Attorney Steve Grow
September 8, 2012
no ungrounded ideology will ever help us
We often are inclined to think that a consistent argument must be right, or that a statement which is inconsistent with other statements we believe must be false. Properly understood, logic teaches that two meaningful statements that contradict each other cannot both be perfectly true, or both perfectly false, at the same time. Yet who is it that said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds? How can consistency be foolish? It can be. It can even be quite insane. Voltaire once defined insanity as arguing perfectly, i.e., consistently and logically, from an erroneous perception. This suggests that it is more important to have a good grip on a few accurate perceptions than even the most extensive logical and linguistic consistency. What can we make of all of this? To help get our bearings, we need to start with a few basics.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. We all know, though, that even a few words, much less a thousand, can be misleading. A picture also can be false and misleading by portraying something that does not exist or even one that cannot exist or be built. If the picture of a movie actor is air brushed to eliminate a blemish, for example, the picture portrays the actor differently from how the actor really exists. But could there really be a picture of a thing that cannot exist? Consider the several etchings by Escher, for example, that portray, in two dimensions, three dimensional things which cannot exist in reality. Or consider a faked "newsreel" that portrays as if it were a real event something that never happened at all; once something has already not happened in the past, it cannot be made to have happened in the past by creating a "newsreel" of it. In all of these cases, everything hangs together beautifully in the pictures. You can hang the actor's picture or the Escher portrait on your wall, and you can hold a film or DVD of the newsreel in your hand. The portrayal itself is a real thing, but it portrays nothing real. Our minds and imagination can do exactly the same thing, and our language, by referring to the constructs in our minds and imagination, creates another blunder when it gives us the impression that what is portrayed by those constructs is real and accurately portrayed. Even worse, language is subject to its own confusions, one of which is when it is used as pure verbiage noise without significance that connects it to even a stable mental construct in the mind. Many seemingly precise and technical words can be used in ways that connect them to nothing other than perhaps the stream of words in which they appear—key elements of which are not connected properly to any mind and through the mind to reality. A vast tapestry of verbal knitting is possible. Just as the rules of visual two dimensions enabled Escher to portray things that could not exist in three, the rules and mechanisms of generating words and the connections among them in discourse enable virtually anything to be apparently portrayed in language, even something that could not be portrayed in a two dimensional picture much less found in reality. A common mistake is to assume there is meaning and some sort of reality behind every word or collection of words that is uttered—there are real noises of course, but not necessarily anything more.
I think that what makes the foolish consistency foolish is the failure to base either side of the argument on a perfect perception, a real reality, if I may put it that way. Even worse, the person arguing the position may not even believe honestly that it is true and real and right. This could be because the person honestly believes the position is false and is arguing the point with conscious dishonesty, in which case his argument is fraudulent. Conscious dishonesty is all too frequent when people are trying to acquire political power at the expense of your freedom of thought or action or to con you into spending your money unwisely. Finally, the person may not be sufficiently in touch with the relevant facts so that he or she is blindly and honestly mistaken or, perhaps, also harbors some level of honest doubt or uncertainty about the matter. In the later case it is helpful to the integrity of the argument and the sanity of all concerned if the person voices the fact that he or she is not sure.
In the absence of at least one accurate proposition, one that is really true because it expresses reality correctly, one simply has nothing to base a logical argument on. [belief side--reality side]. And one cannot have even one such proposition unless one is expressing a reality rather than a pure fantasy or, worse, a pretended opinion or fantasy. For example, a purely imaginary construct like a novel grounded on nothing or (ii) sentences constructed of words that express nothing, i.e., completely empty verbiage (whether technical, political, religious or otherwise). Even more sinister is a disingenuously pretended opinion--which the person asserting it does not really hold but pretends or acts as if they hold, e.g., an empty personal or political or business slogan or political platform or ideology. A mark of someone who seriously believes something is their effort to govern their actions and other beliefs accordingly and respond to apparent failures to do so with embarrassment. A pure hypocrite feels no such pressure and usually can be spotted by his or her total lack of concern, and by a complete disconnect between his words and his actions (particularly his actions when he thinks no one is watching).
