An example of why I have to delete stuff

Some more proof that I am still writing lies below the more tag. Since I added in new paragraph into stuff that I have already posted, there is some old and new mixed in below with most of new starting about half way down.

Sadly, most of the new stuff is a good candidate for deletion.

This issue is not quality per say. As much as I like to beat my chest about how hard I am on myself, I put plenty of crap up. The real issue is about staying on track.

And this is also why standard advice of “write out, then polish” does not apply to me. When you are capable of writing twenty pages of that are totally off track, the proper advice is more like “when you are in a hole that you want to get out of, the first thing to do is to stop digging.”

The new stuff below is not quite that bad, but I do think it went a little off track.

Authorities are our “a priori”. They govern what arguments we are willing to accept but they will not be changed by our arguments. The power that our authorities have over us can be seen in the mentally ill. During brief moments of sanity, the mentally ill might be very rational and very smart. And during this time they might understand that that the voices they hear and the visions that they see are all lies. But when the voices and visions come back, they become true for the mentally ill all the same. The human mind cannot reject its authorities even when they are in conflict with other authorities.

Now it must be admitted that “authorities” are not as simple or as obvious as the previously discussed examples. Often, we do not fully understand what the real “authorities” in our life are. We often convince ourselves that we believe in things for reasons that are socially approved when really we believe in them for other reasons. And if it is difficult for us to be sure as to what governs our own beliefs, it is even harder for us to perceive what governs other people’s beliefs.

Yet in spite of the difficulty, the question of authority is only thing that really matters in any intellectual discourse. A structure is only as good as its foundation and authority is the foundation underneath all our conceptions of “facts” and “truth.” If we fail to understand the “real” authority behind all of our notions of what is “fact” and what is “true,” then all our discussions and thoughts are worthless. We can only begin to have a worthwhile conversation if we have an understanding of the governing authorities behind our beliefs.

Some might be inclined to argue that placing the things that govern our beliefs and the beliefs themselves into separate categories is a false distinction. After all, our beliefs flow from our “authorities.” This being so, our beliefs reveal what our authorities are. And if our beliefs reveal what our authorities are, what is the point of making a distinction between “beliefs” and “authorities”?

There are two problems with this line of argument. It fails to take into account how people deal with one another and it fails to take into account how people deal with themselves. But the root of both problems is the failure to recognize that the various “authorities” support overlapping beliefs. Thus, if you only focus on a limited sample of beliefs, you are likely to be misled into seeing a unity of authority where there is none.

For example, let us say you meet someone for the first time. You find out that he thinks that the sky is blue and you also think that the sky is blue. Because of this, you think that this fellow and yourself see the world in a similar manner. But you would be mistaken.

The fellow you have just met only believes what his mommy tells him. On the other hand, you only believe what you see with your eyes. His mommy and your eyes happen to agree about the color of the sky, but down the road you are going to find that you have almost nothing in common with this man. Anytime you see something that does not agree with what his mommy tells him, you are going to have a big argument. You will never be able to get him to agree with you because he has a different authority for determining the truth than you do.

In a similar manner, let us say that you meet someone who does not believe you when you tell him how deep the Grand Canyon is. It might seem that you will not get along very well with this fellow. But in truth, this fellow is just like you. He only believes what his eyes tell him and his eyes are just like yours. The only reason he does not believe you is that he has never seen anything like the Grand Canyon. Down the road, you are going to find out that this fellow and yourself get along just fine. After all, he sees the world just as you do. So all you need to do when you disagree is to show him what you have seen and the problem is resolved.

Granted, these are silly examples. But they illustrate the fact that whether people have some beliefs in common tells you nothing about whether those same people are governed by similar authorities. Acceptance of a common body of facts can be a result of a shared authority. But often times a shared set of beliefs is just a sign of people going out of their way to focus on the areas where they agree. In this manner they manage to convince themselves that they share a common authority when really they don’t.

This is one of the reasons why disputes between people can get so nasty. Having first convinced themselves they were “similar” to their opponents because they shared some beliefs, they now cannot see any reason for their disputes except extreme bad faith. So their arguments devolve into rage and personal attacks because they feel that the other party is/should be subject to the same authority that they themselves are subject to.

But the problem of conflicting authorities is not limited to our interactions with other human beings. We humans are not governed by consistent authorities even on the individual level. Often we can ignore this conflict by only focusing on those beliefs that all of our authorities support. But by focusing on what we believe as individuals rather then why we believe, we often fool ourselves into thinking that we are more consistent than we really are. And this can lead to serious problems when we are forced to confront our inconsistencies.

One good example an individual with conflicting authorities would be the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. On one hand, Rommel’s personal morality was opposed to everything that the Nazi’s stood for. Rommel personal sense of right and wrong led him to ignore orders to kill Jews and commit other war crimes. He even went so far as to write letters of protest over the treatment of Jews. On the other hand, Rommel was a supporter of German aggression. He fought aggressively both to insure German victory and to insure that he was always at the forefront of the fighting. Rommel even used his good professional relationship with Hitler (at least, early on in the war) to further his own advancement and to argue for strategies that he thought would result in German victory.

