I know my friends over at the Fundamentally Flawed will be familiar with this question. Indeed, I’m asked this as often by my off-line friends as I am by the sorts of religious we invite onto the podcast. Why do you bother debating or arguing with people, when you know that their ideas are so set in stone that they are highly unlikely to change their mind, or meet you half way, no matter what you say; what do you hope to achieve?
I’ve always thought the answer to this should be obvious, but that it comes up so often speaks to the need to fully address it, hopefully in an evenhanded way.
I believe, that amid all the talk and argument; point and counterpoint, the real elephant in the room is one of politics — the party political affiliations traditionally associated with European style, liberal, social democracy on one side, and conservative libertarianism on the other.
If that seems like too easy an answer, I invite you to find both an outspoken leftwing atheist who believes president Barack Obama is a socialist Muslim, and a devout rightwing catholic who believes the government should spend more money on embryonic stem cell research.
I’m sure the frustrations felt on my side of the fence are equally matched on the other side, when it comes to certain issues. We all wish our opponents would attempt, at least, to see things from our point of view. There are, I have no doubt, a great many legitimate political ideals which, although they are traditionally thought of as being either highly conservative or at least right of centre, could, in fact, do with being a little better understood by the left, rather than being quickly ruled out, as they so often are for seemingly very small reasons.
Both, or should I say all sides of the political divides that bind us, are extremely good at assigning a greater degree of importance to one set of ideas, than they are to others — even though our perception of these ideas, can often be shaped by something as simple as the particular newspaper in which we first see these ideas being fully fleshed out.
Personality, too, plays its part. How often have we ignored what might be perfectly legitimate concerns about issues X, Y and Z, simply because of the stance on issues A, B and C an individual has historically taken, and despite that they now propose to solve the mutually identifiable problem of X, Y and Z via consensus and consultation. Indeed nothing raises our suspicions higher, of an individual running for office, than if they campaign on a promise to deliver cross party support for what are, in fact, highly contentious issues.
I first encountered this dichotomy when, despite having grown up in a traditional, Labour voting, working class household, I once found myself agreeing with just about every word spoken by Michael Heseltine, when as a former front-bench MP in Margret Thatcher’s government, he was asked for his opinion on the rise in gang culture among British inner city youth.
I was shocked to realise, that the only reason I now understood his perspective, whereas before I would have simply assumed he was serving interests against my own, was because he was now speaking as a retired politician he no longer had to hide his true opinion. In the sort of language that would have once put the leader of his party in hot water with the following day’s headline writers, he was now able to openly express his beliefs. If he had done this when still in government, the left leaning press would have demanded answers to statement A, B and C, whereas the right leaning press would have defended him using issues X, Y and Z. It was only once he was freed from having to play this game of semantics and rhetoric, that he was able to express what was in fact a perfectly rational view.
It occurred to me that, but for this false edifice of unanimity politicians must erect around themselves, when their career depends upon towing the party line, those of us who are supposed to be represented by these people, would actually hold a much more effective degree of control over our democracy and the day-to-day running of our country — and that, surely then, the same could also be said by someone my age, who had been raised in a traditional conservative, middle-class family, if only they too were given a more informed perspective on the issues which affect people like me.
This, I would later learn, is known as a ‘respect for interlocking opposites’. Sadly, I would also learn that politicians are as keen to avoid observing this principal, as they are to exploit its alternative. Despite both groups being aware of the needs of the other, any desire to find an amicable solution to a given problem, is outweighed by the overarching, longer-term aims of the greater body politic to which both or all parties are tied; usually through financial affiliations with either private industry, or union representation.
Later still would I discover, that according to professor John Nash’s Game Theory, when it comes to certain key issues, there is a survival advantage in misrepresenting the views of your opponents as a group, which always outweighs the advantage which might be given to individuals in simply playing fair — because the very notion of true democracy is an illusion of choice. The real power always rests with those who simultaneously have the most to lose and the most to gain. The gambit rests on which strategy a group is prepared to publicly admit to having adopted, while keeping their actual intentions secret.
