Why can’t we all just get along? When it comes to discussion, why can’t we seem to understand what each other are saying?
As is outlined extensively in my yet-unfinished book, epistemology (how we know what we know) is a field of intense and voluminous study. I will do my utmost to remain concise and direct today, but we will see if I can manage to get my point across.
Among thinking people, there is a disturbing trend of people missing each others’ points and progressively resorting to name-calling and physical altercation. Friendships end, wars erupt, libraries are burned… all over a misunderstanding as to whether Star Trek ToS is better or worse than J.J. Abrams’ reboot. This phenomenon is easy to see every four years in America, when just under half of the population suddenly erupts in closed-minded and aggressive rhetoric over which master we should be owned by and what behaviors we ought to compel with the violence of the state. For many people, this argument continues on a daily basis (Thanks, Obama).
Very, very rarely does one actually change their mind or realize that oneself was wrong. On the occasion that one does so, it is rarely a result of dialogue, but instead a result of a personal and concrete experience of their worldview and reality not comporting. This sort of event is at the heart of every popular feel-good drama about a grouchy old person overcoming his racism. My purely subjective standard by which I choose to judge a philosopher’s ability to philosophize is their willingness and ability to change their mind and admit error by way of dialogue as opposed to concrete experience.
While very few people my be called to be a philosopher, everyone ought to be capable and willing to do philosophy, lest they be vulnerable to misanthropy, self-dehumanization, and falling for vicious and criminal ideologies. What is required in order to do philosophy? There is a multitude of tools required and yet another multitude of tools that are merely useful. The first two, the most fundamental and primary, of these tools are logic and paradigmatic awareness. Of course, one is a prerequisite for the other.
What is logic? Logic, contrary to popular belief, does not refer to “all of the not-emotional things that happen in my brain”. Logic is a science and an art as old as man’s pursuit of knowledge. As a science, the body of theories and research has been steadily growing through the generations. As an art, the technique and skill of those who wield it waxes and wanes with times and cultures. Logic is the place where language, reason, and objective observation meet. Logic, in its purest form, is the exploration of the principle of non-contradiction and its application to our experience of reality. The quest for knowledge requires a reliable and finely-tunes toolset. The study of logic, epistemology, and phenomenology, has been directed towards the development of these tools since their inception.
Even though some high schools teach introductory classes on deductive symbolic logic and may touch on inductive reasoning, logic has been widely abandoned by our education system and, by extension, society at large. Without a working knowledge of and praxis concerning deduction, induction, abduction, and the interrelationship of the three, one cannot be expected to be consistent in their beliefs, claims, and behaviors. Unfortunately, a blogcast of this length and quality is insufficient to teach such a skill. Fortunately, there is a vast body of material available on the internet for those that wish to be rational.
A grossly oversimplified and brief introduction of the three is required, though, before I can address paradigmatic awareness. Deduction, then, is described as “arguing from the general to the specific”. A classic, if not entirely reliable, example is the famous “all men are mortal” syllogism.
“All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. ∴ Socrates is mortal.”
In this case, it assumes general premises such as “all men are mortal” and uses the principle of non-contradiction to reach the conclusion, “Socrates is mortal.” So long as the premises are factual and there is no error in the logic, the conclusion must be true.
Induction, in simple formulation, is arguing from specifics to the general. An example frequently addressed in modern philosophy is the claim, “the sun will rise tomorrow.” This claim is made based in the consistency of such an occurrence in the past as well as an absence of any predictors which indicate that such an occurrence would cease (for example, the sun vanishing would leave some pretty significant clues). Induction does not produce certainty in the same way that deduction may, but instead some well-reasoned and reliable guesses which have a particular utility about them.
Abduction can be considered “making the strongest case”. If the circumstance arises such that a question presents itself which requires an answer and neither a deductive nor an inductive argument is possible, one can produce an answer which does not contradict accepted deductive and inductive claims and is, itself, self-consistent. Using tools such as observation, occam’s razor, intuition, and a detailed understanding of one’s paradigm (we’ll address this is a minute), one can make a compelling case as to why their chosen belief is true.
This brings us to the interrelation of the three. Due to the certainty produced by valid deductive reasoning, one’s inductive claims cannot come into contradiction with such claims. If one is committed to a particular inductive claim which is found in contradiction with deductive claims, they must first demonstrate a flaw in the premises or logic of the existing deductive claim. This same priority is given induction over abduction for the same reasons.
Of course, this description ignores the source of our general premises that this whole process began with. In all reality, premises are produced by abductive reasoning and ratified by the simple Popperian principle of trial and error. This means that, per Gödel, any complete philosophical worldview cannot prove itself to be factual. Only by way of comparing a worldview’s predictions and claims against one’s experience of reality or confirming the strength of the premises’ defense can one ultimately justify any particular worldview.
This finally brings us to paradigmatic awareness. Those that have read this far, I salute you. Using a modified version of Thomas Kuhn’s definition of “paradigm”, a paradigm is the set of established or assumed claims which take priority before the claim in question based on the rubric I briefly described when addressing logic. Why does something so simple-yet-esoteric matter? It may sound intuitive once described, but despite its intuitive qualities, very few (if any) people truly possess paradigmatic awareness
For instance, when faced with a claim one may find absurd, such as “We need to tax every transaction possible in order to pay for government guns,” it is possible that the (clearly incorrect) individual may have a valid logical argument to reach that conclusion. More likely they hold, either implicitly or explicitly, flawed premises from which they derived an absurd conclusion. There is really no point in discussing the conclusion itself so long as the premises are left unacknowledged and unaddressed. Communication simply isn’t possible without commonly accepted paradigms between communicants.
This is where the standard of being able to change one’s mind comes into play; in the process of exploring the premises held by someone else which resulted in an apparently absurd claim, three beneficial results may arise. In exploring the paradigm of someone else, you may bring to light counter-intuitive or implicit premises that your conversant may never have previously critically assessed. Additionally, it will give you the opportunity to cast doubt on another’s premises, allowing them the otherwise impossible moment of self-reflection. Lastly, of course, by holding a counter-factual presented by someone else, there is always a chance (however slim) that you may realize that you, yourself, are wrong.
Now, one cannot always explore others’ worldviews without expecting the same intellectual courtesy in return. By following the advice given above and explaining what you are doing along the way, you can effectively provide an education in communication skills and logic that far exceeds what meager offerings most people are exposed to. This will give them a greater chance to entertain your correct but unpopular claims like, “Taxation is theft.” Additionally, anyone unwilling to explore their own premises or yours are clearly not interested in intellectually honest dialogue directed at obtaining truth and, therefore, are not worth your time or energy; a handy resource management tool, if you ask me.
So, why can’t we get along? Because no one is given the tools required to even consider getting along. Why can’t we understand what each other are saying? Because we don’t try hard enough. Remember, no unwilling student can learn, this includes yourself.
TL;DR: Listen to what people claim. Ask, “How did you reach that conclusion?” Make it a point to maintain an awareness of your opponent’s paradigm. Genuinely search for the truth in their words. Expect and demand that they reciprocate the effort, lest you waste both parties’ time and energy.
As I said on facebook the other day (while re-realizing some flaws in the AnCap worldview):
I love being a philosopher. My worldview is constantly shifting and undulating… but always gradually comporting itself more closely to reality. Where fleeting moments of intuition can, decades later, be given meaning and purpose and carefully constructed arguments and justifications can crumble, there is where humility and virtue can grow. The fires of truth and the crucible of reason can lay bare natural and artificial landscapes of mind alike, and enrich the soil for new growth and the return of the most robust ideas to carry on their existence.