Dogma, of Any Variety, Is Still Dogma


The last post was long and dense, but contains my latest thinking. This one is a continuation. I have generally avoided political comments on this blog, but it is hard to let what is happening these days go without comment. Like unsustainability, political chaos is a systems issue. Indeed, almost all life’s serious problems are systems issues. Further, almost all of these problems show up inside of complex systems. Unless one has an already well established familiarity with any system and has begun to understand it, quick fixes generally will not work. Complexity always requires understanding, not ordinary knowledge.

Complexity problems virtually always require some form of inquiry that will strip off the proximal causes and allow access to those below the surface. There are quite a few tools around to help do this. The fishbone diagram and the 5 why’s, familiar to those who know the Toyota Production Systems and its derivative, Lean Manufacturing, are a couple of examples. The point here is that the closer one gets to the rooted causal elements (There is always more than one element), the more likely is the chance of clearing up the problem and moving along. Learning processes that involve revealing the roots and playing with alternates beliefs fit what Argyris and Schön called double-loop learning. Complex systems are the source of the “wicked problems” of Rittel and Webber and the “messes” of Russ Ackoff. I have referred to both in my work.

The big problems that attract interest on the national scale are always wicked. (For a discussion of this type of problems, you can click here to move to the start of a series of my posts on that topic. (May 11, 2011, Others follow in my archives.) The Founding Fathers knew this. Although they were well informed by the theories of governance that had developed in England and elsewhere, they were concerned about how they would work in the still inchoate nation they set out to build. The final document, the Constitution, came forth only after a protracted public colloquy, where arguments for alternatives were debated. Today, as Mark Lilla wrote in the article I commented on in my last post, we have foregone this kind of inquiry because we see our own system as a source of Band-Aids for everyone else’s and our problems. As for debate, I wish the media would stop using this term for the circuses that are advertised as debates. Congress has virtually refused to debate serious issues. What go for debates there are little different from those of the political nominating campaigns.

There is great danger in making believe that the world can be known with enough certainty to stop questioning your beliefs and principles. (See the Mill quotes at the end of this post.) That’s what Lilla is saying when he argues that the beliefs and principles of modernity (he called these an ideology) have become dogma—a set of unquestioned and unquestionable facts. The banality of the current nominating process tends to force the candidates into a shallow mold, but almost all of them do not seem to mind. Worse, most seem to relish the idea that they do not have to say anything of any depth, nuance, or criticality, that is, except when referring to the flaws of everyone else.

I think the only candidate that recognizes the “wickedness” of the world that faces the present and next President is Hillary Clinton. She is criticized for her “wonkish” responses and approach to key issues. I find this one of the few positive aspects I can find in reading, listening, or watching the campaign. I am writing this post from as objective a position I am able to take; my arguments are all based to the degree to which the candidates recognize the complex nature of the problems we face. (I am, however, a loyal Democrat.)

Senator Sanders has been rightfully criticized for taking a dogmatic stance on the important problems he has centered his campaign. The problems at the center of his concerns are, indeed, stark and, in my opinion, worthy of fixing, but not by the dogmatic (again in Lilla’s sense) means he trumpets (sic). Dogma, even at a very loud volume, is still dogma. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” assumes two “facts”: 1) the US was great, then, and 2) whatever made it so can do it again, now. It has never been great without placing a lot of parentheses around the word to indicate all the areas that arguably are not so wonderful to crow about: slavery, inequality, anti-democratic institutions, foreign policy failures (e.g. Viet Nam), hypocrisy, and on and on. We can point to “victories,” like the endings of WW I, WW II, or the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, but not to any simple reason for these historical events.

Lilla does not take up much space examining the causes of this shift away from “thinking” before acting to the current mode of “Fire, Ready, Aim.” A few possibilities come to mind. One is the presence of so much money in politics, coming from a relatively small group of individuals and corporations. Money comes with interests attached, especially the large sums that dominate political “philanthropy.” Politicians do not have to think much, just simply act on behalf of the donors. The failure of bipartisanship in Congress, for whatever reason, makes debate about serious issues impossible. Oppositional politics is a sign of dogma working at its insidious best.

But there is another factor to be considered; the absence of critical thinking in everyone’s education. Our high schools are turning into machines to graduate technicians, even quite sophisticated technicians. The expanding focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has squeezed out the humanities and an understanding how the world of human beings works. The ability to code apps that may create billionaires says nothing about human affairs, other than today, we, in the US, are crazy about anything new. The same diminishing of humanities and liberal arts is, in general, occurring in our colleges and universities. The destination for the best and brightest from Harvard, Yale and other elite schools is Wall Street, where, as quants, they are little more than high-paid technicians.

When politics departs from reality, we are all in trouble. Political thinkers like John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, have argued that a strong public sphere in which bona fide debate and questioning occurs is essential to any progressive polity. Habermas’s doctoral thesis argued that such a sphere has largely disappeared. Fixed truths, the definition of dogma, prevent such inquiries and immobilize the system, preventing it from adapting to an always changing world.

The size and shape of the United States makes such critical conversations problematic, but, nonetheless, critically important. The monotonic clash between Communism and whatever the US ideology is papered over the complexity of both systems. The reason we won is said to be the superiority of the free market to any sort of central economic planning. The idea of central economic planning has expanded to become equivalent to any form of government intervention in the lives of the people, even as far as some goods that doctrinaire Chicago School economists would admit that the market cannot supply reliably. Materialism, another dogma, is the consequence of leaving the government out of the social world. It works well enough for those with the resources to enter and stay within the market economy, but not for those who lack these resources.

Admitting that one lacks the right answers for what ails us is not tantamount to surrender to the dogmatists, nor a failure of commitment to seek the common good. It is simply an acknowledgment that modernism, when held as a system of absolutes, cannot be fitted to all situations, especially those that deal directly with complexity. Pragmatism as a formal way of discovering truths arose around the end of the 19th century, but blossomed only in the 20th. John Stuart Mill, who is the source of many of the ideas that form the libertarian dogma of today, would be appalled that his thoughts had become so frozen.

In many ways he was a pragmatist, but without being labeled as such. His liberal views about free expression were grounded on the (pragmatic) belief that truth emerges from free, unconstrained conversations. I end this post with a couple of extracts from his best known essay, On Liberty. The very last sentence, while omitting any reference to a process clearly presumes some sort of conversation or inquiry.

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.

I answer that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.