An Essay Featured In The Map Is Indestructible by O.G. Rose
On the End of Argument and Rationality
The rational and logical end where death and apocalypse begin; there, “the border of thinking” is reached. If every man, woman, and child will die if I don’t murder someone, is it still wrong to murder? In this situation, what is a clearly immoral act is suddenly not so clearly immoral: it’s as if the “rules have changed,” per se. If murdering a child will save the lives of a hundred children, is it wrong? Outside such a situation, it is easy to say that it’s always wrong to murder, but within such a situation, though it is perhaps still wrong, what is wrong is perhaps also the right thing to do. Whether or not it actually is entails diving into Ethics (as discussed in “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose), but the point stands that when death and apocalypse are involved, the “rules” of reasoning, logic, and morality can shift: if “the world will end” if x isn’t done, then not doing x becomes hard to defend. How the “rules” shift depends on the situation — the only point I’m making here is that they shift at all.
It is wrong to insult your wife: this is a “rule” that goes without say. But what if insulting your wife will somehow save her life: wouldn’t it be immoral not to insult her? If calling her fat will motivate her to exercise, adding another ten years to her life, wouldn’t it be wrong not to call her fat? Ah, see the problem? Once death is introduced to a discussion, an otherwise normal and undeniable “rule” suddenly becomes less objective. (Or does it?) And this sort of “apocalyptic” and “deadly” thinking is a root cause of much marital trouble (I believe): out of a mixed sense of love and urgent necessity, the husband and/or wife says or does something that hurts the other, and a gradual and ever-widening-gap can start to develop (similar points can be made about the ever-widening-gap between political parties, worldviews, etc.).
Talking according to different “rules,” a person who believes we must raise the minimum wage or the country will collapse will reason and talk past someone who thinks keeping minimum wage low will not cause such dire consequences (and in fact, the person may believe lowing minimum wage could benefit the country). The one who argues that murder is always wrong will likely talk past the person in the situation where murdering someone will save millions. Between such individuals, misunderstandings seems inevitable; common ground, unlikely. Considering this, an age of “apocalyptic” argumentation will likely be an age of incredible partisanship.
We must be extremely careful before introducing “apocalyptic” or “deadly” scenarios into our discussions and arguments. Perhaps there are times when they are appropriate, but more often than not they seem inappropriate and unproductive. It being such a powerful trump card, it seems we are tempted to overuse “apocalyptic-thinking” in order to win debates, but this temptation must be resisted as much as possible (which the very fear of the apocalypse will make hard to do). Once we bring “death” and “apocalypse” into a discussion, the “rules” change, and what is usually unacceptable suddenly ceases to be so unacceptable. Perhaps this is called for, but we must reach this conclusion not through “apocalyptic-thinking” (as we’ll call it) but through incredibly self-critical reasoning. In other words, we must approach and even cross the border where reasoning (as we know it) ends by reasoning, not by “apocalyptic-thinking,” for the latter is prone to see borders where they are not present.
Apocalyptic-thinking and argumentation feel real and justified, no matter how hurtful, cruel, etc. They also have an appearance of logic, for they appeal to causality (“If you don’t do x, y will happen”), and can be appealed to when an individual believes others are unreasonable. When others can’t be reasoned with, the individual is likely to resort and appeal to fatal or severe consequences to generate (what he or she believes is necessary) action. Apocalyptic arguments also have an appearance of finality that create urgency (an emotion perhaps influenced by television and how televised discussions and debates are formatted and conducted). This urgency can help legitimate apocalyptic-thinking, for it inherently suggests that not accepting it will cause “imminent” and/or “irrevocable” consequences. This is why being on one’s guard against it and refraining from accepting it without (irrefutable) evidence is so difficult to do: apocalyptic-thinking and argumentation “appear” and “present themselves” as irrational to ignore (really, it is “nonrational”). This is perhaps also why it is so tempting, during debates or disagreements, to use such thinking and argumentation, and why even the act of “pointing apocalyptic-thinking out” can seem absurd. After all, the world is on the line — how can we risk the world?
