File this one under “philosophy,” or for clarity’s sake, “How come it is, we think we know the things we think we know?” In these contentious times this doesn’t get a lot of attention. People get so passionate and caught up in what they think they know, that all their energy starts to be plowed into repeating it over and over, and they can’t spare the residual ergs to recall how they decided it was so. But if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that this is precisely when we should re-inspect.
I recall a lengthy dialogue some decade or so ago, with a cousin of mine shortly after I “discovered” that our family, like many others, was descended from Henry Borden of Headcorn, Kent, who apparently left this earthly plane in the year 1470, and therefore we were distantly related to Lizzie Borden of the “took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks” fame. With the little boxes all drawn in and the lines neatly connecting them, the task arose to answer the question: How probable is this? And the answer is rather disquieting. Not only do we have no way of knowing, but much of what is recorded in genealogy is that way, for that is what genealogists tend to write down. “He married her on such-and-such a date, and then they had these children on these dates.” The what-is-known, every couple generations, is plotted or scrawled into a big sheet of butcher paper or some such, then rolled up for safekeeping. The how-do-you-know-that, on the other hand, very seldom enjoys the same benefit of forever-documentation. Even the guy who makes a breakthrough by getting hold of an old property tax document or passenger manifest, tends to footnote the boxes-and-lines very poorly, or not at all.
For the record: I “know” of this Borden link because of an ancestor in the early nineteenth century who had a certain name. Uncle Wally traced us back to that guy, and then I found that name, itself, benefited from some relatives who had done the research on the priors, so I made the link. Is it a strong link? Hell no. This is not a rare name. Although the geography and dates do line up rather nicely. But that’s all we got. No, I’m not putting a lot of faith in it.
Speaking of families: Competence, or lack thereof, of a family member can lead to conflicts that drag on for years. Of course this is always lots of fun. I have noticed those who plead for incompetence tend to use “externalized” arguments, as in, “Everyone who’s ever met him says [blank].” They do this rather consistently, so that they can’t do what I just did in the paragraph above: “I think I’m descended from this peasant out in fifteenth-century Kent, England, because such-and-such.” This is, of course, Philosophy 101 stuff: You can either answer the basics of “How come it is you think you know the things you think you know?”, or else, you can’t.
“Externalysis” would be a process of rejecting this fortifying knowledge, this “supporting documentation” if you will, keeping in mind only the tasty and tantalizing conclusion. Yeah, baby! I’m related to an axe murderer, innit cool? As it happens, I’m not too fond of the idea of being related to an axe murderer. (The other side of my family, according to legend, is also descended from axe murderers, so I’m not too keen on cluttering up the family tree with these types.) Some other people might find this enthralling. Emotionalism, I notice, is one of the most popular reasons for engaging in this externalization, this remembering-the-conclusion, forget-the-supporting-documentation stuff. People reach conclusions logically or emotionally, and if they reach them through logic they have a tendency to remember the logic. If they don’t, they don’t.
People who reach conclusions by way of emotion have a tendency to argue through the emotion. What else can they do? There is no other option. “How many children have to die before you support gun control” is a great example. Their plan is, when there is convincing to be done at some future time, they’ll do the convincing the same way they got convinced: With an appeal to emotion. Trouble is, it might not work, and if it doesn’t work then they just repeat it over again. It gets embarrassing to watch.
I’m reminded of a comment made a couple months ago when a lengthy argument meandered along about the global warming scam. The other side came back with a false argument that, although the scaremongers had been caught perpetrating fraud, in theory the skeptics were also capable of fraud therefore we should all pretend the scaremongers hadn’t engaged in fraud. I thought this was making my argument for me, since my position was that “We have global warming because all the scientists say so” is such a weak argument that it might as well be rejected summarily, in favor of something more logically resilient that might persuade toward the same outcome, assuming such an argument could be assembled at all. The way I said it was “I choose to internalize my reasoning processes,” to which the other side replied, “Have no idea what that means.”
Oh noes! The dreaded “We win, because we can’t understand you” rebuttal. If high school debate was a poker game, this would be like the straight flush. It burns!
Well if the phrasing is clumsy, it’s clumsy because I’m describing an unfamiliar concept; in my defense, if my phrasing is clumsy because the concept is unfamiliar, this is something that should not be the case. People should know why they know the things they think they know. And it should be readily apparent to all, including the guy who thinks-something-because-of-something, whether such a process is internalized or externalized.
Externalization is certainly valid, and can be valuable. However: If we are laboring toward a common objective of concluding something as reasonably as possible, whatever that conclusion may be, we all become obliged to use reason. In such a situation, I would offer that a certain conclusion should be viewed with a jaundiced eye when all of the arguments supporting that conclusion are, by nature, externalized.
Here, I will define it as best I can: You are failing to internalize, if you are capable of reaching a conclusion sufficiently satisfactory that it becomes your final opinion about the issue for the indeterminate future — yet if, subsequent to that, someone asked you to explain your rationale you wouldn’t be able to do it. The phrase “sufficiently satisfactory that it becomes your final opinion” is significant, because let’s be honest: Once we cross that point, most of us feel pretty safe allowing it to start coloring our biases. The longer we stick to an opinion, the harder it becomes for us to accept something different, and the more work there is for someone to try to convince us of something different. A capable thinker is a stateful thinker, and those who wish to change our minds about it at a later time, no matter how much they might like to, can’t enjoy the luxury of a clean slate. If they could, then that would mean we aren’t capable of learning.
I’m seeing this Boston bombing yesterday has yet to take the gun-control issue out of all the Internet-arguing going on…and from this, I see a rather durable pattern in which the pro-gun-control people are externalizing. They’re externalizing everything, from what I can see. “Justice Stevens said this,” “Justice Scalia said that,” “we already do background checks and that’s not unconstitutional.” It’s true that stare decisis is a valid legal concept, in fact a very influential one that often determines the final outcome. But that is not an absolute, and it cannot be one, for — let’s be honest again — it is an exercise in bureaucracy-making. The thinking is completely externalized: “It’s that way because it’s always been that way.”
I would liken it to visiting a campsite. Just about all of us, conservatives and liberals alike, recognize the virtue involved in preserving a good, healthy environment, especially when we get our flabby butts outside and see nature up close. In my experience with Boy Scouts, the best troops made it a rule to “leave the campsite in a condition better than the way you found it“…not just as good as. This externalized judicial-precedent argument, ultimately, invites a bunny-trail debate about exactly this: If logic is a campsite, have we made it our goal to leave it in as good a shape as the way we found it, or better? It’s actually a pretty important difference. Such a dialogue deliberates about whether it is our place to cure flaws, and to make right what was once wrong.
This is not an across-the-board condemnation of stare decisis. I would say it is a perfectly legitimate function of the Supreme Court, or any higher court for that matter, to issue a writ of certiorari on the finding of a lower court, haul the matter in for a good argument/questioning/decision thrashing, and overturn the opinion on stare decisis grounds. This would be an exercise in making sure justice is even, that people aren’t receiving disparate verdicts for identical situations based on who’s hearing the case. It may be a futile goal, but it’s still a noble one.
But I think we all would, and should, object to stare decisis being an eight-hundred-pound-gorilla absolute. It is, by its nature, externalization; you may find it convincing, but without appealing to a completely different argumentative structure to reach the same conclusion, you can’t explain why to a skeptical audience. And you know the old saying, “You’re always gonna get what you always got, if you always do what you’ve always done.” If we’re constantly reaching conclusions because that’s the way it’s always been, nothing ever gets better.
Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.