When "I'm Right" is Your Default Position

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

It is difficult if not impossible to argue with those whose default position is "I'm right". Those who operate within this default mode are not aware of the fact; it is a preconscious intellectual posture, and it results from confusing the light that comes from conclusions worked out within a particular intellectual model or paradigm, with the epistemic model itself. The model is limited, and so too the scope of its light, like the scope of a flashlight; in fact, it is often dark in comparison with an angle not yet discovered.

Many people lack an awareness of the role that epistemological conditions play in the development of knowledge, and as long as they do, they cannot escape from their default position, for they are not aware of the limitations of the intellectual universe in which they think. Inevitably, the result is that those who argue against such a person are evidently wrong, and he simply has to find a way to get them to see what is clear to him; for they have to be wrong if being right is the default position. What results is an immediate telescope U-turn effect: when looking through the wrong end of a telescope, everything appears smaller than it actually is, especially people. Hence, their opponents in debate are summarily dismissed.

I believe that is why reading Socrates (the early dialogues of Plato) is so important. The dialogue typically ends without a resolution; at first it can be frustrating. The purpose of the dialogue, however, was to establish the conditions for a genuine discovery of the truth, or a closer approximation to it; for the dialogue ends in convincing us that we really don't know what we thought we knew. Only then are we able to learn; prior to that, there is no possibility of making any progress because there is just too much we think we know.

All science, including philosophy, begins with a problem. Karl Popper writes: "The work of the scientist does not start with the collection of data, but with the sensitive selection of a promising problem - a problem that is significant within the current problem situation, which in its turn is entirely dominated by our theories…the progress of science lies, essentially, in the evolution of its problems. And it can be gauged by the increasing refinement, wealth, fertility, and depth of its problems" ("Models, Instruments, and Truth" in The Myth of the Framework, pp.155-156.).

In the light of the tentative nature of our hypotheses, theories, and overall intellectual frame of mind, our default position ought to be the awareness that the model through which we interpret the real might be insufficient; in fact, it is always incomplete, which is why knowledge never stops developing - at least it hasn't yet. I might lack a host of epistemic conditions that alone will enable me to see an issue in a whole new light. All we need do is reflect for a moment on the experience of having held onto a viewpoint for many years, only to discover that we were wrong; a significant point was overlooked because of the angle from which we were positioned.

Aquinas knew something about this, at least within the context of jurisprudence. Equity (epikeia), as Aquinas uses the term, is a virtue bearing on discrepancies between law framed from a very general position and the realm of the contingent. He writes: "...when we were treating of laws, since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good..." (ST, II-II, q. 120, a1.)

Matter, which is a principle of individuation, renders things opaque to scientific scrutiny; for there is nothing opaque about logical entities like numbers or the most universal ideas, but when form exists in matter (i.e., this man as opposed to 'human'), at that point there are an almost infinite number of possible instantiations that bring with them a host of unpredictable factors; i.e., ill-disposed matter in utero can lead to brain damage, which in turn brings a myriad of difficulties to the life of a child; or the month in which one is born can produce real advantages or disadvantages for a child, etc.

Although philosophy is abstract and resolves its conclusions through reasoning (as opposed to investigation), there is nevertheless a great deal of inferencing involved. We begin with the evidence of ordinary experience, and then we proceed to explain, to search out the first causes or reasons for this or that, but we always do so with a view to specific problems to solve, within a particular way of asking questions, with a mind disposed in a particular way, reasoning in a language that embodies modes of thinking of which we are often unaware, etc. In doing so, we often overlook distinctions, fail to grasp other important principles, or we will try to resolve newer problems within a paradigm brought about as a result of a very different set of problems and thus find ourselves somewhat hampered, etc. It often happens, too, that newer problems can be dealt with quite well using an older paradigm. In other words, philosophical knowledge is still always tentative. The default position that "I'm right" - even "I'm probably right" - is rooted in a mentality that fails to recognize even the tentative nature of philosophical resolutions.