Apocalyptic arguments tend to be a kind of Pascal’s Wager, where following them is rational even if it turns out their proposed end is false. For better “safe than sorry,” right? (See “Concerning Epistemology” by O.G. Rose.) Really, such arguments should be avoided (unless backed by irrefutable evidence) and tend to fit the following rubric:
If y (doesn’t) happen(s), x will cease to be x. Therefore, x must(n’t) let y happen.
If the economy will collapse if y isn’t done, then y must be done: all discussion is finished. Likewise, if the world will end if y isn’t done, then y must be done, regardless the costs, suffering, etc., for once the world is lost, the very ground is lost that makes decisions and consciousness possible. Yes, perhaps one could argue that if a decision to save the world results in a loss of what makes the world worth saving, then perhaps the decision isn’t so clear-cut, but that is an argument that must be addressed relative to the particulars of a given situation. What is clear though is that someone who believes if y isn’t done, the world will end, cannot talk to the person who doesn’t hold the same premise (at least not easily): they will speak different languages with different axioms, and points will fly past one another.
If the economy will not collapse if y isn’t done, then there is room for discussion about whether y should be done. But once the apocalypse is introduced into the discussion, the discussion practically ends. In fact, to use apocalyptic language in debate is somewhat contradictory, for it implies that the very occurring of debate or discussion is irrational: to even question whether what will save the world should be done is fundamentally absurd. There should be no discussion: what must be done must be done. And this suggests why we must hesitate to introduce such premises into debates (especially without irrefutable evidence, but unfortunately, apocalyptic thinkers will likely see all apocalyptic evidence as irrefutable).
Now, to say we must hesitate to introduce apocalyptic arguments into a discussion doesn’t mean it is never appropriate, only that we mustn’t be quick to do so or slip into apocalyptic-thinking. Regarding the current conversation about Global Warming, it is very possible that a failure to lower greenhouse gases will destroy the world. However, appealing to the apocalypse to change behavior still might not be the most effective route: it might alienate people and make them feel as if they are being forced into a new kind of behavior and lifestyle (without adequate explanation). Furthermore, even if it is true that the world will end if we don’t lower greenhouse emissions, there is still the question of “how y” is to be done (the debate is still open on those grounds), but it often seems that use of apocalyptic arguments “skip” over this “how” question without it being noticed: it is assumed that the “how” of the one making the apocalyptic argument is the correct and best “how” when this isn’t necessarily the case. Even if a person is right in making an apocalyptic argument, “how” we avoid the apocalypse is still a ground for discussion.
But what if it is the case that “if we don’t do y by y-method, the world will end” — what if there is a particular “how” that must be followed, or everything will be lost? If this is the case, all discussion will likely close down: if a certain “how” for a certain “end” is necessary for avoiding the apocalypse, that “how” and that “end” must be followed through, regardless of the absurdity, cost, sacrifice, etc. And so apocalyptic “hows” are just as destructive to discussions as are apocalyptic claims — they are the end of reasoning — and so must not be asserted unless the asserter is absolutely sure (and is backed by incredible evidence). For once someone argues that a certain “how” is necessary for a certain “end” by which to avoid the apocalypse, that person wins the debate and/or discussion by default: the arguer has made an invincible claim. This isn’t to say the person is necessarily wrong for doing so, only that the arguer has created an “event horizon” of reason.1
But can’t a person’s apocalyptic claim be proven wrong? Perhaps, as it can be proven right. The point is that the use of such claims makes determining right from wrong difficult, for it brings into the discussion new “rules” without it being clear yet if those “rules” should be accepted over the current ones (assuming it isn’t clear yet if the apocalyptic claim is true or false). This confusion is likely to make reasoning and argumentation more difficult, hence making it all the more difficult to determine which “rules” are the right ones to use, ever-deepening the confusion.
