Certainty and Argument

Can you change reality by arguing about it? When people hurl arguments like missiles to "demolish your position," that seems to be the idea. Logic masquerades as irresistible force able to reach inside your head and rearrange your mind.

That is rationalistic argument, based on ideas about reality rather than on observation of reality. It tries to establish facts by the force of logic instead of the accuracy of observation. It is reality inferred but not experienced. To see why it fails the certainty test, ask yourself about the one word that always wins an argument.

The word is "Look!"

It is not sane to look at a black rock and argue that it is white, or look at a tree and argue that it is a flower, or look at a dead animal and argue that it could move if it tried. The final arbiter of any argument has to be what you can see, hear, smell, and touch. No matter how logical an argument, it has no certainty if it is based on what you "might" see, or "ought" to see, or "can be said" to see. An argument is certain only when it based on what you do see.

Certainty in argument comes from knowing that logic is not the ending place of proof, but the starting place of proof.

Suppose I conceive a jewel of argumentation so perfect that the gleam of truth lights all who hear it. My logic shows, say, that the original "DOS" was the best computer operating system ever. It made very efficient use of your time, and of the computer. I have statistics.

I am not, however, entirely and completely certain that I have got it right, because I have not actually used all that many systems. That is, I have not personally checked it out that much. Then too, I have not really figured out where my idea of efficiency fits in with other ideas of efficiency, and where efficiency fits in with all the other things people want from a computer. That is, I have not actually made sure that my argument squares with everything else I know. But my logic is perfect. Surely that must be enough.

I present this jewel to you, and you respond with indifference. You must see a hidden flaw! You are secretly laughing at my inability to see the flaw! And you are wrong! There is no flaw! You must tell me the flaw so that I can fix it—no, so I can show you it does not exist. You have no right to mock me with your indifference! I presented the argument in good faith, and you are not showing good faith in your indifference. I order you to deal with my argument!

Now consider another example. Suppose that I want to argue that radio is a more intellectual medium than television. My logic is that radio has no pictures, so it must rely entirely on concepts, so it is involves more thinking. I have personally listened to the radio a lot, and compared it with TV. That is, I checked my argument against direct sensory evidence. My logic says it should be true, and I can myself provide evidence that it is true. But I didn't stop there. I thought about the potential of television and compared that to the evidence. I compared radio talk to conversation, and thought about the difference between watching people talk and listening to people talk. I can explain where my argument fits in the larger picture. I do not think of my argument as a jewel, but as a useful addition to my knowledge.

You, however, are indifferent. Apparently you do not think it would be a useful addition to your knowledge. I wonder why that is. Would the reason you are indifferent be another useful addition to my knowledge?

That is the advantage of genuine certainty. You are not defensive, but curious. Your desire is not to dominate, but to learn. You want to improve your life directly, by improving your own grasp of things—not indirectly, by getting others to pay attention to your thoughts.

To be genuinely sure of an argument, make sure it contains genuine proof. If, for example, you want to argue that I should give you a job in my business, you can use logic: I need qualified workers; you are a qualified worker; so I need you. But what you really want me to do is hire not any qualified worker, but one particular and unique worker—you. Your logic does not say that. You need direct evidence of your skills, and then you need to explain how adding your skills to my business will improve the entire operation. You show me your skills, and show me how they fit in. That is proof.

When a logical argument fits with direct evidence and with everything you know, then you are sure of it. Then you can offer it for consideration with a relaxed smile instead of a clenched fist.

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