This Morning

This morning I am thinking of a strange question. It is: how right do I have to be?

My thinking of it now comes from an ill-advised dip back into a particular cesspit of an argument from my past. I didn’t win the argument, because I threw up my hands and walked away. I think I did the right thing for my sanity, but I’ve never been happy with failing to win the argument. I want to be entirely right. I am still somewhat haunted by the idea that I may not be right at all, because if I’m not right in an argument that I feel strongly about, but can’t muster the intellectual chops to actually win on the battleground, as it were — what does that mean for my other ideas that seem right, that feel right? Does it mean that nothing I think is right, at least not right enough to win an argument over it?

Does that matter?

Hence my question. How right do I have to be?

Let me give an example, and see if I can illustrate the conundrum here. I have found myself, as a high school teacher of English and therefore of persuasive essays, rhetoric, and argumentation, discussing the legalization of drugs in the U.S. time and time again over the last twenty years. It  is always a topic that comes  up, and now that I’m doing argument with three of my classes, it has come up again.

My opinion on the issue is complex, and not worth hashing out again now; I’ve written about it too many times. (Here’s one. And here’s another. Second one has a better soundtrack.) For this example, all I want to say is this: I waver on whether or not it would be a good idea to legalize all of the drugs. I see arguments for both sides. I don’t know which side has the better points, the truer final argument; I’m not sure which to choose. That’s why my opinion is complex, and why I keep coming back to it, never fully comfortable with my decisions about what policy to support, not sure how to come to a final conclusion.

The question is, should I keep doing this? Should I keep coming back and thinking about it again and again? On some level that is valuable, as it keeps making me revisit my own past opinions and decisions, and I think the changed perspective through time gives good insight. I also think it’s valuable not to get too dogmatic about things — though I confess I enjoy appearing dogmatic, and I often act as if I have not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about various opinions; but mostly that’s for show. There are few things that I’m 100% sure about — mostly it’s that my wife is the best wife in the whole world, education is entirely good  as a concept, if not as an institution, and reading is the greatest thing in the world, except maybe for the satisfaction of basic needs like food and sleep and hugs.

So it may not be bad that I can’t come to a final determination. On the other hand, if there is a 100% right answer and I can know it, then that is the thing I should be working towards and supporting and arguing for, right? Shouldn’t I do the right thing? If I can know the right thing, then I can do the right thing; and that means I should figure out how to know the right thing and go from there. Because  if I’m not doing the right thing, then I’m doing or on some level participating in the wrong thing, and I don’t want that.

How much do I have to know to know the right thing? Beyond a reasonable doubt? 110% entirely completely sure, with evidence and logic to back me up? If it’s the second one, then I have to be very careful about what arguments I take up, as settling them with absolute clarity and certainty would take a crap-ton of time and effort, and I can’t do that with every argument; so I need to be selective.

How do I know which arguments are worth taking up and finding out the definite answer to? Is there a 100% true answer as to which arguments I should be arguing? Is that what I should spend my time on  first, deciding what to know?

If it doesn’t have to be 100% certainty before I can know the right thing, then what else do I use as the basis of my decisions? They feel right? They seem right, based on my upbringing and my culture and my morality? Why would I assume those things are right, especially in the face of obvious arguments to the contrary, things about this culture that strongly imply that this culture is wrong? I am and have been wrong countless times; why would I ever trust my gut on anything of import?

But if I don’t trust my gut, who or what do I trust?

This comes up in my writing, too. I have to decide what the right story is to tell. Writers’ advice tells me to tell the story I feel I have to tell, and satisfy my own inner critic first; but what if I have several stories I feel I have to tell? Which one comes first? And what if my inner critic is an idiot? How can I know?

Do I actually need to trace out the entire epistemology and philosophical basis for all knowledge, so I can be sure of my knowledge,  so I can be sure of my decisions? How long will that take? How many aspects of life will it apply to — and how many will I lose because I’m focusing on this one endeavor, seeking purity of knowledge and purpose? And if  I go out and read all the books that underpin Western reason, how sure can I be that those authors followed the same rigorous standard for confidence in their ideas? What if they went with their guts, rather than establishing a sound logical basis for everything they say?

Does that mean they were wrong?

Does that mean I can’t actually trace perfect knowledge and understanding and thus make a 100% perfect decision?

Yeah, I don’t think I can do that last one, either. So if there can’t be a 100% perfect decision, is there at least a sound basis, a bedrock to build knowledge on? Or is it just turtles all the way down?

Image result for turtles all the way down

Image taken from here. And it’s for sale, and you can vote for it.

So that’s the question, then: how right do I have to be before I make a decision about what side to choose, who to support, how to argue? How right is right enough? How aware is aware enough? And is it even so bad to be wrong, or to change my mind?

I don’t know this answer. I’m genuinely not sure I should know — but regardless, I want to.

I suppose I can only start  by asking the question.

If anyone has an answer, I’d surely like to hear it. And if I have confused you entirely, I apologize; I feel the same way, believe me.

And I don’t know what to do about it.

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2 thoughts on “This Morning

  1. “How right do I have to be?”

    It’s strange to read you asking this question, because it’s obvious that you already know the answer. And the answer is: significantly more right than you are now. (If you didn’t have grounds to suspect that there were serious flaws in your current methods, Jiminy Cricket would not keep appearing on your shoulder like this.)

