top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoia

Today’s rhaps is on … Argument and Ideology (Preamble, Part I, Part II, & Part III)

Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel

Argument and Ideology

This was to be the title of my magnum opus, the crowning achievement of my philosophical career. Thus I planned for my future while finishing graduate work in IU’s Department of History & Philosophy of Science. And who knows—if I live long enough—maybe I will still write it.


As a preamble, emphasis on amble, let it be said that the reason I was able to finish my PhD dissertation and hence continue on an academic path leading to potential authorship of such a book, was because 1) I determined in time that my dissertation was NOT supposed to be my magnum opus, and 2) I was not pregnant. Well, I did become pregnant but it was conveniently a few weeks after I had handed in my research. I was five months pregnant by the time my committee got around to scheduling the dissertation defense. But I was also so very healthy!

Several months of Southern Comfort therapy had slowed the work of editing my fourth and fifth chapters. Yes, I know, this was admittedly an odd time to practice Janis Joplin coping techniques. But at the end of the summer my beautiful and dear Bulgarian seismologist friend, languishing alone in Indiana while her philosopher husband and infant daughter were closely monitored back home in Sofia, talked me into sending in my third chapter for the autumn Philosophy of Science Association meetings. This was 1988, and the conference was to be in Chicago. The chapter was on the influence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity on the philosophical views of the Vienna Circle founder, Moritz Schlick. I protested, certain that no one would let me read this as a paper anywhere, much less in the proper and earnest ambiance of a hotel conference room; but she, having already published numerous articles in seismology (having felt the earth move under her feet, as it were), was confident that I would successfully give the paper and that it would be published in the conference proceedings.

She was right. So I had to clean up my act if I was going to present my now accepted Colloquium topic in a couple of months. My model was Tolstoy, who periodically jettisoned all vices and lived for a time like an otherworldly being with no appetites. His wife would find him stranded in some train station half way to Siberia, dazed and hungry. I did not want to disappear like that, but I did recognize (and was comforted by) the fact that such a state could only be temporary for creatures like Leo and myself, with our exorbitant tastes in all things culinary, alcoholic, smokable, and tactile. I decided to forego my Marlboros, Beck’s Dark (along with the Southern Comfort), all forms of sugar and salt, and to supplement my daily regime with protein amino acid powder and three morning miles of jogging, until such time that I could deliver my entire fully edited manuscript to the department office. I also decided that my deadline would be Thanksgiving. I would buffer the conference talk with incontestable healthy living on both sides, thus bestowing upon myself all of the rights and benefits of clear Western rational thought. (Later, the unexpected expectancy, shocking both me and the infertility specialist, made it impossible to return to the anticipated Tolstoyan vice-state for many years. Many years. All that time, without any familiar coping mechanisms! It led inevitably to what used to be called a nervous breakdown, now going by the more promising label of a complete state of exhaustion—but more on this in another rhaps.)

This preamble is guaranteed to result in one’s treatise falling dead-born from the press, like Hume's, long before any questioning soul could be awakened from a dogmatic slumber, like Kant's. So I shall proceed.

Part I: Theodicy and Pascal's Wager

Argument is the opposite of ideology. Growing up amid Evangelicals, and later studying in Moscow amid Soviets, I learned that true believers fight dirty. They do not care about logic, the inductive nature of assumptions, what relates evidence to justification, or any link at all between premises and conclusion, wherever the inference may fall along the spectrum from the wholly necessary to the partially probable. True believers begin with the desired outcome and pronounce it as the Truth, capital T, thus begging the question without ever bothering to construct even minimal reasonable discourse with those who do not already agree with their blind assertions. They are followers of Ideology. They are unfortunately in full force today, hysterically promoting conspiratorial propaganda in the US as well as in noisy slices of parliamentary pies the world over.

