But Wait! (First Assumptions Count)

But Wait! (First Assumptions Count) March 14, 2021

I think the truth is out there, is knowable (more or less). Reason, spiritedness, and passion all count, as do our bodies, in a flourishing human life. Reason should referee, because there is an objective truth, goodness, and beauty out there to find.

Call these the assumptions of global Christianity: Aksum to Rome. If you reject those, or even my description of global Christendom, then I will not persuade you from the start.

Fair enough.

When reading, consider the unstated methodological assumptions of the writer.

At the very start, why would anyone accept the assumptions?

If reading an explanation about the world, particularly one that presents The Answer,* then one should pause and ask if one accepts the assumptions behind the argument. Any work starts with givens: things the writer is assuming, not defending, since one book cannot argue all things. When I write, I have to ask myself this question: “What am I asking the reader to assume? How good is that assumption?”

I am plodding away writing a new book this pandemic year on objective beauty. When I write, I stop and remember the wise guidance of my dissertation advisor. Once after working on a highly elaborate explanation of certain texts in Plato’s Timaeus, she crossed out twenty pages and wrote something like this: “This certainly explains everything, if the starting idea is true. But why would anyone accept the first ideas?**”

Just so!

What are my first assumptions? How obvious are they? Am I using terms in a way a more general reader might misunderstand?

I also have to accept that if a reader cannot buy into my first assumptions, then he will not be persuaded. For example, I think that there is truth and we can know that truth in a fairly objective way. One way is through scientific methods and another is through logical argumentation and the “examined life.”

If readers reject those and other ideas  of how scholarship or argument should work, then they know that an argument assuming them is not for them. They  can learn things still by reading it, but the general argument will never persuade them even if they wish that it were so!

This is not really complicated. Assumptions can and even must frame all we do as we move on with our lives!

An example helps clarify this for me.

If a writer begins with the assumption that “free market economics” is (obviously!) bad or immoral, and centers a set of explanations around this working assumption, then those not persuaded that free market economics is bad might find good parts to the research, but will not accept the arguments in the book.

Methods differ too.

If a person adopts a “Continental” as opposed to “analytic,” approach to philosophy, then an analytically trained philosopher will only look at what gold she can find in the dross of a book with a different view of the very nature of the field.

These are differences where brilliant and reasonable people differ, but they matter. I try to ask myself if my priors still hold every so often, but this cannot be a daily event. Mastering or attempting to understand a Plato or a Quine is hard enough and so I have to do the best I can with the assumptions I have!

On the other hand, I should work hard not to frame questions that are fundamental to my thought around very questionable claims! Imagine a book that argues “How People Came to Believe in Jesus,” while assuming the exceedingly dubious notion that Jesus was not historical.

The more my assumptions are debatable, the less my work will be persuasive to “outsiders.” That can be fine… we are not always trying to persuade, sometimes a good goal is to help our community of like minded folk.

I just have to recognize the limits.

Suppose I think the free market is (obviously) bad. I write a book that connects proponents of the free market to genuine evil. I ignore counter-examples that are similar from non-capitalist states. By the end of the book, I can persuade the reader (if he or she is not careful) that what I assumed all along is true: free markets are evil!

Many readers might normally balk at such assumptions, but the questionable premises are missed through the retelling of horrors. If one complains about the priors, then there is an all too easy retort. “Surely,” the writer can say, “you are not defending the cotton mills hiring children to work in these conditions?”

God forbid!

Bad assumptions matter, however. A society can set off to right a wrong and end up worse.  If one ends up as Russia did after 1917,  fixing genuine problems with a sort of Marxism that also allowed starvation as public policy, then one has cured a disease by giving the patient a worse one.

Would that this were enough! If we get our ideas in order, surely all will be well.


Getting assumptions right, or fixating on them, can go wrong if it leads to inaction or complacency about real injustices. 

A concern with getting first principles right or looking at assumptions might keep us from seeking justice. It might even become an excuse for doing so! After all of our theology, philosophy, or politics is right, then surely the fruit will be good automatically?

This is foolish and dangerous thinking. No idea, even one so glorious as “love your neighbor,” can save itself from hypocrisy and grift. Bad fruit can come in the implementation of good ideas, because people (all of us) are tempted to say one thing and do another. A Christian can claim to live liberty and own slaves.

God help us.

Good ideas, like the idea that all humans are created equal, can be asserted while the community denies them through action. If one forcefully rejects economic Marxist assumptions, a Christian who takes a free market approach must not use that as an excuse to tolerate or accept the dark Satanic mills!

The report of the evil may come from someone with unpersuasive or even harmful assumptions, but if the report is true, the reporter should be thanked. After all, if one cannot propose a better solution to real evils, sweat shops say, then mayhap it is time to reexamine one’s own assumptions. Meanwhile, doing justice and showing solidarity with the suffering is a must do!

We should go and do good works, trying, best we can, to do those deeds based on good assumptions. After all exploiting labor in sweatshops or concentration camps is a living evil. We can debate why they exist under the Communist government of China while we work to end them. 

We recall the prayer we can always pray: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

*Things keep happening to delay me, like an ice storm in Houston during a writing week. The downside of no longer using my pre-World War II typewriter is the need of electricity to type. The typewriter has outlasted many computers in my lifetime and bids to be useful long after me, so perhaps I should reconsider my choices.

**She was brilliant and much more succinct, but this captures the essence of her criticism of those twenty pages. Professor Modrak is a model scholar, and a great inspiration to my best self, though she is not of course responsible for my career or beliefs since that time.

***Whatever the critic thinks that this is. . .

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