2012-12-17

Why Do Different Smart People Have Different Opinions?

One of mankind's great vanities is the the presumption that any problem can be solved if we think about it long enough. Part of the problem here is that this is one vanity that serves us very well as a species. No, not merely as a species, but as sentient beings. Being the curious, logical creatures that we are - big, puffy cerebral cortex and whatnot - we encounter puzzles and problems every day of our lives, obstacles that stand in our way of an easier life. And because we have such big, powerful, wrinkly brains, we can easily solve many of these problems and not think too much of them.

The story gets even more incredible, though. Those problems that any one of us finds impossible to solve, can often develop solutions anyway by recruiting other people. Sometimes the creativity, special talents, or simply the different perspective, of another person or two brings with it a missing piece of information or logic that brings the crux of the matter into focus and allows us to solve big problems piecemeal, in cooperation with others.

That is pretty remarkable. Social cooperation applied to deductive reasoning is surely one of the most amazing traits we human beings have. If the story ended there, it would still be a good one.

But the story is even better than that. Sometimes groups of people - even large groups - never end up solving very complex problems, no matter how hard they try. The other incredible thing about human beings is that we remember these problems and record them for the future. Often times, people or groups who live in the future are able to supply in their own time the pieces of information or logic that we never had in ours.

This is breathtaking: Human beings have figured out how to cooperate across time, intra-generationally. In some very famous and revolutionary cases, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers have been able to solve problems that were first posited hundreds or even thousands of years beforehand. We are truly a most powerful species.

Unfortunately, however, some problems will never be solved by any human being, ever. Forced to give one very obvious example, I can offer this: The question of what exists at the very edge of the physical universe, and what it looks and feels like, and how it can be used, will never be solved by human beings. The physical obstacles are too great. We may, through scientific discovery and a priori reasoning develop a most-likely picture of what exists at the edge of the universe, but we will never really know.

Similarly, some questions of philosophy and ethics will never be solved. Which is the most consistent of all ethical bases? Which is the most logically valid? Or, do there exist other, more accurate ethical systems that yield better results? When two moral causes are put in direct conflict with each other, forcing us to choose between them, which is "the correct" moral cause to put first, and why? How do we answer such questions?

Metaphysical problems often do not have concrete solutions, and never will. In politics and in life, we often find ourselves at odds with each other over the issues. Intelligent people whom we respect a great deal will often times differ from us completely on politics, or religion, or philosophy.

This can be troubling because, as I said at the outset, we humans like to indulge in the vanity that any problem has a solution. This would suggest to us that all the intelligent people of the world, if they think long and hard enough about a given moral issue, will always come to the same conclusion. After all, isn't it just a difficult problem that needs to be solved? And if a solution exists, won't all the intelligent people out there tend to arrive at the same solution, whatever it is?

No, of course not. Two otherwise identical people will place higher values on some things than they will others. The man who likes basketball better than baseball will determine his preference based on underlying assumptions that may differ from the man who prefers baseball. But sometimes that preference will be based on exactly the same assumptions, ranked in a different order.

Knowledge - especially logical knowledge - is not subjective. The importance we place on any one piece of information very often is. For this reason, it is unlikely that all the intelligent people in the world will always agree on everything.

The point here is that, if you find yourself disagreeing vehemently with someone's ideas, it is not because they have a flawed perspective, nor is it because they are missing a crucial piece of information, nor is it because they embrace the wrong emotions or have something wrong with them. More likely, the two of you hold different opinions because you value certain things differently.

Values play an enormous role in shaping our opinions and beliefs. Sometimes, that's the only thing that can be said about why we all hold so many opposing opinions.