The ignorance of the ignorant is an unconvincing proof

This post is about a popular tactic in arguments between two people who don’t know much of what they’re talking about. (I am often part of such conversations, always as one of the ignorant parties, though I believe I myself normally manage to avoid this bad line of argumentation, despite how often I am subjected to it.)

“There are no good arguments for x. Think I’m wrong? Produce a good argument. No? Then apparently I’m right.” The same goes for, “There are no examples in history of y ever successfully working.”

To make a blanket statement, and then say that if someone largely ignorant of the field can’t find a specific counter-example then the point is established as true, is the most ridiculous thing. It amazes me how often it is attempted, and it troubles me to think how often it must successfully be persuading people who don’t know better.

Now, this line of argument makes sense at the highest levels. A person who’s an expert could lay this sort of challenge to a room full of fellow experts, and that would make a lot of sense.

But to reason toward a substantial conclusion as if on the basis of the ignorance of an ignorant person – that is just wrong in every way. The ignorant person can’t make a good argument either for or against the point in question. The fact that this person has no counterargument to you is boundlessly irrelevant. Of course, if in the moment you want to insist that it is relevant, that is very likely because you don’t have any good arguments for or against the point either.

What’s a better option for two people who want to talk about a thing they’re ignorant of? Well, if they feel angry, indignant, defensive, then the best option is probably just not to talk.

But if anything worthwhile is to come of the discussion, I think two things should be attempted. The first is to understand the shape of their ignorance; they can’t be absolutely ignorant of the thing, since that would prevent their wanting to talk about it, and so they should work from the scraps of knowledge available in order to find where they reach the limits of what they can competently say. The second aim is to seek out and agree on some high quality resources at an appropriate level, which might begin to alleviate the ignorance. From there, a worthwhile conversation will either need to conclude, or else to continue by way of studying the resources, if we’re really serious about wanting to be knowledgeable and not just to waste time arguing and growing bitter.

Freedom from what?

I was listening to an excellent podcast episode the other day about three different senses of the word “freedom.” I found it really helpful and thought I’d ruminate on it a bit here.

The lowest sort of freedom is the freedom from external compulsion. This is the freedom which the modern liberal capitalist state tries to maximize. This is what most of us have in mind when we use the word freedom today. Short of anarchy this freedom can never be perfect (and probably not even then), but it can be made pretty extensive, and that’s what we’ve been trying to accomplish with increasing effectiveness for the past few centuries, and which we continue to labour toward today.

What makes this freedom lowest is the fact that it is freedom for vice as well as virtue, for rank ignorance as well as for seeking wisdom, and it even often rewards vices (eg greed, over-ambitiousness, dishonesty) at the expense of those whose souls are comparatively lacking in those defects. On the other hand, this sort of freedom is the one that’s most easily quantified and recognized and legislated, which is one part of the explanation for the astonishing success of modern politics.

Are there other things which are not so external, material, bodily, which can constrain us and limit our freedom? There are indeed. Vice is an obvious example, which leads to the second variety of freedom: moral freedom. The coward who is prevented from taking a desired action by fear, for instance, or the addict who wants to say no to a harmful substance and yet cannot resist: these point to the sort of internal compulsions from which we seek to extricate ourselves at the level of moral freedom.

Moral freedom is higher than the external freedom listed above, since it leads us much more fully into the fully human life we desire. It is also not dependent on the first kind of freedom; a person can be good even in a society with less political freedom, especially (but not only) if those laws are laws that support moral excellence.

Another kind of freedom that is not external, and which can be compatible with virtually any legal or political arrangement, is freedom of thought. I do not mean freedom from governmental interference into what people are allowed to believe or to say. I mean something deeper, more interior.

Freedom of thought, as I am speaking of it, is freedom from error and falsehood, and from fallacious and imprecise thinking. This sort of freedom is difficult to attain, and easy to pretend to. Still, pretending to be free is of limited actual benefit to the person who is unwillingly confined. What matters most in this sphere is the firm commitment and continual effort to seek out erroneous thinking in ourselves and to seek out meritorious thoughts among those with whom we disagree (and then in turn to search those thoughts as well for defects once we have made them truly our own) in an ever-growing quest to root out our intellectual failings.

The first sense of freedom is an important thing, but its justification must always be grounded in, and its implementation always be guided by, the other two higher meanings.

The charm of the local

Think of the small, traditional community. They have their own traditions of food and music and of the market and of governance.

