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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Fallacy of the Final Answer

History presents us with a lot of lessons. Some of those lessons are about our fallacious reasoning. One of our primary fallacies is the "fallacy of the final answer." Throughout history, mankind, and individuals have made this mistake. Chariots, close in formation legionaries, Armored Cavalry, Maginot lines, etc.... each, in turn, found itself countered and bested. In military thinking, in strategic thinking, in Science, in the Soft Sciences, in all of these endeavors; theories rise and fall, get revised, lost and reborn. And we humans still grope, fruitlessly, to put a final framework on the truth. History doesn't end. Theories tend to display weaknesses that beg revisions. One generation's certainties are the next's subject for refutations. The fallacy of the final answer is the hubris of mankind.

Example of Marx

Marx called the proceses of history a "dialectic". He saw history as a series of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. He was a Hegelian, and it turns out a disciple of Baruch Spinoza. Indeed the processes of ideas and the arguments of mankind are a dialectic. Marxes ideas, just as those of Hegel, his predecessors and his successors, were a product of this times in the context of a sometimes grand and sometimes squalid never ending argument between people. His ideas were subsequently appropriated and modified, revised and reapplied, distorted or clarified, refuted, discarded, conclusions overthrown. All this only to be resurrected with new disciples, or in new forms, often by by people who won't admit they are plagiarizing him. Only a fool would profess to believe that Karl Marx had all the correct prescriptions for the ills of the 20th Century.

And revising this essay in the 21st century this applies now too. Yet, some folks overthrew the prophets of the Bible to make Karl Marx their prophet and would claim his infallibility in much the same way that others claim Moses, Jesus, Mohammed or others were infallible. The chief fallacy with those seeking final answers, is that they create authority figures so they can beg, borrow or steal their authority.

Other Examples

People may say that the theories of Einstein overthrew Sir Isaac Newton, but his theories are still valid within the limits of ordinary measurement and the limited curvature of space time as we experience it. Other brilliant scientists still struggle over shortcomings or seeming paradoxes between the thoeries of relativity and quantum mechanics. Even these amazing and useful theories are threatened to be overthrown one day by scientists and mathematics trying to understand the micro and macro world using math, multidimensional string and tensor/twister [sic] or other theories. Reality in any case is chaotic and complex.

Not to Say there is not Ultimate Truth

That is not to say that there is not some "ultimate truth." What I am saying is that our understanding, as humans, of such reality is limited. In the West we tend to see things in terms of black and white, and sometimes, at best, in shades of grey. This is not to say that the East doesn't have the same tendency. However, eastern ideas of yin and yang leave more room for uncertainty, for an appreciation of delusion and illusion and its interpolation within what we think of as reality. Oriental philosophers understand that in each good, there is a spot of bad. That "every cloud has a silver lining" and conversely every sunny day has a threat of drought. We would not want it to be forever dry.

There may be ultimate truth. But our sense of certainty is almost certainly, usually, delusion.

Systems Analysis and Chaos

A few years ago "Systems Analysis" was in vogue. Systems analysts set themselves up as Brahmins, spawning think tanks, where the opinionated advance their theories and attack those of others borrowing the authority of being experts. But few people understand what is meant by a system. Even fewer understand complex causality, or the complex causality of living systems. A living system can be defined as a set of interacting variables [that is a chaotic system, or one with more than 3 variables]. If you push on any part of a system, it pushes back. The term for that is feedback. The Eastern ideas of yin and yang can be seen as part of early systems theory.

Simplifying Reality versus comprehending it.

We in the west have a tendency to reject nuance. We divide the world into white and black and try to blacken the white spot in each yang and whiten the black spot in each yin. Or is it the other way around? We, like Kierkegaard, shout "either or", rejecting both. This is a handicap. Engineers have to qualify everything. They have to assign handicaps, confidence intervals, quantify everything and admit the possibility they can be wrong. Doing so in the west inevitably gets the founders of scientifically competent ideas pilloried, vilified or burned at the stake. This leaves our Western Scientists like Galileo is said to have been; secretly and morosely whispering "but the earth revolves around a common center that is closer to the sun." And Historians putting words in his mouth that he said something differently. In hard science the experiments have to be replicated or they are useless. Science demands verification. In human interaction verification is sometimes difficult or impossible. Seeking such absolutes where they are a fallacy is a major fault of Western Man. Humans impose arbitrary authority in their search for absent certainty.

