Can We See Past Our Own Foundations?

You can’t understand anything in terms of nothing.

That much is obvious. What’s less obvious is that it’s a barrier to communication and understanding.

Each of us has a foundational viewpoint that biases how we see the world. It includes things like:

  • Our basic concepts, such as time (day, hour, minute, second), animal, vegetable, and mineral.
  • Our basic assumptions about reality, such as that physical things usually stay the same from day to day.
  • Our basic assumptions about morality, such as that all people are equal or that democracy is good.

The problem is that we can’t really verify our own viewpoints.

Suppose that your viewpoint consists of 10 concepts and 10 assumptions. If they are all consistent with each other, how can you think critically about any of them?

If you try to evaluate assumption #1, you have to do it in terms of assumptions 2 to 10. You can collect additional evidence, but your interpretation of the evidence will still be shaped by assumptions 2 to 10.

Because your assumptions are consistent with each other, they and the evidence you interpret with them will probably certify that assumption #1 is correct. The same applies to any other basic assumptions.

Is there any way we can get out of our own box of assumptions and see them from the outside?

There’s only one way: Talk to people who disagree with us and listen carefully to what they say. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best method we’ve got.

In 2018, people tend to view disagreement and debate as unpleasant and unhelpful. They think we should all either agree or at least shut up about any dissenting opinions.

That’s a prescription for ignorance.

We shouldn’t just tolerate disagreement, we should welcome it. We can’t check our own assumptions, but people who disagree with us can check them for us. And we can do the same thing for them.

In order for that to work, we have to be more interested in learning the truth than in proving we’re always right. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Political Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Can We See Past Our Own Foundations?

  1. J P says:

    I am beginning to fear that there are not enough people out there who are willing to do this, which leads me to be less willing to engage in these kinds of discussions. I hope I’m wrong.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      That’s a real problem, to be sure. Two considerations come to mind:

      • What we need is leadership. Society’s leaders set the example for everyone else. They set the tone. I have a dream: Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer make a joint television appearance. President Trump says, “Senator Schumer and I disagree about a lot of things, but we are both Americans and we both want what’s best for this country.” Senator Schumer says, “That’s something on which President Trump and I agree. We are going to work together on goals we share. When we disagree, we’ll work through the small-D democratic process to reach a compromise that all Americans regardless of party or ideology should accept.” They they turn to each other and shake hands. They turn to the camera. “We’re going to work together,” says President Trump. “How about you?” says Senator Schumer.
      • We all have our angry and unreasonable moments; realistically, some of us more than others. But we’re all capable of reason and cooperation. One thing we need to do is put social media comments into context. When we’re angry, we all say things to friends that we might not want broadcast to the whole world. Before social media, our comments went no further and caused no real harm. But now such comments often are broadcast to the whole world, where click-hungry media and websites whip up outraged mobs. There are several ways to solve that problem.


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