Why Do Intelligent & Knowledgeable People Disagree?


Why do highly intelligent and knowledgeable people have fundamental disagreements about nearly everything — including their views on economics, politics, arts, sciences, philosophy and religion? 

To what factors ought we to attribute these differences of views if not only to a deficiency of either knowledge or intelligence? What other factors might come into play, even if their influences are subtle and subterranean? Are there some questions that cannot finally be settled and resolved at the bar of critical reason and empirical science? These kinds of “meta-questions” are deeper than merely asking, “What are the major belief systems in today’s world?”

Of course there are those who share common assumptions, beliefs, values and commitments among like-minded people who see the world through a similar lens and filter. These people find each other and stick together in elective affinities. They read the same books and attend the same conferences. They establish their own linguistic and symbolic identities. They form their own schools, institutes, academies and study centers. They belong to the same community of theory and practice. They “agree to disagree” with those outside their “hermeneutical circle” with its assumptions, beliefs, values, habits, traditions, customs, rules and disciplines. While their dialogues and debates with “outsiders” to their views may be cordial and congenial, there may also be an implicit unspoken thought that says, “It’s OK for you to disagree with me. I can’t force you to be right.”

One can see this drama played out every week in the various news hour and public opinion TV programs where those with differing cultural, social, economic and political views on just about every issue either “face-off” in a vigorous debate or come together in more congenial dialogue among “esteemed colleagues and friends.”

One can also see this drama played out if one reads books or watches debates in which highly intelligence and knowledgeable representatives of different philosophical worldviews or social ideologies engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas and beliefs. The Dialogues of Plato are the classical example of friendly but vigorous intellectual dialogue between philosophical friends with different worldview perspectives. Would that all “dialogues” were so eloquent and congenial. Many of us have witnessed some form of intellectual dialogue and debate on various occasions, or read widely divergent points of views in various books we have read. Again, how do we explain these differences in viewpoints?

A tough-minded rational objectivist might explain the differences between their views as ultimately due to either the lack of general or specialized knowledge and/or the inferior intelligence of his well-meaning and poorly informed and illogical opponent.

A tender-minded empathic subjectivist might explain the differences between their views as ultimately due to unconscious motivations such as unresolved childhood psychological or ongoing social issues that make his opponent inordinately combative and ideological. Differences in beliefs may also be attributed to the opponent’s unfortunate indoctrination into a dualistic and polarizing rather than relational and integrative way of thinking. “You have your truth and I have my truth. Maybe we’re both partly right. Anyway, can’t we all just get along?”

A third approach might attribute their fundamental differences to a combination of psychological predispositions and philosophical presuppositions, neither of which is very amenable to strictly rational arguments and scientific evidences since these can be interpreted and construed to support different psychological sensibilities and philosophical orientations.

As those of you who have been following my blogs know, for some time now I’ve been reading a variety of books from different worldview perspectives that ask the fundamental philosophical question, “What is the nature of reality? What is the really real?”  The books I’ve consulted variously present and defend the following alternative views:

Materialists believe that the physical world alone is primal or real, the world according to physics, chemistry, botany and biology.

Idealists  believe that mind or consciousness is primal and supremely real. There are different kinds of Idealists: Absolute Idealists, Transcendental Idealists, Evolutionary Process Idealists, and Pluralistic Idealists, among others. Of course there are also Moral Idealists who are more concerned with ethical values more than with metaphysical reality.

Dualists believe that mind and matter are separate from each other and are both real. Descartes is regarded as the father of modern philosophical dualism.

Panpsychists (along with dual-aspect monists, neutral monists, and process philosophers) believe that mind and matter are rooted in a common “stuff” that is co-arising and integral to cosmic, geological, biological, noetic and cultural evolution.

Agnostics believe that they don’t know and perhaps can’t know what is the fundamental nature of prime reality.

Ignostics (along with linguistic and ordinary-language philosopher) believe that it is pointless to ask the question about the fundamental nature of reality since all philosophical questions are meaningless linguistic mistakes, mere reifications of abstractions and language games that are rationally undecidable but pragmatically useful as functional tools in different cultural contexts.

