Unfortunately not all arguments end well. I’ll get to ending them well by end of this, but I need to go over how they usually end first.
Children figure out how to derail a discussion pretty quickly. They just keep asking why. Some people never get over this, they become philosophers. “Why” is one of the most important questions in philosophy. They delve into the “ultimate why”. Most people don’t concern themselves with this on a daily basis. Some people find it annoying.
There are adult ways of presenting that why question without sounding like you are pontificating or being childish. Some people will suggest we’re in the matrix, or we are brains in a vat, or everyone else is a zombie. This is more of a sophomoric version, one you might hear in a dorm room. But it comes from a slightly more sophisticated tradition. Descartes’ first meditation, sometimes called “the evil demon”, suggests if we doubt all of our perceptions, we don’t know who we really are and could be under the control of an evil demon.
There are even more modern versions of this, maybe you’ve heard a few;
you’re completely misinformed, you’re mind has been controlled by advertising and bad schooling, you are privileged, you’ve been tricked (there is a facebook page for this, they call you sheeple), you are trying to trick me, you are a shill for a corporation, you were home schooled, you were born in
. Flint, MI
That last one really happened. I was talking about Michael Moore and I told someone I was born there. You should have seen the look. It was as if being born in the same town as Michael Moore was as bad as being a child of Osama bin Laden.
All of these are nothing but prejudice. You might as well be using ethnic slurs. Granted each one has facts that lead to them being used in the first place. Our schools do have problems, we are products of our environment. That’s why racial slurs hurt. Regardless of those facts of social science, these are almost always distortions.
If, “you had bad schooling” is not followed by some legitimate help in educating the person, in providing them with the information they need to make an informed decision, then it is just an insult. It is usually a judgment made before gathering facts, before even inquiring into just what schooling the person had. This leads to the argument ending with, “You don’t even know me.”
There are also more positive sounding versions, such as;
there is a higher purpose that you are unaware of, it’s in the interest of national security, it’s nature’s way, it’s part of our great leaders vision, it’s just the way things are.
These aren’t necessarily aimed at anyone, but they are equally useless. They propose that no more facts are available, that further discussion is pointless.
All of these come from artifacts left over from the philosophers of the Middle Ages. Descartes, in his second meditation said, “I think therefore I am” and profoundly changed how we see ourselves. Too bad he was wrong. Rather than explain that last sentence, I’d rather stick to why it’s a problem today. The problem is we don’t talk about the context of how he came to it or the improvements that have been made on it since.
Descartes third meditation is sometimes called “the existence of God”. He posits that what we can conceive must exist so if we can conceive of perfection it must exist. It’s more complicated than that, but I’m not going to analyze it. I only point it out because it is probably the reason why Descartes is not covered in any detail in public school. Meditations 4 and 5 are about God too. They are his solution to the problem he created by doubting his senses in the 1st meditation.
So we’re stuck here, on an island as Simon Blackburn calls it, where we verify our own existence based on our own experience. Even if we are in the matrix we can still have the thought that we are in the matrix, so the machines controlling us have not taken that last piece of our self away. If we are so deluded that even that is not our self thinking, then none of this matters anyway. We can’t know ourselves and we can’t know that we can’t know ourselves.
But why do we need this hyperbolic doubt in the first place that then requires a solution? As I’ve shown above, it is used to confuse, to bring a logical discussion of valid choices down in to a spiraling pit of meaningless. To end an argument by destroying the other persons confidence in their argument. I say we don’t need it. The way to interrupt it is by saying, “I exist and I have value”, or if the argument is not about you, say you are arguing for feeding starving children, “they exist and they have value.”
David Hume later stated the problem of understanding ourselves is a problem of matching what we sense to reality. If we doubt everything our senses tell us, then anything could be true. We know our senses can fail us but we also know they serve us pretty well. We can look at other animals and see that those with better senses do better. But all that still relies on our self to make that judgment.
So you can still bring any argument to a halt without any evil demons, simply by pointing out the flawed nature of our senses. Usually this is done by someone questioning only the other persons senses or the superiority of their own. As in claiming to have a degree or having read a book or seen a documentary, something that mere senses can’t trump. This is still a complete foul. Unless you are willing to actually explain the facts you have, it’s just mean. Even if it is true.
A non-mean, fair way of employing this simple truth is agreeing that no one really knows anything. That we are perceiving any degree of reality is an act of faith. Whether you call that pure skepticism or pure belief in powers we can’t perceive, you arrive at it with similar logic.
For me, this is where all arguments should begin, that nobody knows for sure. From there we can only build towards greater probability of being accurate, of matching our perception to reality. We can share our perceptions with each other. We can create languages that describe things we can’t perceive directly. We can predict and test our predictions. We can challenge each other to be more accurate in our descriptions, more honest. We can be aware of our limitations and we can grow beyond them by working together.
We know there is a coherent consistent world that is available to us when we are awake and clear. We have built on that foundation for so long that it is now impossible for one person to obtain all the knowledge available. That knowledge is being refined every day. If everyone in a some field of knowledge said one person knew everything they knew, that could still change the next day with a new discovery. So everyone knows that they don’t know everything.
The criteria for certification of having the higher levels of knowledge are constantly reviewed and updated. Having that certification doesn’t mean you know everything in that field, and very few people are certified in more than one field. Certification is still important, I have very few other tools for evaluating if my doctor knows what he is doing. But the idea of “authority” has limits. That’s a foundational principle of the modern world where we say we value the opinions of everyone, not just the King and the royal family.
The only adult, fair, sane way to end an argument is to not approach differences as arguments in the first place. You can have convictions, you can stand up for what you believe, you could also be wrong. As I have ended more than one of my blogs, all we really have is each other.