Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st century Roman artwork

Rational debates and historical processes

Socrates was one of the great Greek philosophers. He lived around 400 BC and is seen as the founder of the practice of rational debates. A rational debate is a discussion between two or more people holding different views who wish to establish the truth with the use of reasoned arguments. Socrates saw truth as the highest value and he thought that it could be found through reason and logic in discussions. Many people believe that rational debate is the best way to decide about which course of action needs to be taken.

Many people believe they are right and that a rational debate will prove this. And because they are right, they should discard any evidence to the contrary. In fact, any evidence to the contrary proves there are people with hidden agendas out there spreading misinformation. That’s why it isn’t easy to have rational debates.

In his famous dialogues Socrates acted as if he was ignorant. If you are willing to concede that you are ignorant then you may be willing to learn. Socrates was willing to teach. Willingness to learn is the key to progress. The Scientific Revolution took off after European scientists accepted their ignorance after European sailors discovered America, a continent they didn’t know of. European scientists started to ask themselves what more they didn’t know. And so they began to investigate anything they could think of.1 After 500 years science has completely altered the way we live.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came up with a scheme for rational argument. He also applied it on the course of history. Hegel lived around the year 1800. He believed in progress like most European scientists at the time. His idea was that resolving a conflict of opposing sides can lead to progress in rational debates, but also in history in general. In most cases both parties in a debate or a conflict have valid arguments. Hegel thought that an argument develops in three stages. First, someone will come up with a proposition. Then someone else will bring in an opposing idea. If both have valid arguments, are willing to listen to each other, and understand each other’s arguments, then a rational debate between them can lead to a better understanding of the situation. The new understanding can be a proposition in a new argument.

An example can illustrate this. Suppose that Adam Smith and Karl Marx meet in a conference hall. Smith argues that capitalism and free markets are great because they create a lot of wealth while goods are distributed efficiently. Marx then says that the living conditions for workers are miserable and that goods are distributed unfairly. He then says that workers should take control over the factories. Smith might then object by saying that workers will turn out to be poor entrepreneurs. If both are willing to consider each other’s ideas, they might agree that capitalism is a great way of creating wealth, but that there should be minimum wages, unemployment benefits, laws protecting workers, and state pensions. After they agree a third person might enter the debate and say that economic activity is destroying the planet. This could be the beginning of a new debate. The outcome may be regulations on the use of chemicals and investment in making the economy sustainable.

This is not how history progresses in reality. Issues are often resolved in a historical process that involves conflicts. In many cases power is used rather than arguments. People do not always listen to each other nor is it easy to foresee the consequences of choices. Most people find it hard to deal with contradictions, so they may take a side rather than let the arguments play out in a rational discussion. And a debate is often clouded by interests. Capitalists might argue for capitalism because they feel they can profit from it. Socialists might argue for socialism because they believe they may gain from it. And so a debate can drag on without being resolved.

Historical processes are complex and a Hegelian scheme often isn’t adequate to describe them. Karl Marx and the Marxists believed that Hegelian dialectic would prove him right, not much unlike many people who believe that rational discussion will prove them right. Marx used Hegel’s ideas to promote class struggle. In fact Marxists believed that philosophy can be used to change reality. Marxism promoted social conflict as a way of resolving issues. And so communists tried to take over countries with military force or agitation. In developing countries communist insurgencies became mixed up with struggles for national liberation. For Marxists Hegelian dialectic was a tool in the war on capitalism, and later on, to liberate marginalised groups from social injustice.

In the nineteenth century workers didn’t appear to benefit from the capitalist system. It was hard to figure out how socialism would work out in practice so it may have been necessary to try it. A country called the Soviet Union tried socialism for seven decades. If you look for the Soviet Union on a map, you probably will not find it. That isn’t because it is such a small country but because it doesn’t exist any more. The Soviet Union was dismantled because its leaders realised that the socialist economy performed poorly. With the benefit of hindsight the flaws of socialism seem obvious, but if it hadn’t been tried out, it probably wasn’t that obvious. Neverteless, socialism may work well in specific situations. For instance, health care in socialist Cuba is cheap and effective compared to the United States. Life expectancy in the United States and Cuba is nearly the same despite the United States spending more on health care per person than any other country in the world.

The poor living and working conditions for labourers in the nineteenth century challenged the legitimacy of capitalism and promoted the case for class struggle. Christian democrats and conservatives on European continent tried to introduce a ‘third way’, which was an attempt to resolve the Hegelian question by relying different ways of organising society and the economy rather than markets and governments, for instance via solidarity in communities. The result was a historical process leading to labour regulations, minimum wages and pensions in the democratic societies of Western Europe. As a consequence the economies of these societies came to have a mixture of capitalist, cooperative and socialist features. A rational debate could develop because there was freedom of expression. The Soviet Union was a dictatorship so there wasn’t much of a rational discussion going on there. Progress in history often requires experimenting. At first there was capitalism but conditions for workers were poor. And so pure socialism was tried out but the results were also poor. In the meantime many societies found a middle way that was often a combination of elements of several ideas. This is progress in history the way Hegel may have liked it.

Ideologies like socialism and capitalism are models of society that describe how society can be organised. Models are simplifications or abstractions but they can be useful. Models can help us to organise our thoughts so that we can figure out which ideas are useful and under what circumstances. People who adhere to a specific ideology tend to be poor problem solvers. This is where Hegelian dialectic often goes wrong as it is also a tool employed by parties in a political conflict. They tend to frame the debate with their choice of words. As a consequence, parties may become pitted against each other and live in their own realities as the words describing their realities diverge.

