All posts,  Well-being

Arguing with the universe

Social media provide a strange playground for a psychologist. You get to watch people interacting, like a fly on the wall, much less intrusively than in real life. Each platform has its idiosyncrasies. Facebook ‘friendships’ mostly follow real-life ones, whilst Twitter and Reddit are dominated by relationships that exist only in cyberspace.

Over the last couple of years, people have become more and more worried that these media may be causing or exacerbating a social divide. For example, in the political sphere, the centre-right and centre-left voices are being drowned out by the far-left and far-right. Numerous scholars and commentators have blamed social media. There might be some truth to the claim, though surely there are other factors too.

The problem with social media is that they amplify a tendency already born into the human species to substitute popularity for truth. Human beings love to be right. And on social media, the number of clicks, likes, and retweets seem to be a readily quantifiable metric of rightness. In the cold light of day, common sense tells us this is wrong. In the words widely attributed to Waldemar Lysiak:

If the majority is always right, let’s eat shit. Millions of flies can’t be wrong.

Well, yes, but social media are not the cold light of day, and many leading twitterers seem to have a common sense deficit.

Ultimately it may come back to this: Most people, most of the time, treat discussions and arguments like a sort of sporting competition. If your team beats mine in a well-refereed game of rugby, then in some real sense your team is the better team (at least for now). The truth being asserted here (which is the better team) is pretty much the only determinant of the metric (who won). We could argue about my team having injuries, but then isn’t the ability to play safely and avoid injury part of the concept of ‘better’?

In most arguments and discussions however, the outcome of the argument is not only determined, not even primarily determined, by the Truth. Just think of a legal case going before a judge. You might have been a direct eye witness to a brutal assault, yet the defendant is rich and can afford the country’s best lawyer. Thus, he escapes punishment by winning the argument in court. Now, he’s not guilty in the eyes of the law. That’s the legal ‘truth’, but is it the Truth? There are two things going on here, the underlying Truth, and the rhetoric. (The latter term can be taken as including theories, models, statements, and arguments which make claims about the Truth.) The greater the distance between the rhetoric and the Truth, the harder the speaker or rhetorician is going to have to work. To borrow an example from Prof Michael Drout of Wheaton College, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to convince people that gravel makes a tasty snack than you would to convince them of the same claim with respect to a Snickers bar. In his Speech Act Theory, J.L. Austin calls this word-to-world fit. The sentence, “gravel is tasty” simply doesn’t describe the world well. (Given that ‘world’ is sometimes used to refer to the people of the world, and given that many knowledge claims are about phenomena beyond our globe, I prefer word-to-universe fit.)

Austin and Drout are interested in such issues at the purely rhetorical level. They study the art of persuasion through language, and having a reasonable degree of word-to-universe fit is needed if one is to persuade. But in a sense, rhetoric is the study of how far one can stretch that word-to-universe fit before people stop believing you.

Often, when discussing or arguing over some issue, we too get trapped at the rhetorical level; we have the experience of arguing with another human being (or maybe several of them) and we imagine that if only they would concede defeat, we would be proven right. This idea is factually and demonstrably false. How many times have you given up and let someone win an argument even though you were still sure they were wrong? Perhaps you’ve had the opposite experience, of arguing successfully for a position you didn’t really believe in. Certainly, you’ve heard of many cases where persuasive arguments put an innocent person behind bars. Winning an argument says almost nothing about the word-to-universe fit of your theory or idea.

This insight is precisely what invented science. The Enlightenment thinkers, like Bacon, realised that instead of arguing with each other and allowing a win to make us falsely confident in our own knowledge, we should instead argue with the universe. This was the birth of empiricism, and over the last few hundred years it has taken us from scratching an existence in a famine-and-disease-infested world, to living like kings. (I mean this literally. The average westerner today has a better standard of living than Louis XIV.) The realisation that our conception of Truth should be defined in dialogue with the universe, not simply by whoever has the most power or money, dragged us out of the dark ages.

Science is powerful. Cars, trucks, tractors, nuclear bombs and the internet have re-shaped the world, both physically and socially. The reason science is powerful is because it works. It provides descriptions of the universe with unusually tight word-to-universe fit. “Once released, things fall toward the ground,” allows you to predict the behaviour of an arrow or a falling apple to reasonable degree. You know it won’t go up. “There exists a gravitational force between any two bodies in space, directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them,” has considerably better word-to-universe fit. It allows you to make aeroplanes and send people to the moon.

We cannot afford to loosen our grip on enlightenment values. We cannot afford to let the scientific conception of truth die just because mud-slinging on the internet is entertaining. We cannot afford to retreat into the playground logic of “I won the argument, so I’m right!” We must seek the Truth, not the warm fuzzy feeling we get when a hundred people re-tweet our acerbic put-down.

Each of us must take responsibility. Stop trying to win arguments. Start trying to find the truth. Even if you don’t like it. Even if you wish things were otherwise. Even if it hurts. It doesn’t matter if you win, you might still be wrong.