When Socrates challenged dogma, he was killed. When Copernicus challenged dogma, he was punished. When Galileo challenged dogma, he was ex-communicated. When Pasteur challenged dogma, he was ridiculed. It goes on throughout history. Today, we laud the braveness and intellectual integrity of these men. What were they doing that was so respectable? Revising. These were men who were devoted to revisionism, and without them, our pursuit of truth would have never progressed.
So, why was revisionism necessary? Simple: our premises were wrong. The conclusions that we drew from believing the earth was in the center of the universe were wrong. The conclusions that logically followed from the belief in spontaneous generation were wrong. When these men challenged specific premises, they inherently challenged specific conclusions.
But there is more to be learned from these examples. Perhaps we can learn about the proper perspective which we need when addressing our own beliefs. From what standpoint should one challenge the now-outdated belief, “flies are spontaneously generated from meat”? We have a couple options:
A: We might be ambitious and challenge the notion all together: flies are spontaneously generated by old biscuits, not by meat!
B: Perhaps we more cautiously suggest that flies come from a specific kind of meat, steak perhaps.
C: We might posit that, instead, flies are only generated from meat in certain circumstances (when the meat is left out in the open, when it ages for a certain amount of time, etc.).
And so on… the list of questions is infinite.
What should the proper action be to verify whether or not these objections are valid?
Well, by George, you go out and test them! Be a good scientist and go out and test those hypotheses as best you can. Right?
Wrong. In fact, so wrong, that you could call all of these tests a waste of time. Why? Their shared premise is wrong. If it is the case that the whole theory of spontaneous generation is false, then whether or not we test for its existence with biscuits or steak doesn’t actually matter. The bigger picture, the theory, needs revising, and indeed, the conclusions that follow from this revision are going to be completely (categorically) different from those before.
Another example: when people talk about “regulation” of the economy, it’s normally about matters of degree. Should the government intervene a lot, or a little? How high should the minimum wage be? $5.00, or $5.50 perhaps? Should we be blowing up bridges in Iraq and Afghanistan, or just Iraq?
These might all be biscuits-or-steak arguments. (I, Steve, hereby coin the term “biscuits-or-steak argument”.) Perhaps flies don’t even come from food; perhaps we should not have a minimum wage at all. Perhaps what needs revising is the whole theory of economic intervention, not the micro-level specifics of the minimum wage.
Unfortunately, it is the challenging of these big-picture premises which garners the most uproar. How dare we challenge the idea that the earth is in the center of the universe! People have believed that forever, and who are you to say it is wrong? How dare we challenge the entire theory that suggests the state has any role in the economy, states have existed since the dawn of modern man! We couldn’t possibly be wrong about those premises!
Perhaps our treatment of big-picture theory and philosophy should be a little more respectful. If a philosopher can convince scientists, for purely theoretical reasons, to not spend millions testing for square circles, we all might be better off.
How should one go about revising? My suggestion: work forwards, not backwards.
Here’s what I mean by that: you must start from scratch. You can’t assume that any conclusion is true if you have not justified its premise, and its premise’s premise. Deconstruct your worldview to the point where you start from believing in no conclusions, otherwise you might be wasting your time with biscuits-or-steak beliefs. How to know what constitutes a “justified premise”? Good question, difficult answer. A damn good place to start is with logical certainty. I’ll be writing more about the topic in the future.
Then, only then, cautiously work forward and revise. There could be nothing more intellectually integritous than changing (revising) one’s conclusions based on sharpened premises.
As for dialog with others, perhaps it is wise to first focus on the deep, fundamental beliefs (example: does the whole theory of spontaneous generation make sense?), until you have found agreement there. You are likely wasting both parties’ time by doing otherwise.