Karl Popper

Science works in a similar fashion. A philosopher named Karl Popper came up with a scheme for scientific progress. He believed that scientific progress is achieved by theories replacing each other. Scientists in a specific field often work with theories. You may not be surprised to learn about that. So let’s call one of those theories the Old Theory. The Old Theory works fine in most situations but sometimes it doesn’t. Most scientists at first ignore the glitches like weird readings on their instruments because the Old Theory has proven to be very useful. They may convince themselves that the unexplained measurements were caused by faulty instruments. As more and more experiments indicate that there’s something wrong with the Old Theory, some scientists start to question it.

Then one of them then comes up with a revolutionary New Theory that explains a lot more than the previous Old Theory, including the unexplained readings on the instruments. At first most scientists have their doubts because the New Theory is so revolutionary. They feel that only a crazy person could think of it. But as experiments confirm the New Theory, and because the New Theory explains a lot of things the Old Theory couldn’t, scientists embrace it and the Old Theory gets abandoned. In this case there is also an argument going on between two sides, but the New Theory is superior to the Old Theory. In social sciences and economics both schemes occur. There is progress in theories but also a debate between different approaches that might be resolved in a Hegelian fashion.

An example might explain the thoughts of Popper. Around 1680 the mathematician Isaac Newton worked out a few laws that explain the motion of objects. Newton’s laws tell us that objects fall to ground and don’t float in the sky. It may seem rather pointless to make laws telling us that but his laws have other applications too. For instance, they can explain how the Earth orbits around the Sun. Newton presented his laws in a few nice mathematical formulas so that it became possible to calculate how long it would take before a stone hits the ground if you drop it from the top of the Eiffel Tower. And that’s really cool.

Over the years scientists developed more precise instruments. After a few centuries they found some measurements they couldn’t explain. These were only small deviations from the values you could calculate with the use of Newton’s formulas so scientists didn’t worry much at first. But a physicist named Albert Einstein took these glitches seriously and he developed a theory that explained the curious readings on the instruments but also the motion of objects, so that this new theory explained more. Scientists were sceptical at first and Einstein was a weirdo, but when experiments confirmed his theory, they finally embraced it.

A reasoned debate may seem the best way of figuring out what to do. Only, social sciences including economics involve human interactions. The number of variables are high and all of them are known while individual variables can’t be isolated in a controlled environment. And so it becomes difficult to ascertain causes and effects or to make predictions. Experts in these fields therefore often make wrong judgements.

It is dangerous to blindly trust experts but may be even more dangerous to ignore them. An ignorant person can be right by accident while an expert can be wrong because he or she missed out on something. And that something might have appeared insignificant on beforehand. Making predictions in social sciences may sometimes look like gambling and the difference between knowledge and ignorance may be obscure. This can embolden the ignorant while it can make experts cautious.

Sometimes experiments may prove whether or not some assumption or theory is correct but that involves experimenting with humans. Trying out communism in the Soviet Union killed millions of people. For instance, there were famines in the 1930s in Ukraine. We should therefore be careful as to what kinds of social experiments we engage in. And we shouldn’t draw the wrong conclusions. Millions of people have died of capitalism too, simply because capitalists didn’t think they could profit from letting these people live.

In theory reasoned debates are more common in science than in politics but scientists need research budgets that are provided by businesses and governments. The things scientists investigate are often determined by governments and businesses and the outcomes of scientific research can be influenced by the interests of those who fund the research. And so the results of research projects are not always what you might expect from a reasoned and unbiased investigation. For instance, in the United States there are several think tanks that do political and economic research. The research of liberal think tanks tends to support liberal views while the research of conservative think tanks tends to support conservative views, and perhaps that doesn’t surprise you.

When actions taken are based on the outcome of rational debates, this often leads to new issues that may be resolved in subsequent debates. People may think about what these new issues might be and what the solutions for these issues could be. Yet the questions that will arise are often difficult to foresee, and it is even harder to think of how they will be resolved. Marx thought he could predict the future. Using the scheme of Hegel, he thought he could predict how history would play out. Many people make the same mistake. They think they somehow know what will happen in the future.

Marx believed in progress like Hegel did. And many people still do believe that there is progress. Yet this is not so obvious. There should be some point to the general direction of history otherwise you can’t call it progress. To put it all into perspective, you can ask yourself: “Are we happier now than our parents were fifty years ago?”

Even if that isn’t the case, that doesn’t contradict the case for using rational debates to resolve social issues. In debates all kinds of arguments can be made. That can be frustrating because there are so many stupid ideas. Sadly, it is not always obvious which ideas are stupid and which aren’t. There are several techniques to frustrate debates used in situations of conflict between opposing sides. And perhaps even more worrying is the fact that many important decisions are made without a proper debate, simply because people aren’t interested in the subject. Progress is more likely to happen if debates focus on important matters and are conducted in an open and honest way. For a rational debate to flourish, all parties involved must feel free to speak. Absence of violence and threats are basic preconditions for such a debate to take place.

There’s something else that should make us cautious. Technology is progressing and it is about to completely alter human existence. Humans may be about transform themselves into a new kind of beings that live for thousands of years and entertain themselves in their own virtual realities. If this technology becomes cheap then everyone may be able to enjoy it. Politics as well as economics may become meaningless as a consequence. For the time being it can still be worthwhile to pursue social progress using rational debates as it can mean a huge difference as to how we enter the new era.

Featured image: Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st century Roman artwork. Eric Gaba (2005). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

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