"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Opinion and Reason
Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
From time to time a market researcher calls me up and asks for a few minutes of my time to answer his or her survey questions. I always answer “Yes, I'll be happy to; what rate are you offering?”
“What was that, again?”
“What are you offering to pay? My opinions, on a range of topics, are highly valuable. So is my time.”
At that point (always, so far) the caller explains that no money is being offered. That tells me he thinks my opinions are worthless and that I owe him my time, so I bid him farewell. It has a corollary, though; it means that all market surveys (whether about merchandise or politics) are based on opinions that have no value, even in the view of their holders. In the case of politics, that brings no distress, since the candidacies have no value either. But it troubles me a bit that some goods and services are being planned for sale on such a flimsy foundation.
Are opinions really two a penny? Would $1 really buy 200 of them? Maybe. Everybody has a bunch, and it's unusual to find one that's well thought out. I think, however, (mind, it's only my opinion) that they may come in three flavors. One comes from pure prejudice, a second is well considered but poorly founded, while the third is sound in both basis and superstructure.
The first – pre-judgment – is by far the most common sort, and it's a puzzle how these came to be implanted in the holder's mind. Perhaps many are inherited, absorbed gradually during childhood from parental and other influences. Possibly a few result from an occasional flash of insight. Some come, it seems to me, from particularly stressful experiences. For example, I recall one friend who had fought at Iwo Jima. During his life after WWII, he had come to the conclusion that government spending was almost all a dreadful waste – and even that its money was fraudulent – but despite my efforts, he never would shift from his perception that a “strong defense” (i.e., a powerful military) is essential. He would not answer to reason on that subject; his mind was fixed. I think it had a lot to do with how, as a young man, his buddies had been torn to shreds on either side of him. The sheer terror of that time must have so impressed him that he could never accept that his bravery too had been the subject of wicked fraud.
Then more recently there was another friend, who also clearly grasps that government money is bogus, but who gave enthusiastic endorsement to a story that a Texas lady had shot dead a purse-snatcher who was running away, yet she was acquitted. This I found very hard to understand. Where on Earth had he acquired such a bloodthirsty belief? Of course the thief needed to be caught and obliged to return the property, with expenses and some compensation for the trouble and distress he'd caused, and such will take place in the coming free society with a proper, competitive justice industry; but my friend would hear none of that. “He got what he deserved” was all he'd say, so placing himself downstream of the barbarism that cuts hands off thieves in certain Muslim theocracies.
Opinions hold that the Sox are the greatest team on the Planet's face, either White or Red according to the holder's place of residence. And while such preferences are obviously irrational, the eager fan may amass good reasons to support his choice. This is not unusual. Begin with a prejudice out of thin air – a philosophy, a religion, a sports team – and select facts that tend to support it, then polish the result until it looks just like a sound rationale. Begin, for example, with the premise that “education is a human right” and show that nations with near-universal literacy do better (long term on average) than those without, and it looks just like a rationale for stealing the needed funds and compelling the kiddies to undergo government indoctrination. In religion, begin with the premise that a creator or God exists, and all manner of complex doctrine can be very credibly constructed on that foundation, including of course an irrefutable proof that there exists a creator. Aside from its circularity, there's not much wrong with the reasoning power of history's leading theologians. The problem, rather, comes with the premise. Most relevant to this website is the common premise that “...to secure these rights, governments are instituted...” and treat the word “are” in the sense of “are necessarily and properly” and presto pronto, you have a perfect rationale for dismissing anarchism out of hand. Where people stand depends on where they sit; the end is determined by the beginning.
So, we have two of the three kinds of opinion we encounter; raw and unsupported bigotry, like my friend's preference for shooting petty thieves dead in the back, and prejudice carefully crafted upon a premise, not always stated, that may itself appear quite credible but which can in fact be denied. Now consider the third variety: opinions formed on the basis of one that can't be denied.
