An Argument for Freedom of Speech (1981), by Sean Gabb

An Argument for Freedom of Speech
by Sean Gabb (1981)

Note: Chris Tame set up the Adam Smith Club in 1976, and kept it going for years and years despite complaints from the younger but more famous Adam Smith Institute. This is the text of a speech that Chris asked me to make to the Club in August 1981. His urging set me into a terrible panic. I had never done this sort of thing before, and I knew that, if my throat was not to close over once I was on my feet, I needed a text in front of me. Here is that text.

I read it out at the Institute of Economic Affairs to an audience of about a dozen people, one of whom may have been Teresa Gorman. The speech was received with great kindness. Looking at the text for the first time in nearly thirty years, I think some of the kindness was deserved. On the other hand, I probably sounded dreadful as I read it out with much stumbling and false emphases. It is when I look back on these half-forgotten events that I realise again how much I owe to Chris Tame. Without his inspiration, I might by now have been a moderately successful estate agent!

WHEN I review the contents of my mind, nothing ever strikes me so forcibly as the fact of their insignificance.  I am approaching the end of a long and expensive education. I have open access at my university to libraries which contain all human knowledge. I read quickly and retain what I have read. Nor is my reading confined to one language. and yet, the more I read and perhaps learn, I only become more aware of my own immense ignorance.  There is so much that I not only do not know but that I never shall know, that what little knowledge I do have seems as nothing set against it.

The greater part of this ignorance is, of course, inevitable. I have at the most only another 70 years or so to live, and possibly much less. Ten times that long would be too short for me to know all that there is to be known. Let me therefore concentrate on knowing one or two small disciplines, and with that ambition let me be contented. No one ‑ not even a great genius ‑ could despise me on account of this. Yet there is another side to my ignorance which, though equally inevitable, is not always so readily excused. For there was a time when I used to sneer at the credulity of past generations ‑ at how people once accepted the wildest  nonsense  as infallible truth; at how when any ray of genuine truth entered their minds, their normal response was to shut it out again. Today, however, I feel rather less superior.. and I know that, like any mediaeval man in church, I believe often without proof, and sometimes even without understanding.

I believe, for example, that the world is round.  Yet how, on what I presently know, could I prove this if required? I have the evidence of my senses ‑ from when I look at the horizon. But I know from other instances that my senses often deceive me ‑ as when I look at a straight stick that appears bent when put half in water. Why should the horizon not equally be an  optical illusion?  I have  the  elegant  little  proof  of Eratosthenes, who took simultaneous measurements  at Alexandria and Syene, and found the intervening distance to form an arc of one great circle.  But while I understand the reasoning behind his proof, I have never once felt inclined to demonstrate it. I believe that the world is round because I was told so at school, and because all my geographical books and informants tell me, or indicate, the same. I hold this truth, therefore, on authority and might well be embarrassed  if  ever seriously asked to justify it.

The same applies regarding the world's place in the universe. I have no sensation of its doing other than stand still while objects in the sky rise and set.  I have never personally watched the retrograde motion of Mars, nor looked through a telescope at the phases of Venus. As I write, I am absolutely unable to argue on a scientific basis that the earth orbits the sun and not otherwise.  I found my  cosmogony  in  books,  and uncritically accepted it.

Elsewhere in physics, I learn of some particles which only exist for 10‑^17 seconds, and of others which have no mass. Looking at the jumble of numbers and Greek letters which take up page after page in the more advanced textbooks, and at the peculiar names and terms in the main text ‑ Quarks, Charmed Quarks, Anti‑Charmed Quarks, Gypsy Particles, etc ‑ I despair. I feel happier with the dogmas of the Hypostatic Union than with this mass of nonsense. Yet I would never dream of sneering at it.  I can imagine no new Voltaire poking fun at these modern mysteries. Insofar as I have any opinion regarding them, I accept them without question. The men of science have spoken. Who am I to say against them?

Now, I accept opinions on authority, and confess that I do without shame.  Yet I also accept  that  my authorities have not always a single voice. Indeed, like a path through a great forest, truth is often more easily seen by those who follow than by the pioneers. We return to the instance of cosmogony.  When the evidence is examined rather than merely taken for granted, perhaps there is no question now that the Copernican improves on the Ptolemaic theory. Tycho Brahe, however, the most eminent astronomer of  the  16th  century,  thought otherwise. On the one hand, Copernicus had assumed a circular orbit for the earth, and not, as Kepler did later, an elliptical one. Brahe, quite honestly on this account, found the new theory scarcely more reliable for prediction purposes than the old.  On the other, he argued, if the earth truly were moving through space, this motion would have to be apparent to us from the shifting of the planets relative to the more distant stars. It was again only in the next century that astronomical distances were revealed, so allowing this parallactic shift to occur, but not perceptibly without sensitive measuring instruments.  Quite possibly, much that I now accept on trust is mistaken, and much that I scorn by example is the truth.  Bearing this in mind, what is it that separates me from the mediaeval man in church, who subscribed to or recited anathemas against doctrines which were to him strings of words without overall meaning? What is it that saves me from the charge of being an uninformed bigot?

The answer is simple: Free Speech.  When I believe without proof, I do so confident that someone else has not believed without it – that someone will have conceived an idea, and published it for the inspection of other experts in the relevant fields of study. It may quietly be accepted as a useful advance, or pointedly ignored as not worth refuting.  It may stir up the wildest and most prolonged controversy.  Of one thing, however, I can be sure  This is that the idea will have been examined by those whose chief immediate object is the finding of truth, and who, if drawn away from that search ‑ by desire to flatter some prejudice, or gain some worldly advantage ‑ will be quickly exposed as frauds by the more honest majority.  Certainly, what emerges from this process may not always be the truth. Human reason is fallible, and does not become perfect when collected in a large mass. But, if not always the truth, what emerges will at least, in the opinion of those best qualified to know, have the balance of probability in its favour. There is, in the modern West, no question of one side using against the other the compelling arguments of the torture chamber and the auto da fe ‑ nor, to come into the present, of the labour camp and the firing squad. The coercive authority of the State, whenever it extends into argument, can only destroy my confidence. For it turns a contest of reason against reason into one of reason against power.  It allows me no longer to assume that what is written is probably right, but makes me wonder when I read what interest is being served by the writer.

Freedom in commercial matters encourages a division of labour. To be exact, it lets me have shoes without my being a cobbler. It does much the same in the realm of knowledge. It assures me whether the races really are equals in intellect without my being an anthropologist, what pollution is doing to my surroundings without my being a government scientist, whether cigarettes or heroin really are bad for me without my being a doctor. It gives all of us the confidence to believe more than we could ever have time or aptitude to find out with our own unaided intellects.

And, while I still live in a country that allows freedom of speech, I never need be ashamed of admitting to this kind of ignorance.

© 1981 – 2017, seangabb.

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