    You present yourself with two basic options: either embark on a serious study of method, or continue to “go with your gut.” Consider what you certainly already know about the first option:

    If there’s anything that the history of science makes abundantly clear, in this context, it’s that “going with your gut” doesn’t work. That’s why the emergence of the practice of the scientific method had such revolutionary consequences. The core of science is its method, and its method removes the gut from the business of making sense of the world. It’s impossible to think that the gut can be at all relied upon when one compares the progress that gut-thinking made over thousands upon thousands of years of human history to the progress that the scientific method made in a few hundred.

    (But I would argue that it’s not necessary to consider the history of science and its very obviously transformational effect on our lives and our understanding of the world around us to be sure that going with your gut is a bad epistemology. In a post-Socratic world, this is just obvious. It is just obvious that without rigorous methods to counter their natural biases, people just come up with conclusions that suit them, irrespective of whether those conclusions have any truth to them at all. And there is absolutely no reason for you to believe your own guts are magically exceptional, different or better than flat-Earthers’ guts, or Nazi guts, or any other guts out there.)

    So the first option is obviously worthless. What of the second option? Why not just get going on studying method?

    You bring up a few concerns here that I’m sure almost everyone will be content to ignore completely. (Their indifference should tell you how much weight to give their conclusions, by the way.) You want to know:

    “Do I actually need to trace out the entire epistemology and philosophical basis for all knowledge, so I can be sure of my knowledge, so I can be sure of my decisions?”

    This is another question that answers itself. If you’re asking it, it means you know the answer is Yes. Consider the alternative: it’s just some variant of going back to going with your gut.

    “How long will that take?”

    Coming from someone who has done it: Not as long as you’re concerned it will. Your methods are pretty bad as they stand (although they are much, much better than average). Therefore, given your interest and talents, your major impediment is not going to be in the books you’ll have to get to know and understand, it’s going to be learning better methods while still habituated to bad ones. These bad methods will cause you to jump to conclusions. Sometimes these will be about the arguments you read. (“This doesn’t make any sense!” “This is wrong because [silly gut-based notion].”) Sometimes they will be about yourself. (“I can’t make sense of this!”) If you cultivate a habit of arguing both with the authors and with yourself, stopping only when something solid emerges, you’ll improve steadily.

    But if you want an actual estimate: two years, if you don’t screw around. Ten years if you do. Forty years, probably longer, if you insist at the outset that you or your friends must like the conclusions you come to.

    “[I]f I go out and read all the books that underpin Western reason, how sure can I be that those authors followed the same rigorous standard for confidence in their ideas?”

    The project will be recursive. Learn a little method from the masters, then test them with their own methods. But you can’t escape total responsibility for all of your own judgments, including the judgement that you have sufficiently learned how to judge effectively. (Also: be careful with Plato. Nothing he says necessarily means what it seems to mean.)

    “What if they went with their guts, rather than establishing a sound logical basis for everything they say? Does that mean they were wrong?”

    No. The origins of a conclusion have nothing to do with its truth. Liars and fools sometimes tell the truth. Aristotle makes mistakes. Having good method does not guarantee good results, because human reason, even trained and disciplined to its best, remains fallible. In the same way, having bad method doesn’t guarantee bad results, at least not in the short run. But this is the kind of trivial question that a study of method will easily resolve for you.

    “Does that mean I can’t actually trace perfect knowledge and understanding and thus make a 100% perfect decision?”

    Human reason, even trained and disciplined to its best, remains fallible. But the general possibility of error does not call any particular conclusion into doubt. For a conclusion established by sound methods to fall into doubt, there must be positive evidence in contradiction. (“100% perfect” is an irrational standard, ultimately derived from mystical, Judeo-Christian concepts of an omniscient God.)

    “So if there can’t be a 100% perfect decision, is there at least a sound basis, a bedrock to build knowledge on?”

    Yes. You are conscious. That’s one bit of bedrock. You are conscious *of something.* That’s another. The somethings of which you are conscious have particular natures. (A rock is a rock and has all the properties of a rock whatever they are. A tree is a tree, and has all the properties of a tree. Etc.) That’s a third.

    It’s not turtles all the way down.

    “[H]ow right do I have to be before I make a decision about what side to choose, who to support, how to argue?”

    As right as you can afford to be (in terms of hours of your limited life you can afford to spend). At a minimum: as right as someone who has an explicit, if imperfect, command of sound methods.

    Not everyone has to care about ideas. You could blamelessly retire from this whole area of concern. But it doesn’t seem to me that that’s what you want. You can concern yourself with ideas or not, at your pleasure, but you can’t, at your pleasure, choose to have your arbitrary opinions or intuitions or feelings be true, or even worth listening to. If you want to say things that matter about the world, as it seems you do, learning sound method is mandatory.

    “And is it even so bad to be wrong, or to change my mind?”

    It’s good to change your mind when reason and evidence suggest it. It’s only bad to be wrong when you could have been right, but chose to feel your way to a conclusion, rather than to think your way there.

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    1. Hey, Tom. Thanks for coming by and commenting; I am warmed by it, and I appreciate it. I am also not ready to talk to you yet. My immediate response to everything you say is still anger and insult. That is not to say you are not welcome to read, and to comment as you are so moved; you absolutely are, and I will always read what you write. But I will not be discussing anything with you. Not yet.

      Hope you and Jessica and your dog are well.

      Like

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