On Consistency and Truth
Language is the house of being
And one can see the quality of that house
By speaking or being spoken to.
The wolf reveals what makes your thoughts
And those on sand crumble at your feet,
Those made in clay, up in smoke,
Rather of fog, morphing — hot air rises.
Occluded it seems opaque, solid
(Concealment is not always cover)
Build simply, build true, and build for yourself
“Consistency” in the context of formal logic describes an argument that lacks a contradiction internally or in relation to the system upon which it is founded. One’s ability to fend of attacks on one’s worldview is dependent on that system being logically consistent. Often in debates, whether formal or public viz. social media, the public sways itself towards he who can successfully construct a consistent system. Ben Shapiro is a prime example. Though often panned, derided, and hated, Mr. Shapiro is obviously very intelligent. His ability to defend his own stance and to stick to his guns shows me that he has created a consistent system for himself. Do I agree with many of his positions? No, but I must give him credit for being consistent. His religious stances and political positions point to real conservatism, being the belief in his own experience as tradition, and the perpetuation of that experience to others as truth. The issue I take is the public perception of his ability to defend those positions. Without discussing the truth values of his beliefs or whether one can port their experience to others I take most issue with the perception that a defensible system is a truthful system. Truth is conflated with consistency, but they are clearly very different. Are there unique arrangements and subsets of truthful statements that are mutually inconsistent? Can two people have experiences that lead to inconsistent systems of thought? Probably, but that is a tough problem for later. Let’s start simpler.
Suppose we can develop a trivial system that is consistent. Keeping it tangible, we can say this essay exists. Clearly, it exists because you are reading it right now. Moreover, it also only exists because I decided to create it, so it is with many other systems of belief. One can propose an argument whose sole validity rests on it being proposed in the first place: a self-licking ice cream cone. Religion is a perfect example. I can invent all manner of fantastical stories and mythology, it can even be consistent. The fact of the matter is that it is still made up, fiction, imaginary. When the ramblings of a man infect the minds of those who have not imagined it can turn into mass delusion and belief. Again, it is still resting on a sand foundation. Mr. Shapiro stands similarly on feet of clay. His religion, his tradition, his experience all contribute to his worldview. The foot in the door for his beliefs to land on the impressionable is his confidence and consistency.
How wonderful it sounds for it to all make sense! How smart he sounds to those unable to make a cogent argument! The Teflon nature of such a system, however, makes it impossible to interact with. Sure, he can make a living defending his thoughts with ease, but it is mental masturbation that contributes nothing to my life. Not only does nothing stick to his thoughts but there is also no positive friction to his interactions. Friction in interaction leads to improvement on found common ground. This is not to say that successfully defending one’s system is bad. On the contrary, in defending in new and innovative ways we find places to reinforce the system, and these debates also force others to encounter their systems to find improvements. Take the other side of the coin now. One’s consistency does not give precedent to claim dominance over a less consistent system. Consistency is necessary for the continued existence of a system, but it cannot be used for the advancement of a system as true.
When I studied algorithms in graduate school, we spent a lot of time on whether a given solution was optimal. Coming from a mathematics background, I felt that I knew plenty about optimization and finding those solutions in mathematical objects. Computer science uses a lot of hand waving in their proofs, “hand waving” meaning less than rigorous proofs that rely more on intuition and imagination than formalism. At first it was disconcerting, but once I got the hang of it, it turned out to be a more enjoyable form of proof. What was harder to get over was the idea that there could be multiple optimal solutions existing independently. It may seem obvious to some, but I always took “optimal” to also imply “unique”. In these algorithms, however, it was completely acceptable to have several optimal solutions. Optimality, you see, only implies that it maximizes the utility or the objective function.
Say that we wanted to maximize how many people get to use a conference room in a day. The room is open for eight hours and customers can reserve the room for as long as they want up to the maximum eight hours. What order should we choose reservation requests to ensure we maximize the number of users in a day? Clearly, the optimal choice is to order the requests by length from shortest to longest and book them in that order. Further, assume that we have a case where all requests are for the same amount of time. Outside of any other information, in this case we have several optimal solutions, n! to be exact. Optimality is all about meeting conditions that we define as optimal.
Why do I ramble on about optimal solutions to algorithms? What is the purpose of this anecdote? Think about belief systems as solutions to an algorithm. Each of us encounters the same physical world each day. We take in stimulus, match it to our assumptions and prior experiences, and deduce rules and reactions. The memories that we gain and the feedback we codify leads to the development of belief systems in our minds. Each of our systems may be consistent, although this is rare, but the systems we all develop tend to be unique. Even on a society level, the systems intersocietally are incompatible but still consistent. There can be multiple solutions and systems that support continued existence, but they need not be consistent with each other.
Do I advocate that we put up walls and never interact with those around us? Hell no. I say it again: friction can be good. Friction can be positive if it challenges our beliefs, but more importantly it can be positive if it adds to our knowledge of the world. The neat and tidy Western philosophy was profoundly affected by the re-encountering of Eastern philosophy during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, Western thought experienced positive friction that added to the strength and knowledge of the world. We must not shy away from new thoughts, even if they are nascent or loose. There may be transformation in these new ideas or at least a chance to test our own ideals to further strengthen our view. Take confidence in a consistent system, but be wary of those that rest their laurels on it.