Fallible, Human, Giants

Sir Isaac Newton, after developing calculus and sparking modern physics with "Newton's Laws", turned to theology. Kepler and Galileo each faced opposition from the Church. Christopher Columbus believed the earth to be smaller than it is (or Eurasia bigger). He died in 1506, long before Magellan's ships could return to Spain in 1522. It was a painstaking gathering of facts and skills that led to those accomplishments. Better glass manufacturing and fabricating led to telescopes and microscopes, stargazing and biology. Ships with keels, and fore and after sales (or Lateen sales) could use even an opposing wind to reach a destination. Steam engines freed ships from even the lightest winds. Coal made steel and steam practical. We learn more and more each day. And what seemed eternal yesterday, soon seems passé.

No final Answer

In the soft sciences this is true too. The early Church used the powers of logic and rhetoric to sweep the earth. And sought to use the power of faith and blind authority to rule it. Islam woke to the ideals and abuses of Christianity and Judaism, swept large portions of the earth and then ossified under its own internal conflicts. Islam also salvaged much of Roman-Greek/ancient culture, that Christians had savaged, from being lost. From Islam and Byzantium, Western Europe relearned to appreciate science and civilization. They were forced to learn and surpass because Muslem Turks and Arabs, Moors, pirates and armies invaded them. Mohammed's religion proved to be as fallible and limited as the Christianity and Judaism that Mohammed critiqued and preached against. Neither he nor his followers had the final answer.

The invention of the printing press spread the ideas and ideals of both the Christian and the non-Christian enlightenment; but the authoritarianism of the counter-reformation. Ordinary people got the idea that they could be equal to aristocracy as they learned to read.

All of these things sparked a seething ferment of ideas and conflicts, conquest and resistance, in that contentious tribal place called Europe. Conflicts that, as they were resolved at home, generated energy that was used to engage in exploration, trade, conquest, enslavement, dispossession and colonization around the world. Fallible people led these movements. Columbus died a broken man after failing to reach India. Magellan died because of his arrogance in dealing with the natives of a tiny Island he visited.

The family/dynastic violence of the dark age coupled with religious conflict seeded wars of religion. These wars allowed atheists and deists, fanatics and dissenters to flourish, but also drove them to leave Europe. The large scale fighting of these dynastic wars and wars of religion led to the rise of powerful nation states. Both Richelieu and Cromwell were kindred spirits, caught up in conflict, who would be aghast at the seeds they were sewing. Both Richelieu and Cromwell's movements faltered on their arrogance and hubris. Cromwell enslaved the Irish and failed to root Catholicism out of Britain. Richelieu drove the Huguenots out of France, murdered thousands of them, and set in motion forces that led to the French Revolution years later.

Crimes in the Name of Englightenment

In the name of enlightenment and truth, crimes have been committed that blacken hearts and memories, and bloody the hands of nearly every nation on Earth. Nearly every sect or religion has been used as justification for deeds by people who claimed to be adherents, that were murderous and vile, evil in the name of good. By seeking absolutes, the fallacy of the final answer has been used to over-simplify events and causation, demonize people and conflicts. Those claiming absolutes have committed errors of commission and omission, intentionally or by blowback, these people became perpetrator of atrocities so that the entire world is soaked in the blood of those who fought over it using the certainty of slogans as a banner. All of them, sometimes scoundrels. Saints killed by their own side. Greed and lust justified with raw hurt and anger, taken out on the innocent. People encouraged to loot in the name of seeking a final answer. But it's always just been a con, a swindle, there is no final answer. Just excuses for misbehavior.

