Life at № 42
“The presumption that any current opinion is not wholly false gains in strength according to the number of its adherents. Admitting, as we must, that life is impossible unless through a certain agreement between internal convictions and external circumstances; admitting therefore that the probabilities are always in favour of the truth, or at least the partial truth, of a conviction; we must admit that the convictions entertained by many minds in common are the most likely to have some foundation. The elimination of individual errors of thought, must give to the resulting judgement a certain additional value. It may indeed be urged that many widely spread beliefs are received on authority; that those entertaining them make no attempts at verification; and hence it may be inferred that the multitude of adherents adds but little to the probability of a belief. But this is not true. For a belief which gains extensive reception without critical examination, is thereby proved to have a general congruity with the various other beliefs of those who receive it; and in so far as these various other beliefs are based upon personal observation and judgement, they have an indirect warrant to one with which they harmonise. It may be that this warrant is of small value; but still it is of some value. Could we reach definite views on this matter, they would be extremely useful to us. It is important that we should, if possible, form something like a general theory of current opinions; so that we may neither over-estimate nor under-estimate their worth. Arriving at correct judgements on disputed questions, much depends on the attitude of mind we preserve while listening to, or taking part in, the controversy; and for the preservation of a right attitude, it is needful that we should learn how true, and yet how untrue, are average human beliefs. On the one hand, we must keep free from that bias in favour of received ideas which expresses itself in such dogmas as “What every one says must be true,” or “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” On the other hand, the fact disclosed by a survey of the past, that majorities have usually been wrong, must not blind us to the complementary fact, that majorities have usually not been entirely wrong. And the avoidance of these extremes being a prerequisite to catholic thinking, we shall do well to provide ourselves with a safeguard against them, by making a valuation of opinions in the abstract. To this end we must contemplate the kind of relation that ordinarily subsists between opinions and facts. Let us do so with one of those beliefs which under various forms has prevailed among all nations in all times.”
Everyone should read Spencer. No need to agree with everything he says, but read him. A System of Synthetic Philosophy is available online free through Google books. He provides readers with some quite exceptional mental exercise. Here’s a page that sums him up.