I discovered Argument at thirteen. I didn't have the proper term at the time, but I realized that the authorities at the dinner table, while professing to be teachers, were in fact preachers. A teacher needs to provide reasons to first gain the attention of a class. Perhaps admiration or even assent will follow, but the most important thing for the teacher is that the class attains understanding. Students are then free to derive their own conclusions from the material. Teach how to fish. Whatever mucking about ensues pertaining to fishing or fish—that’s on them.

My response to discovering that I was meant to do no more than eat dead fish already caught by others was simply to shut up. I quit participating in the “discussions” about nasty evolution and war-protesting hippies driving culture to the dogs. Because there was no genuine discussion here, no volleying of ideas as in real dialogue. These were declarations, bereft of supporting theses.

I didn’t begin to have the appropriate vocabulary for these distinctions until years later, when I landed in a logic class in Amherst, Massachusetts, and fell in love with Howard Kahane’s Logic and Philosophy. I still have the book on my shelf. But even before this time, I knew something was very wrong with a subculture in which an authoritative presumption of truth was held in higher regard than an honest investigation of fact.

About the time I left the music conservatory and discovered I could fill my days with ideas, having completed withdrawal from a decades's addiction to arpeggios and cadenzas, my father began to send me C. S. Lewis books. The Problem of Pain, Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity. No amount of explanation, and I did attempt dialogue again, could convince him that my questions were not in any way theodicean, requiring justification of how a benevolent God could permit the existence of evil. I liked my questions. They were some of the best things about me. But this particular question had never been one of them. In other words, I just didn’t think that there’s a perfectly omnipotent Being up there Who “allowed” the Holocaust. But to my father, this had to be my stumbling block, the distressing obstacle preventing tearful surrender to patriarchal truth. What else could it be?

Years later my Dad sent me his Bethel colleague Dan Taylor’s newly published The Myth of Certainty. Perhaps my problems were more Pascalian in nature and a good rational wager about the after-life might do the trick. I was nearly thirty-three at the time and teaching a course in Philosophy of Human Nature. I hadn't known what that was, exactly, but came across a text-plus-reader on the subject that included Marx and Skinner along with the usual philosophical suspects. It even started out with the Buddha’s Parable of the Arrow, such a fun and quick disposal of metaphysics. I had thrown in Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground for good measure and figured bases were well covered. Against this expansive mind-set, I decided to take “notes” on my Dad's gift of the Taylor book by recording my responses on a cassette tape. It was a study in fifty shades of grey (matter), the persistence of murky concepts that refused the either-or of sporty battlefields, full of the kind of irritating ideas that side-stepped popular taxonomy. I thought it was a pretty cool recording. My father would be able to hear me out at his leisure and finally, possibly, recognize who I am. A month or so later I received a return cassette from him containing a recording of a short, no-frills sermon on salvation less personal than a revival crusade altar call. Up until his stroke in Alcobaça in 1989, Dad would occasionally ask to read my publications to "see what I was up to." I doubt if he ever read them. In any case, we never really spoke again, until I sat by his coffin in 2005 and told him how badly his taped sermon had made me feel at the time.

Part II: Theology and Mercy

In 1969 my family visited Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri in Switzerland, just up the mountain from Montreux on the other side of Lake Geneva. A kind of Christain kibbutz, L’Abri housed wandering travelers who paid for their indefinite stays at the compound with housekeeping chores and theological edification. My mother’s college violin teacher had been touring with a born-again opera singer who lived with a writer at a chalet on the L’Abri property. She had organized their first violin-voice musical tour through Portugal a few years earlier. My father was a friend of the famous theologian himself.

My brother at the L'Abri guest chalet in 1969

We had been invited to stay in a guest chalet just down the hill overlooking the chapel. I was interested in the chapel because the teenage Frankie Schaeffer had convinced his father to allow his rock’n’roll friends to come and do a light show there. The deal was that this display of pulsating music cum random blobs of color could take place in the chapel as long as it was followed by an appropriate "talk" afterwards.

