On The Absolutism of Extremist Ideologies

Imagine you were watching a football match between say…Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Real Madrid fails to score after a clear cut opportunity, then Messi dazzles and scores from the resulting counter attack. If you watch football regularly, you may observe that a good number of people are likely to say that if Real Madrid had nailed their earlier chance, the scores would be level.

Only they would most likely be wrong, in fact I’m going out on a limb here to say that my confidence that they reasoned in error is 99%. If you really think about it, it is very unlikely that the exact sequence of events that lead to the Messi goal would still have taken place, had Madrid scored earlier.

Of course you could always say that with the way the game was going, FC Barcelona would have scored anyway, but the point is you cannot be certain. The confidence you have in your fortuitous prediction may be based on hindsight bias, which doesn’t count for much after the fact.

The aim of this short scenario is to illustrate two ideas:

  1. You may experience intuition to be spot on by default, but this is not the case all of the time. In fact, your intuition is likely to be wrong in complex matters and in areas of knowledge where you have no expertise.
  2. Reality is far more complex than the stories we tell about it. Any coherence you experience exists in your mind.
“There are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Much has been written in post modernist literature about relativism as regards truth; I am not here to argue about that, I am here instead to talk about the absolutist claims of extremist ideologies. Extremist ideologies lay claim to an absolute understanding of ‘nature’ or ‘reality’ as they define it and offer explanations about the unseen, often pernicious machinations that shape reality.

You can easily spot extremist ideologies by their unflinching rigidity. They do not bother with reality, because they claim to cater to the hidden forces that underlie reality instead. Followers of these ideologies may strike you as irrational and unreasonable. But though they may be unreasonable, they may not necessarily be irrational.

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Bertrand Russell once remarked that it is the mark of a mad man to reason correctly from incorrect premises. This helps explain the unreasonableness of extremist ideologues and their sometimes jarring rationality. But coherence should not be mistaken for correctness; they are two distinct properties of knowledge that are routinely mistaken for each other. Extremist opinions and ideologies are increasingly invading public discourse and forcing their dogged rigor on the marketplace of ideas.

One theory cannot explain everything about everything.

The reality we experience everyday is a complex system, with a lot of moving parts, so claims to absolute possession of truth should be scrutinized thoroughly. Reality is much too complex to be forced to fit one overwhelming framework. A good body of knowledge should be open to challenge and amenable to change. According to Hannah Arendt in the origins of totalitarianism, ideologies usually take the form of the simplest philosophical arguments:

  1. Thesis — This is the first statement, hypothesis, observation or premise.
  2. Antithesis — Here an attempt is made to falsify the original thesis, dis-confirmation, contradictions are invoked etc.
  3. Synthesis — This is the result of weighing all the necessary inputs and coming to a rational conclusion. The synthesis may reject the original thesis completely, reject the antitheses, arrive at a middle-ground between both and so on.

From Arendt’s work, totalitarian ideologies start with a thesis that is presumed to be true a priori (by default). In the process of synthesizing a logically coherent framework, no real attempt is made to deviate from the original assumption(s). The thesis stands as the foundation, which then goes full circle in a recursive loop. You may also notice a brand of over-the-top aggressiveness in defense of the ideological framework and a no-holds-barred approach to punishing deserters and stifling the opposition. Moral absolutism is a natural consequence of this approach. A form of utilitarian ethics may then take hold, because anything is justifiable provided it furthers the agenda of the group.

The validity of the core assumption becomes unquestionable.

The core assumption(s) may be truths with no sufficient backing to generalize from, falsehoods or hold close relationships to valid theories. In this way, ideologies imitate science and philosophy, mask their contradictions and gain an air of rationality and validity. The central premises of extremist ideologies repeatedly begs the question. Extremist ideologies make use of totalitarian logic, which regards linking extremes as virtue. Pluralistic ignorance spreads like wild fire in the extremist ideology space.

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The narrative fallacy also plays into rationalizing extremist ideology. As human beings, by default we are predisposed to attributing causes to things, even though they may not be linked. The human mind is especially adept at arranging random facts that are not linked together into an orderly narrative. Extremist ideologies take advantage of this to bolster their arguments.

“If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.”
— John von Neumann

Next I will attempt to illustrate using mathematical analogy how our tenuous relationship with establishing any correct interpretation of reality should be open to some margin of error. It is reasonable to assume that growing up, looking for ‘x’ was the most recurring activity we did as far as solving mathematical problems was concerned. ‘x’ was routinely used as a proxy for unknowns in math problems. Take a look at the following equations (remember x is stands in for unknowns):

2x + 3 = 5, has one solution, we know we’re looking for one x.
2x ² + 3x + 4 = 0, has two possible solutions, we’re looking for two values of x.
x³ + 6x ² + 4x + 3 = 0, has three possible solutions, and…. you get the picture.

The trend I am extrapolating here is that an increase in complexity means more possible solutions ‘x’ . Of course some of the solutions may be zero but that is besides the point. Real life is definitely not mathematics, but reasoning by analogy, let's say any number of ‘x’s are the solutions you seek and your quandary takes the form of an equation, it is reasonable to assume that the more complex the phenomena you’re trying to explain, the more possible solutions there may be. This means the forceful coherence one totalitarian ideology confers may lead you into strange errors and paradoxes.

Remember we've established that we most often cannot perceive reality in its totality. There are a couple of reasons for this, like our limited brain power, evolutionary constraints, host of biases and heuristics, the increasingly complex nature of human organization and so forth. Imagine limiting your explanatory powers further with this kind of handicap. This is one danger of outsourcing your thinking to one overarching framework, it may constrain your thought space with your tacit consent.

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Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, proposed that writers fall into 2 main categories, and he expanded his idea in an essay to that effect titled — The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title is in reference to an ancient Greek poet Archilochus who said “ a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”. In context of our discussion:

  1. For hedgehogs, everything they know about the world flows from one central idea (i.e one ideology).
  2. But for foxes their view of the world cannot be resolved into one central idea. They draw from multiple sources and do not care to be limited by one perspective.

Which would you rather be?

Traveling outside your comfort zone and area of specialty gives you disparate reference frames to interrogate a variety of issues. Sometimes these frames may intersect and other times they may not. The ability to switch perspective when you encounter a new problem in today’s world is invaluable. The promise of one ideology to explain everything is an Utopian dream, reality is much too unpredictable.

Extremist ideologies take advantage of the fact that post modernist notions of truth have taken control of the zeitgeist. Now ad hominem attacks are the norm and we are routinely encouraged to lock ourselves up in the ideological equivalent of steel cages. But we would do well to remember that suggesting insularity in today’s political climate is tantamount to encouraging obsolescence. You will soon look out from your ideological cage and find out you’ve been left behind.