Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thinking About Thinking: The Limitations of Internal Consistency

i've been thinking about thinking, and this is some of what i thought...

we go around with these worldviews which consist of various working hypotheses, often largely unspoken, but which we nevertheless depend on to make sense of our world.

we are always refining our working hypotheses, trying to make them fit with each other, with the evidence at hand, and with our ongoing experiences. (not a little bit, we also refine them so that our choices and experiences can fit with them, that is to say so that our various compromises and foibles can be rationalized, but that's another subject really)

the thing is, that for most activists, intellectuals, and geeks, the weight is often on making our thoughts or ideas fit with each other, and once a working hypothesis is internally consistent, it is normally not too difficult to find a way to fit any external evidence into it by tricks of interpretation. when a working hypothesis is this consistent, so that it holds itself together and is able to integrate subsequent experiences, it's durable enough to emerge as a "line" and as different people come to roughly similar points in this process, as a "school of thought", be it anarchism, maoism, trotskyism, feminism, primitivism, or whatever.

now the trick is that even if you're operating on good faith with an open mind, the problems we're dealing with are really so big and complex that once a set of working hypotheses has evolved into something as durable as a school of thought, it's going to take a lot countervailing experience and evidence before it can change. That is to say, even a fundamentally untenable worldview may take a long time to prove itself untenable; until then, it seems to be able to "handle" and make sense of the world. So it takes perhaps months, but for most of us years or even decades, before all of these working hypotheses may prove themselves to not really be internally consistent, at which point (assuming we are still operating on good faith and with an open mind) we may be forced to abandon the -ism we held for so long.

all of which is to say, just because a theory or worldview "makes sense" and explains things on its own terms, is no guarantee that is it actually true or really is going to make sense of everything thrown at it.

the beauty of certain situations, including but not limited to "revolutionary crises", is that they throw up so much experience so quickly, that they reveal so much which is normally hidden, and provide so many opportunities to test what have only been theories, that they can overload people's preconceptions and force them to re-evaluate their worldviews. When this happens in a tame way, activists speak of "teaching moments" when they can forcefully advance their views, and show people the value of their ideology. But when these situations occur in an intense and wild manner, they become teaching moments for the activists themselves, forcing us to clarify, improve or abandon preconceptions as we are confronted with the choice of defending or attacking new visions of how things relate and where we can go from here.


  1. lol
    yeah, i know, pretty incomplete huh?

    not planning on going anywhere with it, was just thinking about how my own views and those of my friends have formed and been changed over the years, and my own pervasive worrying about "how can i be sure of" X.

    figured if i was going to jot it down anywhere, should be in a blog about sketchy thoughts...

  2. Well, yeah, sketchy thoughts... It's just that usualy, your contributions are less sketchy... ;-)