It was hot that day and the ceiling-high windows of the chapel had been left open, while the door at the back was shut behind the recording and projection equipment. One by one audience members got up to leave, climbing out through the windows when the music got too...pulsating for them. This included my parents. My fourteen-year-old self was in heaven, though. Nothing could have gotten me out of there short of an Alpine avalanche. I don’t remember much about the Q & A session, but I will never forget my first crazy rock concert light show! Over the years, the occasional encounter with a lava lamp never fails to remind me of it.

Years later I was living in an apartment on Cathedral Hill while teaching medical ethics and logic at Saint Paul College. I was still studiously avoiding purchasing property in the US, though by this time could have afforded owning the dirt under my feet. Actually you can take studiously quite literally in this case, since I was living in a studio. My kid was in college in Chicago, so why bother with unnecessary rooms to have cleaned? Okay my double bed was squeezed into the walk-in closet…but I was happy there, a block away from my latest edition of “little Europe,” within walking distance of a neighborhood café, a corner grocery store run by a Palestinian family who loved knowing I had visited their homeland, the YWCA pool hiding in refurbished old brick buildings across the street, and half a dozen restaurants with friendly bartenders and my newly adopted personal chefs.

I hadn’t purchased cable with my new flat-screen Target TV because for some reason merely plugging it in had provided me with Bravo, MSNBC, and three CSPAN channels, in addition to PBS and the local news. I have no explanation for this particular lineup, but recall simply integrating the broadcasts into my daily life. One sleepless night I was up watching the book news on one of the CSPAN channels and I saw Frankie Schaeffer discussing his new book, Crazy for God. He was apologizing for the murder of an abortion doctor. He had helped his father create the Religious Right co-opted by Republicans in the Reagan years, and now, after parting ways with the increasingly unchristian movement, felt responsible for language that had incited uneducated, violent believers to commit assault and murder. (Frankie also discussed his earlier book, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion, about how his aging mother, freed of the constraints of her evangelical marriage by the bittersweet curse of Alzheimer’s, returned to her youthful love of ballet by celebrating life in dance again. Except this time in her nightgown.)

Turns out Frankie had gotten his girlfriend pregnant the year after I'd been at L’Abri in Switzerland and, after marrying her, had joined with his father in penning the manifestos that brought formerly justice-minded Christian Democrats into the fold of the formerly fiscally conservative Republicans. I say formerly here because, upon drafting the evangelicals and creating a mythical Straw Man opposition party of baby-killers and butt-fuckers, the Republican party was never the same again. The party of fiscal conservatives providing intelligent check-and-balance to spendy Democrats was gone. What had been quiet dinner prayers for the unsaved escalated into nightly-newsworthy parades of screaming militants who on good days waved their angry signs, on bad days marched with torches and bombed government buildings with day care centers. Baby-killing, indeed. The racism hidden throughout the Civil Rights years showed its true colors again, black and brown bodies shouted at and shot at by these wrathful people bursting like bullies out of sanctimonious stalls. As if the laws had never been changed to protect the unprotected. As if Jim Crow had been in time-warp. (As far as butt-fucking goes, homosexuals don’t do anything heterosexuals don’t already do, but the old blue laws forbidding sodomy haven’t been applied to randy straight people for quite some time. Did you know the woman can’t be on top in Texas?)

I wrote to Frankie at the CSPAN contact email and heard back from him shortly after that. He remembered the summer of the rock & roll light show. He and his wife had eventually found a spiritual home in the Greek Orthodox church. That sounded right to me, as a child of evangelicals who later sang in Episcopal choirs. We share the European and Byzantine heritage of iconic art and medieval architecture, to the tune of Gregorian chants and Bach cantatas. Incense and stained glass also help, easing the angst of forced exile. We find ourselves much more at home in this environment than in the cold modern born-again halls where someone rolls out a red carpet, slaps up a cross, and calls it Sanctuary. Where hymns are reworded German beer songs, the stanzas projected up on brick walls for the musically illiterate. Where the Bible is picked apart by the initiated like finicky eaters at a smorgasbord, picking out indigestible bits of supremacist exclusivity and judgmental hatred. Will the Rapture come and take these folks out, leaving the rest of us to boil in the cauldrons of their carelessly tossed climatic waste? Judge not that ye be not judged.