There are not many of these. The one I like best is the premise “I exist.” Is that deniable? No. If you try to deny it (while applying it to yourself) you will use your power of reasoning to do so. Yet if you truly don't exist – you're just a figment of imagination in the possible mind of some ephemeral entity – then there is neither a “you” nor a “power of reason” in play. In order to try to deny the premise explicitly, you'd be obliged to assume it implicitly – and that's the acid test. If that is passed, the premise is undeniable and can be called an “axiom.” This one is a tad more primitive than even the famous one formulated five centuries ago by René Descartes: Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. It's my favorite because it's so primitive; if one is trying to figure out what one truly knows about reality, there's no simpler place to begin.
Here's another: “I own myself” -- to “own” meaning that I have the right to make all the choices pertaining to the life I'm living, and you have the right to make all those pertaining to yours, and therefore that neither of us has any right to make choices pertaining to the life of another person. Is this premise deniable? Let's try. No, let's say I have the right to own your life, in whole or in part; you are my slave. But from where did I acquire such a right?If the premise is incorrect, then not only do I not own any of your life, I don't even own my own – and so I don't even have the right to comment on how you are living yours! Thus, in order to try to deny the premise explicitly, I would have to assume implicitly that it's true. Consequently, this premise too is an axiom. We call it the SOA: the Self Ownership Axiom.
The SOA is of huge importance. It makes nonsense of the entire theory and practice of government. Suppression of the SOA is the garbage-in, that leads to the garbage-out of which you can read in today's headlines. If each human being has the right of self-ownership, nobody else does--not voters, not governors, nobody. This is not simply saying that society works better by voluntary cooperation than by compulsion – though it certainly would – it is saying that a zero government society is the only one that fits human nature, whether it “works” better or not.
The use of reason requires a premise and a sequence of logical steps developed from it. If the premise is deniable but the sequence perfect, the end result or conclusion is as sound as the premise, neither more nor less. If the premise is an axiom and the sequence of logic correct, the conclusion is as near to true truth as we're likely to get; it's something on which one can rest one's life. Therefore, to call it merely an “opinion,” as if it were plucked unsupported from the nearest prejudice list, fails to do it justice. Probably the word “opinion” spans too broad a range. One person's opinion is not, or may not be, as good as the next guy's. It depends entirely how the opinion was reached.
Is everyone “entitled to his opinion”? Of course! Everyone is his own self-owner, so can do with his mind whatever he pleases. That includes gutting it of all value, and trashing its capabilities, by ignoring reason, the primary attribute that distinguishes humans from other animals, and immersing it in superstition and bigotry. Sadly, most of our neighbors are doing exactly that, and the result is what we see: a ruthless but adequately intelligent élite, taking advantage of that idiocy by stealing ever more decision-making capability from everyone, i.e. governing us. This will get worse, until everyone reverses the process by adopting reason as their principal guide in life. Hence in the very first segment of the Freedom Academy, for example, we lead the student to grasp that reason is paramount and that all further understanding (and opinions) must be based on it.
The necessity of such universal re-education cannot be avoided or bypassed. Do it and succeed in bringing about a zero government society, or fail to do it and watch the inexorable increase of tyranny and the evaporation of our highest hopes and dreams; that's the only choice. The task seems formidable at first, but really it's not – when the simple method of exponential growth (each person helps teach one other, in a time period such as one year) is put to work. I'm not aware of any easier way, and if earnest seekers after liberty were not willing to do that much work to turn our ideals into reality, the doom that awaits the human race would be richly deserved.
Authoritarians – peddlers of myths like God and Government – try hard to prevent people depending on reason. The late Dr. Francis Schaeffer wrote a book with the extraordinary title Escape from Reason, which its contents amplify. Its thesis is that rationality works only together with revelation; exclude God, and reason leads, he says, only to a dead end. A clever argument, but he's dead wrong; it leads rather to the liberation of mankind from the shackles of superstition, to achieve and enjoy all of which we are capable. Government people behave in just the same way; yours, they say, is not to reason why, yours is but to do and die. Ask one for a reason or an explanation, and he will either go speechless or else just repeat his commands more loudly.
So our great task, as above, is to help everyone escape from myth towards reason. That is the prime human attribute, and the race will prosper only to the extent that its primacy is restored.