Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Friday, August 12, 2005

more things, Horatio

(Note: If you read this post as a defence of religion, you will be missing the point. It is actually about what to do when arguments are stuck at both poles going nowhere. The answer is to broaden one's mind, listen more attentively and create new common ground that can lead somewhere. Of course we know that already- we just don't know it well enough. It's a vast school of knowledge, not a fact.)

Theo Hobson asks in The Spectator:

how do you know what other people mean when they use a rhetoric of heaven, or of a godly realm? How do you know the difference between literal belief, metaphorical belief and social convention in an unfamiliar tradition?

Quite so. There is a reason why the term "backseat driver" is derogatory. Anyone who knows little or nothing about a bunch of ideas can pick a few out and criticise them at their leisure, but whether or not they have any real idea about what they're saying is another matter. It is a basic logical error to assume that every group of ideas can be criticised from the outside. Any group of ideas that constitutes an institution is likely to contain inexplicit knowledge which may not even be easily accessible to people who have been studying it for centuries, never mind newbies.

Experience gives us the opportunity to learn that inexplicit knowledge. It is not a method of learning, but a place and a time, and there may be no other place and time that makes it possible. Plenty of people with experience still learn next to nothing about the thing they are experiencing, of course, but even if your mind is closed, when you are physically surrounded by new things it is difficult not to pick up a few details of truth in the process of refuting every new idea that comes along. Details don't provide meaning unless you link them up with other details, but over a sufficiently long time a person can gather so many details that putting them together like a jigsaw becomes quite easy.

Anyway, experience is the necessary environment/ pre-requisite for learning certain kinds of inexplicit knowledge. So if you just stand outside and criticise all your life, you are never really going to learn anything at all. And chances are, your backseat driving will annoy the driver, making him perform less well and probably throw you out in the end. Because you're not helping, only hindering. This is the time to book driving lessons for yourself.

I wrote about this a while back on my previous blog. It's the soup idea- that if you want to understand some things, the only way is to try them. However, it is something of a Catch-22. The only answer to the question, "Why should I try the soup?" is that if other people you admire or respect, or who seem to know more than you, are eating soup and saying it is wonderful, then why not try it yourself? The only reason not to try it is that you still think it could be poisonous, and for that you must have a reason. But there is no "pro-soup" argument, no reason for trying the soup, only the apparent effects of the soup that you can observe in the soup-eaters, and yes, those might be false. You can, however, analyse your anti-soup arguments, and if they don't stand up there will be no reason not to try the soup.

Those who want to argue for specific institutions because they contain valuable inexplicit knowledge have no rational way of doing so. Those who want to attack those institutions have no motive for criticising their criticisms. The only way forward is reasonable dialogue. The worst mistake we make is in responding to (perceived) aggression or diversion with further aggression or diversion. If you think someone is taking something out on you, offering them helpful psychological analysis of their problems is going to make things worse. So is insulting them and their family for their terrible behaviour. It may seem obvious to you that the soup is poisoned and the drinkers of the soup are all sick, but if they think they feel just great then telling them they are sick and trying to poison everyone else too is not going to help.

We seem to be stuck. If you regard a person as worthy of only contempt and derision because they are "left" "right" "religious" or "G-dless", you cannot communicate with them effectively. As well as sharing your most deeply-held ideas and considered beliefs, you need to establish the right style of dialogue. These days, everybody is in some kind of "camp", probably the majority of them having been put there by their interlocutors rather than going in voluntarily. But yelling over perceived trenches is not going to work, especially when the other person is actually standing right next to you on neutral territory being painfully deafened.

The answer to the question at the top of the page is that we cannot know what is inside other people's heads, ever. We are not psychic. And when it comes to their most deeply-held convictions, we are less likely to have any understanding at all: where those convictions come from, the precise quality of them, the balance of different ideas within them, all create something unique. The sum total of a person's lifelong thinking and experience is not that they acquire an accurate label. What counts is their relationship with the world, and that knowledge is different for every person. It is an unimaginably huge place to look for progress, but if we all did it, we could get there. If we can't bring ourselves to try their soup and they don't want any of ours, then at least we can start trying to create other soups that can be shared. And by "we" I do mean all of us. Standing there declaring how great your soup is and that everyone should like it is not enough. You have to understand and work with consumer demand. Nobody ever sold an idea by telling the customer he should appreciate it better, still less by laughing at him.

We have a bunch of different shops, each one catering to a niche market. The first person who invents a product everybody likes will make a fortune. As everybody is human, it is not unlikely that there is something everybody likes, but you have to start small before you can get big. Every little counts, as they say on the Tescos commercial.


At 3:02 PM, Blogger gcotharn said...

I'm always tempted, for my own amusement, to comment as if I cluelessly missed the entire point of your post(which did actually happen - at least once). When I sense you have really gotten into a post, I'm tempted even more:

"This is the time to book driving lessons for yourself."
Alright! You'll have great fun with driving lessons!

"It's the soup idea- that if you want to understand some things, the only way is to try them. [...] The only reason not to try it is that you still think it could be poisonous...."
I don't really like soup - but I've only known it to be poisonous in fairy tales.

Slightly more seriously, I wrote a post just last week which covered a slight portion of similar ground:

This bit of yours is quite good, and I thank you for it:
"What counts is their relationship with the world, and that knowledge is different for every person."

PS: from a previous post: "I'll try to be 'sweet'?" This means I got the same movie quote wrong in my symposium email(I quoted "I'll try to be 'good'"). Dang it - I hate it when that happens :)


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