A rephrasing of the question of Psychology

I am making this response to a comment on my last post into a post of its own. I am doing this mostly because I think that this comment is what I should have said in the first place. It captures the heart of my reaction to Mr. La Roche’s post in a more condensed fashion then my original post did.

Mr. La Roche

The thrust of my post was “what makes you think that your viewpoint is not extreme?” In other words, how does your reasoning process differ from those views of which you disapprove? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer almost always points to our having a differing a priori from those who hold views of which we disapprove. Differences in the quality of our reasoning often have very little to do with it.

I try to guard against my tendency to think that I have superior reasoning by only arguing using the opposing frame of reference. Thus, the arguments that I use can vary a lot depending on whether I am arguing against a conservative, a liberal, or whatever.

But this only gets one so far. You can’t escape the fact that we all have differing a priori and that they create barriers of communication between us. It is important that we don’t make those barriers worse by assuming that our differing a priori is proof that we have better reasoning skills.

Ape Man

3 Responses to “A rephrasing of the question of Psychology”

  1. Guy says:

    “what makes you think that your viewpoint is not extreme? In other words, how does your reasoning process differ from those views of which you disapprove?”

    I am not saying that I have better reasoning skills or that I, God forbid, should be superior to someone. But reading back my comment I understand why you would think this (bad writing skills on my part). My comment:

    “If we decide to support extreme viewpoints because of our own desires/frustrations, etc, than we should accept the consequences of that. Even though in practice it is much more complicated than that.”

    By “we” I do not particularly single out Mark Steyn, it is much more general than that and much more complicated. I am interested in the “dynamics” behind reasoning, whether my own as a human being or those of other human beings. And I am interested in “motivation”. I know my own motivation, but I do not necessarily know the motivations of others who may or may not and directly or indirectly have an influence on my life. Judging other people’s motivations is very, very hard and tricky and cannot be done merely on an analysis of their reasoning alone.

    An important barrier to real communication, the exchange of ideas, is “intent”. Someone who is driven by an ideology, for instance, will use reason only to gain the upperhand (the fine art of rhetorics) and silently push an agenda. It is therefore important to know if a person is pushing an agenda, from which they will not deviate, or is really interested in an intellectual debate of ideas.

    Emotions and past experiences, like you yourself point out, are more often than not a very important factor in the way an individual develops his way of thinking. This way of thinking will inform their choices, their voting preferences, etc.

    Just one, very extreme, example that has always preoccupied my mind. How is it possible that a destructive ideology like national-socialism managed to gain so much momentum in the 1930s? How come so many people, many of whom must have been quite sensible in normal circumstances, rallied around one ultimately destructive authority? An authority with excellent rhetoric and reasoning skills.

    The answer is enormously complex, but psychology must have been an important of that. Hence what I wrote in my comment:

    “If we decide to support extreme viewpoints because of our own desires/frustrations, etc, than we should accept the consequences of that. Even though in practice it is much more complicated than that.”

    The case of Hitler’s Germany now seems extreme, of course, and the agenda quite overt in hindsight. But plenty of people did not see the disaster coming at the time. Why?

    It is the “why” that interests me. If you follow me more closely, you will see that I almost always ask questions and rarely offer conclusions. I am a naieve observer, of myself and the world around me. That is all. And that is plenty 🙂

    By the way, differences in the quality of reasoning are VERY important. Not because high quality reasoning leads to the truth. Someone with sublime debating skills, for instance, can sell silly ideas. One can convince merely on the basis of quality rhetorics, regardless of facts. And pundits, left or right, have the added bonus of authority.

    In college debating class we were, for instance, encouraged to hold and defend viewpoints that were totally unacceptable to us (like fascism). It is a wonderful exercise. Very often it is simply about “selling” and “packaging” something. Did you know, for instance, that in the advertising world clever people use propaganda techniques refined by the nazi’s to sell their products? There is a reason for that: those techniques are psychological and they work. And their strategies are clear: making you buy one brand instead of another, regardless of the objective and factual quality of the advertised product.

    Being aware of these tactics, the “intent” behind them and their success is indispensable. That is what I mean by psychology.

    You say:

    “Thus, the arguments that I use can vary a lot depending on whether I am arguing against a conservative, a liberal, or whatever.”

    Why should your arguments, if they are well thought out, vary? Is this varying of arguments not a rhetorical trick on your behalf?

    You ask:

    “In other words, how does your reasoning process differ from those views of which you disapprove?”

    First of all, my reasoning process cannot differ from views. A reasoning process is by definition a process. A view is the end-product, final or not, of a reasoning process. Secondly, it is not so much of the views that I disapprove. It is of the way they are being sold… by using rhetoric not based on facts.