The earth is full of little communities like this. Such a diversity is beautiful and inspires a sort of loyalty and longing in the onlooker.

This experience can inspire people either to a kind of leftist politics or to a kind of conservatism, in the face of modern capitalism. I feel the pull of both varieties, in different ways. They are allied in their resistance to a form of the market that erases local differences and which, in large part, destroys local markets to replace them with national and international markets.

The experience does not come prepackaged with a programme of political action, but it is very often a large part of the motivation behind such programmes.

I don’t know the best way to nurture the local community with its local traditions, without giving up too many of the best benefits of capitalism, benefits which we can hardly do without entirely in the modern world, even if individuals or small groups may try to opt out of them. The search for the best way, or even for the best ways to talk about searching for a best way, has been a major motivation behind my own studies in recent years.

I don’t think the answer is to try to bring change from the bottom up, starting with voluntary communities that choose to live against the logic of the homogeneous society. There’s a place for that, an important place, and those individuals or communities that strain for it are praiseworthy in my view.

But I see it as a partial resistance, a last stand, doomed to failure. Asking people to fight the gravitational pull of the systems into which they are born and which structure our entire world may be successful in the case of a very few, or may even sometimes be temporarily victorious for a large movement of people.

But it’s a weak solution, out of proportion to the problem it seeks to answer. For anyone who really cares about the problem, it is necessary to desire and hope for and (for some at least), to work toward, change on a higher level, at the level of political efforts and the structuring of the economy.

I don’t know if changes of that sort will ever be thinkable. I do know that without them, the charm of the local will be increasingly lost, forgotten, replaced with uniformity and ever-shifting culture wars and an endless procession of new fashions.

Autodidacticism for the unhurried

If you are in a hurry to learn something new, your best bet is probably just to pay someone who’s knowledgeable in the subject and in pedagogy to train you.

But if you aren’t in a hurry (and for most of the things we’d ultimately like to learn, we really don’t need to be in that much of a hurry), it is possible and even enjoyable to teach yourself about what you want to learn. You may not perfect your knowledge in this way, but you can do a lot of the work without much help.

Here’s the key, from what I’ve found: you need to have access to a lot of different resources. You need an abundance of resources to compare. In the internet age, we generally don’t lack for options, and that is excellent for the autodidact.

Most of the available resources will be either of poor quality or else tailored to someone at a different level. That’s okay. We need patience to work our way through the mountain of unsuitable resources to find the perfect few. In the process of sifting through the wrong resources, a picture of the subject you want to learn is already beginning to form in your mind.

And then at last you find one or two of the perfect resources! A website, or a YouTube channel, or a book. What next? Use them, of course, until you get frustrated or overly bored. Then go back on the search. Eventually you’ll probably circle back to some of the earlier resources, might work through some of them multiple times.

It takes gigantic patience and persistence to learn a subject in this way. On the other hand, if you can do it, then you can learn at your own pace, you can learn as widely and as deeply as you choose, prioritizing the aspects you want to prioritize. You can get the education of your dreams without spending a dollar.

All you need is a little fragment of your day, invested again and again, for as long as it takes.

Am I a Platonic Communist?

A little while ago I spent an evening with some friendly, intelligent fellows, most of whom I didn’t know well before I had a meal with them and an evening of boisterous disagreements over education, economics, religion, and politics. They all knew one another very well, and each knew his own views very well too.

I spend lots of time thinking about politics and economics and religion and education, as a glance through this blog will demonstrate. Still, trying to situate my convictions relative to those other perspectives at the table (which ranged from left through centre to right) was an unfamiliar experience.

If someone had asked me to define my political position, I would probably have said that I have a conservative heart, a libertarian head, and progressive goals, or something like that. I really am a mishmash of views that makes me partly sympathetic to each partisan corner, and makes me even more skeptical of each of them.

For some reason, that approach, which works perfectly well in the privacy of my own head, felt incredibly unwieldy during the conversation. I can’t say exactly why, but it was certainly true.

During the drive home afterward, I realized that my version of the ideal state would be something with some marked similarities to Plato’s famous “Republic” (or, better, “Callipolis”). There would certainly be some differences as well, but that’s to be expected, since I’m not trying to honour or adapt Plato so much as I am just trying to think through the ideal city as well as I can, using a brain that has been steeping in Platonic thought for several years.

