Forrest Cameranesi Geek of all Trades

Against Dogmatism

Anti-dogmatism on a spectrum of philosophical positions

In my earlier essay on Commensurablism, I laid out my four core principles and their negations:

In this essay I will elaborate more on how and why I am against dogmatism.


Dogma is the Greek word for "tenet", as in something held to be firmly established – the etymological roots of "dogma" mean "accepted", and those of "tenet" mean "held" – and by saying I am against it, I mean basically that I am against ever uncritically taking "because X said so" as a justification for anything, no matter who the X is, or what it is they've said.

In other words I am against assertions that are made arbitrarily; not for any reason, not "because of..." anything, but "just because"; assertions that some claim is true because it just is, with no further justification to back that claim up. I am against assertions put forth as beyond question, for if they needed no justification to stand then there could be no room to doubt them.

Which is to say that I think the mere fact that someone holds an opinion, or that some opinion seems like the correct one to them, doesn't constitute a good reason for anyone else to adopt that opinion, or for anyone to discount the alternatives. Everyone's own assertions should be open to question, not only by other people, but by themselves; we should all question whether and why we should accept what we ourselves think is true. That is, we must remain open to the possibility that those opinions that we hold without full justification might someday be shown false, and that if we are presented with reasons to reject them, then we must do so.

In short, I am against supposing that there are any such things as unquestionable answers.

Pragmatic Justification

I object to dogmatism thus defined on pragmatic grounds, as explained previously in my essay on commensurablism. As I have said, and will elaborate in my essay against cynicism, I think it is fine and even unavoidable that we pick our initial opinions arbitrarily, for no good reason. But when we do, we then have a very high chance of those initial opinions just happening to be wrong. If we go on to hold those arbitrary opinions (that we just happened into for no solid reason) to be above question, which is the defining characteristic of dogmatism as I mean it here, then we will never change away from those wrong opinions, and will remain wrong forever.

Only by rejecting dogmatism, and remaining always open to the possibility that there may be reasons to reject our current opinions, do we open up the possibility of our opinions becoming more correct over time. So if we ever want to have more than an arbitrary chance of our opinions being right, we must always acknowledge that there is a chance that our opinions are wrong.

Dogmatism

In the remainder of this essay I will argue that a variety of other philosophical views are effectively tantamount to dogmatism of one sort or another. First, I will argue that appeals to authority, be it authority about reality or about morality, are essentially the archetypical kind of dogmatism. Then, I will argue that appeals to popularity, in matters concerning either reality or morality, are essentially appeals to popular authority, and so likewise dogmatic.

Against Authoritarianism

The most archetypical examples of dogmatism are appeals to religious authority. Some trusted religious figure or holy book says that something is true, and that assertion is taken as not needing any support: the assertion itself is taken as self-sufficient.

But such appeals to authority are not the exclusive domain of religions, as that term is traditionally understood. Political authorities, states, also make assertions and expect them to be accepted for no reason other than that the state said so: we call them laws. Laws are not descriptive assertions, but rather prescriptive ones, which is to say that laws do not proclaim that something is, but that it is to be.

But religions also make plenty of prescriptive claims of their own, and I am as against such prescriptive appeals to authority as I am against descriptive ones. And I am as against them coming from secular authorities, like the state, as I am ones coming from religious authorities. I would be equally against descriptive appeals to secular authorities as well, as if the mere word of a teacher or researcher or textbook was held up as sufficient support for the claims they made.

I hold that dogma is the defining characteristic of religion, for no particular beliefs are held universally across all religions, but all religions make claims they hold as without need of defense. So as appeals to authority are the archetype of dogmatism, nominally secular appeals to authority, like the state's assertion of laws, are functionally indistinguishable from religion, and still fall under the umbrella of dogmatism.

They are all cases of someone justifying a claim with "because I said so", and I maintain universally that "because I said so" is never a good justification for anything, no matter who it is that said it, or what it is that they said. This is essentially the same as the motto of the United Kingdom's nation academy of sciences, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge: nullius in verba, Latin for "on the word of no one" or "take nobody's word for it".