Enslaved to Faulty Ideas

Is it any wonder that blacks should feel anger at their tormentors, that Catholic and Protestant Irish hate each other over a period of centuries? People were enslaved and the justifications were dishonest and convenient. Catholic Irish were portrayed as children, denigrated, de-humanized, and then many of them were herded out of Ireland like cattle and starved so that Ireland could pay its rents to landlords with homes in London and feed that great city without mercy for the farmers. George Washington and Jefferson, observing the childlike state that their oppression reduced slaves to, could portray slavery as a benign necessity for dealing with "half human wretches." The Slave States could deny people birth citizenship on the basis of skin color.

Correlation and Causation

That pattern would be replicated with other peoples around the world. Dehumanization, then dispossession, murder and if lucky enslavement, if not more murder. Confusing the source of causes, correlation with causation, people like Abraham Lincoln thought that blacks and whites would never get along and went along with lies that denied people citizenship and forced them to leave the country if they wanted to be free. Now we know that on a genetic level we are more alike than different.

Dehumanizing Versus Humanizing Myths

But these zombie tropes, convenient to would be looters, keep coming back to haunt us. People nurse grudges that date back ages. Shiites still mourn the death of Ali. Serbs are still nostalgia about the battle of Kosovo. Folks want revenge for half mythical deeds that occurred thousands of years ago. We can use myths to justify hatred and anger, but we can also use them to point towards something better.

Someday we will see that all of us; African, Latino, Asian, Even European descent, all share in the never-ending dialogue that marks the advance of waht used to be called "Western Civilization" but doesn't belong only to the West. That dialogue is always just beginning. The world had to come up with a solution for the Hitler's of the World, yet folks like Menghistu, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Lenin, Pinochet and Franco seem to pop up almost as soon as their predecessors self destruct. Violence, authoritarianism, evil, with just a spot of Good. When we seek too much purity, we get too much evil.

Ends == Means

There is always a question of long term versus short term strategy and tactics. There is always the question of just how much our logic and reason is being distorted by our emotions. Younger folks, ambitious, impatient and longing for a place and power, turn to "revolution" to achieve their aims. Yet such revolutions rarely achieve their aims. Full forces for hate and disparagement. The tendency of revolutions is to to express lust and anger. To justify violence and dysfunction in the present for the sake of an idealized future. Unfortunately such revolutions, such violence and dysfunction, only spoils and despoils the very future such visionaries seek to create. And that is where revolutionaries are led by visionaries. Most are led by charlatans, by demagogues, by folks with personal agendas who are ruthless people using others to get attention, make a name for themselves, and often to become personally well off. For them "violence for the sake of the future is okay." But it never is. Intellectuals can always rationalize murder and theft. Polemicists, demagogues and ruthless politicians don't even try. Such people usually undermine the possibility of the very dreams they recruit and direct people with. They wreck themselves along with their scapegoats.

This is because ends == means. How you achieve a goal is as important as what that goal is.

The Self Destructiveness

In the ebb and flow of human conflict, Europeans created huge empires based on wrecking and looting other cultures. These empires contained the Seeds of their own destruction. When mankind is reduced to abject poverty how can they buy your goods? If you build an empire on occupying armies and oppression, how can you expect any of it to endure when your armies are needed elsewhere. The Ancient Romans occupied Britain for centuries, but as soon as they pulled out, Britain reverted to Iron Age forms. The logic of Merchants, Mercantilism, Colonialism, Neocolonialism, has trashed much of the world because it is a logic of greed and acquisition. Why own more than one can possibly need in a hundred lifetimes? The logic of greed is as foolish as the logic of revolution. The accumulation and hoarding of riches by legal theft and manipulaton of money & influence, only creates the insecurity of the miser. If your neighbors are well off you don't need so much to lock your doors. But when you hoard wealth, you take wealth from circulation and create poverty. Hoarding wealth does no one any good, least of all the hoarders. The Ancient Egyptian royalty would have been better off improving their weapons for self defense than burying them with their ancestor. The logic of violent revolution and the logic of greed, are both self refuting. They go nowhere. They certainly don't lead to "the end of history" or any final answer.