If I argue that we must do y to prevent a financial crisis, I am suggesting that to disagree with me is to usher in disaster. If I argue that if you don’t do y for your wife, you’ll get a divorce, I am suggesting that if you don’t do what I tell you, you don’t love your wife. If I say that Global Warming will be the end of the human race, I am saying that we must stop it no matter the cost: no matter if it causes suffering, no matter if it costs billions of dollars, no matter if it causes the human race to suffer for a thousand years (I am also suggesting that if you do nothing about it, you don’t want to save the world). Considering all this, ultimatums should be left out of a discussion (unless supported by incredible evidence), for ultimatums collapse discussion and reasoning. This isn’t to say there is no such thing as Global Warming or that economic measures should never be considered in light of a possible financial crisis, but that bringing these points into a discussion “changes the rules,” per se. Rather than be stated directly, ultimatums should be “pointed to” by rationality.²
There are other forms of argumentation that are similar to apocalyptic argumentation, insomuch as they shut down rationality. If I say, “God told me to,” then I am suggesting that to disagree with me is to disagree with God. Perhaps God did tell us to do y or z, but to tell others that God said so may impede conversation. If I say x is “good for the economy” or in our “national interest,” I am saying that if you disagree with me, you are against the nation and the economy. Perhaps what I am arguing is indeed good for the economy and nation, but saying so directly versus through rationality can accomplish little more than suggest that those who disagree with me possess bad motives.
Likewise, a person who speaks in terms of “justice” and “freedom” speaks similarly to someone who speaks in terms of “apocalypse.” The person, for example, who argues we must provide some service to children otherwise we violate “family’s rights” appeals to a premise that has an authority similar to an apocalyptic premise. It “changes the rules” of the discussion, per se, and so these types of appeals should (normally) be avoided. This isn’t because children don’t have rights or that a certain service shouldn’t be offered to them, but because such premises should be achieved by rationality and argumentation, not appeals to apocalyptic- or semi-apocalyptic-thinking which collapses argumentation.
Imagine that we have the choice to murder a million people and, in doing so, save the world from blowing up. Note that the “moral standards” by which we would judge whether we should kill a million people may still apply here, but also note that the situation is not so simple. The choice between killing millions and keeping the human race alive is not the same as the choice of killing a million for no reason. With the second situation, it is obvious that murdering a million people would be wrong; in the first situation, it is not so clear (though that doesn’t mean the answer isn’t still the same). In this apocalyptic situation, the “rules” are different (how and in what ways they are different is complex and particular), and so when it comes to a civil debate, seeing a topic in light of the apocalypse will likewise change the “rules.” This isn’t to say apocalyptic situations are impossible, only that apocalyptic-thinking isn’t the best way by which to identify and address them. For if a situation really is apocalyptic, reasoning and argumentation will unveil such to be the case without “apocalyptic-reasoning.” Even if a situation is apocalyptic, using apocalyptic-thinking at the expense of reasoning isn’t advisable, for reasoning may lead us to the same conclusions as apocalyptic-thinking without using it (while simultaneously “checking and balancing” fear, biases, etc.). Worse yet, apocalyptic-thinking may worsen the situation and make the apocalypse more likely.
Let us return to the question of murdering a million people versus ending the world: how would we make this decision? Well, obviously a million people in comparison with the trillions of people who could be (born) is less consequential, so to kill the million would be rational. But wouldn’t killing a million to save humanity violate human dignity? Wouldn’t it “color” the human race in a barbarism that would take away the whole reason why human life was worth preserving? But if there is no humanity, there would be no dignity: human life is the prerequisite for human dignity. But where there is life but no dignity, life isn’t worth living: it lacks value. To sacrifice one for the other is to sacrifice both. But what if we must sacrifice one? Which is better? Neither. But we must pick. (The debate rages.)
