Tuesday, 5 May 2020

"When we attempt to prove, by direct argument, what is really self-evident, the reasoning will always be inconclusive; for it will either take for granted the thing to be proved, or something not more evident; and so, instead of giving strength to the conclusion, will rather tempt those to doubt of it who never did so before.” #QotD


When they are not distinguished, men are apt to demand proof for every thing they think fit to deny; and when we attempt to prove, by direct argument, what is really self-evident, the reasoning will always be inconclusive; for it will either take for granted the thing to be proved, or something not more evident; and so, instead of giving strength to the conclusion, will rather tempt those to doubt of it who never did so before.” 
~ Thomas Reid, ‘Essay V; Of Morals,’ from his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of the Human Mind, (1785/1827) p. 616
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4 comments:

  1. I get that. You shouldn't work too hard to prove what should be self evident. Somebody won't understand what they don't want to understand.

    Also some concepts may not be 'proven' in a syllogistic sense, but it adequately explains reality as you observe it. A concept may correlate with your experience very well, but if another person hasn't experienced the same thing, you'll struggle to ever convince them, even assuming intelligence and good faith on their part.


    On the other hand, I can easily see this idea slip into intellectual arrogance and complacency if you're not careful. You may think it's self evident, but you may be mistaken, and thereby refrain from giving your ideas the necessary test against reality. Or you may even be correct, but you're explaining it poorly.

    Another possibility is that what's self evident to you is not to everyone else. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and often see some specific things more clearly than most, whilst simultaneously seeing other things less clearly than most. Two parties can mutually benefit by passing on their relative wisdom.

    Therefore if there's ever any doubt, and assuming there's still reason to assume good faith from your opponent, I lean on the side of more rather than less explanation. If they're worth it that is.

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    1. Indeed. On things like evidence from introspection we need to rely on the honesty of interlocoturs in assessing their own experience.
      Interestingly, Reid deployed his idea of self-evidence somewhat similiarly to Rand's 3 axioms, although extending both the number and range of what he called self-evident propositions.
      And even more interestingly (as C. Bradley Thompson points out in his excellent new book), Reid was chief among the Scottish Common Sense school on which Jefferson et al relied to say "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

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  2. There's solid mathematical evidence behind this, too: Gödel's incompleteness theorems.

    "The theorems are widely, but not universally, interpreted as showing that Hilbert's program to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible."

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    Replies
    1. Or as I would put it (if I understand you correctly), you cannot disprove a set of axioms by means of that same set of axioms.

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