211. The Perils of Closed Theories

A scientific theory must give rise to a testable hypothesis. If someone has, for example, a scientific theory about how COVID-19 can be eradicated then we would expect that theory to offer us ways we can test it and prove or disprove a prediction. And in everyday life, we all have ideas about things which, if they are to be more than mere speculations, can be tested. Think of the many judgments people make about others that lead us to ask: How do you know that about him? What is your evidence? What makes you say she is such a bad person? Etc. 

Now a closed theory differs by being untestable: it offers no falsifiable hypotheses and there is no way to show that it is wrong. As a result, it typically insulates it’s advocates from objections and allows them to avoid changing their minds in the face of counterexamples.

Conspiracy theories are very often closed theories. For example, I know someone who thinks the United States did not go to the moon. The landing, according to him, was manufactured at Universal Studios or some similar studio. But what about the pictures and video of the landing? Doesn’t that show we were there? No – all done in the studio. What about the audio? All fake. What about the rocket, the launch, and other materials? All a show that didn’t deliver what we think it did. No matter what evidence I bring forth, no matter how much the evidence is corroborated by multiple legitimate sources, he will say that the evidence itself is a tactic of media manipulation on the part of the CIA. So the theory is immune to objections and cannot make testable predictions. Now, it doesn’t follow from this that the theory is false. But it does mean that the theory places its believer in a perilous position since it prevents the intellectual engagement, self-correction, revelation of errors, improvement of ideas, and removal of inconsistencies that are so crucial to individual and social growth. Thus we have good reasons to avoid closed theories.

We can turn to psychological egoism, the view that humans are always motivated out of self-interest, for a more philosophical example. Could this extreme claim really be true? Well, people do get positive things in return for many of their actions. But from the fact of such returns it doesn’t follow that everyone acts for the sake of getting something in return. Just because we end up feeling happy when we are compassionate doesn’t mean that we acted for the sake of that happiness.  Of course, we may find there was a selfish motive behind the act. But such a motive cannot be automatically inferred from a set of consequences: that connection needs to be verified. To be sure, people turn to behavior and try to infer what motivates people from what they in fact pursue. But behavior itself doesn’t guarantee what kind of motives people have. Moreover, if we just look at behavior, we see that some humans behave in ways that inconvenience themselves, cause misery to themselves, or even bring about their death (jumping on a grenade to save fellow soldiers, doing drugs, suicide, etc). So if we only look at behavior then the examples of self-sacrificing and self-destructive behavior would be powerful counterexamples to psychological egoism.

To avoid this, the egoist naturally returns to motives – she looks past the behavior into the mind. She says the soldier died for a self-interested motive: to see a political cause go on. She says animals sacrifice themselves out of self-interest to insure the survival of their offspring. She says suicide is undertaken out of self-love in order to escape pain. And so on. But notice that such responses would be “begging the question”: using something which needs to be proven (self-interested motives in everyone) as a premise supporting the conclusion that there are self-interested motives. In other words, we would be moving past behavior into the realm of selfish motives which have not yet been proven. The behavior as such doesn’t seem to lead to a benefit for the person. So the selfish motives must be proven and not assumed or asserted through mere speculation. Take note that the egoist has the burden of proof in this case since the one making a positive claim that something is the case (everyone has selfish motives) always has the burden of proof. 

But can these motives be proven in ways that verify the egoist’s universal claim that all people are selfish? It doesn’t seem so. After all, motives are hard, if not usually impossible, to verify. And obviously many people have died leaving us to speculate about their motives with no hope of confirming our speculations. Moreover, if we are going to speculate, we can speculate and respond as follows: “You only think you are selfish. Actually, you are unconsciously an altruist and all your so-called conscious selfish motives are the means through which your hidden and profoundly repressed love of all humanity is realized. As a matter of fact, humans are incapable of selfishness which is what makes us so wonderful. I understand you have thoughts and feelings to the contrary. But you are an altruistic agent of God in the world and will always be one.” This, of course, sounds ridiculous. So why shouldn’t the egoist’s view be as silly? 

Finally, if we look at the other side of the argument, we do have people’s sincere and even carefully formulated first-person testimony of their altruistic motives. Of course, this evidence is a bit weak since it is also about motives that we cannot address from a third-person perspective, that is, from a perspective where everyone can see them like they can see murder weapons in court. But first person testimony is not as hidden as the hidden motives the egoist postulates, and it can be grasped in consciousness with a degree of clarity and conveyed to others. Indeed, it is accepted in court when, for example, a judge asks a guilty person before sentencing: why did you do it? The guilty person’s testimony of their motives can lead a judge to pass a less severe sentence. In light of these points, and the widespread actions that people take to harm or destroy themselves in the process of helping others, it appears psychological egoism is not only closed but false as well. Again, the above doesn’t mean egoism is false; but it does mean it is useless as an explanatory principle and insulates us from the benefits of critique.

Alas, people love their closed theories, especially in religion and politics, and insist nonetheless on “arguing” with each other despite the fact that their closed theories prevent them from learning or changing their minds. And people sure start to hate those who try and open those theories up a bit! Perhaps it is comfortable to live in such enclosures of delusion and never encounter the difficulties of the examined life that facilitate individual and social growth. But it is, as Socrates demonstrated so long ago at the expense of his life, perilous for one’s soul and community as well.

Go here for my post on Heraclitus’ barking humans who attack that which they don’t understand.

Go here for my posts on reducing polarization and political deadlock.

Go here for my post on ethical egoism.

Go here for my post on fallibilism and dialogue.

Go here for my overview of Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil which can make sense of those who willingly close themselves off from truth in order to actively defy the truth.

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