    For me understanding the world is not a matter of winning a debate, it is about gauging the validity of other people’s arguments, it is about filtering individual preferences out of the equation and arriving at something that resembles universality. And, of course, I expect other people to do likewise with the things I say.

    It is much more complicated but I hope you catch my drift. For me this is not a pissing contest 🙂

  2. Ape Man says:

    Thanks for responding the way that you did. It occurred to me after I had posted my reply that the obvious response would be to point out that I had just been criticizing the Economist for being unreasonable. That lends a certain air of irony to my argument, does it not?

    If I can fault The Economist for being unreasonable how can I argue the wishy-washy crap that I argued in the above post? I blame lack of sleep and being short on time.

    The fact is that I appreciate a well reasoned argument, even if I disagree with it. And I dislike a poorly reasoned argument, even if I agree with it. A well reasoned argument that I disagree with helps to sharpen my own thinking, but poorly reasoned argument whose conclusions that I agree with only makes me ashamed.

    Having said that, I don’t believe that reason has much to do with what we perceive to be the truth, and that is what I was trying to get at in my last response to you.

    One of the people who helped me refine my own thinking on the matter of reason and truth was a Dutch philosopher by name of Benedict de Spinoza. He is not widely known in America, but I hear that he has a wider following over in Europe, so maybe you are already familiar with his work.

    If you have heard of Spinoza, you know that he argued the exact opposite of my position. He is a good example of how someone can make a very reasonable argument that I appreciate even when I disagree with it. But the real reason I bring him up is that I think he laid out the best possible case for reason as a universal guide to truth.

    One of the reasons that I find Spinoza so impressive is that he takes the a priori position that reason is the only valid guide to truth and he reasons from that about how the world must be in order for that a priori position to be true. Most people don’t even stop to think about how the world has to be in order for reason to work. They just assume that reason works and don’t bother thinking about what that implies. But Spinoza took the time to think about what the nature of reason required the universe to be like if it was to work.

    Now I find Spinoza’s argument to be very impressive. It is easy for me to see why Einstein practically worshipped Spinoza. It is really eerie to see how well Spinoza anticipated future scientific advances simply by reasoning out what reason itself required. Einstein’s own work is a particularly noteworthy vindication of Spinoza’s thought process.

    But contrary to Spinoza, I think that reason itself requires one to believe that Spinoza was wrong. As a consequence, I think that we must give up all hope of using reason to work people towards a common truth.

    If you’re the type who is willing to entertain philosophical arguments, I argued this position in my essay called Spinoza, Einstein, and the Failure of Reason. But if you are not the type who likes to deal with philosophical arguments, you will probably find that the essay is too much too deal with.

    I would like to deal with the issue in a simpler manner, but I am not sure I can.

    I will give it the good old hillbilly try by dealing with the question you posed when you said “Why should your arguments, if they are well thought out, vary? Is this varying of arguments not a rhetorical trick on your behalf?”

    I don’t think it is a rhetorical trick. After all, reason requires an a priori. Not everyone accepts the same a priori’s. Thus the arguments that people will accept as legitimate will vary even though the quality of reasoning stays the same.

    For example: Let us suppose we have two different people standing before us who are perfectly reasonable. But let us suppose that one person has an a priori belief that freedom is highest goal that society can pursue, and let us suppose that the other person believes that fairness is the highest goal that society can pursue. Neither of those positions is open to critique by reason unless you get those two people to accept the other’s a priori’s in addition to the ones they already have. So right off the bat we have a gap that cannot be bridged by reason.

    But let us take this example a step further. Let us say that you want to convince these two people to accept a free trade agreement with another party.

    Now your goal is the same in both cases. You want them to accept the free trade agreement. But your reasoning has to be different for each person. For the first person, you are going to have to show that the free trade agreement advances freedom. For the second person you are going to have to argue that the free trade agreement will advance fairness. Thus, you need two different arguments to bring two different people towards a common goal.

    That is why I vary my arguments depending on who I am talking to. Since I think that people can have widely different a priori’s I try to structure my argument around what I perceive to be my audiences a priori’s.

    Most people don’t do this. They argue from their a priori’s and then feel that people who don’t accept their argument are unreasonable. But the truth is that everyone has a priori’s that are beyond reason. Reason cannot even function without a priori’s. So if you don’t want to argue in terms of your audience’s a priori then you might as well talk to a brick wall.

    Unfortunately, this means that reason cannot bridge some gaps between people because some things cannot be discussed without sharing similar a priori beliefs.

  3. […] This post is a comment that I left on my own blog in response to Mr. La Roche. This is getting to be a bad habit with me. But when I write two pages out, I hate to bury it in the comment section. Especially when writing out those two pages prevented me from writing the post that I wanted to write tonight. […]

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