Theoretical Inevitability of agreement
In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler argues that “One is hopeless about the
fruitfulness of discussion if he does not recognize that all rational men can
agree”. This makes a lot of sense. When disagreements arise, what is
fundamentally occurring is a dispute over what is true. Anyone who believes
in truth, (and anyone arguing anything must belive in some truth) cannot
believe that truth can be divided against itself (i.e you can’t have
contradictions). Disagreements then, are the product of either misunderstanding
between the parties or an asymmetry in available knowledge (wherein one
individual is mistaken or less knowledgeable of the facts). Anyone who is
honestly seeking truth, must be able to be brought into agreement with
other truth seekers.
C.S Lewis, In Mere Christianity, makes a similar point. In the opening
chapter Lewis writes, that when two people disagree on things:
… it looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of
Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like
to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not,
they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the
human sense of the word. Quarreling means trying to show that the other man
is wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he
had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are;
What I find interesting is that both argue for a sense of humility. When we are
seeking knowledge we must be open to the idea that we might be wrong. If not we
are not honestly seeking truth. Likewise When we enter a disagreement, we must
be willing to entertain the idea that we might have been wrong.
Is Agreement Inevitable?
I’ll be honest, when I first read this, I found myself in a bit of disagreement
with Adler. Looking at the current state of discourse on almost any topic and
you get plenty of empirical evidence of, apparently rational, individuals who
cannot come to an agreement.
Still, I couldn’t escape the point that, If there is truth (which I do
believe), and that our reason is a means to understand truth (again, something
I believe), then two people who are both seeking truth, should be able to be
brought into agreement.
I first came to rest on the idea that Adler’s point needed a slight amendment.
Any two rational individuals who shared the same values or beliefs, can be
brought into agreement.
My reasoning was that because the way we reason about things is built upon some
core axioms of what we value and believe to be true, that is beyond reason.
Of course two individuals who start with different values would come
to different conclusions in rational ways.
But that’s where Lewis gets me. Certainly when people go to war or fight “like
animals”, they are past the point of rational convincing. But at the moment of
argument and quarrel, they must share some common ground. That value being
that truth is real, it is knowable and it is worth knowing.
A possible Resolution?
So why then do we see people unable to come to agreement? Well I think it
stems from the fact that we are not purely rational creatures. (As an
aside, I think that that is a good thing). I also think that it stems
from the fact that not everything is rationally discoverable. With
those two stipulations, I think we can explain the gap between Adler
and what we see in reality.
First, we are not entirely rational. We dig in our heels when we are wrong.
We wander (or err) from Truth and
set ourselves up as truth. Certainly this doesn’t prove that two
rational people couldn’t come to a rational agreement, but it does pose
the tough task of finding them first.
Allowing for our own imperfections, lets say that we found two genuine truth
seekers (a much easier task). We still have to deal with the fact not
everything is rationally knowable. Not everything that is True and worth
knowing is knowable through a system of reason and logic. (Ironically this has,
to some extent, been proven with
What then do our two truth seekers do when they disagree? How can they come to
rational agreement about something that is outside the realm of reason? Do
we just resign such questions to the realm of opinion and dispense with them?
A Solution to the Gap
I’d like to propose an alternate amendment to Adler, one that I think better
describes how we can bridge gaps that seem unbridgeable. First is to recognize
the importance of reason. We are not going to throw it out. Two honest truth
seekers should be able to agree through reason. With that said
sometimes reason is not enough. We need other means of convincing.
Because we are more than just rational machines, we can have alternate routes
of bringing people to truth. These alternate routes should be based in other
eternal values, like goodness and beauty. It is well known that rhetoric is
powerful for convincing people, But why is it so convincing? Because it can
link Truth with Beauty. Similarly, how often has an argument been
dissipated by a kind word?
I admire Adler’s writing a lot. His book fundamentally changed how I read and
learn, and I hope that my discussion does not come out as a criticism of his.
Rather it was his writing that has inspired me to understand how we can better
leverage all our values (Truth, Beauty and Goodness) to come into one mind
with those around us. So if you find yourself in a seemingly impossible
disagreement, think about how you can approach it with another tool.