One of the most effective ways to discover truth and falsehood is to be able to identify the presuppositions in an argument. There are obvious reasons for doing this, and not-so-obvious reasons, with the latter having more important implications. In fact, I am going to argue that you can find absolute truth just by identifying your presuppositions. Exciting, yes.
There are two types of presuppositions: contingent and absolute ones. When arguing, it is normal to identify the contingent presuppositions in an opponent’s argument. For example:
Bob: We should have a minimum wage to help the poor.
Not-Bob: You are assuming the minimum wage helps the poor.
Or another example:
Bob: I am sitting on a chair.
Not-Bob: You are presupposing the reliability of your senses.
In both of these examples, Bob’s argument relies on contingent factors. In other words, if it is true that the minimum wage hurts the poor, Bob’s proposition is incorrect. Or, if it true that Bob’s faculties are not reliable (he is on drugs and only thinks he is sitting on a chair), he is wrong. This kind of identification of presuppositions is extremely useful, and common, in everyday debate. I’ll write more about how to do this properly in the future.
I am more interested in a different kind of presupposition, a more exciting and revealing one. It’s subtle, so bear with me.
When Bob makes any argument, the truth of his argument is contingent on the accuracy of his claims, as we have established. If his premises are true, and his argument sound, the conclusion will be true. However, Bob also makes presuppositions which are true, regardless of the accuracy of the premises or actual content. In fact, it can be quite a long list. Sounds crazy, right?
For example, when Bob claims:
“I am sitting on a chair right now.”
He is also making unspoken claims. Like the following:
“I have the subjective experience of making an argument.”
“I believe there exist true statements and false statements by making an argument. I believe the sentence ‘I am sitting on a chair right now.” is true, and the sentence “I am not sitting on a chair right now.” is false.”
Or how about, “I believe there is a difference between sound waves and words.”
Or, “I am experiencing a phenomenon which I will call ‘time’, or a chronological progression of the words that I speak.”
Or, how about the truth on which a whole economic theory is build, “I act.”
The entire list is lengthy. This list here is quite limited; I have no idea how many sentences like this exist. Notice a trend in all of these sentences though: they are unspoken, but the speaker can introspect and understand them to be true, with certainty.
The speaker must necessarily exist, if he is speaking. He, which only he can know, is also experiencing an experience, if it is the case he is speaking. Or, he must have an inherent sense of right and wrong, if it is the case that he is making an argument. An argument, that is, of course, fundamentally different than random sounds, if it is an argument with words. These words are spoken chronologically, or at least experienced chronologically, which the speaker can know with certainty. Finally, there is no argument which is not an action; to deny this is to affirm it, by acting.
The most exciting part of this is not the absolute presuppositions themselves, but what logically follows from them. If it is the case we can know certain beliefs to be true, sound deduction from those beliefs will yield true conclusions, about which we can be certain as well. This has enormous implications for our pursuit of truth.
Well, what follows from these propositions? Let’s take the best developed one: humans act. Though the mainstream economics profession hasn’t understood this yet, the foundation of economics is based on human action. Indeed, something as pivotal as the law of diminishing marginal utility (that we value less of something the more of it we have) deductively follows from this simple premise. The whole school of Austrian economics is based on such a methodology: find a necessarily true premise and start deducing.
Two more examples that aren’t as clear as economics: belief and time. It is the case that an individual can introspect and know with certainty that he has beliefs, even if he is not sure the reliability or accuracy of the beliefs. If someone were to belief the previous statement to be false, they would be affirming it by believing it to be false. What follows from the existence of belief? Potentially, alot.
A belief is not something physical. It doesn’t have a color or weight. You can’t point to it. Indeed, it does not have to seem a physical existence at all. Beliefs only make sense in a mental context or a subjective context (called “dualism”). Without going into great detail, suffice to say that the existence of such mental phenomenon (or even the existence of a true subjective perspective) are extremely controversial, and the implications could be astronomical, something like the law of conservation being broken, the whole set of the laws of physics being non-determined, the existence of a radical free will, etc. I’ll write more on the topic of belief and non-materialism later.
Another radical argument might follow from the existence of time. Or, specifically, the experience of a progression of events in the present. This is again a premise which someone can introspect about, and can affirm with certainty it is something they experience (regardless of time’s objective existence or not. Just the perception of such a thing is all that is required). Again, without going into too much detail, the conclusions of this might be extraordinary. For example, if time were to stretch back infinitely, with no beginning, it might be the case that one would never experience something in the present. The “progression” of consciousness along such a timeline would never reach such a thing as “the present”, because there are an infinite number of events between events, when we are talking about a real infinity. Sounds confusing, I know, and that’s why I’ll write about it later. It is actually my primary objection to atheism. Because if it is the case that time is not infinite, good luck explaining that without invoking something that is by definition super-natural.
Yes, the absolute presuppositions of any argument might lead to the most powerful conclusions, especially because we can be certain of their truth (if the deduction is sound). That is so stinkin’ exciting. Or should I say:
“I exist, and I have the subjective perception of writing right now, and I inherently believe that the opposite of what I am writing is false, and… that is so stinkin’ exciting.”