? I don't know. This is genuinely a situation where the appropriate level of commitment is unclear.

So in summary: commitment is fine but you choose your causes carefully. Being committed to the wrong thing just makes you an inflexible idiot, or worse: a dangerous ideolog.


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