Monthly Archives: June 2013

Is It Dogmatic to Be Anti-Dogma?

I once overheard a man advising his daughter on romantic relationships:

The only rule is that there are no rules.

A friend of mine likes to say,

The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.

At a recent meeting of a philosophy club, we lamented the shortcomings of ideology and dogma, but within 5 minutes someone had claimed that the statement…

Dogma is bad.

…is, itself, dogma.

These slippery propositions are all of the same shape as the statement

This statement is false.

If the statement is true, then what is true (the statement) is in fact false. If the statement is false, then what it says (that it is false) is true.

Kurt Godel famously proved that there are an infinite number of statements like these*. The trick is to avoid making them.

How to do that? Give your statement an anchor outside of itself. As Douglas Hofstadter showed in one of my favorite books, I Am a Strange Loop, strange things happen when things reference themselves.

Instead of saying, “My ideology is that ideologies are bad,” we can say, “I am convinced, based on evidence, that believing things without evidence is unwise.” The statement about believing without evidence is now made based on believing with evidence. The statement is no longer self-referential.

Instead of saying, “The only absolute is that there are no absolutes,” we can make a more modest statement that is probably what we really mean anyway: “Every absolutist system I’ve seen runs into logical or practical trouble.” It’s not as cute, but at least it doesn’t chase its own tail.

So, I would say that it is not dogmatic to be anti-dogma, any more than atheism is a faith or not collecting stamps is a hobby.

* – Actually, Godel’s proof was about statements like “This statement cannot be proven,” but the idea is similar. See my blog post here.