A misdirected preoccupation with consistency can often be a tool and obsession of a political or intellectual ideologue. Such people aim to keep everyone else off balance by making them feel disempowered to doubt something that is in fact questionable or to believe something that is in fact true. One way they may do this is to make you believe there is an inconsistency between that doubt or belief and something else you believe or pretend to believe. For example, you believe your parents are generally honest, sensible, strong people that have good reasons for believing what they do. They tell you that the emperor will be parading through town in his new clothes, according to an announcement from the palace, which announcements you also believe to be generally reliable. You believe the king is generally reliable. All of these, by the way, are things you naturally want to believe—lest you be driven to the conclusion that the most significant people in your lives are mistaken in important matters affecting your well-being.
When the parade begins, your observations tell you that the emperor’s new clothes are only a birthday suit, nothing more. Yet everyone around you including your parents is commenting on the fine new garments which their imaginations are supplying for the king. You may fear to speak up and feel inner turmoil because you realize that if the king and your parents are misleading you or are mislead themselves, or are afraid, then some of the things you want to believe about them and about human life cannot be entirely true. You don’t want to doubt these things, but you see that you must either doubt them or doubt your own perceptions. In the story it was a little child who blurted out, “But Daddy, the emperor has no clothes on at all.” As a general rule, only a few small children and some fortunate adults who haven’t lost the ability to trust their own perceptions will ever speak up—and often they are punished for their trouble.
The whole purpose of political exercises like the above parade (and countless other ceremonies within the family, on television, in churches, in schools and in the public square) is to cause and stir up this sort of inner turmoil and habituate the people, including small children, to doubt what they see rather than question the competence or integrity of a political, religious, intellectual, business or other authority, or the accuracy of an official belief. They seek to enforce conformity. Yet to retain one’s own sanity, one must be disposed to trust the facts one sees more than the authority-serving beliefs in one’s head or that others are pushing upon one as the correct or right thing to believe.
Real education is not teaching people what to believe but rather how to observe and think and see for themselves. Much of what passes for upbringing and education in our society and all societies is just the opposite. One is taught a set of beliefs along with the equally important belief that one must trust those beliefs more than one trusts one’s own observations. One is trained to be “loyal” to some set of beliefs, at all costs. There are three essential steps: (i) introduce one or more beliefs, (ii) induce a want or need to accept the beliefs or at the very least a fear not to pretend to accept and conform to them and (iii) then point out the inconsistency between the disputed belief and the desire- or fear-supported belief system already established in one’s conditioning. Further support for such a mental dominance structure can be had by adding one more element: (iv) a “mysterious” mystery supposedly well understood by the leaders; this latter can be used to enforce people’s doubts in themselves by urging them to adopt the view that something about the situation that they don’t understand but that the leaders do understand, justifies the belief being enforced or the action being taken. A sufficiently vague and non specific set of beliefs can itself constitute a sufficient level of such mystery. Many political, theological and intellectual structures (not all, of course) fit this profile.
One need only turn to recent history to find extremely destructive examples. I think in Nazi ideology there was something called a Fuhrer Principle (in essence a view that whatever Mr. Hitler said was true and whatever he wanted was right and in Germany’s best interest). This was the biggest of Hitler’s “Big Lies”. Enforced by a sufficiently powerful and ruthless apparatus of control and conditioning, this eventually led Germany and the world into the disaster of the Second World War. Similarly, forces of conformity in British politics disabled England from mounting any resistance until it was almost too late, and forces of conformity to whatever Stalin did or did not see as pressing in Soviet Politics did likewise with respect to the Soviet Union. Lest others relax and think that it doesn’t also happen in other realms, recall the principle of papal infallibility and the maxims of many sovereign individuals and political parties throughout the world to the effect that the king or the party or the system can do no wrong. Sovereigns are often accorded “sovereign immunity” from civil and/or criminal prosecution—surely this is in part supported by a notion that the position makes the person in it infallible, whereas the position actually makes a dangerous person all the more dangerous. It is all the same crock of rancid spaghetti.