The problem with this, is that anyone who believes in playing fair, is by definition more likely to seek common ground between opposing views — and is therefore not only incapable of adopting a position which actually achieves this, but susceptible to having the very nature of their honesty and integrity exploited. For example; it is perfectly true to say that we have no real idea how the first multicellular organisms formed. Further, we know with some degree of certainty that multicellular life probably existed for several hundred thousand years before selection mechanisms, which would later become described by the naturalist Charles Darwin, began to steer their evolution.
But the very fact that the only way to answer myriad questions about the nature of nature, at the beginning of the tree which would eventually lead to the abundant diversity of life we now observe, is a simple admission that we don’t yet know everything there is to know — which provides the perfect gap into which a whole host of beliefs can be inserted, by people who claim to know things which, in fact no one yet knows.
Notice, I’m not necessarily saying those beliefs are false — just that there is no way to prove one way or the other whether or not they are true or false, other than by applying the very scientific method by which we now describe so many things which were once held beyond criticism.
If this very process is seen to have been devalued in some way; or portrayed as being fundamentally flawed, simply because it fails to take into account what are actually completely unrelated criteria, a whole toy box of square pegs can be made to seem as if they fit into a series of round holes. If it is permissible for political and social reasons X, Y and Z to mistrust science and mathematics, then it is equally permissible to propose alternative philosophies as to what we might learn about A, B and C which are predicated upon the assumption that this mistrust is valid, without having to provide proof that this is indeed the case.
Note, that to propose this slides both ways is to completely misunderstand the premise of the analogy with Game Theory. This isn’t about one side being right and the other side being wrong. There is no right or wrong. To “win”, the only thing which is important, is that the group who wishes to claim victory, propagate the idea that there are two sides to a given story, when in fact there is only one.
In reality, claiming to be in possession of that one true perspective, while everyone else is somehow being played off against each other, is a completely meaningless truth-claim in the absence of clearly defined boundaries upon which your evidence is suspended — even if you claim your boundaries are defined by a mistrust of what we mean by the definition of the word ‘evidence’ itself.
This is why the religionist will always claim a win, in a debate with the non-religious. It is not that they truly believe they have established a solid defence of their beliefs, it is that no matter what evidence is presented to them, it is central to their claim that logic, honesty and reason are not only the very opposite of that which they espouse, and so can be discounted, but that even those who advocate honesty, logic and reason don’t truly understand what these concepts mean.
It is a cheat which has served the agenda of those behind some of the most sinister events yet to be orchestrated in Western socioeconomics. Some are more aware of it than others, but everyone — regardless of which cognitive bias they happen to be more susceptible to than another — is aware of, and all too familiar with, as an itching, inner knowing that, a world divided by the imaginary “war on terror” as a distraction from the war on democracy itself, is changing at a breathtaking pace.
Some address this head-on, by occupying Wall Street and other financial districts in major world cities. Others take solace in pretending — even to themselves — that the itch isn’t as bad as it first seemed, and that things will settle down eventually and we can all go back to a simpler life, when our bank manager knew us by our first name and we knew him by his.
But this too is an illusion. Things were never really like this at all. For the same reason people believe their particular Messiah figure will stride out from the pages of their particular holy book, so too do ordinary, hard working, good and honest people believe that, in the mirrors of a modern bank, from the windows of their hotel room, will stride a leader with clarity of purpose and vision, to set right what has gone wrong. And the Wurlitzer plays the same tune over and over again; the internal logic of another empty narrative, congratulating itself against a backdrop of denial and fear.
But there is nothing to fear in the truth. The question truly facing us all now, is why there aren’t a lot more people at least trying to find out the truth — and expose for what they really are, those who seek to occlude it.
So, why do we do this? We do this, because the alternative is to leave the world to the very people who deserve it the least; to those who think the truth is so small that it can fit into a book, written by goat herders and edited by power hungry kingships of the ancient world. We do this because the people who come after us, will scratch around in the dirt and in perfect bafflement, wonder why we let the people who think to be more God-like, one must force the poor to pay more for basic medical treatment than the the low life in high places pay in taxes. We do this, because the notion that meaningless superstitions deserve equal consideration alongside the truth is anathema to seeking the truth. We do this, because anyone who seeks to justify believing in things which aren’t true, is the sworn enemy of reason. We do this, because we refuse to justify believing in reason, to those who value it the least. We do this, because the game is rigged against everyone who plays fair. It’s time the rules changed.