Father Andrew at All Soul’s Episcopal in Berkeley once said to me that Baptists are so cerebral. I laughed, because the idea seemed so incongruous. But what he meant was that Baptists depend so completely on Logos, on the Word, like Inquisition torturers ready to throw you in a lake if you don’t immediately parrot the correct phrase at the correct time and in the correct manner. Now that I understood. Because I’ve never been able to come up with the right phrases in the right language in the right intonation at the right moment, while simultaneously envisioning the right images that everyone around me is collectively hallucinating.

What happens in Orthodox and Episcopal churches is that experience solemnly caps explanation, intuition quietly overrules verbosity. Господи, помилуй. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Whatever your journey, all are welcome here. Christ is not on the cross here. Christ is standing with arms outstretched, the Cristo Rei of tolerance and inclusion, having invited the Gentiles and Samaritans and Saducees to forego memorizing Deuteronomy and join together in grace. This is the Christ who kicked the brazen Pharisees out of the Temple and didn’t stop with the fish and loaves until every single hungry soul was fed. Orthodox and Episcopal spaces are sacred retreats for us weary excommunicated souls. We can momentarily check quotidian Argument at the door and, without ingesting any dogmatic Ideology, enter unobtrusively and sit tranquil for as long as we need, as long as it takes to recreate what it might have been like to be unconditionally loved in our families of origin. Because here we are loved. Here we can rest for a time from both Argument and Ideology.

Part III: Why Critical Thinkers Lean Left

Long before the tea-party crusaders overran today's incarnation of the US Republican party, making it fully unrecognizable to the great Abe Lincoln, the idea that universities tend to be hotbeds of subversive leftist activity was already convention to right-leaning cognoscente (to be sure, right-leaning cognoscente is an oxymoron to many in the leftist intelligentsia).

The Soviet Union mixed up the right/left wings a bit, bending the radical red Bolshevik excesses back toward an increasingly stultifying center, abandoning its true sociologists to scrambling outside the Kremlin walls for bits of information from Radio Free Europe or the odd Herald Tribune left by visiting exchange students. (By the way, is there a reason why red is the color for Republicans in the US?)

In any case, why are the educated seen as suspect by those leaning to the right, towards authoritarians? (Indeed, why did the Pol Pot murderers go after Cambodians who wore glasses?)

My thirty-plus years of teaching logic, critical thinking, and scientific reasoning offer insight. First of all, deductive (and all manner of absolutist thinking) can occur only in a box. We love it, we need it, but must indulge its limitations. You want certainty? You got it: arithmetic, algebra, flatland geometry, first-order logic, basic computer programming, the mechanics of bridges and pyramids, the combustion of cars and jets, the measuring spoons ready for recipes on your kitchen counter. Crank up your input, your necessary ingredients, and get the expected output, the cake you have and simultaneously want to eat. No surprises here. Calculation is King. Teachers love grading this stuff. There’s a right and wrong! Dumb computers and newbie TAs can even grade this stuff. Splendid.

You want something a little more expansive, maybe a twinge of the unexpected? You got it. But the price is…yes, now the certainty has to go. You’ve wandered off the straight and narrow Pilgrim’s Progress path into the murky swampy surroundings. You want just a little surprise touch, not too much? Okay, don't go too far off then, stay safely in the 90% range. Most of your daily activities happen in here, your efforts in hygiene, cooking, driving, exercising. (Your kids? Nope, sorry, you have no idea how they’re going to turn out.) You want to take a few more liberties, though, maybe venture a wild guess? Okay, but you’re stepping into the bog now. Better put on your waders. Maybe you want to go all out, take a poll, see who’s out there, find out what they’re thinking? Great, but please realize that it’s over, you’re completely at sea now. You don't know what’s going to come back to you at this point. Oh, wait, you’re not interested in just any result, you want a boomerang, you need a specific outcome? What, you counting cards? You think the House is going to allow that? Fuck no, you little upstart. The Universe hasn’t got time for your tricks. You can play confirmation bias all you want, sure, but you’re not going to win anything. Take your tin quarters elsewhere. Because your personal need to believe in something has nothing to do with what's happening. You don’t like the weather? Too hot? Doesn’t matter what you think. The Universe will follow laws you haven’t figured out yet, stochastic crazy laws that appear to have holes in them. Your boomerangs explain nothing. You think your ideas control that chunk of polar bear ice breaking off an icy cliff? They don’t. Stare at your myopic Fox-phenomena all you want. The noumenally indifferent H2O molecules in that blue icy glacier don’t care about you.