Isn’t it about 90 million plus murders that the current Chinese regime is estimated to be responsible for over its 70-year lifetime? That’s at least twice as many people as are estimated to have lost their lives in all of WWII. All types of political structures and systems, in fact all people, and all groups of people, are fallible, and they are especially likely to fail when they feel infallible or invulnerable and/or insist on appearing that way at all costs—and sometimes it does cost all or almost all. It is natural to want to believe one cannot make a mistake, but sanity requires that one realize that one can and does, in small and large ways, err frequently.
If one cannot take action inconsistent with one’s past actions and beliefs, then one cannot correct one’s mistakes or improve on one’s past performance—a dreadful trap to be in, and one that the world at large frequently finds itself in politically. One must learn not to be paralyzed by an inconsistency between what one has come to believe based on observation and what one wants to believe based on conditioning. One must be willing to contradict the latter so that in the fullness of time one comes to have beliefs that are grounded in actual observations rather than “observations” dominated by ungrounded beliefs. One path can move one toward greater entanglement in illusion, the other toward greater truthfulness.
The best way to destroy a person’s freedom is to implant through conditioning the notion that the State or Party can do no wrong, one’s mother or father can do no wrong, the Pope or some other religious leader or teacher or other authority can do no wrong or you-name-it can do no wrong, and then further implant a strong fear of doing or thinking anything that directly contradicts that notion or indirectly does so by questioning a decision or action of the authority. In fact, people’s minds tend to misfire in such a manner, I believe, that they will eventually come to doubt their own perceptions and their own sanity rather than buck the party line—for the most part anyway. Pointing out the contradiction between one’s own observations and the authority’s approved version of events, in fact, becomes the greatest fear one has—and hence is usually not done. Instead rationalizations and explanations are sought that seek to eliminate the contradiction without confronting it. This tragic fact means that we are all quite vulnerable to family, religious, political and intellectual tyrannies, large and small, in East, West, North and South—not least in the so-called free world.
By the time many people reach middle age, they are living in the state of quiet desperation that Thoreau referred to. They are somewhat (or a lot) cut off from reality and themselves by their beliefs and conditioning to which they feel they must conform, and feel a constant if inarticulate tension between their own powers of understanding and perception and what they believe they must believe or pretend to believe. If such people succeed in sealing themselves off from new or corrective experiences or interpretations, they are dead long before their corpses are hauled away and they are the fodder that tyrants feed upon.
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They can be said to be prisoners of a foolish regard for consistency—consistency with absurd but powerfully conditioned beliefs, such consistency at all costs, such consistency at the expense of never progressing, learning or improving.
How much more useful to the human condition is a single concrete fact grasped concretely and in detail than all the high-flying slogans too remote from concrete reality to rub up against it in the mind. The single concrete fact gives understanding, and without such understandings, one has nothing but illusion to build a life upon.
© 2012 Steve Grow - All Rights Reserved
Steve Grow holds degrees in physics, law and philosophy. He is a retired lawyer who practiced business law for many years. He studied philosophy and cognitive psychology at the graduate level, including working with one of the world’s leading scholars on the work of Aristotle. He was co-editor in chief of his college newspaper. He has observed and wondered about history, psychology, religion, politics, journalism and good (and bad) government since childhood.
He believes that, now and always, the central problem in politics is monitoring and governing those in political positions—so that ordinary people are the ultimate governors and can hold those in office fully accountable. Ordinary people deserve, and need, full legal protection of their privacy. In contrast, all activities of those in government should be open to full scrutiny at all times. In a certain sense, ordinary people should be “ungovernable” and accorded a broad measure of privacy – on the other hand, politicians and their actions should be open to monitoring, closely watched and constrained. Anyone with a contrary view, he believes, is an enemy of freedom—wittingly or unwittingly.