In response to my post yesterday, a frequent reader asked a keen question relating to facts and principles. In thinking about a response, I realized that I had more to say than the medium of his question would allow, so here’s another post!

First, I think of facts and principles as different things. Fundamentally different. I don’t think a fact can be a principle. I think that if facts are like books, then principles are like bookshelves. They’re where you put your facts so you know how to reference them, how to use them, and how they fit together. Facts are static. Principles allow you to turn them into dynamic fuel for a good life – if the shelves are sturdy, that is.

If you don’t have principles, then every single fact will cause some reaction in you. Either it will fit with the existing pile of books on your floor or it will cause it to topple. If it threatens to topple it, you may bat it away instead. With solid shelves, however, I never live in fear of any book. Any fact, no matter what it is, can fit onto my bookshelf without threatening its integrity. That means I don’t fear facts or information.

For instance, one of my rock-solid, core foundational beliefs is that people own themselves, and are owned by no other. I don’t believe that I’m infallible, so I won’t say I would never change that belief, but let’s just say it would take an enormous philosophical effort to convince me otherwise. That core principle allows me to absorb other facts without fear.

For instance, let’s say I hear a statistic about drug addiction that (after verifying that it’s true and accurate) would lead me to believe that the problem is significantly worse than I would have guessed. I don’t have to be reactive. I don’t have to build a whole new worldview on the spot, as many people do. People with no foundational principles might hear that fact and suddenly have an entirely new outlook on life, something like “We have to do a bunch of draconian things to prevent people from getting their hands on drugs,” but that outlook is entirely reactive. They had no foundational principle guiding their impulse – they simply reacted to a single new fact that they heard. On the other hand, I would say “People own themselves, and that includes the right to do bad things to themselves. I don’t agree, but I don’t have to. Any resources put towards this issue should be spent on education and/or preventing spillover effects such as theft, not policing the use of drugs themselves, which would also punish many otherwise innocent people.” Now, I’m not saying that I’m absolutely always right or anything, but at least my view is guided by an underlying principle, rather than a reaction to the single fact.

Having an underlying principle also allows you to be “constructively wrong” more often. For instance, let’s say you heard that fact about drug addiction rates, and on that single fact you built your entire reactive worldview about draconian anti-drug efforts. You stack more and more books on top of that one, creating a shaky tower. Facts that don’t fit in the tower are conveniently discarded. And then one day… one day someone shows you conclusive evidence that the original statistic about drug addiction had a mathematical error and was actually an order of magnitude lower. What happens? Does your whole tower come crashing down and you admit your worldview was incorrect, revising it as appropriate?

Hahahahahaha. No. You dig in your heels and reject the correction. Because you can’t ever change whatever is at the bottom of the stack.

But the bottom of my stack isn’t a fact – it’s a shelf. A principle. If I found out that statistic was off by an order of magnitude, it wouldn’t shake me at all, and I would have no problem incorporating the new, updated information. I could safely say that my reaction overall wouldn’t be different, though I’d support a proportionately lower volume of resources being put towards the issue. Otherwise I’d be able to shrug at my past mistake and move forward.

The really tricky, insidious thing is this – despite the analogy I’ve crafted, everyone has a principle underneath the pile of facts. The floor, if you will. Because there is a default principle that all humans possess. We’re not blank slates; we don’t have chosen principles or nothing. If we have chosen principles, we’ve used them to replace the default one, but that default one exists in all of us unless we do so.

The Default Principle is this: My Tribe Is Correct.

Humans are tribal, social creatures. We will organize into cliques no matter what, along any subject. And absent some other principle that we learn to impose on ourselves through reason and discipline, that one will rule us. It might be your political affiliation, it might be your chosen profession, it might be your religious belief, or it might even be your musical sub-culture. But whatever you think of as your identity, you will think of other people who share that identity as the ingroup and you will defer to them, seek status with them, defend them, and rationalize their behavior no matter what.

One of my principles is this: Tribalism is fundamentally dangerous and any inclination towards it should be viewed with deep suspicion.

Sure, society is good. People are good. It’s good to have friends and family and community. But when you start to feel yourself pulled towards the average view, feeling your emotions riled up when you hear things counter to it – alarms should start sounding. At least, I believe so.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).” – Mark Twain, 1904

One thought on “Unshakeable

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