A lesson in epistemic humility from a great master of 20th century literature:
‘You are a slow learner, Winston,’ said O’Brien gently.
‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’
‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’
(George Orwell, 1984)
Winston here doesn’t get it. It seems to him that 2 + 2 = 4 – always! And always, because it is necessarily so; it seems to Winston impossible that adding two to two not result in four. He can see that it is with his eyes, and “see” that it must be with his mind. Or, so he thinks.
O’Brien explains that the Magisterium of the Party is to be trusted above one’s own intuitions. If they say it is three, then it is three. And should that say it is five, it would be five. If they say it is 3 and 4 and 5 – then so be it. Sanity involves trusting their judgement over your own; theirs trumps yours. You must know your place, citizen. Only an extreme individualist would disagree.
Is it an apparent contradiction (aka positive mystery)? Sure. Winston seems to think this is somehow a problem.
But is it any surprise that the collective wisdom of The Party should surpass that of a puny, recently born creature like yourself? After all, the Party consists of humans like you, many of them smarter than you. Surely it is sheer arrogance to think you’ve magically become wiser than the Party – the Mother who birthed you, provided for all your needs, and taught you everything you know. Honestly, what is the chance of that? We should expect that some things she tells us do no make sense to us. Thus, that the Party asserts apparent contradictions is evidence that she speaks only truth.
Poor Winston – he thinks he’s sane. But, that’s how a lot of insane people think of themselves.
Winston might try to argue that he really loves the Party, and would like to reform it for the better. Insanely, he doesn’t realize that the Party is just as it should (now) be. Big Brother has seen to it, and we all trust him – at least, those of us who are sane. If he wants to change the Party, he will, and it will be the right change at the right time. Winston is a citizen, and the place of a citizen is to serve and obey the Party, which requires trusting her judgments, which are of course His judgments as well. Winston keeps forgetting that. Thank Big Brother that we have O’Briens to gently remind us.
Here’s some more therapy for you:
It’s the whole BBC production, starring a young Peter Cushing. It’s good.