Victoria and HolmesMay 26, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
There’s a particular approach to the truth that I call the Loser’s Compromise, and it goes like this: “We can’t know the truth about X, so let’s just agree that different people are equally justified in believing whatever they like about it.” Considered superficially, it sounds open-minded and fair, because it appeals to a certain live-and-let-live quality that avoids putting anyone in the wrong. In reality, though, it’s a deceptive rationalization, and an excuse for avoiding the truth instead of embracing it.
To illustrate why this “compromise” is actually a form of self-deception, let’s consider two different people, one of whom believes that Queen Victoria was an actual person who lived in England in the 1800’s, and the other wants to believe that Sherlock Holmes was an actual person who lived in England at the same time.
Which of these people need to resort to the Loser’s Compromise? The person who wants to believe in Queen Victoria doesn’t. Queen Victoria actually did exist, and there’s abundant evidence of both her existence and her reign. There is no correspondingly abundant evidence for a competing theory that she existed only as an entertaining character in the fictional works of some prominent author. The evidence reflects a clear and distinct difference in support for the Real Person Hypothesis versus the Fictional Character Hypothesis, and that difference in evidentiary support is what we mean when we say we are justified in concluding that Queen Victoria really existed.
Appealing the the Loser’s Compromise would be foolish under these conditions. Not only does it fail to lend any better support to the conclusion that Victoria existed, but it actually compromises our ability to recognize the truth, since it grants equal weight to the false conclusion that she was merely a fictional character. This is going to be true in any question of objective fact: at most one conclusion will be consistent with the actual real-world truth, and other conclusions are going to be false. To treat all conclusions as equally justified is to prevent oneself from distinguishing between true answers and false ones. For the honest inquirer who wishes to know the truth about Victoria’s existence, such an approach would be abhorrent because of its inescapable self-deception.
It might have a certain appeal, though, to the person who wishes to believe that Sherlock Holmes was real. Because Holmes did not actually exist, the Loser’s Compromise offers the believer something that the evidence can’t: a presumption of legitimacy. By gainsaying all evidentiary differences between the Real Person Hypothesis and the Fictional Character Hypothesis, the believer can avoid having his false beliefs exposed as false. That’s a rhetorical benefit to the person believing a falsehood, but only because his beliefs are false. He doesn’t want to know the truth because the truth isn’t what he wants it to be. Thus, the best he can hope for is to reduce everyone else to a level of ignorance that will prevent them from knowing his answer is wrong.
This is why I call it the Loser’s Compromise. The believer knows (at some level) that the evidence is against him, and that’s why he tries to discredit it so that it cannot be used to distinguish between truths and untruths. It’s an intentional sabotage of one’s ability to discern, and thus is a desperate, last-ditch effort at rationalization. The honest inquirer has no need of it, because the evidence will already support the genuine truth. The only function of the Loser’s Compromise is to create a false justification for a preconceived and false conclusions.