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To some, the following sequence of syllogisms, logically demonstrating that employing reason and humility leads to both the growth in human consciousness and the increase in human cooperative and mutually beneficial behavior, may seem too obvious to state. But my recent experience debating a group of fanatical libertarians on a Facebook thread (More Dialogue With Libertarians), and the explicit embrace by one in particular of the opposite of reason and humility as defined in this post, inspired me to formulate this argument. Obviously, those who are completely impervious to reason (as is that particular individual) will be insulated against this argument as well. However, I believe that there are people who are somewhat inclined in the direction of the irrational Facebook commenter, but are not completely impervious to reason, who may be somewhat swayed by this argument. I hope it finds its way to as many of them as possible.

Syllogism 1:

Premise: Mutually exclusive absolute truths cannot be simultaneously correct, by definition.

Premise: Humans tend to divide themselves into mutually exclusive ideological camps, members of each certain that theirs and theirs alone represents the one absolute truth.

Conclusion: At most one such camp, and possibly no such camp, is correct in their belief that their ideology is the one absolute truth.

Syllogism 2:

Premise: At most one, and possible none, of the mutually exclusive ideological camps purporting to represent the one absolute truth is correct in its belief that it does represent the one absolute truth.

Premise: All humans, including myself, are fallible.

Conclusion: Because I am fallible, it is possible (statistically highly probable, in fact) that the one absolute truth that my own ideological camp represents is not the correct one absolute truth.

Syllogism 3:

Premise: Since it is possible (statistically highly probable, in fact) that the one absolute truth to which I adhere is not the correct one absolute truth, reason requires me to realize this fact, and adapt my thinking and behavior to it.

Premise: One such adaptation, called “skepticism,” which requires not taking factual assertions or conclusions on faith, including one’s own current understandings, but rather requiring empirical and logical proof (such as I am providing here, proof being a mathematical concept, and this being a mathematical proof), is the cornerstone of scientific methodology, which has become the most robust producer of reliable knowledge, and most robust bulwark against error, on all matters involving factual verification and causal and systemic relationships among variables.

Conclusion: Reason recommends the employment of skepticism, even about one’s own current understandings, in a process similar to scientific methodology, in one’s thoughts and interactions involving our understanding of the world. (Such skepticism of one’s own current understandings can be called “humility,” the recognition of one’s own fallibility, and the incorporation of that recognition into their understanding of the world.)

Syllogism 4:

Premise: When people who do not employ the form of reason described in Syllogism 3 encounter one another, and do not belong to the same ideological camp, they are locked into mutually antagonistic disagreement. (In fact, even if just one party does not employ this form of reason, that party will reject as unacceptable the party who recommends it, and will thus lock them into mutually antagonistic disagreement.)

Premise: History is replete with the consequences of such mutually antagonistic disagreement, including ideological and religious components to warfare (rarely the only cause, but often a significant and possibly decisive factor), failure to compromise and cooperate, and, in general, a world comprised of more rather than less violent mutual belligerence.

Conclusion: The failure to embrace the form of reason described in Syllogism 3 contributes to the violent mutual belligerence in the world.

Syllogism 5:

Premise: When people do employ the form of reason described in Syllogism 3, they must listen to opposing arguments and confront the evidence and logic within them, considering the possibility that those opposing arguments are more correct in some or all ways than their own current understandings.

Premise: When people listen to one another’s arguments, consider their possible validity, and adapt their own understandings to new evidence or logic, their understanding grows, and their relationships become more mutually beneficial and cooperative.

Conclusion: Employing the form of reason described in Syllogism 3 (i.e., skepticism and humility) leads to the growth in human consciousness and understanding, and the increase in the degree to which our (intellectual and civic) relationships are mutually beneficial and cooperative.

Afterword: This argument was formulated in response to someone insisting that it represents “moral relativism,” and is therefore to be avoided and rejected. Actually, it does not represent either moral or ontological relativism, but rather something called “fallible realism.” It takes as a moral good the continuing growth in human consciousness, the continuing decrease in mutually antagonistic and destructive belligerence, and the continuing improvement in human cooperation and mutually beneficial behavior. And it describes a methodology and an attitude for pursuing those moral goods in an effective manner.

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The title refers to two things: 1) that which people mistake for sacred truth and fortify against any critical analysis or countervailing evidence; and 2) that which is critical analysis, or, more broadly, proven procedures and disciplines in service to the immutable and inarticulable underlying coherence of our existence. I’ll distinguish between them by putting the first (but not the second) in quotation marks.

The first consists of sacred scrolls (religious documents and philosophical tomes that state or legitimate the preferred dogma) and secular sages (those pundits or scholars who give voice to the preferred dogma). The quality of the substance of the dogma is not the defining characteristic, but rather the mere fact that it is an inflexible false certainty, an opinion held not via any real analysis on the part of the holder, but rather accepted as given truth. It is an error found across the political and religious spectrum, and is more prevalent than its absence. Humans are defined more by adherence to false “sacred truths” than to true ones.

The second meaning consists of processes forged in skepticism, in service to wonder, informed by humility, unclouded by malice. It is not comprised of articulable conclusions, but rather of processes and disciplines by which to arrive at them, and by the most basic premises which give those processes and disciplines meaning.

Even so, there are “true” sacred truths that can be put into words, though, paradoxically, the first one is that there aren’t: “The Tao of which we speak is not the eternal Tao.” We don’t know as much as we think we do or pretend to, and that which we reduce to words is something less than the absolute truth.

A second sacred truth is that we are parts of a whole, that “no man is an island entire of itself,” that we are comprised of smaller systems and comprise larger ones. This is one of the few substantive sacred truths, a recognition of coherence and systemicness to ourselves and our context, because without it, the disciplines which provide windows onto that coherence have no meaning. It is basically the realization that there is a coherent and comprehensible reality within which we are working, even if none of our understandings of it are ever complete and final.

Not all sacred truths belong to the left hemisphere of the brain; not all are based on reason and the procedures derived from it. Empathy, for instance, a sense of interconnectedness, is a sacred truth, an emotional rather than rational understanding of the systemicness and coherence described above.

But emotionally based factual certainties are false “sacred truths,” not true ones. People who bend facts to their preferences, or select from legitimately disputed facts or theories according to their emotional predilictions (imbuing their preferred conclusion with a degree of certainty incommensurate with its actual conclusiveness), are engaging in the folly of adhering to “sacred truths,” rather than the wisdom of being guided by sacred truths.

This is one of the fundamental challenges we face as humanity, as a people, as individuals: To admit to the degree of uncertainty that wise humility demands, and adhere to the disciplines and emotional foundations that well serve a wise and compassionate people.

(This is the most recent in a series of essays on this topic that can be found in the fifth box, titled “Dogmatic Ideology and its Avoidance,” at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)