If I were made the absolute legislator for some little state, and asked to come up with the best constitution I can, here’s the picture that first comes to mind for me. Every citizen would be simultaneously a farmer, a soldier, and a scholar, but each would also have to specialize in one of the three areas. The farmers would be mainly focused on producing food (mostly in organic ways that will build up the health of the soil), but would also receive periodic military training throughout their lives, and would periodically receive education in a course of studies over which they would have some control, again over the span of a life. The soldiers would mainly focus on military training and tasks, but would also be required to spend time working on farms occasionally and to understand how to produce food, and would also be enrolled in the same sort of lifelong educational programme as the farmers. And the scholars would research and write and experiment and debate, but would also be expected to receive periodic military training and to produce some amount of food.

Food and security would be plentiful, and the contemplative life would be made possible in a way that would benefit the intellectuals and the community. How would goods be produced? I think scholars would help with engineering and design, and the military would be in charge of producing the things that would be needed. Would there be money, elected offices? Yes to both, in systems carefully designed to incentivize people to strive for what is best for themselves and for the community.

I have not thought this through very carefully (and I’m sure I won’t do so anytime soon, since there’s no particular need), but something along these lines is really intellectually appealing to me. I’m not saying any existing country, Canada or the US or Russia or China or Iran etc, would benefit by adopting this model (not that there would be any chance of that happening!). But I find this imaginary state to provide a helpful frame of reference, at least at first blush.

One thing I love about this image is the way it is oriented, or at least could be oriented, to virtue. Many thinkers have spoken of farmers as a portion of a population that safeguards virtue. It is also common in the history of philosophy to connect virtue with martial training and military life, as is seen in some reflections on Sparta or Rome. And the highest sort of human virtue is the virtue of the contemplative life, the life of thought and reflection and knowing. A truly virtuous city can never be guaranteed, but it can certainly be encouraged.

Humanities, sciences, and historicism

For some time now I’ve felt that the distinction between humanities and sciences is an important one, but it is also one that I’ve found very difficult to put my finger on.

I remember speaking to a locally renowned scientist when I was a teenager and being told that if a scholar of literature wasn’t in some way using the modern scientific method to reach conclusions, the work was by definition worthless. Ever since, my sense of the boundaries between the two realms has been really conflicted and uncertain, even though at the same time, of course, we all in the modern world have some deep intuitive sense of the difference.

I find the sciences fascinating. I love to learn about them, about the work the do and the way they work and especially the findings that are most relevant to us (especially findings about the human body, within the natural sciences, and findings relevant to political life, among the social sciences). But my intellectual vocation is not to the sciences. I am irresistibly drawn, instead, to the humanistic disciplines.

At the same time, I have also generally felt only half at home even in the humanities. I love the work done in, say, philosophy and literature, but I cannot feel entirely settled in it. I always feel that I am at most translating my thoughts into the sort of language that is appropriate to the contemporary humanities, and translating their work into the language of my own way of thinking. That’s different from the experience I have of reading the sort of humanistic work that was being done during the Renaissance, in which I feel far more at home.

Reading Leo Strauss has led me to wonder whether the difference might be located in the phenomenon of historicism. The non-historicist Straussian of the contemporary world, and the historicist, will both focus on many of the same things and with many similar questions, but with very different goals.

Leo Strauss, and some others who are like him, do not assume that past thinkers must be superior to us, but he approaches them in a way that is open to treating them as being at least our equals, and as teachers from whom we might indeed have something important to learn. The historicist majority instead looks to the past to narrate the origins of our current wisdom, or, even more often these days I suspect, in order to contrast the horrid vices of our ancestors against our more enlightened contemporary sensibilities.

To me, the latter feels like a self-congratulatory waste of time, and lacking self awareness to boot. The former is what I want to give all my time to. I want to spend years and decades straining to know what the theoretical alternatives are, to hear each argued as well as it can be, and so to begin to construct some conclusions of my own. The humanities is where that can happen, although it will necessarily today be often a parallel or parasitic activity alongside what most contemporary humanists want to work on.

Does the philosopher win every debate?

Pursuing the life of philosophy brings a greater knowledge of the truth, and of the different arguments for and against it, and of the main alternatives and the best arguments for and against them.

Oftentimes, one of the original motivations for starting down that path is the desire to stop losing debates, to stop being made to look like a fool, to stop finding every interesting discussion ending at an impasse. We can think of the young admirers of Socrates, if our own experiences do not furnish the demonstration of this.