Ultimately, whether a person values human dignity over human life or vice-versa is axiomatic. And arguably which of these axiomatic premises a person holds will determine how a person answers all moral questions (throughout all the “games” of that person’s life, to allude to “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose) (though this isn’t to imply people can’t switch axioms). It seems to be the final and ultimate question: is human life or human dignity more important? Everyone must decide for themselves which is the ultimate value. Often, the values will cross, but sometimes, they will split (like two streams intercepting one another and merging before heading their own ways again). When they split, everyone must make a decision for their self (and when the streams split tends to be in apocalyptic and/or deadly situations).³
Hence, when a person appeals to apocalyptic-thinking or reasoning, the person presents a situation “as if” it is one where human life and human dignity must be chosen between. To say we must stop Global Warming “or the world will end” is to say we must save the world even if we must do so at the expense of human dignity; to say we shouldn’t torture “or the terrorists will win” is to say that, even if it results in a nuke going off, we shouldn’t violate human dignity; and so on. On the other hand, perhaps to say we must stop Global Warming “or the world will end” is to say we must save the world or the changes in the environment will reduce us to monsters; perhaps to say we shouldn’t torture “or the terrorists will win” is to say that a terrorist attack isn’t as morally reprehensible as the possible reduction of torturers to beasts; and so on. Whichever way one means it, to use apocalyptic arguments is to appeal to an ultimate axiom, upon which all other moral questions rest. When this appeal isn’t appropriate, it greatly hinders and “slows down” rationality and argumentation.
Apocalyptic-thinking “points to” what is ultimately an axiomatic debate between life and dignity, while simultaneously distracting arguers from the fact (through urgency, emotions, etc.) that their differences are ultimately axiomatic (and can make that difficult if not impossible to realize through rationality, since rationality is hindered by the very use of apocalyptic-thinking). When two people disagree axiomatically, the two people will likely talk past one another. But if this “talking past one another” is reached through reasoning and argumentation (versus direct appeals to apocalyptic-thinking), at least there will be the possibility of the realization that the difference is axiomatic versus intellectual (as in, related to one’s reasoning). Hence, there is the possibility of the recognition that the other is capable of reasoning and worthy of respect. Realizing all this, perhaps the two parties will be capable of reaching an agreement and mutually beneficial compromise, rather than just “blowing off” the other as not caring about what really matters (according to the individual’s apocalyptic-thinking).
We should never appeal to apocalyptic-thinking unless “earned” by rationality and argumentation (which is probably rarely), and we should only make an appeal to the apocalypse directly when backed by incredible evidence and truth (if even then).⁴ If the world really is in an apocalyptic situation, such will likely be unveiled by rationality: the ends of apocalyptic-thinking will be achieved without appealing to it (increasing the likelihood that an actual solution is found).⁵ Apocalyptic-thinking is rarely if ever beneficial or justified, for it can only impede discussion, skew discernment (by causing panic, the misreading of evidence, etc.), and realizes an end which reasoning could have achieved without it. Critical thinking (as explored in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose) and reasoning are what we need to realize if an apocalypse is really happening, not apocalyptic-thinking. Apocalyptic-thinking cannot add any more value than what reasoning could add, and, ironically, may result in us not discerning the apocalypse accurately (perhaps even accelerating it while simultaneously robbing us of the capacity to recognize its approach). Additionally, apocalyptic-thinking may make us apathetic, and then, when and if the apocalypse really is a threat, we won’t notice or care (similar to the situation of “the boy who cried wolf”). Ironically, apocalyptic-thinking can result in what we fear coming unto us.
If the world will end if we do not do x, there is no debate: we must do x. In this way, apocalyptic-thinking absolves me the responsibility to debate, to think through my ideas, and to learn civility. And this suggests why apocalyptic-thinking is so tempting: instantly, I don’t need to think critically anymore, learn to suffer the existential anxiety of facing people who disagree with me, temper my self-righteousness, learn to live with mental uncertainty — there are countless “comforting” advantages to apocalyptic-thinking. Additionally, it seems easier to form a tribe with emotional and “apocalyptic” arguments: the moral conviction to join me — and worry I can create in people who ignore me — is incredibly powerful. Problematically, basic incentives favor apocalyptic-thinking, and yet we must learn to resist this temptation (as we must resist using “conflicts of mind” or “Ludwig” to our advantage, per se). But what if others don’t avoid apocalyptic-thinking? Won’t they thrive while we fail? With this, we hint at “game theory” and return to the ancient dilemma found in Plato’s Gorgias — though the stakes might be rising (with nukes, interconnectivity, growing centralized power, AI, etc.), little has changed.
