Interpreting History and Sceptcism

In an email exchange regarding an article in The Hindu regarding secularization and modernization, a friend (call him X) commented: “As far as the article goes ….. I didn’t like it as much. More like the author already has some conclusions and wants to write something to highlight those conclusions.”

Indeed the author already has some conclusions or rather an interpretation of history. The same could be said of my post regarding the same article. Why is that bad? Could it even be otherwise? Anyone who is sufficiently interested in a subject to write about it will and should have an interpretation of the relevant historical events. Having an opinion/conclusion/interpretation is not bad. Not having the honesty to revise ones ideas if one finds facts that contradict them is. In fact, forming tentative hypotheses and refining/correcting them as one encounters new facts is the proper method to deal with anything that has a large scope. 

As an example of this, I am a software application developer. My work involves building upon an enormous amount of previous work of which I know very little. I do not know much about how the hardware on which my application runs. I do not know much about the network over which it communicates. I do not know about all the intricacies and design details of the software libraries that I use. Yet I need and have a mental model for all these things. The model is better in some areas than in others but it is not complete and will probably never be. But the fact that I might never be able to have a complete mental model does not mean that I should try not to have a model at all.

Of course, the example is not fully analogous. It is not possible to test an interpretation of history in the way that it is possible to test a model of computer hardware or software. But the necessity for interpreting history remains. History is the only place where we can actually see ideas in action. It is the only empirical source for validating ideas.

The attitude of discounting something because the author seems to have firm opinions smacks of scepticism. In the same email, X also wrote “I think that religion in not the center of the universe  for most”. Scepticism seems to me to be very common among the non-religious. But scepticism is an intellectual dead end. It transforms philosophy from a tool for living well to a game of no consequence. If one believes that one should never form firm ideas, one cannot take ideas (especially moral ideas) seriously. (I will provide an example of this in my next post.) And that is not conducive for a good life.


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