Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Contingency & Belief

I'm in the significant minority of humans who ever lived in that I believe that the sun orbits the earth. It's a recent belief about the world to emerge, one that's only gained acceptability within the last 400 years. I live in a society now where this is a widespread belief, something handed down to me from parents, educators, and other cultural media.

I think it would be a mistake, however, to think that's sufficient for the belief itself. After all, I was also brought up to believe in psychic powers such as mind-reading and spoon bending. I was also taught to believe in some form of God, and that didn't stick either.

The problem with arguments from cultural imposition is that if something is handed down through culture, it doesn't necessarily explain away the belief itself. It's where elements of the beliefs are arbitrary in the sense that they differ from culture to culture where arguments from cultural contingency are effective.

If I were born in another time and place, my solar model would not have been heliocentrist, yet there are good reasons to be a heliocentrist. The persistence of the idea in the scientific community at a time when knowledge of astronomy has reached such a point where crafts can be landed on a planet hundreds of millions of kilometres away is a good indicator that the knowledge has validity.

Meanwhile a belief in aliens as an explanation for certain phenomena like sleep paralysis is as vague as positing demons. Both beliefs are representative of the time, but the preference of one over the other is arbitrary, as both as suitably vague. In this case the cultural contingency is that one belief cannot be preferred over the other.

At the core of the argument from cultural imposition is not the culture handing down the belief so much as the belief itself is arbitrary. The mode of transmission highlights its arbitrariness, not that cultural transmission makes it arbitrary.

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