On Agreements and Disagreements

As a matter of principle, I like people whom I don’t agree with. I wonder if this feeling is always mutual, as I’ve discovered that people have polar opposite reactions to disagreements.

I am, by original training, a mathematician, and by experience, a statistician, even if wound up doing applied social science research.  There are three reasons behind why people disagree and, as far as I’m concerned, every one of these reasons is a reason to keep up the conversation.

On matters of “data,” or facts, people may disagree because they see different facets of facts.  To invoke the famous fable of the blind men and the elephant, people might disagree on what an elephant is like because they are privy only to a subset of the whole truth about the whole truth.  Since we do not know what the “whole truth” looks like under almost any set of circumstances, it stands to reason that disagreements over matters of “facts” should be common.  If we should happen to disagree over the facts, it follows that we should investigate how the elephant can be both like a wall and a rope at the same time, or, in other words, investigate where my facts and yours are at odds and think of how they can be both be true in the same “truth,” without presumption that the “truth” is zero sum, i.e. that I must be privy to the whole truth.

On the matters of logic, people disagree because they start from different sets of premises, which, even if logically and rationally pieced together, might imply a different result.  This is, after all, how we wound up getting non-Euclidean geometry from Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, which, despite seemingly obvious, turned out to be a bit more, eh, complicated. If the conclusion logically follows from a reasonable set of starting premises, it would be foolish to dismiss the premises just because we don’t agree with the conclusion.  Things can change.  The premises that might seem implausible today can be more apropos tomorrow.  If the conclusion follows logically, then it is logical, given the premises that give rise to it.  That is beyond dispute because that is true.  Even if we might consider it unlikely, you cannot ignore it as “untrue.”  It should always be kept in the back of mind, so to speak, as a possibility even if it might seem unlikely.

On the matters of opinion, there is no reason to expect an agreement.  We have opinions because we don’t know what the whole truth is, we don’t know what the right answer is, or, far more often, there simply is no set truth and there is no right answer, so we substitute what we think should be the truth in absence of something better.  So a difference in opinion simply means that my interlocutor and I simply have different values, and my values are no better than his values.  But, at minimum, it behooves that I should learn what his values and what makes him tick.

Or, in other words, if we disagree, we should talk.  I wouldn’t expect to nor want to change your thoughts.  Instead, I want to learn why you think as you do because the disagreement means you know things I don’t know.

But investigating why and how we disagree is a difficult and time consuming process. When all we know is that we are not in agreement about things, that just means that we are not on the same page.  If we have been stuck on the same island forever, and we’d been telling each other same jokes forever, we’d know to laugh when you say “three” because we all know that’s reference to joke #3 which we know by heart and we all agree is very funny.  But we see someone whom we have had never seen before saying “three,” we would not know what to make of it.  In order to ensure that we are on the same page, making the same shared references, we need to know if we agree on how the world works, that we share the same values, and we have the same “mental model” of the universe.  So we need the recitation of the Creed, that we believe in “begotten, not made” and all that.  Do we really understand what the difference between “begotten” and “made,” the whole theology debated at the Council of Nicaea?  Not the vast majority of us, but understanding is not relevant.  Knowing the creed is the secret handshake:  it identifies us as members of the same tribe, who buy into the same shtick.  We may look different, but we are of the same tribe.  This is, of course, why Creationism is so powerful a force among certain segments of population, as I had written before.  The nitty gritty of the science behind evolution, the real thing, is complicated, as complicated as the theology of “begotten” vs. “made,” and for most, just as (ir)relevant.  The important thing is the public show of faith in the creed, the indication that we are of the same tribe.  Understanding does not matter.

This becomes a logical problem:  disagreements may be the beginning of wisdom, the key to learning.  The trust that those who don’t agree with you genuinely know things that are worth learning, that are worth investing time in, is what should prompt people to start thinking outside the box that you might have been comfortable with in the beginning.  But, at the same time, disagreements indicate that you are not part of the “tribe.”  By disagreeing, you leave yourself open to suspicion.  Wanting to learn costs you your place in the society when people don’t have time for open-ended understanding–which will be most people.



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