It is good to pursue philosophy, and so it’s good that these motivations exist. But winning debates is often not something philosophy will allow us to do. Indeed, sometimes it has the opposite effect, because you’ll start playing by rules that others aren’t interested in imposing on themselves.

Once you learn some logic, you will be shocked at how often you’ll find seemingly intelligent people who are entirely comfortable having it pointed out that their entire argument is hanging from a fallacy. And I don’t mean one of the acceptable fallacies; sometimes, of course, something like an appeal to authority is unavoidable and completely acceptable if you don’t want, eg, to start cutting up cadavers to see for yourself how the internal organs fit together. Allowance often has to be made for those kinds of cases, which are common. But this doesn’t mean that all fallacies are no big deal! It can be shocking to find how many people will brazenly accept the presence of an unacceptable fallacy in their argument, if that’s the price of not admitting defeat.

There are a few different kinds of people who will not be any more easily convinced by an argument no matter how intelligent it becomes. There are the people who frown and dig their feet in and nitpick another’s argument, holding it to a standard they’d never hold their own arguments to. They want to believe what they believe, and intellectual argumentation will never budge them from where they’re standing. Then there are those for whom argument is sport. They might not care much who is right, but they have picked a side and they will find enjoyment fighting for it tooth and nail, come what may. You’ll never get anything like an admission of defeat from these. And then last, there are a very few people who use deliberately dishonest arguments, trying to trick the other side; I think these were more numerous in past ages, but I’m sure you can find them today as well if you know where to look, especially if you pay much attention to partisan politics.

But two things will have changed, nonetheless, in pursuing the life of philosophy: what you argue for, and what you look for in a conversation partner. I think what is argued for becomes generally more humble. Your side of the argument might often be reducible to either “I’m not convinced you’re right that x is true,” or, “I’m not convinced you’re right that x is false.” This isn’t an argumentative technique, but a reflection of a deeper change in the way you think.

And in terms of evaluating conversation partners, the focus will be much less on finding where the weaknesses are in their argument. Rather, the attempt will be to discern the motivation. People who have made up their mind and simply want to find arguments to confirm their conclusion, rather than being open to finding out whether they might be wrong, are not all that worthwhile to argue with, in most cases. However, there is a small minority of people who are aware of their ignorance, who are open to seeing something they haven’t discovered before, who seek not just the best arguments for their chosen conclusion but the best arguments simpliciter and who will shift allegiance, always provisionally, to whatever is best argued. Conversation partners like this are a great rarity, and a source of joy and of mutual instruction and encouragement when found.

Kitchen scraps garden

Last year was not a good summer for gardening at my house.

It was our first summer in a new house, and between my toddlers keeping me busy and a list of other good habits I was seeking to sustain, I ended up really doing nothing toward my garden. My one half-hearted attempt to do not nothing was when I tried to get rid of the grass covering a section of lawn that I thought I might want to use as a garden THIS summer. To my great pride, I was not completely unsuccessful in that endeavour.

This year is already off to a better start. I am not promising a good garden this year, since I’m still very very much in the learning, experimenting, amateur, making mistakes phase, but at least I should make some kind of progress this year.

I found out that you can put some kitchen scraps into water to get them to grow into new plans. You can do it with lettuce, garlic, onions, and sweet potatoes, among others. Those are the ones I have on my kitchen sill at the moment.

Sweet potatoes take a really long time to grow in water. My two sweet potatoes have some fuzz floating around their base, which I hope is what will develop into some roots eventually. Not much to look at yet.

My lettuce is looking good, and I’m already learning how to make it grow better. I think, or at least I hope, that I’ll be growing lots of lettuce in my garden this year, from reusing scraps that I got started in water on the window sill.

My allium vegetables are developing more rapidly than the sweet potatoes, but more slowly than the lettuce. They’ve started growing some thin little roots and stretching up little green things at the top. Not as lush and glorious as the lettuce though, not yet.

I know there are other plants you can start like this. Basil is one I’d love to try.

But basically, I’m really excited about this approach to gardening. I would be buying these foods anyway, and so it doesn’t really cost me anything extra, even in terms of inconvenience. And I have this food to put in the water in the first place because it’s food that my family buys and eats regularly anyways, so if I succeed in growing it there will definitely be a place for it at the Ottens family table.

I have many dreams of things I’d like to be able to do in my gardening, and it will probably be years before I get around to doing all of them. For the time being, if I can get this particular experiment off the ground then I think I’ll have a good gardening base from which I can build in future years. I’m quite excited and hopeful.

