Multiple Possible Interpretations

I think the most important starting point for a fruitful philosophical or intellectual discussion is when each side begins with the recognition that the other side holds a possible, plausible, basically irrefutable interpretive option.

Now, two plus two is four, of course. Anyone disagreeing with that is probably just mistaken. But that’s not what people will generally argue about.

Any event in the past can be explained fully and satisfactorily by innumerable interpretations. It’s possible that little George Washington told the truth about the cherry tree, as the folk story claims. It’s possible that there never was a cherry tree to tell the truth about, and that some later hagiographer made the whole story up ex nihilo. Either version is possible, and each explains the evidence perfectly well.

But those two alternatives don’t exhaust all the possibilities, either. It could be that there was another young person named George Washington who chopped down the tree and the two people were later conflated. It could be that George Washington chopped down the tree and then lied about it but then he or someone else later amended the story to make him look more trustworthy. It could be that the cherry tree story is actually the only true kernel of knowledge that we have about George Washington’s life and that everything else we think we know about his story is nothing but a web of lies woven by early American propagandists.

Those possibilities can’t all be true. They certainly aren’t all equally plausible. But if we want to have an honest conversation between people who disagree, we would need to be able to recognize that they are all possible, that they do indeed all explain the available evidence (or at least they can be made to explain all the evidence), and that they each even have advantages over the others in making sense of what happened. Not one of them can ever be ruled out absolutely, only (at best) shown to be too unlikely for a reasonable person to accept.

This is not something that happens only with events in the past, either. Events in the past are more or less static, usually without a lot of new information coming out about them. Things happening in the present are much more fluid and confusing, and expectations of things in the future are entirely indeterminate. The problem only grows more acute.

Even when we are talking about economics or political theory or natural science, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenge. The reason we gave up on the Ptolemaic model of the universe isn’t because it stopped working. It needed some complicated amendments to remain true to reality, but right up to the point it was abandoned it was able to be articulated in a way that accounted for all our observations. I’m sure that if someone wanted to, it would be possible (though no doubt tedious and difficult) to update it so that it could still explain all the observed phenomena of the physical universe perfectly well.

So then we admit that all the explanations are possible but we just have to gravitate toward whatever is the simplest explanation for what we’ve observed, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy either. Each person will always be able to find a way to make a preferred account appear simplest from some standpoint, and even whichever is actually objectively simplest (however we’d choose to measure that) has no guarantee of being actually true.

The best thing we can do, I suspect, is to recognize that each explanation is possible and that each will have advantages and disadvantages that have to be weighed against one another, and then to make the best effort we can at seeking truth and being fairminded in a given instance.

And a conversation partner who isn’t willing to commit to such an approach alongside us is, really, no conversation partner at all.

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