On explanations that make people stupid—S.N.Balagangadhara

I do not believe that any cultural practice (i.e. a practice that has survived and been transmitted through successive generations) should be explained by attributing beliefs to its practitioners in such a way that the beliefs make the practitioners come out stupid. Why do I say this? There are primarily two reasons: our ignorance and the principle of ‘charity’. Let me explain.

(a) Our ignorance. We know very little about how cultures come into being, how they reproduce themselves and how they disappear. Until such a stage, where we are able to discuss each cultural practice (like rain dance, for example) individually, we should avoid making a virtue of our ignorance. One could come up with any number of explanations today to explain a cultural practice like rain dance. Without exception, they would all be ad hoc in nature and, as such, the opposite of what a scientific explanation is. Therefore, my criticism of such explanations is to show their ad hoc character and, where possible, identify what makes them ad hoc. The purpose? To move forward in order to develop a science of cultures and cultural differences.

(b) The principle of charity. While both intelligence and stupidity are not exclusive prerogatives of any one particular set of people belonging to any one culture, explanations that attribute causal beliefs to the practitioners of, say, the rain dance do make an entire culture appear stupid. How? Assume for a moment we attribute to the people who perform the rain dance the following belief: they believe that their dance causes the rains to come. Precisely because of our ignorance about the dynamics of cultures, we are forced to make this attribution more general and say that such is their notion of causal forces that they believe in the causal efficacy of their rain dance. (We have no way, at the moment, to limit our attribution only to performing the rain dance.) Then the question becomes: are they not aware of the operation of causal forces? Do they not know that the boats are caused by their work on wood? Are they not aware that rains come when they do not dance and, therefore, that there are (at least) other causes? Do they have the concept of cause at all? So on and so forth. Because the practice is transmitted over generations, and it is considered important by that culture, we will be forced by the logic of our argument to extend the same attribution to the culture as a whole. Consequently, the entire culture is made to appear stupid. They may not have our (current) natural sciences, but my principle of charity tells me not to assume their stupidity because of this. In other words, I assume they are as reasonable as any other group of human beings. If it was as simple as believing in the causal efficacy of their dance, surely, I believe, many intelligent people in their culture would have questioned it, ridiculed it, and so on. My principle of charity tells me that if it has survived, then that is not because they have no notion of cause and causal forces. (Besides, I think such a group would not survive as a group for any period of time.) This is the principle of charity: assume that the other person (group, culture) is at least as reasonable as you (your group, your culture) and try to understand them thus. Consequently, my objections rest on at least on these two grounds.

(c) How defensible is this position? How ‘scientific’ is this? This is a philosophical assumption in whose favor I have some evidence. It is, however, important to note that this assumption functions as a heuristic of research and not as a premise in my arguments. Consequently, if my research forces me to say that some culture X or Y is stupid, I would do so. But that result must be scientifically demonstrable.

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