How do we best talk about ideas?
Today, it is common to settle arguments by reverting back to lived experience. I tell people about a friend’s experience in Israel, and someone’s whose reaction would have otherwise been to use a well-practiced citation from Hamas’ charter, suddenly listen up. I debate with people about that current state of the Labour party in the UK, and the only thing that carries much weight is the fact that I know someone who was once a passionate labour campaigner and has since become disillusioned.
Why is this? Why do we trust experience so much? Why trust our senses?
Since Trump, the consensus calculation seems to be that it does no harm to your political cause to speak into the ether every conceivable possibility for any given scenario. The tactic of multiplication makes it intellectually safer to stick with your senses, because otherwise people end up talking past one another, then at one another, until the argument ends up in the graveyard of conversation: ‘can MSM be trusted’. All sources have become equally suspect. Once was we would have welcomed a little bit of healthy scepticism when it came to arguments from authority, but it might be time to restate the case as to why arguing from authority is sometimes not only the most practical thing, but also the most intellectually honest thing, that one can do.
The problem of overskepticism is it has a hard time distinguishing experience from wisdom. For example, people seem more than happy to accept that I know things about China because I’ve been living in China for the last five months. But I know much less than the guy whose been in China for years, and he knows much less than the guy that’s been in China for decades, and he knows even less than the Chinese person whose been here all his life – who possibly doesn’t know anything about China at all. Lived experience should never be completely discounted, but the mantra that the only people who have things to say are the people who have seen things is a patently ridiculous. There will always someone out there who has seen more. The length or depth or meaningfulness of your exposure to something doesn’t really mean much, when, in the modern age, someone with savvy enough fingers and a studious aptitude doesn’t have to leave their bed to see more of the good and evil in the word than someone who lived to be a hundred.
The problem that follows from being overly sceptical, and ultra-specific about things, and insisting on caveats and provisos to everything, (because there is always more nuance and uncertainty to be talked about), is that successful generalisations are not made.
Generalisations are what need to be saved if arguments from authority are to be reinstated.
So how should we reconfigure our arguments – to include generalisations – so that we can talk about ideas without intimately knowing them.
Let’s use a quite famous thought-experiment.
How do you know that ravens are black?
Every time you see a black raven, your presupposed belief that ravens are black is confirmed slightly. When you look at a raven, you see that it is black: so ravens are black. When stated as a double negative, (which is the same thing), this idea can also be read as: anything that is not black is not a raven.
But then the question arises: if you empirically observe a single red robin, does that confirm your belief that ravens are black? Because if anything that is not black is not a raven is correct, which it is, and such a thing is the same as saying that ravens are black, then those two statements are exactly the same – they are equivalent. Logically, just as if you were to see a black raven you would not hesitate to say that this was a piece of evidence confirming your belief that raven’s are black, you must do the same with the red robin.
(This can be deduced quite simply: if A equals B, and B equals C, then A must also equal C).
This is known as the ‘equivalence condition’, and at first glance it doesn’t make sense – why should the colour of a robin prove anything about the colour of a raven?
The equivalence condition matters.
Firstly, it matters because if you were to say that only ravens mattered when hypothesising whether ravens were black, you would never be able to account for existential questions, such as: if something which was essentially identical to ravens in everything but colour lived on another planet in another galaxy, should that be counted as a different species, or should we admit that the defining characteristic of ravens has less to do with blackness than we originally thought. We can’t test this empirically, but that does not make the problem any less real – hence the equivalence condition.
Secondly, it isn’t logical to approach the question of whether raven’s are black or not in a way that only account for ravens, because depending on how the hypothesis is framed you get different outcomes. To take one example, the statement ‘all ravens are black’ is slightly confirmed by seeing a black raven, but the statement ‘whatever is not black is not a raven’, which is the exact same statement, is not at all confirmed by seeing a black raven – hence the equivalence condition.
Once the logic of the equivalence condition is accepted then: if all ravens are black, (which is the same as saying that everything that is non-black is non-raven), we are landed with a counter-intuitive problem, because suddenly you can tell if ravens are black by not only looking at anything, such as a specific red robin, but by looking at everything… by looking at a green apple, say…
The philosopher Hempel used this thought-experiment to talk about the scientific method. It’s called the Raven Paradox, and it makes the point that hypothesis are made on the basis of limited observations before you experiment, but it is when you start experimenting that the trouble arises, for the central question really is: what should you count as acceptable evidence? The equivalence condition could be mostly done away with if you observed every single raven in the world. But how could you observe every single raven in the world? Clearly, the ravens here on planet earth are finite in number, and they could all be counted, (whereas ‘everything’ is infinite, and therefore cannot be counted), but, in practice, how feasible is it? You could never know if you had accounted for every single one. So, the conclusion we might wish to draw is that while we should be wary of generalisations, we also need them. Coping with generalisations are important. After all, what else are we going to tell the kids? That ravens might be black?