The conflict between these two positions seems obvious enough. But for clarity’s sake, let us break down Rommel’s contradictions in terms of authorities. Remember that we said that our eyes were an authority because they governed what we believed. In other words, we justify believing things because of what we see, but we don’t try to justify our belief in sight because it is an a prior that we take for granted.

In a similar manner, Rommel’s conscience served as an authority in his life. It is unlikely that Rommel would have wasted any more thought on justifying his belief that murder was wrong than he would have wasted on trying to justify believing what he saw with his own eyes. Both his conscience and his eyes served as things that governed his beliefs, not something that he would seriously consider debating.

But Rommel’s conception of what it meant to be a soldier seems to have also been an authority in his life. It seems to have been beyond question to Rommel that he would serve Germany’s army with all his might. This imperative seems to have had equal weight with his belief that killing children was wrong. And so Rommel found himself fighting for those who sent children to the gas chambers while at the same time believing that it was wrong to kill children.

Looking back in history, this seems like an obvious conflict. How can you recognize that Hitler’s treatment of Jews and others was morally wrong and still be so gung-ho about helping him take over the world? Yet Rommel seemed blinded to this obvious conflict. Eventually he had to confront the conflict between his authorities and it cost him his life. But even at the end of his life, he seemed to be trying to square a circle that could not be squared.

We would like to think we do not have the same kind of obvious disconnect that Rommel had. But most (all?) of us do. And this disconnect is not just a matter of moral hypocrisy. Our conception of what is “true” and what is “false” can suffer from the same kind of disconnect. That is to say, we can use one type of authority to determine “truth” in one context and another type of authority to determine “truth” in another context. And yet, taken as a whole, our authorities can be in direct conflict about the nature of truth.

Of course, we do not all have the same kinds of inconsistencies. But there are broad patterns that are common to us all. For example, one common source of conflicting authority amongst people is the tendency to use their peers (family, friends, and professional colleagues) as an authority. That is to say, most of us base our beliefs on what our peers believe as unthinkingly as we base our beliefs on what our eyes (or other sources of authority individual to us, such as our conscience) tell us. But since our peers and our eyes are not the same authority, we wind up with inconsistent beliefs.

Most of us would like to think that we would believe our eyes over our peers as a matter of course. Indeed, many of us would like to deny that our peers are an authority at all. Most people feel that a person whose peers are an authority is little better than a child. Thus, most of us would like to minimize the extent of authority that our peers have over our beliefs.

But in most cases we are just fooling ourselves. Most of us don’t make a conscious choice to base our beliefs off our peers anymore than we make a conscious choice to believe what our eyes tell us. And when the time comes when we are forced to confront the inconsistencies between our eyes and our peers, many people chose the authority of their peers over the authority of their eyes (or the authority their own conscience or any other authority that is distinct from their peers). Even those that in the end opt to stand by their own eyes/conscience/whatever over the authority of their peers often find that the choice is very hard to make.

This can be very frustrating for others who are trying talk to us about an issue. Imagine trying to convince Rommel that it was wrong to fight for the Nazis based on the same authority that governed his personal morality. In one sense, it ought to be fruitful grounds for discussion as he clearly acknowledges that authority in one part his life. At that same time, he seems to have had another authority that he held in equally high esteem (if not higher) to his conscience. Since it was as inconceivable for Rommel to question his role as solider as it was for his to question his morality, on what grounds would you convince Rommel that one authority was superior to the other?

You could argue until you were blue in the face that Rommel should have placed his conscience over his conception of himself as a soldier. But all arguments would have been fruitless as trying to convince a crazy man that the voices he hears are not real. As we have previously noted, authorities are our a priori. They govern what arguments we are willing to accept but they will not be changed by our arguments. This does not cease to be true just because one of our authorities might conflict with our other authorities.

This naturally leads to the question “how does someone change their authorities and can we help change the authorities of other people? If we cannot, why bother even talking with other people?” With these questions one is entering into an area that is beyond the scope of the current argument. But it should be noted that this question is in itself a question of authority.

For one thing, our conception of what authority ought to be supreme is itself a belief. And so we must ask, what authority is this belief based on? For another thing, the idea that either authorities can or cannot be change is also a belief. And so we must ask what authority is this belief based on? Most importantly of all, the value of talking about in issue is also a belief, and so dependent on whatever authority governs your beliefs.

In other words, at their heart, these questions are religious questions. And so you would think that Christianity would have something to say about them; you would be wrong. Organized religion in general and Christianity in particular is obsessed with belief. If you say you believe the right things, they don’t generally care about why you hold the beliefs that you hold.

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