Saturday, 27 June 2009

How can we be wrong? Part one.

I am beginning new section on my blog, I am going to call it critical thinking. Firstly, here is something I was working on last month but never completed, its long, so I have decided to post it in sections. It comes in five parts, so I intend to put the rest up whenever I complete it.

Also for this category, I intend in the future to select OP-Eds, books, and arguments and point out the spurious and fallacious thinking behind them.

How we go wrong.

I was reading recently a short primer on Socrates, the great Athenian philosopher, or troublemaker, or intellectual messiah, and came across his famous dictum, “All I know is that I know nothing”. It got me thinking - Socrates mission, in many ways, was to expose pretenders to “Wisdom” or expertise. He did this in two ways. 1. Asking for a definition of the thing in question, backed up with appropriate examples and evidence. If this was not forthcoming, then Socrates would reject the person’s knowledge as insufficient to count as wisdom or expertise. 2. He would, by questioning and prying (unleashing the "dogs of philosophic war", as Will Durant puts it) to find contradictions or paradoxes in a person’s argument. The statement “all I know is that I know nothing” is an apparent contradiction, for he professes to know that he knows nothing. Still, this apparent flaw is explained away, which I will not go into for present purposes- Socrates challenge - is how can we acquire wisdom, and to know that we have acquired it. What is, perhaps, more important, rather, than say positive knowledge, is that knowing when we are wrong, and to know when we are likely to be making mistakes in our thinking.

So, when I woke up this morning, before trooping off to sweat it out at the gym, while still in semi-conscious awareness-these five rules of thumb came to me. So, I apologize in advance, if my thoughts seem somewhat woolly. I believe that the following five items are what commonly lead us astray in our thinking. What I will say, is, I believe, common sense. Good sense rather, as opposed to "common sense", however is what is needed, for many times, our common modes of thinking is what leads us into the misty, deceiving, smoke of unreason. I will also propose a tool, or mnemonic, to help us organize and clarify our thinking, at the end. The five ways we can be wrong are 1. Failure of understanding. 2. Prejudicial emotions, the trivium of evil- greed, hatred and fear. 3. Beliefs. 4. Moral Paradoxes. 5. The Shaming code.

Coming to terms and Common Understanding.

In my experience, the most common forms of being wrong is simply a failure of understanding. Humans uses language to convey information, both oral and written, however, because of the well known complexity of language, words and terms, (never mind the deliberate obfuscations at times of philosophers, theologians and critics.) People will dispute for no other reason other than a confusion of language and meaning. This is expressed in a simple example. Jay thinks football is the best sport, John thinks football is the best sport. Jay lives in New York and supports the Jets, and really thinks American Football is the best sport. John lives in Newcastle and supports-who else? Newcastle United and really thinks Soccer is the best sport. If this seems piddling, then consider the arguments that break out over words like- Freedom, Privacy, Government, Faith, Belief, God, Drugs, Justice, Equality, Human-Rights, Evolution, Creationism, Science, Morality. Entire books can be written, articles offered in rebuttal, and OP-Eds trotted out over, what is, or at times what can be, a confusion over meaning, terms and words. Of course, there really is at times dissent and disagreement, but real dissent can only take place when each party fully understands the other party and vice versa. This sounds simple, but the difficulty of achieving it in practice and enforcing it in principle is consistently challenging.

The consequence of this, is that, we should simply suspend judgment when we fail to understand something or don’t understand it yet. How then, can we judge competency in understanding? Mortimer J. Adler has offered three criteria for this. We can say that you are, or an author, speaker etc is informed if there is no facts, evidence or information that either contradicts what he believes or falsifies (proves to be wrong) what he holds to be true. If the obverse of this is true then you are uninformed. Of course, the facts that you do use, and the theories by which you explain the facts have to be elegant, consistent, and compelling. Now, Secondly, the author or speaker along with ourselves can either be misinformed. This is to say, that your are wrong in principle, for example, someone who believes the sun circles the earth is misinformed and uninformed. That is to say, they are wrong in principle and have not been instructed correctly. A final way of being misinformed about a subject - can also be understood as commiting the "straw man fallacy" that is, that the picture they have of an argument or position is wildly inaccurate. Thirdly, our understanding or the author, speaker etc, is not insufficient or incomplete. Strictly speaking, this is not being wrong per se, but it is a form of epistemic fallacy. I have a limited understanding of Greek history, but this knowledge would be insufficient for me to grade a paper by an undergraduate in Ancient History. Many, most, or all of my assertions and views, would likely be wrong.

So to recap, firstly, to check the soundness of our beliefs we must ask - is there any facts or information which contradict what we hold to be the case. Secondly, we must ensure that we have, as best possible, the most accurate understanding of, not only what we are contending, but also, other peoples’ positions. We must then, be sure of our facts and resources. Finally, we must ensure that our understanding is both comprehensive and sufficiently complete, in other words, our argument or analysis we must not leave out factors with are essential to the matter at hand.

It can also be in art or entertainment that we can also be wrong. I have a friend who, with me, has watched a few David Lynch films. He comments that Lynch’s films are “erratic” and “disjointed”-I view I would share. However, is this not just analysis? A descriptive comment not an evaluative judgment - I believe so. Does analytic descriptions imply evaluative judgment? My friend was using the words “erratic” and disjointed” in a negative, critical way, though I believe they are an accurate description of the use of narrative in Lynch’s films, however, it is possible for me to use the same words, and conclude, paradoxically, with a positive appraisal of Lynch’s films. Is this is a problem? No. Consider this statement. “James told Martha she was ugly and overweight”. Lets agree that Martha is ugly. Lets also agree (for the sake of argument) that James was wrong to say this. Does the fact that he said these things, imply(remember just sticking with the language itself - not the social/cultural implications of it) that he is a nasty man and was wrong to do so? No. For the reason that we could say that James is being truthful, or funny, or even that he is nasty, but so what? Our judgment,however, of James being nasty has to rely on reasons outside of the analysis which form the judgment. So for example, we may say that we don’t believe we should be nasty to people, or that we were brought up to be kind etc. (note these reasons can, too, be examined thus instigating a infinite regress, any terminator, however, we wish to use-God, Law, Expert Opinion runs into the same problem - regress.)

So, when we form opinions on art, music, novels, games, films, stories, we ought to understand the emotional and intellectual impression that the artist is trying to convey to us. Take the HBO TV drama, The Wire for example, a female culture critic watched one episode, (the pilot) and concluded that the show was sexist and derogatory to women. Has the woman even tried to come to terms of what the show was trying to convey? Did she not understand that the few depictions of women in the Pilot were not chauvinistic but realistic? (what are female strippers supposed to do in a strip club after all?) Did she not think of showing a little humility in light of the fact that she had only seen one episode-and only watched it to see what all her male colleagues were up to? Calling it great TV etc? Should she not have watched a few more episodes before writing her piece? Take anouther case - It is a cliché for example, to call Radiohead depressing. Is it really? And if it is, is this a bad thing? Perhaps ist not depressing but reflective and soulful, perhaps we should attend to the ideas the music and lyrics ponders over, before being dismissive. To appreciate, whether or not the execution of the project was skilful, incomplete, innovative, creative or not.

To sum up, we should ask ourselves-what is being said and how is it being said. What is its meaning and do I understand it? What are the reasons supplied for it? And finally, it is not uniformed, misinformed or incomplete in any key particular.



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