When I resigned from my tenure-track job, I went to work teaching in community colleges. My grad school buddies couldn’t understand why I’d left the Ivory Tower for these little two-year joints. Well, it was because of the students. I identified with these students. They weren’t just diverse in terms of racist US red-lining districts. They were internationally diverse. I could personally discuss the slums of Boston as well as Bombay (Mumbai), Mombassa and Merida, Kiev and Kansas, Athens and Amman. I could talk to them without confusing, as many Americans do, intelligence with intellect, by appealing to biographically ingrained aptitudes rather than accidentally acquired information. Most Americans just found them stupid. I knew. That was me, arriving well-traveled and trilingual on US shores (we had a Parisian Alliance Française teacher in Leiria) only to find that I'd been demoted to someone who didn't know the correct expressions or slang or whatever shiny color was the new black. I understood the shock of landing among the anti-intellectuals, people who seemed to elevate bizarre trivia above learned knowledge, who appeared to be not only ignorant of but uninterested in the languages, cultures—even the geography—of the rest of the world.

The community college student population was not only more diverse in terms of geography, but in age as well. My students had parents in 19th century costume who refused to learn English and shuddered at every tiny decision they made, though eventually they'd admit to enjoying the income resulting from those decisions. My students had kids growing up in the US who barely spoke the family language and didn’t understand their own parents, much less their grandparents. My students may have been physicians in Ethiopia or Somalia, but had to start over as home care aids, going to school at night to become respiratory nurses or LPNs in order to pass the most accessible medical board examination. Discussions in my medical ethics classes were electric, since they had already witnessed breaches of principled conduct far outclassing the textbook examples. (I once heard a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota bemoan the fact that her students were so homogeneous and boring!)

What I came to see in my students was that the common international language is a logical one, specifically deduction. No need for questions and interpretations here. Deduction functions universally across all cultures, in every type of neuro-wired brain, the lingua franca of all machine modes.

When it comes to induction, though, cultural interpretation matters. So does gender and generation and especially how much money and power you happen to have. So yeah, even size matters here. Your personal biography and experience, in whatever manner nature and nurture cooperated throughout the life of your little beating cells to create yourself-at this-moment...all of this information feeds into the assumptions you use to derive conclusions. And these are the probabilistic ones, remember. Further, the very same assumptions that make you feel 90% sure of something might make your traumatized neighbor feel only 65% sure, though you both see apparently identical circumstances. Even when machines do induction, even if the calculations appear to involve only the mathematical and statistical, they still get fed the input conditions by human beings—which involve all of the above.

What we conclude inductively is always going to be constrained by what we find relevant. Such-and-such is the case, so probably x will occur, but we are the ones naming the such-and-such. We can venture out like the most solemn Greek philosopher and collect things, make lists, attach attributes to one item or another, but it is we who decide where to go and what to list and even what’s worth looking at. Therefore gender and power and race and culture and biography mess with this big time.

So what does it mean to be a critical thinker, if we automatically attach our own culturally and biographically defined probabilities to our conclusions? It comes down to whether we can, as we do in deduction, see our beliefs humbly as assumptions. The IF is never absent from our premises in either mode, keeping us humble as we make our claims. But with induction we must ask more questions. Where did these statements come from? Who thinks they're right, and why? How many people (or goldfinches or glaciers) are we generalizing from? Critical thinkers ask these questions. They don’t pronounce on the validity or strength of inference until the assumptions are clarified. If some questions are left unanswered, that's okay. Either hold off on concluding anything, or reduce the likelihood of that thing being true. That's all. No big deal.

