It’s all a matter of perception

The story is told of a man who becomes convinced that he’s dead.  At first, his family tries to logic:  “Look, you’re walking and breathing and talking.  You can’t possibly be dead!”  Failing that, they referred him to a psychiatrist who tried the same line of reasoning, again to no avail.  The man is eventually committed to a mental institution, still firmly convinced that he is dead, and daily visits with the doctors have no effect on changing his mind.

After some time, a new psychiatrist is assigned his case.  The new doctor has a new idea, and walks his patient through the medical texts to convince the man of one fact:  dead men don’t bleed.  After weeks of poring over the texts and other relevant information, the man concedes the point:  dead men do not bleed.

The doctor then takes a pin and pricks the man’s finger.  As you would expect, a drop of blood begins to well up in the tip of the patient’s finger.  Looking at it, astounded, the man exclaims, “Hey, Doc!  Dead men do bleed!”

How often do you run into people who, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, continue clinging to their own preconceived notions in much the same way as the man who was convinced that he was dead?

Better yet, have you ever found yourself holding tightly to a particular belief long after you have seen sufficient evidence to prove that you’re dead wrong?

The ability to re-examine and modify (or discard) your beliefs in the face of contrary evidence and admit it is perhaps the most important mark of intellectual maturity.

4 comments to It’s all a matter of perception

  • Darrin Chandler

    I don’t mind changing my mind and even admitting it to others isn’t so bad. I must say it can be uncomfortable to realize I’ve been wrong after a long contentious discussion. I keep wanting to say “but…” for a minute or so until I get my head around it.

  • This is actually a rather tricky and difficult area of epistemology. As Quine pointed out (and I call it Quine’s Law), evidence can compel you to revise your beliefs as a set, but it cannot compel you to revise a *particular* belief. You can always revise some other belief(s) instead. It is very hard to pin down good criteria for what is reasonable. Logic itself does not tell you how to strike the right balance.

  • Jim

    Certainly, logic itself is not enough, and I agree that evidence alone can’t tell you which belief to revise. At some point, however, as the evidence against a firmly held belief piles up, the intellectually honest person must at least reexamine (if not revise) that belief rather than continually ignore evidence or revise less firmly held beliefs.