Written by Emmanuel-Juste Duits, published on his blog “Tolerance Active” (Active Tolerance), as well as in his book “Après le relativisme”, this text presents the importance of developing a method for debating the essential issues at stake in society, so as not to leave any individual feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount, and complexity, of these issues.
Everyone is expected to vote, even without an in-depth study of different political programs; each chooses a religion (or atheism), even without necessarily having looked into every metaphysical “option”; each makes practical decisions, even without necessarily having examined all the contradictory facts regarding technical issues. How can one escape this? Is it even possible?
In the face of complex problems
One can be in denial and consider that some issues simply are beyond us, and that we shouldn’t even have an opinion in the first.
This is called relativism, and it becomes an excuse to not decide on anything. In reality it often means adhering to dominant choices or life-styles. If I say that it is far too complicated to know if organic agriculture is important for us or not, I actually revert to eating standard processed or mainstream food. If I say that I don’t have time to study all the different political options available, I will choose between two or three programs and parties (the most famous ones, propagated in mainstream media). And as for religion, I’ll tend to stick to the one of my family and background, or adopt some form of tolerant indifference.
The intellectual fallacy and its vital consequences
Two erroneous attitudes are often our lot: not choosing, or choosing the easiest paths, the ones that require little or no personal inquiry. These attitudes favour short-term survival, but might not help or even harm us in the long-term. Any mistake in judgement is paid for, sooner or later. I might live for years smoking or drinking, or eating very unhealthy foods, exposing myself to bad radiation: I’ll be progressively poisoning myself and will suffer the consequences sooner or later with disease, depression or an early death.
The same is true for political and social mistakes. A society can adopt an erroneous economic system, it will only pay the price later, through some latent crisis which will suddenly take on a dramatic turn, with millions of unemployed, costly healthcare, a rise in social tensions and violence… In short, political mistakes might cause ruin and civil war, or major environmental disasters. The same goes for spiritual errors. I might feel protected and energised within a cult, but, in the long run, where will it have taken me? How many former members of a cult realise that they have lost five, ten or even twenty years of their lives fallowing a false prophet, one who stole the money, was a closeted pedophile or just plain insane? The same goes for political mistakes, such as when an activist realises after years that the cause he or she defended was a dictatorship, far removed from his or her ideals.
Religious error might be even worse. If Pascal is right, if the Catholic Church or Islam are right, then we will be judged by God after we die. Such a judgement cannot be taken lightly, as it would lead us to Heaven or Hell and eternal tortures and suffering. We can see by these extreme examples (which are not caricatures) that everyone has the greatest interest in making the best possible choices, lest he or she pay a heavy price later.
What is valid research?
One can define three moments in the process of searching
- the moment when I discover an issue, a problem;
- the moment when I identify and confront the different sides on the issue;
- the moment when, having taken my side (or a possible explanation), I consolidate it with new arguments, facts, etc. During this third moment, finding myself overwhelmed by too thick of an ensemble of contradictory propositions, I might revert to relativism, without deciding.
It is easy to see that the first and third moments are usually accomplished by most: we are always bombarded with many questions, from the most technical to the most metaphysical. Are mobile antennas bad for our health? What alternatives are to be found to nuclear energy? Are there elements of consciousness that remain after we die? And so on. It is often easy to find books and websites offering answers. Partisans of green politics have their websites, just like free-market advocates; there are atheist websites, Catholic or Muslim ones, each of which developing their respective claims on dedicated forums. Books offer argued points of view, albeit with more or less partisanship.
A methodical confrontation of opinions seems to be the missing link. Are there impartial sites or books that present the different arguments and allow us to dissect them?
This is a crucial question. Without platforms sufficiently neutral and comprehensive, each must form an opinion based on partisan facts and arguments, but mostly “by chance or even accident”. Unless one has years to dedicate to it, it is impossible to study every issue that contains an in-depth question in ecology, economics, health, metaphysics, sociology, etc. This means that most of our opinions – apart for one or two subjects for which we have created a true individual stance for ourselves – are poorly founded, and have more to do with chance: our backgrounds, or the forms of reasoning which we have encountered, rather than demanding methodical and profound research.
Through our conditioning and by the complexity of topics and issues, we are trapped in having only incertain and fragmentary opinions (except maybe for one or two topics), because there is no comprehensive tool to confront possible opinions in an optimal way.
Proposition for the unsatisfied active
Being unsatisfied by this existential situation, shouldn’t we try to create new tools for whomever feels the need to search the Truth? Instead, we prefer to make choices without method, and then resort to our favourite opinions. We must resolutely depart from this intellectual comfort zone and go down the opposite path, one which will lead us to confront cognitive dissonance. We must accept that only a rigorous and implacable motion down this path will help make emerge a few fragments of truth.
We propose a different path: to promote a standard and generalisable method for most of the great questions, be they technical, political, economical, ecological or spiritual.
This method should allow to “see all sides” of different proposed opinions, of arguments pro and con for each option; to go in depth on each of these to validate or invalidate them; all this in order that in the end, each individual person, each citizen can choose a stance on topics of choice, only this time through being as informed as possible.
Such a method is ambitious, maybe even a form of utopia. It is nothing short of an intellectual revolution, a great leap. Rather than collectively remain in a complex and chaotic stage of knowledge, where each struggles alone with his or her questions and tries to find a path, we could rediscover the meaning of true debate, beyond confusion, fears, splits; allowing all to to work towards collective intelligence, which is the only solution to the challenges and complexity we face.