Or is it? It is a big deal if you had your shuttered little heart set on something specific. If you’re not going to tolerate an alternate outcome, you are being ... sorry, closed-minded. My way or no way? Hmm. Maybe you can still save the argument. Yes! Here's a nifty little ad hoc rescue that will work! All you need is an invisible mechanism at work, a hidden astrological influence, maybe some phlogiston or engrams or badly magnetized monads clogging the system! How about rogue operatives? That'll work. In a pinch you can always call on Divine Intervention.

Critical thinkers ask uncomfortable questions. They have open minds, thus minds that are threatening to those in charge, be they ideologically constrained relatives, insecure politicians, or greedy bosses. People with open minds will cross-examine the rules, push the boundaries, wonder what lies beyond the system like the Flammarion shepherd at the edge of the known universe. They want to know why people need to work overtime, or on weekends, or when they are children, or when they are pregnant or ill. They want to know why one church is acceptable but another one is not, the one with a rounder less phallic steeple. They rattle the laws and seek to establish new precedents. When all else fails, they take to the streets and yell their voices raw, to shout that innocents are being hurt.

If the goal is to protect absolute rule and patronized piggy banks, these unwelcome agnostics will not be treated fairly. The tanks will run them down. Yet education, learning, everything we do from the moment we breathe oxygen involves this exact kind of intelligence, this intertwined dance of deductive and inductive reasoning! It is our nature. It is how we are nurtured. It is how we live on this planet, how we learn, how we absorb every nitty gritty infinitesimal bit of sense-data seeping through our cells, how we paint cave walls and build space shuttles. It is how we survive.

Ideally democracy allows for the tension between those who draw the lines and those who color outside the lines. We need both in a healthy society. Traditional center-to-left territory welcomes the messy business of variety, allows a bazaar of wildly clashing colors and voices. Heading in the opposite direction, things get more organized, the trains run on time, but the price is increasing rigidity. More answers means fewer questions. Dystopian novels exaggerate the rigidity of right-leaning masters by brutally punishing the questioners. Unhappily, a number of governments across the continents are trotting out these archetypal power struggles as if they'd never heard of them before. We are frightened. There is so much bad news.

The good news is that your right-of-center family and friends, or former friends, still do think critically. They couldn’t get through a day, much less a few hours, without utilizing competent critical thinking skills. They couldn't drive a car, watch Netflix, shop, draw a bath ... accomplish much of anything. Occasionally, however, something deep in their fear-soaked amygdalas forces them to shut down questioning to support their need for order and equilibrium. At these moments they are like over-stimulated schizophrenics stranded in the riotous marketplace of everyday life: too much motion, too much noise! Shut it down. So when Daddy-Donald or Dyadya Vladimir gets up to calm them down, they are so very grateful. Except Daddy-Donald and Dyadya Vladimir, always happy with new disciples, have never ceased hating the rest of us and our never-ending critiques of dangerous totalitarian rule.

It's not easy to keep focus on the universal humanity and logic still operative in our challenging compatriots. Reflecting carefully and thoroughly, having the patience to draw an honest conclusion—in the best of times this is an enormous and humbling responsibility for all scientists and critical thinkers. In the worst of times, we see ourselves in the questioners risking imprisonment and death for daring to challenge the mafia governments.

What will never change, however, is that it is quite simply human to question and learn and adapt. There aren't enough jail cells on earth, in the entire universe, to hold all of us who openly think and reason and wonder. We are here and continue to multiply. In fact, every human newborn comes fully equipped with this identically functioning critical apparatus. Every single tiny new homo discrimine cogitans. Leaning left. From birth.

2 OCTOBER 2018

22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page