Dialectic as an Antidote to Delusion

Someone recently shared a video with me about flat earth, which I thought was entertaining and interesting and even convincing, at least when I watched it alone. But after discussing it over with my wife, who watched it herself alone, I came to realize a general truth now so evident and rampant among even those who are disposed to use their minds. 

The film begins with a segment on what may be called the herd instinct. We as a species, as the film shows, tend toward conformity as a matter of nature. We are susceptible to conditioning by our neighbors and society as a whole and so, as the argument goes, we must be on our guard from such mindless conformity. The film does a grand job of establishing a new group into which we ourselves would like to belong: the undeceived. 

After first establishing the principle of human nature to be avoided, the narrator takes us on a little journey through some deceptions that have been foisted upon us for years, like NASA’s circus that is the Apollo missions and space program in general, or the 911 atrocities committed against the American people by the government or other nefarious actors. 

When we finally get to view the evidence, we are prepped to be—paradoxically—as credulous to believe almost anything the narrator says, because he has positioned himself to be like that philosopher who plunges down into the darkness of Plato’s allegorical cave to liberate us stupid and unsuspecting intellectual slaves from our delusions. The rhetorical power of such a move cannot be overstated. But the narrator, as he informs us, is a lawyer, and so rhetorical devices are simply the tools of his trade.

I do not challenge any evidence the video presents in favor of a flat earth. The science involved is very interesting, and I will need time to understand it before being able to comment. I will say, however, this much. Almost all the evidence the narrator presents is experiments with light, be it reflected or laser, by casting beams over the water or other flat surfaces, in order to observe any obstruction caused by the supposed curvature of the earth. I found these experiments very convincing, because it seemed to prove that the supposed horizon didn’t exist. 

So, what’s my hesitation, then? For starters, I must trust that these scientific experiments conducted by a layman (a lawyer, not a scientist) were in keeping with the standard practices of empirical and experimental scientific method. Perhaps they were, perhaps not. The point I only wish to make is that we the audience must just accept and believe this guy on no grounds whatsoever. He’s just one guy among so many millions who has a camcorder and a laser pointer. But this seems to run counter to the habit of mind the narrator wishes us to have. From the first, the film insists that we be independent of mind, and then it presents us with a bunch of experiments we in principle should not believe: 1. Because they were conducted by a layman who has no specialized training in the sciences apart from an astronomy course taken in college; 2. Even granting their accuracy and strict adherence to scientific standards, the evidence is not peer-reviewed by other scientists, or even by amateur science enthusiasts; and 3. If, according to the argument presented at the beginning, we should not even believe the highly believable video and photographic evidence of NASA and man’s space exploration, why should we believe a private person’s home movies? 

These thoughts and others were not the product of meditation but discussion with my wife and best friend. This past weekend, while shopping at Walmart (judge not lest ye be judged!), my wife mused: “It’s hard to have a socratic dialogue with yourself.” It is my opinion that this flat earth phenomenon has gained such traction because people no longer talk anymore. A socratic dialogue, more aptly called dialectic, or the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions, doesn’t really take place anymore. True, people chat on social media, but what is really required for a dialectic to happen is an in-person back and forth living conversation and investigation into truth claims—preferably over soda and pizza, like my wife and I did this weekend. 

While dining together on our Saturday shopping date, we considered several aporia (internal contradictions to a theory) in the flat earth model which seemed impossible to our imaginations to solve. For instance, there’s the problem with the constellations being different in the northern hemisphere (forgive the assumption of “sphere” here) and the southern hemisphere—or southern quadrant if you prefer. The dome of the firmament should preclude such discrepancies, because the observational field of view would be available to all, if a plane were assumed. Then there’s the perplexing case of air travel. If, according to the flat earth model, there is no south pole, then travel between two points on the flat earth map would be a lot different than travel on a glob map. What is interesting to note, too, is that at least globe map travel can actually be verified through Google Earth imagery. 

Now these may or may not be valid criticisms of the flat earth theory. There were others we discussed, but that is not the point of this post. What I do want to talk about is what my wife said, that it is hard to have a socratic dialogue with yourself. There are issues plaguing us today which far outweigh the theories of whether our world is flat or round, and which require a far weightier measure of dialectic. Such things as jurisdiction, epikeia, validity of holy orders, the history of the traditional movement and its actors, papal and canonical law, must be discussed and not merely read about and assented to or not. These issues have eternal consequences, and though God would not damn one who made a good faith error in judgment concerning them, that is no excuse not to investigate them. There’s a lot of special pleading going on today, mostly through feigned ignorance—which is not good faith. 

I know there is no hope of having a good, old fashioned public debate with Sedevacantists. But there is hope yet that you could have a debate with your spouse, or children, or family relation, or close friend on the golf course. My wife and I argue like medieval monks sometimes, ready to cast kitchen utensils at each other over a dispute about etymology. But our marriage, and our minds, is better for it. Don’t agree to disagree. That is the death of the heart as well as the mind. It as soon makes the intellect atrophy as it does the affection we have for others, because it ultimately says that you don’t care what your neighbor thinks.  

Flat earth theory is a fascinating scientific discussion to have, as is geocentrism, and I for one am excited to engage in the discussion. But let us not lose focus of other things of more grave importance to the destiny of our souls, and have discussion about those, too. Truth is not discovered in a vacuum. If you lived on a desert island from birth, you would literally be as dumb and imbecilic as a crocodile. You wouldn’t be able to formulate a single human thought, without having interacted with other thinking humans. This is the extreme case, but the principle is valid even if not as dramatic, in the case of the individual who doesn’t talk with anyone about what he learns or thinks or believes. Too many of us live on desert islands without anyone to talk to. But even more of us live in our own heads and choose not to talk to anyone. If we watch videos like the flat earth video I received, and just take it in without talking about it with someone else, we are very much liable to believe it. If we read a book about how bishops in the past were able to consecrate other bishops without a papal mandate, and we don’t talk with anyone about it, we are very much liable to believe it.