Believing and knowing

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been listening to the political rhetoric all around us, and recalling when he learned to distinguish between knowing and believing.

(Lange) Thomas A. Donovan taught sophomore English, and he was good at it. Precise, strict, witty, and demanding, he was dedicated to converting our class of semiliterate savages into young writers. Many of his assignments were for arguments. He made sure we could spot glittering generalities, argumenti ad hominem, arguments from authority, and other fallacies, and then turned us loose. His corrections were often embarrassing. It wasn’t enough to be honest and earnest and right. We had to prove it.

I think of him when I read letters to the editor. I can spot the ones he’d bring to class as examples of well-reasoned argument, and the ones he’d call classic buncombe.

One thing he said made a lasting impression: If the other guy starts attacking you instead of your argument, you’ve won. He didn’t tell us sometimes that hurts.

We wound each other a lot with personal attacks. It’s nothing new. An opponent called Abraham Lincoln “that grinning ape in the White House.” You’d think that with our increased sophistication and improved educational system, we’d restrain ourselves better. But the current expansion of personal freedoms has roused many citizens to fever pitch. Brickbats and damnation are again in fashion.

The problem lies between what we know and what we believe. We can coolly defend what we know, because we have evidence to support it. But defending what we believe becomes a matter of some heat. Galileo’s assertion that the earth revolved around the sun challenged the theories of other scientists, who were skeptical, and tested his conclusions. It also challenged the beliefs of the Church, which gave him a choice between public apostasy and burning at the stake for heresy.

President Bush has said he truly believes Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” I’m glad he used the word, “believe,” because if it turns out there were none, it’ll be clear he did not “know.” Knowing requires evidence. But that can be settled by rational argument, while in defending his belief, his staff gets a little testy.

Recent court decisions granting equal rights to homosexuals have brought out the faithful on both sides. The opposition often depends upon Biblical proscriptions against it – what Mr. Donovan would call “the argument from authority.”

But Scriptural enshrinement of taboos doesn’t make good civil law. That proscription, for example, is less frequent in Scripture than those against eating shellfish. Does the majority decide which moral laws to ignore, and which to enforce? That may be democratic, but democracy ends where minorities are reviled and repressed.

If we could separate what we know from what we believe, argument would hardly disappear. Far from it. Social progress and honest government demand it. But personal attacks have no place. A modern poet says about it “We’re still essentially rolling rocks down upon each other. It’s so unevolved.”

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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