One of the great challenges of Pluralism is that civilizations come to be composed of people who all have different views of what will destroy civilization and end the world, and hence what issues are those relative to which the “rules” of rationality are changed and/or suspended. This leads to people talking past one another, breakdowns of democracies, populist uprisings, limitations of free speech, and worse. To avoid these horrible situations, we must all be incredibly skeptical of apocalyptic-thinking and develop a default against it. If it is legitimate in certain circumstances, it will survive our skepticism; if not, it won’t. Ironically, what we apocalyptically think about is precisely that relative to which we will be tempted to lower our skeptical standards in order to save the world, and yet, for Pluralism’s sake, it is these circumstances in which skepticism is most important.
In closing, where death and the apocalyptic begin, rationality and logic end, and if we actually are in such a situation, the “rules” we so often use will no longer apply (and it would be wrong, confusing, and apocalyptic, in a sense, to change the “rules” when they don’t need to be changed). In a truly apocalyptic situation, we’ll have to think more critically than we ever have before, and apocalyptic-thinking will only make that difficult task all the more difficult. In the end, it may turn out that we have to abandon what we know as “reasoning” altogether and make what Kierkegaard would call “a (nonrational) leap of faith.” But if we are reading this, that day has not yet come, and we should not assume it will. And if it ever does come, ironically, apocalyptic-thinking will only darken our capacity to recognize it.
¹Perhaps people are prone to leap to “apocalyptic arguments” because they know that these arguments are undefeatable?
²Like ultimatums, the language of victimization can also end reasoning (say as Trump imbued upon the white working-class), because once a person claims or implies that status (upon themselves or others), the person suggests that opposing the position is immoral. Furthermore, those who oppose “the victim” are guilty of “victimizing the victim,” and silencing those who oppose “the victim” is moral (perhaps at any cost). When “victimization” is brought into a discussion, the “rules change,” as with apocalyptic thinking. This isn’t to say victimization doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be taken into consideration, but that we should be aware of how the language of “victimization” affects and changes a discussion. Again, this doesn’t mean that victimization doesn’t occur or that shouldn’t be stopped (for it should be), only that the language of victimization can skew discernment, which can ironically make stopping victimization all the more difficult.
³Personally, I can’t think of any situations (other than the “deadly” or “apocalyptic”) in which human dignity must be chosen over or under human life.
⁴This paper has intentionally left “irrefutable evidence” undefined because what constitutes it is relative to each particular situation. Perhaps one may argue that there is no such thing as “irrefutable evidence,” and perhaps that is the case. Furthermore, who doesn’t think their evidence is “irrefutable?” At least to some extent, if people thought it was refutable, they wouldn’t think of it as evidence. Admittedly, all of this is true, but assuming “irrefutable evidence” is possible (which it might not be), then not only can it be used to make a case for the apocalypse, but it is morally irresponsible not to do so. But this assumes the evidence is (actually) irrefutable, not just thought of as such. But again, all evidence is, by definition, thought of as irrefutable (though the person may not think or claim such), and so all evidence can be thought of as that which it is morally responsible to present. This is why critical thinking is so important, and why defining it deserves its own paper. That said, even for those advanced in critical thinking, there will be mistakes, but if we are also well trained in critical thought, we will be able to “check and balance” each other for the best.
⁵Of course, apocalyptic thinkers believe they are reasonable — that’s part of what makes apocalyptic thinking so problematic. It “appears” rational, and there are indeed ways in which it does entail thought. However, distinct from reasoning, it can leap in its thinking to assuming the nature of a situation is one in which the “rules” should be changed before critical thinking has justified that move (assuming it ever can).