One of the earliest and most famous of philosophical arguments, Plato's "Euthyphro dilemma", made this point specifically about the prescriptive claims of religions: either the gods (presumed by both Plato and his interlocutor Euthyphro to exist) command what is good because they have independent reasons to judge it good, in which case in principle those reasons are enough for us to judge it good as well regardless of what the gods command; or else whatever the gods command is definitionally good, in which case what is good is completely arbitrary just because the gods say so, which is strongly implied to be deficient support for the command.

I am just applying that same reasoning to all claims, prescriptive or descriptive, coming from all authorities, religious or secular: either what is claimed is claimed for some good reason, in which case that reason is enough to support the claim regardless of the authority of whoever claimed it; or else the claim is to be accepted simply because the authority claimed it, in which case it is completely arbitrary, which I agree is deficient support for the claim.

But I am not saying to automatically reject all claims made by all authorities. I am not saying that everything every religion claims is wrong, be they claims about reality or ones about morality; nor that everything teachers teach in schools is wrong, or that you should disregard all laws put forth by all governments. I am actually very much in favor of defering to expert opinion on matters about which you have little information with which to form your own opinion.

By rejecting appeals to authority, I am only saying to hold all such opinions merely tentatively, remaining open to question and doubt. If you are unsure of the answer to a question yourself, and some particular individual or institution claims to have looked into it extensively and become very confident in the truth of some answer, I think it's fine to tentatively accept their opinion as probably the right one, for lack of any better reason to think one way or another.

I only maintain that you should remain open to the possibility that maybe they are wrong, and if and when you can, you should look into their reasons for holding their opinion, and look to see if there are any reasons to think otherwise instead. And that you should put more trust in the word of authorities who offer reasons to support their claims (even if you lack the time or capacity to understand those reasons yourself just now), rather than those who ask you to simply take their word for it. And if you do find good reasons to think otherwise, or if the reasons they give for thinking as they do seem weak and you're just inclined to disagree, then it's fine to go against the expert opinion, no matter how prestigious, powerful, or otherwise authoritative that expert is supposed to be.

Even if you do decide to defer to the opinion of some authority, that never obliges anyone else to do the same. If someone else just doesn't trust them like you do, or even more so if they've looked into the reasons behind the possibilities themselves and found those reasons support a different opinion than the authority you've trusted, then they are free to disagree, and the authoritativeness of whoever you've deferred to doesn't matter. They might still be wrong.

Against Populism

This is not just an anti-elitist stance I am taking here, merely rejecting the opinions of experts. I am not saying to distrust all the things that supposed authority figures proclaim, or your own judgement, and instead to trust in common folk knowledge. Appeals to popularity are themselves essentially appeals to the authority of the massess. I maintain that not only does it not matter who any individual or institution is that says something, but it also doesn't matter how many different people say it.

Some philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have put forth arguments that popular opinion rationally should be trusted more than any individual's opinion, on the grounds that if the average individual is even slightly more likely to be right than wrong on any random question, then the more individuals you poll for an answer, the more statistically likely you are to get the right answer, and the collective opinion of the masses is more likely to be right than the opinion of any single random individual.

Yet I counter that if instead the average individual is even slightly less likely to be right than wrong on any random question, then the more individuals you poll for an answer, the less statistically likely you are to get the right answer, and the opinion of any single random individual is more likely to be right than the collective opinion of the masses.

Which of those antecedent assumptions you start from (is the average person more likely to be right or to be wrong on any random question?) will depend on your prior assessment of popular opinions: if you find yourself frequently disagreeing with the masses, you will assume that average people are more likely to be wrong, while if you find yourself frequently agreeing with them, you will assume that average people are more likely to be right, and then either way you go, statistical reasoning like Rousseau's will lead you to conclude from that assumption that your prior assessment of popular opinions was right. But only circularly: anyone starting from the opposite assessment of popular opinion will find their view equally vindicated by such reasoning.

But I am not saying to automatically distrust the opinions of other people; only to not consider their opinions beyond question. If you are unsure of the answer to a question yourself, and many other people seem to agree on an answer, I think it's fine to tentatively roll with that popular opinion, for lack of any better reason to think one way or another.

I only maintain that you should remain open to the possibility that maybe that popular opinion is wrong, and if and when you can, you should look into the reasons that people commonly think what they do, and look to see if there are any reasons to think otherwise instead. And that if you do find good reasons to think otherwise, or if the reasons that other people think as they do seem weak and you're just inclined to disagree, then it's fine to go against the popular opinion.


