Can We See Past Our Own Foundations?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

You can't understand anything in terms of nothing.

That much is obvious. What's less obvious is that it's a barrier to communication and understanding.

Each of us has a foundational viewpoint that biases how we see the world. It includes things like:

  • Our basic concepts, such as time (day, hour, minute, second), animal, vegetable, and mineral.
  • Our basic assumptions about reality, such as that physical things usually stay the same from day to day.
  • Our basic assumptions about morality, such as that all people are equal or that democracy is good.

The problem is that we can't really check our own viewpoints.

Suppose that your viewpoint consists of 10 concepts and 10 assumptions. If they are all consistent with each other, how can you think critically about any of them?

If you try to evaluate assumption #1, you do so in terms of assumptions 2 to 10. Because your assumptions are consistent with each other, they all certify that assumption #1 is correct. The same applies to any other basic assumptions.

Is there any way we can get out of our own box of assumptions and see them from the outside?

There's only one way: Talk to people who disagree with us and listen carefully to what they say. It's not perfect, but it's the best method we've got.

In 2018, people tend to view disagreement and debate as unpleasant and unhelpful. They think we should all either agree or at least shut up about any dissenting opinions.

That's a prescription for ignorance.

We shouldn't just tolerate disagreement, we should welcome it. We can't verify our own assumptions, but people who disagree with us can check them for us. And we can do the same thing for them.

In order for that to work, we have to be more interested in learning the truth than in proving we're always right. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill said, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."