Alternate Assumption: If we disagree, we may have differing assumptions.
This is the first in a top ten list on bad assumptions. I am interested in why people disagree. In particular, I am interested why people who I know are intelligent, caring people often strongly disagree with me when it comes to politics. If I know them to be intelligent and caring, does that mean I am stupid or uncaring?
I am a computer programmer. I know that any process has three components: input, process, and output. If we disagree, we must differ in one or more of these.
The output is our goal, our desired outcome. We may have differing goals. If my goals are noble and pure then you must be mean, racist, selfish, unpatriotic or have some other horrible motivation.
The process is our logic. If I think you might not be a horrible person, then the alternative is that your logic is flawed. You are stupid. You are incapable of thinking rationally. If you weren’t stupid, clearly you would agree with me.
The input is the facts. Maybe you aren’t mean or stupid. Maybe you just don’t know the facts. We disagree because you don’t know the facts. I present the facts to you and we still disagree. This means that you are either mean or stupid after all.
I see this thought process all the time. It seems so obvious, so logical, so true. There is one missing piece. The missing piece is assumptions. Input is more than just facts. Input is facts and assumptions. The assumptions are what we believe to be self-evidently true. For example, one assumption can be that the United States is a great country. An alternate assumption is that the United States is a terrible country. There are countless facts that can be used to support or attack the United States. We don’t go through these facts every time we make a decision though. We start with are underlying assumption as an input and we go from there.
There are some assumptions that can’t be supported or attacked by facts. For example, the key assumption in the abortion debate is whether the fetus is a human life. If you believe that the fetus is a human life, then abortion is simply murder and there is nothing else to talk about. If you support abortion rights, you support murder. Alternatively, if you believe that the fetus is not a human life, then abortion is simply a matter of a woman’s right to control her own body and there is nothing else to talk about. If you don’t support abortion rights, you are either a nut or you hate women. In actuality, science can not prove or disprove whether a fetus is a human life. It is a value judgment.
I think that assumptions are very important, and nobody ever talks about them. If we don’t share the same assumptions, we can’t converse. If a person’s assumption is that 2+2=5, that person can prove to you with brilliant logic that 4+4=10. If you don’t share this assumption, however, their logic from that point is meaningless. As we say in the computer world: garbage in, garbage out.
The only point where we can hold a meaningful conversation is at the point where we hold common assumptions and our opinions at this point differ. For example, two priests can have a meaningful conversation about moral values using the New Testament as a starting point and citing scripture to prove their points. A priest cannot have this same conversation with an Atheist who does not share this same assumption that the New Testament is the authoritative source for moral decisions.
I think that everybody has some bad assumptions that can and should be re-examined. I am sure that I have bad assumptions. True discourse comes from reaching that level where we first disagree and then examining our beliefs from there. This was Socrates’ contribution to the world. Socrates would start where he and his opponent first agreed and get this opponent to say yes. He would then build on that with a series of questions to which his opponent had to continue to say yes. By the end, his opponent had agreed himself into a position that was totally opposed to his original position.
If we say, however, that our opponents are mean or stupid, then we don’t have to listen to their arguments. Why should we listen to the arguments of stupid and mean people? Yes there are mean people and the world and there are stupid people in the world. Rather than initially assuming that our opponents are mean or stupid, I think it important that we assume that they are intelligent people and that we all want the same things. Most of us all want peace and prosperity and a bright future for our children. We all would prefer a world where everyone can be happy than a world where everybody is miserable. Yes there are mean people in the world and there are stupid people in the world. After we fairly evaluate their arguments, we might conclude they are mean or stupid, but this should not be the starting point.
This is why the first bad assumption in my top ten list of bad assumptions is the belief that if we disagree, you must be mean or stupid. If we make this assumption, we will never be able to learn from anybody else. We will never be able to correct our own bad assumptions.
In this series I will be listing what I believe to be bad assumptions along with what I believe to be more valid assumptions, and I will be arguing for my assumptions. I will state here that my assumptions might be wrong as well. If anybody reading this finds a flaw in my assumptions, please feel free to point them out. Unlikely as it may seem, maybe I am the one with the bad assumptions.
Let’s find out.
Pingback: “President Obama is too Intelligent for Republicans to Understand”: Revisiting Bad Assumption 1 | Ralph Koppel