The Serial Killer and the Jaywalker

Making Sense of a World Built on Assumptions

This week’s article contains two shorter pieces in the same post. When you reach the end of this essay, keep scrolling.

There is a trap that educated people sometimes fall into. Spending time contemplating the foundations of ideas, ethics, and truth can tempt some to slide into relativism (the belief that objective truth doesn't exist) or even solipsism (the belief that only one's own mind can be sure to exist). It can lead some to regard all beliefs as human-made fictions built on assumptions, and therefore little different from one another. It is one of the many ironies one finds among the intelligent or the educated, that their intellectualizing sometimes navigates them to absurd dead ends that ordinary people — albeit for entirely different reasons and motivations — rarely fall victim to.

It is true that when we drill down to the bedrock of ideas and concepts, even of science, what we find at its uttermost foundations are axiomatic assumptions. Our emergence as a conscious, sentient species was an awakening into an intellectual void, a place of utter darkness with no solid handholds. We knew just enough to survive, as most animals do. Beyond that, we knew almost nothing. We knew very little about how to gain knew knowledge, or about how we know what we know (epistemology). Those initial little sparks of light we used to catch a glimpse, those first thin strands we used to pull ourselves up — we had to simply assert them and operate under the assumption that they were true. We bootstrapped ourselves out of nothingness. The foundations of human knowledge and understanding are disquietingly tenuous. That realization can be disturbing. Any child can reduce the most learned among us to stupefaction with a handful of successive why’s or how’s. The most solid and dependable areas of our knowledge are only a few degrees separated from unprovable axioms or assumptions. This may appear, to the sort of person prone to hyper-logical thinking, or distrust of authority, or who is motivated to legitimize views not accepted by science, to throw open the gates for everything. After all, if nothing can really be said to be absolutely true, then anything might be true.

There are a few things to consider. First, not all axiomatic assumptions are created equal. Some require a leap of faith (e.g. god), while others, though technically unprovable, elegantly slot so many moving parts into focus so indispensably that nothing would make sense otherwise (e.g. the axioms of the core of mathematics). Furthermore, this latter group can be evaluated based on what is built on it. A tower constructed upon an insubstantial foundation will collapse, and yet look at the figurative (and literal) towers we have built based on these assumptions. One of the assumptions at the heart of science — that nature is knowable, that there are natural causes for things that happen, and that evidence from the natural world can teach us about it — is unprovable. And yet planes fly. Magic carpets don't.

It may be that everything we think we know — and all the additional knowledge we have built upon it, together with its countless applications such as accurate predictions and working technologies — is somehow the product of coincidence and illusion. Perhaps we are living in a computer simulation, and all of existence was created just moments ago, complete with the fabricated trappings of a much older universe, including false memories pre-programmed into us. While a certain type of person may find such notions interesting to entertain among friends with wine, we cannot, with any shred of intellectual honesty, equate these sorts of uncertainties with those of non-scientific ideologies. Methodologies with demonstrated track records of success in explaining, predicting, and harnessing nature cannot be put on an even footing alongside doctrines of pure dogmatic faith, on the basis that each ultimately stems from unprovable assumptions, and therefore are of equal merit. A serial killer and a jaywalker are not ethically comparable simply because both have committed legal infractions. 0.01 percent is not "no different" than 99.99 percent just because neither figure is 100 percent.

Uncertainty is an invaluable virtue in the pursuit of truth. As Richard Feynman once said, “We must always leave the door to the unknown ajar.” But we must acknowledge the gradations of uncertainties — that uncertainty without probability, without perspective, without a sense of proportionality, is a kind of insanity. The failure to make this distinction, either out of dishonesty or confusion, is not only an impediment to understanding the world, it also foments an unstable environment in which the most dangerous and deranged ideas can form and rise unchecked. As historian Timothy Snyder warns: "If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so." There are more ways to misunderstand the world than there are to understand it, and even the correct tools can lead one astray if incorrectly applied.

Scalpels Over Shotguns

When Building Persuasive Arguments, Less is Often More.

For years, I believed that when making an argument designed to persuade, it was best not to leave anything off the table. My strategy was to build a comprehensive case incorporating every decent argument on hand, even if some individual arguments on their own were not enough to convince anyone. I reasoned that the cumulative effect of all the arguments, even if some were more potent than others, would make for a stronger overall case. From a strictly logical standpoint, I cannot find fault with this. In a court of law, a piece of circumstantial evidence may not be enough to convict or exonerate on its own, but circumstantial evidence is still routinely used, because several pieces of circumstantial evidence used to bolster an already strong case makes the case yet stronger.

While sound in theory, I realized this approach is not the most effective in practice. In my naivety, I assumed people were intellectually honest. In reality, intellectual honesty is about as common as a three-legged ballerina. When you present someone with a comprehensive case that includes the best arguments and evidence alongside somewhat less strong secondary arguments and evidence, there is no shared understanding that the secondary points are clearly intended to be complementary, rather than the crux. No, what most people do when presented a case against something they believe, or for something they don't, is to identify the weakest individual point in the whole case, isolate it from the rest, then try their hardest to knock it down and claim victory. This is, of course, completely dishonest — but that's how people are. Most of the people you will ever encounter will make no effort to think analytically, reason from first principles, be conscious of their own cognitive biases, or adhere to philosophical rules of argumentation such as avoiding fallacies. Most of the people you will meet in life probably wouldn't even understand that previous sentence, frankly. This must be priced into any strategy from the get-go.

Even with maximum effort, everyone is dishonest at times. We resist acknowledging when we are wrong. We employ a whole host of dishonest tricks and shortcuts to weasel out of confronting things that will corner us and force us to admit what we don't want to admit. We are always looking for an out — any pretext, however flimsy, to save face, to indignantly storm out, to dismiss things out of hand, and to claim victory, even when we are just dead wrong.

With this in mind, it is easy to see the flaw in building an “everything but the kitchen sink” case to persuade someone. Doing so only arms people's biases with all the ammunition they need to misconstrue and derail your overall argument, finding their convenient out and feeling justified in doing so. The human capacity for self-deception is simply breathtaking. It does not need any additional help from sloppy or imprecise argumentation strategies. A more effective tactic is to instead use a precision strike by distilling your case to the best few arguments or pieces of evidence, rather than a scatter shot that throws the works at people. Save yourself the time and headache. When arguing to persuade, less is often more.


Subscribe now and never miss a new post. Please also consider sharing this on your social networks. You can reach me at @AmericnDreaming on Twitter, or at