A thought inspired by Thursday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nazir 3a
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Who agrees with you?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
This post will examine the issue of statements that people agree on and how we form groups of like-minded individuals. It will also explore the subject of communication and the contrast between subjectivity and objectivity.
Language evolved as a means of coordination among individuals, but that is just its history. As a single individual, you can use language in your own mind, even if you don’t communicate those words to anyone else. A lot is happening inside you in terms of experiences and feelings, but you can choose to create a few words to describe them. These words, whether they are newly created or heard, can elicit attitudes such as agreement or certainty. The formation of these words themselves does not need to be a logical or rational process.
We know that when we say certain statements out loud, almost any other listener present will likely agree with them. We also know that there may be other statements that we could say, that many listeners might not agree with, even if we feel complete certainty about our words.
When looking at a table, we know that anyone present with a minimum familiarity with the same language will agree that “there is a table here.” However, statements like “we should all go pick apples now” may not generate universal agreement.
Science succeeds because it builds its entire foundation on statements that almost everyone will agree on after some basic education. For example, science is not built on observing billiard balls moving, but rather on using instruments to measure their exact location, speed, etc. We almost never encounter an adult who, upon looking at a dial pointing to 3, would say that it reads 7. Simple logical inferences are also agreed upon by almost everyone. These instruments are manufactured in small or large quantities to be identical to all others in that group. In this way, we carefully construct a body of statements that the widest possible group of people will all assent to.
Scientific theories are also composed of statements made up of signs, which can be words or symbols. It does not matter what these signs mean, only that there are specific and undisputed rules for how to generate new statements from older ones. New statements will be agreed upon if they generate the original measurement statements that almost everyone agreed to in the first place.
However, this scientific enterprise is an exception to our regular communication. Most of the words we produce will not be universally accepted. There will usually be a group of people who will accept them, but that group may be small. We may be certain about the words of these statements, but they are often vague and shifting, meaning that the same word may have different meanings in different contexts. The chains of reasoning from one statement to another must be very short because the shifting nature of these words can often create errors and lead us to accept conclusions that we should not.
Consider the following example: “John is a good carpenter. All good people are kind, therefore John is kind.” The fallacy here is obvious because we are aware of the two meanings of “good,” but almost all other daily reasoning contains shifts that we do not notice.
The dichotomy between objective and subjective is a fundamental part of our conceptual structures. However, this dichotomy may actually be a spectrum. Objective truths are assertions that almost no one would deny. They are statements that can be shared between the largest group of people. What we consider to be objective, in this view, is simply widely inter-subjective. More subjective statements are just those that smaller groups of people would accept. At the far end of this spectrum are statements that I make in my own head about my feelings. Others may feel the same way about themselves, but they cannot experience them about my feelings.
However, we do not live only in the realm of the widely objective. We need to share with other people the more subjective statements that are important to us, and we need to develop ourselves and our subjective understanding by sharing and challenging these statements. Therefore, we arrange ourselves to spend much of our time physically (or electronically) close to people who will agree with at least a core set of our more subjective statements. We do not need agreement on everything, but enough to get things moving. We even belong to multiple, non-overlapping groups for different purposes.
Be aware of the limitations of your words, who you are speaking to, and what, exactly, you are discussing.