Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Mixed signals: I know you don't believe me but, believe me, you can believe me.

Mixed signals: No really, believe me you can believe me

Last week I attempted an objective definition of a butthead, one that doesn’t boil down to what we subjectively call someone who persistently disagrees with us.  I proposed that a butthead was someone who claimed to be pre-qualified for infallibility. Sometimes the prequalification is by means of membership in some club--the People who have Seen The Light. Sometimes its people who claim to have done All The Requisite Homework, and Made The Right Decision that is never again in need of reconsidering.  One way or another, they are armored not just by their confidence in their beliefs but by a second-coat of titanium armor: 100% confidence in their confidence. 

Some people will come right out and say it. They’ve had a revelation.  They name the club they belong to.  They cite an absolute source.  But the trouble with my objective definition is that most won’t come out and say it.  In a Democratic society like ours, declaring infallibility is asking for trouble. In most cases if you ask point blank if they consider themselves infallible they know better than to say yes.  They say, “Of course not, I’m very open-minded.”

Very few of us are butthead enough to claim infallibility about everything. It’s not hard even for buttheads to site examples of times they’ve changed their minds.  “I’m not closed-minded. Why, just last week I changed my order at McDonalds from a number six to a number seven meal.   I make mistakes.  I’m not infallible.”

Well, suppose you’re talking with someone who has an answer for everything you bring up as though he really thinks he is infallible, and yet when you call him on it, he still claims to be open-minded.  Your sense is that he’s actually completely closed, but he has an answer to that too. which is that nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s your word against his. And you know, he could be right. Just because someone shows inflexibility on every ideas you bring up, it doesn’t mean he’s absolutely closed. Maybe you didn’t bring up the right ideas. Maybe there are some about which he really is flexible. Maybe your ideas are just wrong.  Maybe you’re the closed-minded one for not surrendering to his ideas. 

Epistemology and the sub-discipline called Philosophy of Science are devoted to the problem of knowledge verification.  Their main question is how can we tell what’s true?  They ask related questions such as how you can tell when someone is sticking to idea not because it’s true but because they’re unwilling to consider the relevant evidence. In other words, these are the fields in which we seek to distinguish between the inauthentic and authentic truth seeker, between the butthead and the merely yang or assertive.

Over millennia a whole lot of energy has gone into these fields and while that work has been extremely productive it is not conclusive.  Truth is, we still can’t tell for sure what’s true.  Alas, there’s no absolute objective test for figuring out who is being a butthead. 

If you find yourself at a conversational impasse and you suspect your conversational partner of being a closed-minded butthead who thinks he’s infallible, and if he denies it, and it’s your word against his, and there’s no objective test to apply, the natural solution is to just decide for yourself.  Come to your own conclusion. 

The problem with that of course is that you’re predisposed to agree with yourself.  We all are and then we’re back to a subjective definition of butthead as anyone with whom we’re frustrated, simply because he persistently disagrees with us.

OK, I’m not infallible. Maybe I didn’t come up with an objective definition of a butthead after all, or at least not an all-inclusive one. Perhaps my definition applied to the self-proclaimedly infallible, but not to people declare that they’re open-minded but show no evidence of it.  With them, you’ll have to make your own guess about whether they’re really buttheads.

Here’s a fallible yet somewhat useful rule of thumb to support your guesswork.  Between walk and talk, trust the walk. Treat positive self-descriptions as meaningless statements that don’t weigh in on either side of a question.  Consider the following self-declared claims to positive attributes:

No really, you can trust me.
No really, I’m very open-minded.
No really, I’m very generous.
No really, I’m only concerned with discovering what’s accurate.
No really, I’m not in this for my ego.
No really, I’m only interested in the moral thing to do.

Take the first of these. People only say “No really, you can trust me” when they feel that you don’t trust them.  As such the statement translates as, “I know you don’t trust me, but trust me, you can trust me.”  A statement like this ends up being non-information of a particular kind that shows up early in the history of epistemology.  It’s called a liar’s paradox. Logicians treat liar’s paradoxes as un-decideable, neither true nor false. In other words they indicate nothing.  They’re undicators,

Any statement that begins with or implies “No really” is likewise un-decideable.  It amounts to, “No really, you can trust me” followed by a specific. For example, “I know you don’t trust me to be open-minded, but trust me, you can trust me when I say I’m open minded.”  It doesn’t mean they are open-minded. It doesn’t mean they aren’t.  It doesn’t mean anything. 

Rule of thumb: Try to ignore it.  Of course, its hard to ignore such talk. Though talk is cheap, we end up taking people’s word for things. There’s no better place to start not taking people’s word than these “No really” statements. Better to pay attention to their walk than such talk. 

And as a related rule of thumb, try to avoid using such statements too. Notice when you do use them and doubt their significance even when they come out of your own mouth.

No really.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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