02 November 2010

The problem of perspective taking

One should admit the possibility of error in their assessments. But to expect apples to one day fall the direction we perceive as up instead of that which we perceive as down would make no sense.

Some perspectives are invalidated by their implausibility or by their utter failure to account for what seems to be the objective reality we're all jointly encountering. Perhaps the person who says the apple is really falling upward instead of downward has a point, as sometimes the emperor really does have no clothes. But sometimes the emperor is fully clothed and does not even appear to be naked in the first place. At that point raising such objections would seem to be quite silly and utterly pointless. We might even say it is crazy.

That objection may persist, because it admits the probability of error and serves that useful end to make us evaluate more carefully an argument being advanced. But it does not make it a valid objection worthy of being considered as true simply because the objection exists. There should be a method of evaluating these alternative claims and where they are found lacking, they should be rejected.

If these are not alternative claims of reality but rather alternative policy choices about how to achieve certain ends, then we're stuck with somewhat less empirical evaluational tools, because we don't tend to have control groups to run experiments with and repeat the results in all policy choices. Still when we see the same sorts of results over and over with the same policies, even in somewhat distinct cultures, we should expect the same result if those policies or, more usefully, a set of cultural norms are adopted. At that point our objections are more that the eventual goals of those norms or policies are less desirable (to us, as private individuals or representatives of alternative views held by small or large groups of such individuals) and not that the reality and function of those norms is in some way invalidated and does not work as specified. Arguments at that level take on moral-political significance about priors or assumptions of worldviews rather than mere debates between this is what A does and this is what B does and A is either better than or less than B in terms of producing some mutually desired outcome. Without a willing full throated defence of what those views and perspectives actually are, what those desired outcomes would be, they become useless debates that go nowhere.

It is as though we schedule an argument between people who see the emperor wearing clothes and people who seem to think he is not and one or both sides do not even bother to attend to proving their point and explaining what "wearing clothes" means or whether this is or is not some desirable feature of the emperor's daily life among his people. When two sides do not agree to concede that they should have the same set of facts before them on which to draw and base their conclusions, then no argument is possible.
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