Friday, July 08, 2005

"Idiotic" beliefs

What does it mean to judge a belief as "idiotic"? Surely not that every believer is ipso facto an idiot. That would be far too strong. Perhaps it means that they are idiots in the respect that they hold that belief (allowing that this may be outweighed by insight or intelligence in other respects). Or perhaps it's just a general disparagement of the belief in question, and doesn't really have any clear meaning (or implications about believers) at all?

Take as an example Young-Earth Creationism, or perhaps astrology. (If you believe in one of these, then pick the other. I'm hoping that nobody believes both!) These strike me as prime examples of idiotic beliefs. Does it imply anything about the people who believe them? Should we say that anybody who believes in astrology is, as a person, idiotic in that respect? (I guess I'm inclined towards an affirmative answer, but I'd like to hear what others think.)


  1. An idiotic belief is one which requires an /act of idiocy/ in order to believe it.

    What that may imply about the actor is left as an exercise to the reader...


  2. Dunno
    Are all socialists idiots? It is on a par with astrology.

  3. Anon. - Is socialism even a belief? I would've thought it closer to a desire, but it doesn't make much sense to call a desire "idiotic". But maybe you meant to be refering to some of the empirical theses typically held by socialists. *shrug*. Anyway, I guess we can take your comment as some evidence for interpretation #3: "general disparagement". Though I still favour #2, myself. (Note that your question invokes interpretation #1, which I explicitly rejected in the main post.)

    MP - that's a neat explanation, actually. Let's label it "#4". (It's consistent with #2, and might be seen as one way of elaborating it.)

  4. Are there not circumstances where beliefs that would be idiotic for you to hold may not be idiotic for others to hold? Can beliefs themselves be idiotic?

  5. Macht, that's certainly true. Belief in creationism or a flat earth would not have been idiotic a few thousand years ago. One nice feature of MP's definition is that it allows for this kind of context-dependence - people with one set of evidence can believe X without committing an act of idiocy, while those with another set of evidence could not believe X without committing an act of idiocy.

    However, I don't think that MP's definition covers every case of idiotic beliefs. I want to say that it's idiotic for an adult to believe in Santa Claus, but not for a child. But a person can go from a child who believes in Santa to an adult who believes in Santa without committing any particular act of idiocy. (If you think that this example just shows that children are idiots, then you could take some example where a scientific fact is conclusively proved and well-publicized during someone's life but his beliefs don't keep up with the science - say, that smoking causes cancer.)

    So I say #2 is best, though it's sometimes used more in sense #3.

  6. It sounds like right here we've managed to hit a sorites paradox.

    I would say, personally, that we could clean up the way we're talking by insisting on talking not about idiotic beliefs but rather idiotic believings. At that point it makes more sense to attribute an idiotic believing to someone without necessarily attributing idiocy in general to that person. At any rate, I frequently (or semi-frequently) refer to certain actions of mine as idiotic ones but I'd hope that doesn't entail that I personally consider myself to be an idiot.

    Similarly I would think that talking in terms of actions (believings) would clean up oddities like the apparent sense of believing the earth to be flat several thousand years ago compared with the obvious idiocy of believing that at the moment. Of course, that may still leave the Santa Claus question open.

  7. I like these suggestions. I think I'd have to agree with Macht that it makes little sense to say that a belief itself is universally idiotic. (So now I'm edging towards #3.) What might be idiotic is a particular "believing" (as Dr. P puts it), which takes into account contextual circumstances and subjective evidence, etc.

    Blar, could we avoid your problem by including "acts of omission". We might say that it is idiotic to fail to act and update one's beliefs in light of new evidence, or something like that. (We might also need to allow for "cumulative actions", where no particular act or omission was idiotic, but the combination of them is.)


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