Rational debates and historical processes

Socrates was one of the great Greek philosophers. He lived around 400 BC. Socrates is seen as the founder of the practise of rational debates. A rational debate is 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, but many people also believe that they are right, so that a rational debate comes down to convincing others. And that’s why it isn’t easy to have rational debates.

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

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Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

A philosopher named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came up with a scheme for rational discussions. He also applied it on the course of history. Mr. 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. Mr. Hegel thought that a rational argument develops in three stages. First, someone will come up with a proposition. Then someone else will bring in an opposing idea. And 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. This understanding can be a new proposition in a new argument.

An example can illustrate this. Suppose that Adam Smith and Karl Marx meet in a conference hall. Mr. 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. 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 unemployment benefits are expensive and make workers lazy. This could be the beginning of a new debate. The outcome may be term limits to those benefits and bureaucrats overseeing the people using them.

But this is not how progress in history really works. In reality issues are often not resolved in a rational debate but in a historical process. People often do not listen to each others arguments nor is it always possible to foresee the consequences of certain choices.  Karl Marx believed that Hegelian dialectic would prove him right. He used Hegel’s ideas to promote class struggle but this gave Hegelian dialectic a bad name. And if you believe that Hegelian dialectic will prove you right then you don’t understand the idea of rational debates. Maybe socialism seemed a good idea in the nineteenth century because back then workers didn’t appear to benefit from capitalism. It was hard to figure this out in a debate so it had to be tried.

A country called the Soviet Union experimented with socialism for seven decades. If you look for the Soviet Union on a map, you may 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 leadership realised that their experiment with socialism had failed. With the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious that it was a poor economic system. But if it hadn’t been tried out in this way, many people may still believe that it is a good plan. And maybe socialism works well in specific situations. For instance, health care in socialist Cuba is cheap and effective compared to the capitalist United States.

Marx had some valid concerns regarding the plight of workers. These were resolved in a historical process and led to the introduction of labour regulations, minimum wages and pensions in the democratic societies of Western Europe. This historical process took many years. As a consequence the economies of these societies came to have a mixture of capitalist and socialist features. A rational debate could develop in these societies because there was freedom of expression. The Soviet Union was a dictatorship so there wasn’t a rational discussion happening there. Progress in history often needs experimenting. Hegel may have realised that too. At first there was capitalism but conditions for workers were poor. And so socialism was tried out but it failed. In the meantime many societies found a middle way that was believed to be a combination of the best elements of both ideas. This is progress in history the way Hegel would have liked it.

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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 things the Old Theory couldn’t, scientists start to 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 goes on and on.

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. Mr. 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 had other applications too. For instance, they explain how the Earth orbits around the Sun. He had 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 seems the best way of figuring out what to do. And sometimes you need experiments to check whether or not some assumption or theory is correct. Trying out socialism in the Soviet Union was an experiment that killed millions of people. For instance, there were famines in the 1930s in the Ukraine. Hence, we should be very careful as to what kinds of experiments we engage in. Yet, we shouldn’t forget that millions of people died of capitalism too, simply because capitalists didn’t expect to 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 all kinds of 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.

Even when actions taken are based on the outcome of rational debates, this often leads to new issues that have to 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 issues that 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 know what will happen in the future.

Marx believed in progress like Mr. 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 is not true, that doesn’t contradict the case for using rational debates to resolve social issues. In such a debate any argument 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 are not. And then there are several techniques to frustrate debates used in situations of conflict between opposing sides.

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 who live for thousands of years and entertain themselves in their own virtual realities in which they can do as they please. If this technology becomes cheap then everyone may be able to enjoy it. Politics as well as economics will then become meaningless. For the time being it may still be worthwhile to aim for social progress using rational debates. It can mean a huge difference as to how we will enter this new period.