Remote From My Senses

Earlier we saw that opinions about things more remote from the senses are more likely to be influenced by motives apart from truth. However, even if in principle a thing would have many obvious empirical consequences, it is possible that those consequences are quite unclear to me, or perhaps those consequences could only be seen by others. In such a case the matter may be remote from the senses in a personal way; I do not personally see how it would make a difference to me either way, or it can make such a difference to others, but not to me.

For example, Fermat’s Last Theorem was proven by Andrew Wiles in 1994. If the theorem were false, in principle this would surely have empirical consequences. But the proof is complex enough that this is basically a theoretical rather than a practical statement. Someone who is not a mathematician, or anyone who was not verified the proof for himself, simply has to trust mathematicians as a body about the fact that the proof is valid. Even for those mathematicians who have verified the proof for themselves, most likely they are more confident that it is true based on their trust in the community of mathematicians than in their own effort to verify it. If I am a mathematician who has verified it, I could easily have made a mistake. But it would be less likely that the same or similar mistakes were made by every single mathematician who tried.

In a sense, then, Fermat’s Last Theorem is somewhat remote from the senses for every individual person, including mathematicians. So why do we not see widespread disagreement about it, disagreement of the kind we see in politics and religion?

If Fermat’s Last Theorem were false, this would require either a conspiracy theory, or a quasi-conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy theory, of course, would be that mathematicians as a body know that Fermat’s Last Theorem is false, but do not want everyone else to know this, so they claim that they have verified the proof and found it valid, while in reality there are flaws in it and they know about them.

The quasi-conspiracy theory would be that mathematicians as a body believe that Fermat’s Last Theorem is true, but that they consistently fail in their attempt to verify the proof. There is a mistake in it, but each time someone tries to verify it, they fail to notice the mistake.

The reason to call this a quasi-conspiracy theory is that the most reasonable way for this to happen is if mathematicians as a body have motivations similar to the mathematicians in the case of the actual conspiracy, motivations that cause them to behave in much the same ways in practice.

We can see this by considering a case where you would have an actual conspiracy. Suppose a seven year old child is told by his parents that Santa Claus is the one who brings presents on Christmas Eve. The child believes them. When he speaks with his playmates, they tell him the same thing. If he notices something odd, his parents explain it away. He asks other adults about it, and they say the same thing.

The adults as a body are deceiving the child about the fact that Santa Claus does not exist, and they are doing this by means of an actual conspiracy. They know there is no Santa Claus, but they are working together to ensure that the child believes that there is one.

What is necessary for this to happen? It is necessary that the adults have a motive quite remote from truth for wishing the child to believe that there is a Santa Claus, and it is on account of this motive that they engage in the conspiracy.

In a similar way, suppose that mathematicians as a body were deluded about Fermat’s Last Theorem. Since they are actually deluded, there is no actual conspiracy. But how did this happen? Why do they all make mistakes when they try to verify the theorem? In principle it might simply be that the question is very hard, and there is a mistake that is extremely difficult to notice. And in reality, this may be the only likely way for this to happen in the case of mathematics. But in other cases, there may be a more plausible mechanism to generate consistent mistakes, and this is wishful thinking of one kind or another. If mathematicians as a body want Fermat’s Last Theorem to be true and to be a settled question, they may carelessly overlook mistakes in the proof, in order to say that it is true. Technically they are not making a deliberate mistake. But in practice it is the lack of care about truth, and the interest in something opposed to truth, which makes them act as a body to deceive others, just as an actual conspiracy does.

Scientists as a body believe that the theory of evolution is true, and that it is very certain. Wikipedia illustrates this:

The Discovery Institute announced that over 700 scientists had expressed support for intelligent design as of February 8, 2007. This prompted the National Center for Science Education to produce a “light-hearted” petition called “Project Steve” in support of evolution. Only scientists named “Steve” or some variation (such as Stephen, Stephanie, and Stefan) are eligible to sign the petition. It is intended to be a “tongue-in-cheek parody” of the lists of alleged “scientists” supposedly supporting creationist principles that creationist organizations produce. The petition demonstrates that there are more scientists who accept evolution with a name like “Steve” alone (over 1370) than there are in total who support intelligent design.

But there are many, like Fr. Brian Harrison, who think that the scientists are wrong about this. The considerations of this post make clear why it is possible for someone to believe this. If Fr. Harrison is right, scientists as a body would be engaging in a quasi-conspiracy. Many scientists are atheists, and perhaps they would like evolution to be true because they think it makes atheism more plausible. Perhaps such motivations, together with the motive of sticking together with other scientists, sufficiently explain why scientists are misinterpreting the evidence to support evolution, even though it does not actually support it.

If I have not studied the evidence for evolution myself, this argument is much more plausible than the same claim about Fermat’s Last Theorem, simply because there is no actually plausible motive in the mathematical case. But if there were a plausible motive, one would be likely to see such quasi-conspiracy theories about mathematical claims as well.

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