1. The person who believes certain actions can result in a person going to Hell will reason differently than the person who doesn’t believe in Hell: they shall reason relative to different “rules,” if you will. Failure to realize this results in people failing to realize there are “rules” they need to learn if they are to talk with others in a way that makes sense to them. Learning these “rules” seems as necessary as learning the rules of grammar.
2. Where there is “apocalyptic thinking,” whether regarding the Supreme Court, abortion, Global Warming, Capitalism, Socialism, or what have you, democracy cannot function, for there can be no debate. If x will end the world, then a compromise between x and y will be the death of both.
3. “Go time logic” is for when a crisis emerges, when a child is wandering out in front a car and quick action is required or the consequences will be catastrophic and/or fatal. During a “go time,” a person is justified to act basically anyway necessary to save the life: if the person cuts off a conversation suddenly, ignores you, says something aggressive, etc. — it is forgiven. All rules are suspended until the crisis is averted, for otherwise a life could be lost.
A “go time” is like the apocalypse, and “go time thinking” is like “apocalyptic thinking”: it is extremely dangerous and should only be used when absolutely necessary, similar to Martial Law. But like apocalyptic thinking, Martial Law, and executive orders, “go time logic” is extremely tempting to use constantly, for it wins by definition. If I want someone to do x, then all I have to do is claim “If you don’t do x, you will y” (y being die, suffer, kill, etc.). It’s a simple argument and, to basically win the argument every time, it’s the only form of argument I need to know. For those who don’t study logic, this makes the argument even more tempting, for I gain the fruit of studying logic deeply for years without the work: I stand at the master’s level instantly (while suggesting I didn’t need to waste years studying).
But as warned regarding apocalyptic thinking, the use of “go time logic” is the end of rules, debate, democracy, and so on. A “go time” is precisely when all rules are off, and if “go time logic” is used all the time, then there are no rules. Where there are no rules, there is chaos and pure will. There is no logic, only want and personality, and the wants that are recognized will be relative to who has the most power. Power replaces corporation: in the name of saving the day, the day is lost.
4. If we believe that not bailing out Greece will result in the collapse of the entire EU, we will reason according to different “rules” than the person who believes letting Greece fail will not bring down the entire EU. Perhaps it is the case that, in the long run, defaulting would be better for Greece, but though someone may agree, if that person also thinks Greece won’t survive the initial shock, then what is best, in the long run, is that which cannot be done. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, but what kills us, kills us.
As should be clear, determining if a situation is in fact “apocalyptic” should be done at the start of all debates, as the rules should be established before starting any game. If rule-establishment is done halfway through, chaos, inefficiency, and confusion will ensue.
5. In our Age of Numbness, the one who doesn’t use apocalyptic language may not be heard (until the day when we are numb to such language as well), and in this environment, full of people desperate to be acknowledged, “apocalyptic thinking” will grow.
6. Since “apocalyptic premises” change “the board,” per se, such premises should undergo unusually intense skepticism, perhaps what could even be called “irrationally intense skepticism.” The premises could be true (and do note that to be skeptical of something isn’t the same as disbelieving it), but the premises, in so dramatically shifting “the rules of debate,” must pass the strictest of standards. And yet ironically, it is precisely these premises that will seem as if they shouldn’t have to pass any standard at all: there is no time for skepticism when the fate of the world is on the line.
Apocalyptic thinking changes the rules of debate in its favor while simultaneously making skepticism of it absurd and even a threat to the wellbeing of humanity. This suggests why “apocalyptic thinking” is so problematic — only failure to recognize its problematic nature is more worrisome — and also why debaters love to use it: “apocalyptic thinking” is virtually indestructible. And when a debater fights for what he or she believes is a just and good cause, to use an indestructible weapon is to guarantee achieving that just and good end. Not using it would be unjust and immoral.