In a few months, I’ll be putting some little green plants into the dirt. Until then, my family gets to have a little miniature green garden growing out of some clear glass and plastic holders (old tomato sauce jars and hummus containers, for now). It feels like an excellent beginning.

Farmer, soldier, intellectual-priest-politician

There are three kinds of communities of people that I find especially admirable, and they correspond to three kinds of people who to me exemplify in different ways strength and happiness and self-sufficiency.

The first kind is the farmer or gardener. The people who have the knowledge and the skills to grow their own food, especially in more self-sustaining ways that require minimal extra artificial chemical inputs, are a blessed people. Their food comes not from continents away, not from chemists and geneticists, not from giant grocery stores, but from soil and sunlight and water and seeds. They make the earth around them healthy and beautiful, wilder than lawns but tamer than wilderness. Their lives are cheaper when times are good, and they have sustenance when times are bad, and at all times their wholesome habit more than pays for itself. When they congregate, they talk about weather and pests and harvests over food lovingly grown and lovingly prepared.

The second kind is the soldier, the warrior, the tough. The people who can defend themselves when the need arises have a confidence and swagger that everyone else will envy or admire. They know how to train their bodies and sustain them at a high level, for endurance and for strength. They know how to support their bodily health with good nutrition and rest. They know how to fight effectively without any weapons, and which weapons to use when weapons are called for, and how to use them. They can organize themselves and others, know how to think ahead, anticipate, defend, to lash out at weak points. One of them alone is a force to be reckoned with, an island around which the waves of people will quietly slide. A community of them is given full respect.

The third kind splits three different ways in my head. For my background, and my interests as a Straussian, this triplet fits together naturally, but for others it will seem an irreconcilable combination. The three are the priest or theologian, the politician, and the scholar or philosopher. In the ancient world where society is divided in three parts, the first two tend to be farmer and soldier, and the third tends to be some portion of this final triplet, whether we are thinking of Plato’s Republic, Isocrates’ Busiris, or the medieval view that “some work, some fight, some pray.”

The scholar can spend hours learning new ideas or tools, seeking to understand histories and interpret texts, and searching for truth and for defences of the truth. It is long, painstaking work, and it is a delight in itself and a blessing to the world. The wise person seeks knowledge that can help the world, and searches out the words and the avenues by which that knowledge can be delivered where it is needed most. The solitary scholar is happy and hardworking, and the community of scholars is a network of debate and ever-increasing insight.

The religious person prays and receives sacraments, learns orthodox doctrine and experiences mystical realities. The quest is for virtue and a pure heart and the vision of God. The religious person continuously desires for God’s will and God’s justice to be present in our world. The saint is a manifestation of light and love, and the religious community is a burning fire stretching toward heaven.

The politician knows how to give a speech to a crowd and also knows when and whom to address in private, and how to motivate the key actors who might be hesitant. The politician knows how to get things done, and has also worked to understand what worthy ends we should apply our political efforts toward. Alone, an orator like this can save a community from destruction if circumstances allow. In concert with others of the same ilk, an entire programme of civilizational renewal becomes a possibility.

Rubber hits the road

It’s sometimes easy to forget that ideas matter. And maybe that’s a good thing.

When nothing is immediately at stake, you can have a lighthearted and entertaining debate with someone about rationality and irrationality, about the value of human life, about expertise and governance, about moral obligations and societal expectations.

In those situations, the people with the most extreme and unconventional views can be the most stimulating to debate, the funniest, the most thought provoking. I believe that these sorts of conversations probably have a place, and can be valuable experiences as a person matures and learns how to think.

It’s striking, though, how quickly things look different as soon as people start following through on their convictions in environments where their actions might have real consequences.

I took an epistemology class once in which we spent a week or two discussing conspiracy theories. It was fun to argue both sides, to experiment with daring postures.

But when you have actual friends believing actual conspiracy theories that do actual harm, it doesn’t feel as fun anymore. I was listening to an interview the other day about someone whose romantic partner went all the way down the QAnon rabbit hole and became a very different person. It’s frightening, nauseating stuff.

I think it’s a good thing to be able to explore new ideas in a setting where the biggest thing to fear is the disapproval of one’s peers. I think it is also really important to see, later, how those ideas really matter, and to reevaluate them in light of their effects on the world and the people you love.