History doesn't end -- just individual stories

There is never an end to the dialogue. When people force folks to shut up. That just means their logic has failed and they are substituting brute force. Sometimes a line of reasoning and behavior has to reach its extreme of absurdity before it is proved false. Both Hitler and Napoleon over extended themselves. But they were neither the first nor the last avatars of dark ideas to do so. Dark Ideas are self defeating. That is what makes them dark.

The Logical Extreme

Hitler carried the Aryan myth to its logical extreme. He failed because his myths were untrue in the first place. Germans aren't superior to blacks, Indians (American or in the Indian Subcontinent) or anyone else. Hitler discredited ideas with currency also in France and England, the USA and English Colonies. He carried absurd ideas to their logical extreme and thoroughly discredited them. In the final convulsions of Germany he is said to have decided the Russians were the Superior race. There is no superior race. Human conflict is like Rock, Paper, Scissors. Each new way of tormening fellow humans is eventually countered with something that reflects the flaws in design of the strategy being countered. And there is no single way that humans employ that can't be countered.

Thus Imperial Europe gave up its colonies because they couldn't afford them, after wrecking their countries in the fratricidal conflicts of World War I and II. Thus the Antebellum South adopted and amplified he institution of black slavery in a manner that ultimately was destructive do the economic health of the South and led to a nasty civil war. There are countless examples of human hubris and perversity. We can learn from them what not to do. And we have to since there are more examples of dysfunction to learn from than function.

For Societies to be Stable they need Dynamic Balance

Mankind needs to study the lessons of our past convulsions so that we can learn how to avoid them. For societies to be sustainable they need dynamic balance. Things will change constantly. Those societies that constantly adapt, thrive. Those that don't, break. Part of that balance is recognizing limits we all have, and the related reality that all human beings need and deserve dignity and respect. None of us deserves to be a permanent 'fearless leader', yet all of us need to step up and do our part to lead others fearlessly when we can. We don't do that and we sew seeds of our own destruction. We need each other because individually we are fallible and blind to much of reality.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

We should not be discouraged by the difficulty of understanding reality, nor by the impossibility of any of us individually achieving complete mastery. We are like the blind men who proverbially studied an elephant. Our understanding of truth is partial, but better if we share what we learn and learn from others. Some can smell or hear the elephant well. Others are familiar with his/her's tail, trunk, legs, backside or front side. Some of us are doomed to stand in the wrong place and shovel elephant dung constantly. What we learn is filtered through the imperfect mediu of thoughts, language, logic, theories and observations.

For those of us who are religious, we know that when the bible says "Man is made in God's Image" the rest of the story is that God is this "elephant". One can call this elephant "God" but that is an opinion. Maybe a good one, but we don't have enough feels for him/her/it to be sure we have it right. The atheist could be right. And the honest theist gives room for agnosticism and atheism as the actual reality while holding on desperately to faith.

If we truly are made in God's image, that means we barely understand ourselves. If we truly are humble and honest with ourselves we admit this. So it is not only blasphemous but lying to pretend we understand the ineffable one with one hundred percent certainty. Faith is confidence that what others tell us might be true in fact as well as in our imagination. We live in a world where we see through a glass darkly and our mirrors are fun-house toys. Our task is to clean and polish the glass so we can see things more clearly. But also at the end of the day to marvel at wonder at the vast mystery that is all around us. Sometimes we have to use our imagination, to stand off at a distance, where we look at the impossible to see and shout "elephant", a brief flash of image and bright light, in color, where once we saw black and white, or not at all.

Christopher H. Holte(edited from something I wrote in the 80s)


I wrote this sometime in the 70s, 80s or maybe as late as the early 90s. It dates to before the Gakkai started to fight with their priests. I can tell that from my own delusional certainty from the time. I typed it on a typewriter and made some corrections with pen and then put it in my files. I didn't date it. It was intended to be part of a collection called "waging peace" which I know I've worked on since the 70s. I've edited it and revised it since we are now in the remains of 2016 and I have better editing tools than when I first drafted this. I suspect this is from the 80s because I'm being critical of systems analysis, which means I was studying it and not yet practicing it. This was written before I read Mandelbrot, though I was on the right track. In the original I also attack us Westerners too harshly. I've softened those passages with the power of revised understanding.

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