So, the key to taking about ideas again is to cope with necessary generalisations while remaining sceptical of them. In political terms, this means that we need to be able to march on Wall Street without knowing exactly what we’re marching about. We need to be comfortable knowing, not through ignorance but through intellect, that even though we march with conviction, if we were to have a debate with a right leaning economist we’d be made to look like a child. We need to know that we can march anyway, because we can lean on left-leaning arguments of authority.
What we need to admit to is knowing both more and less than we do. We need to make generalisations because we cannot know everything, and without generalisations we would never have the fortitude to act on knowledge. But our presuppositions, which we tend wean ourselves onto like babies, might have more to do with chance than truth. Depending on what socio-economic class you’re born into, for example, you’re much more likely to form opinions on this financial policy rather than that financial policy, but this is to say absolutely nothing about whether you’re right or not. This principal can be taken to its logical extreme, and applied to every topic of debate, however simple and non-controversial – such as the colour of ravens. It’s obvious that ravens are black, isn’t it – but did you know that there is such a thing as albino ravens, and that, as Hempel points out, you could have been the unlucky scientist who saw one of these rare white ravens, and, using the equivalence condition and the logic of confirmation, drew from that the erroneous conclusion that all ravens were in fact white. However much we need generalisations, we also need to fear them, because our senses are easily deceived.
The Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones is an immensely powerful greenseer who can see the past, the present, and, yes, the future. He has experienced everything that can be experienced, and yet he is wise enough not to claim wisdom through empiricism alone. The way to talk about ideas again is to become more like The Three-Eyed Raven.
Firstly, this means investing what time you can researching the topics you would stridently argue for because of some empirical observation you’ve made. This remains the bedrock of intellectual honesty; my defence of generalisations should not be confused with an attack on specificity or how essential deep research is to understanding the world around us.
Secondly, though, recognise that just because you can’t do this for everything, this doesn’t mean that your opinion cannot be voiced on topics you are not entirely familiar with. What you should do in these situations is to openly acknowledge that you are arguing from authority, and are therefore placing arguing by proxy via a pair of hands that are not your own.
Thirdly, and perhaps most pressingly, taking about ideas again has a lot to do with humility. Admit to yourself that, unless you have poured intellectual energy into something, the consensus view on that something might be more or less right. I suppose this is quite a conservative outlook on life, but it doesn’t have to be – it just means admitting that the burden of proof is to say exactly what you mean if you say that the haven of the consensus is an illusion. The standard of proof should be relatively high if you seek to change the status quo, otherwise we might have to start taking people seriously who think ravens are white.
People don’t tend to think that this last point applies to them, but I think hard-earnt intellectual humility is less common than you’d expect. For example, if you have a curious mind you might go online and look at space as seen through the Hubble telescope. One of the pictures taken is called the ‘Pillars of Creation’ – they show fantastic, colourful, slowly exploding gas-giants that are five light-years high. The pictures were taken on black and white cameras. The released images, however, were not black and white, because experts reconstructed the colours depending on the chemical elements identified in the gas-giants which are known to manifest certain colours. So, an overskeptic who says that the pictures are fake would be right in a way, and the intellectual do-gooder who thought he was defending the pictures from a position of intellectual humility, (because of course the colours are real, to say anything else is anti-science conspiracy quackery), would be wrong. The key, though, is to understand why it’s safer to be intellectually humble. Because the people who claim the pictures are fake are only right on a technicality (in the same way that flat-earthers are ‘right’ when they point to pictures of the earth and say they’re composites). The pictures of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ were originally colourless, but this does not mean that the gas in space is therefore not colourless, just as a black and white picture of earth should not be called a fake just because the actual world we live in is full of colour.
That an act of forgery can make something more true to life then if it were true, is just another way of saying that things are more complicated than they seem. Yes, the final banal take-away really is just that, and that shouting from experience curses public debate. Become instead the Three-Eyed Raven, and lift the curse of bad discussions, or risk the curse of Nevermore, Nevermore, shall be lifted – Nevermore.