Not Against All Fideism

Fideism vs Skepticism

It is important to note that I am not saying to automatically reject all opinions that we cannot ground with a chain of solid reasons, for as I elaborate in my essay against cynicism, I hold that it is impossible in principle to ever do so for any opinion, so to insist that we reject everything until we achieve that impossibility would be to insist that we reject everything, completely, forever. I am as against that as I am against dogmatism.

All I am against is holding those opinions to be beyond question. But until we find reasons to question them, reasons not to hold an opinion, it is fine for anyone to hold it, even if they also lack any particular reasons to hold it; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the traditional aphorism goes. It is only unwarranted to assert an opinion thus tentatively held, to push it on other people as a truth that they must accept over the alternatives.

If someone is to assert an opinion like that, then they need a reason; they need to be able to show the alternatives to be false, and their opinion the only remaining option. If someone has no reason to hold their opinion, then they have no grounds on which to assert it to others as an opinion that they must hold as well; but unless those others have reasons not to hold the first person's opinion, beyond pointing out their lack of reasons to hold it, then they likewise have no grounds on which to assert that the first person's opinion is wrong or that they must abandon it.

Until either party to a disagreement has reason to show the other is wrong, both remain free to hold their different opinions, in disagreement with each other, neither of them wrong for doing so. And to express that they hold them, even without conclusive argument to defend them with, so long as they are not asserting them as indisputably right and all others wrong. This freedom is my principle of liberalism, and like dogmatism, it is a kind of fideism, a sort of faith, in that both hold that it's okay in some way to go without reason. But while liberalism is only the freedom to carry on in the absence of reasons one way or the other, dogmatism goes to far and claims the freedom to carry on in the face of reasons to the contrary.


It is also important to distinguish between going against the common opinion, against populism, and disregarding the common experience. As I will elaborate in my essay against transcendentalism, I hold that all claims are ultimately to be grounded in the experiences held in common between the person making the claim and the person they are making it to, and that universality lies in commonality to all experiences.

So while it is possible that most people misinterpret the things that they experience, and so the popular opinion about what is or what ought to be might turn out to be false, nevertheless, whatever the correct opinion is, it will have to account for those things that other people experience, and while you are free to disregard the conclusions that the masses come to from their experiences if you find their reasoning from those experiences to be weak, you are not thereby free to disregard their experiences themselves.

In this respect I actually come somewhat close to agreeing with populism, inasmuch as the relevance of other people's experiences means that any investigation of reality or morality must be collaborative, working toward a viewpoint that is agreeable to all reasonable people, taking into account all the reasons they may find, in their different experiences, to reject one view or another about what is real or what is moral – an educational or governmental institution, respectively. With such a constructive collaborative effort under way, it becomes quite reasonable to err on the side of the consensus of those most well-versed in the product of that collaboration, if one should find oneself uncertain in one's opinion, even if one's own intuition leans away from that expert consensus.

But it is that appeal to experience, not to anyone's bare assertion or opinion, that makes those experts trustworthy to rely on. Someone whose explanation of why you should believe them is "because I said so" is not trustworthy. Someone who's explanation is "because this person said so" just passes the buck to that other person: how trustworthy are they? If they're just saying "because I said so", or if the chain of buck-passing ever stops at that, then it's not trustworthy. But if the buck stops at someone who's willing to offer experiential evidence, reasons, why their claims hold up better than the alternatives – even if we don't have the time or energy or expertise to actually take them up on that offer – then they're trustworthy. It's that appeal to reason and experience rather than just someone's word that constitutes trustworthiness.

So for such a collaborative effort to proceed accurately, we must always bear in mind that although there is a possibility that the currently received opinions are the correct answers to all our questions, we can never be sure that we have conclusively answered them correctly, rather than having just not found any problems with them yet. And without the possibility of such certainty, the only choice is between continuing to question despite the possibility of that maybe being in vain, or else resting contented on our laurels – embracing dogmatism – and definitely never finding out if we should happen to have been wrong, at least until it is too late and the consequences of that error become inescapable.


Continue to the next essay, Against Cynicism.