The Limits of Rational Argument

Among the many things that Western philosophy drills into your head is a strong intuition that, if you can provide a rational argument for something, it must be true.  Such an intuition is perfectly acceptable in the world of formal logic and deductive theorems, but when it comes to the big issues in life – the issues that I seem so inexorably drawn to, for better or worse – arguments on their own just don’t suffice.  Sometimes I read, see, or hear something (see my Weekly Links for examples) that strikes me as so profoundly true that I wonder how anyone could possibly ever think otherwise.  But the next second, I remember that there are a host of reasons why I found the thought or argument just conveyed so persuasive, and it actually has very little to do with the content of that specific thought or argument.  Not to be too simplistic, but the ‘person’ who heard that thought or argument is just an accumulation of all of the experiences in my life.  Taken that way, it is perfectly understandable that real disagreements proliferate in the world, and it makes sense of why most would consider the state of affairs depicted in 1984 to be an unnatural transformation of humanity into an unthinking mass.

However, as my tacit assumption about the feeling that are meant to be elicited by 1984 shows, we are not so different from each other to make it that we cannot agree about things, even deeply fundamental things.  Even so, I think that believing in the fundamental causes that define who you are (if you allow them to) requires just that – belief.  You cannot read a book, watch a movie, or even have a conversation, and come to that level of realization (though all of these things help for some).  Ultimately, such beliefs are arrived at through living your life and being aware how much their truth is all around you.  [I genuinely do not want to enter into the discussion of whether what I am proposing is a form of objectivity where if two people were to somehow have identical experiences they would necessarily have the same fundamental beliefs – but as you can tell, the impulse to consider this possibility has been well nourished]

I know what you’re all thinking now: I just provided an argument for why I can’t provide an argument for the most fundamental beliefs a person holds, and that’s circular.  Well, like all well-conceived dogma (well-conceived for its adherents) the deep-rooted assurance that rationality will provide the answers to everything is unfalsifiable.  But I am not really trying to provide an argument of that sort here.  I am commenting based on experience, hoping to show that the most important of conclusions can only truly be arrived at through experience.  Finally, unlike the few actual examples of universal truth that exists (2+2=4 comes to mind) which are agreed to, not just in substance, but in how one arrives at them as well, fundamental beliefs are almost impossible to agree upon in how one arrives at them.  If you listen to an argument about entrenched social issues, or broader geopolitical ones, you are bound to find ‘strange bedfellows’ – people, or groups of people, that agree about a given position, but disagree vehemently about how the other got to that conclusion.

The point here is really that, when it comes to what matters, we all have different concerns, and all see situations differently.  But, for what it is worth, my takeaway from this realization is that I need to practice greater tolerance and understanding, showing more respect for other’s views.  Unlike how it is sometimes portrayed (and how the above could be read, but shouldn’t be) I do not just wake up one day and decide what my fundamental beliefs are; just as I am struggling to figure out what beliefs define me, so too others probably are.

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2 thoughts on “The Limits of Rational Argument

  1. What if others’ beliefs conflict with yours and their actions based on those beliefs hurt you, or others? Then is one able to judge the “other’s” belief? I am not sure where your moral boundary [if there is one] lies with regard to tolerance and respect?

    take care!

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