I’ve also learned that there are some philosophers who prefer to construct hybrid worldviews that combine aspects of the above options. In his book, More than Matter, Keith Ward explores the major worldview perspectives and then presents his own rational preference which is a combination of idealism and dualism, or more precisely, pluralistic idealism and dual aspect monism. Much of his book is a critical response to both reductive and eliminative forms of  materialism and to linguistic philosophy’s “ordinary-language” ignosticism or indifferentism.

What motivates Keith Ward is a desire to provide a transcendent basis and ontological backing for what we intuitively perceive and subjectively experience as “consciousness, value and purpose” in the cosmos. At the same time, he knows that he needs to give a coherent account of the presence of chaos and contingency, misery and suffering. Ward believes that our transcendental intuitions and responsible commitments to such life-enhancing ideals as beauty, justice, truth, freedom, wisdom, wholeness and compassion constitute intimations and clues to the fundamental nature of the “really real.”

No one who has read Keith Ward’s many books can doubt that he is a serious and well-read philosopher who is in touch with all the major philosophical options. He is especially interested in fostering a critically reflective and constructive relationship between the domains of philosophy, science and religion. Part of the appeal of reading Keith Ward is that he is fair and good-humored in his treatment of views with which he most strongly disagrees. Also, he is disarmingly honest in acknowledging his own “internal critic” that continually questions everything he believes as well as what others believe. There is nothing dogmatic in his approach. His approach is more open-ended and provisional as in “This is what I believe to be true to the best of my knowledge.” He is always aware that human finitude limits our knowledge when it comes to questions of prime reality and ultimate concern.

Let me return to the question with which I began? Why do highly intelligent and knowledgeable people disagree in their assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality and about the most fundamental questions that human beings ask themselves?

Do you believe that their differences can be finally resolved before the bar of critical reason and empirical science?

Do you believe that some people are simply too dull and ignorant to ever have a clear knowledge and understanding of anything important?

Do you believe that the fundamental differences in beliefs are due to early childhood traumas and poor object relations?

Do you believe that our differences in beliefs are the primarily the result of different psychological temperaments and socially constructed identities that predispose us toward adopting philosophical assumptions and beliefs that correlate with these psychological and sociological influences?

Do you believe that our differences in foundational beliefs are primarily the contingent and deterministic products of nature and nurture, or that they are the result free-will, rational knowledge, moral imagination and existential choice?

Finally, how do we live together in a pluralistic society and global age of “the saturated self” where we are daily exposed to a competing plethora of different assumptions, beliefs, values and commitments that come from all directions and that intersect each other in such ways as to create “hybrid identities” and “eclectic communities” that our grand parents and even our parents would never have dreamed of?

We live in a chaotic yet creative age when the pre-modern traditional religious sacramental-symbolic self, the modern secular rational-empirical self, the post-modern poly-centric, eclectic self, and the trans-modern integral-pluralist self have all taken the stage together. Each speaks its own language and has created it own forms of tradition and authority, its own hermeneutical circle and community of practice.

What happens to metaphysics when the worldviews of dualism, materialism, idealism and panpsychism, along with the anti-worldviews of linguistic philosophy and pragmatic ironism become “quantum entangled” with each other? We live in a paradoxical age when some people want to drive the wedge deeper between the various worldview perspectives while others want to bring them more closely together.

What happens  in political philosophy when the ideologies of Traditionalism, Progressivism, Libertarianism, Communitarianism, along with Radical Centrism and Principled Pragmatism become “quantum entangled” with each other? What is true in metaphysics is also true in political philosophy. Some people want to drive the wedge deeper until all we have left are the ideological polarities of the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. The Moderate Right and the Moderate Left want to bring the Traditional and the Progressive impulses closer together in stable managerial and bureaucratic governance. However, Moderates on both sides of the political divide are “insiders” to power and influence. They are often deaf and indifferent to the primary concerns of the “outsiders” that is, the Entrepreneurial Libertarians and the Ecological Communitarians.

The pragmatic question of how we live together across our differences — religiously, philosophically, educationally, culturally, economically and politically — in a pluralist society and global age is one of the great challenges of our time. We need a deeper and more dialogical understanding of the various possible reasons why highly intelligent and knowledgable persons can disagree, and of how we can live together and affirm our common humanity in the midst of our real and irreducible differences.


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