I wrote this email message about "Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs" to the author, Professor Wallace Matson, shortly after the book was published, and two months before he died in 2012 at age 91.
Dear Professor Matson,
I read "Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs" a few weeks ago. My immediate impulse was to write to you about the many things you wrote that I agree with, and the things I had inklings about which you reinforced. But most of my ideas and inklings likely arose from reading about high and low beliefs in the Second Edition of your text books or your "Uncorrected Papers". And you already know these things. So, I'm not sure there is a lot to be gained by going on about how enlightening they are as I have done in the past. But, now, after reading your book again, there are a few things I would like to say about it.
Will Durant wrote that we have become a world of specialists, knowing more and more about less and less. Unfortunately, it seems to me this is so even for many philosophers. You are an exception to that. You have offered an edifying account of the biggest picture of where we are and how we got here. If Hume awakened Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, hopefully you will do the same for many present day philosophers. You make it clear that brilliant men have wasted valuable time in philosophical cul-de-sacs. I admire your ability to see things clearly and your willingness to tell it like it is.
While most religious beliefs are products of wishful thinking, and are intended to help people maintain hope and overcome fear, when beliefs are in conflict with knowledge they begin to lose their value. And when they collide with the beliefs of others, they threaten our peaceful coexistence. If their purpose is to raise hopes and to diminish fears, it is at least ironic that, in the near term, conflicts in religious belief now stand as the most likely cause of our voluntary extinction. As you note, this danger has arisen because our intelligence has evolved more rapidly than our hunter/gatherer emotions have evolved. So, as a species, we are now in the precarious state of a powerful intellectual genius, but, at the same time, a dangerous emotional adolescent.
My hope is that your book will be widely recognized for what it is - a comprehensive, thoughtful description of the development of a common, yet significant, feature of human life, and an explanation of why, despite its flaws and dangers, it persists. If your concepts of "high belief" and "low belief" and their implications become widely understood, it could go a long way toward defusing the threat imposed on the world by religious belief. Hopefully, others will adopt these concepts, and will build on the foundation that you have so beautifully put in place.
Just as you did in the first sentence of the introduction to your philosophy text, George Santayana made an important point in the first sentence of his introduction to "Three Philosophical Poets" (one of whom, as you likely know, was our friend Lucretius): "The sole advantage of possessing great works of literature lies in what they can help us to become." In his keen insight, Santayana moved one step beyond the value of 'knowledge' itself, to the impact it has on what we 'are'. Your book has the potential to do that. It can cause us to become something better than what we are now.
Thank you, Professor Matson, for sharing with all of us your valuable thoughts. And thanks to everyone from your students at Berkeley to your friends at Yale who helped make it possible.
With fondest personal regards,
Brief response from Professor Matson:
Thank you again for your beautiful letter. That makes it so worth while.
Bonus quote from Quine: "To learn is to learn to have fun."