The first time I heard the word ‘dogma’, I was in junior high and was without the slightest inkling of what the word connotes. Coming of age, I found out that ‘axioms’, on the other hand, were often used in logical reasoning so I was more acquainted. Little did I know that these two concepts shared few similarities.
Dogma is a notion which has a long and notorious history in varying aspects of our lives. Though it is more notable in issues stemming from faith, spirituality and religious beliefs, it has much wider applications.
According to Oxford Languages, dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.
Dogma, in many cases, takes the form of an authoritarian statement of opinion. It is often considered to be indisputable, regardless of the existence or nonexistence of any evidence to support it.
Everyone, whether literate or otherwise, has had some sort of encounter with dogma in the past. For example, a statement such as “God created the universe,” is a relatable statement of dogma. What is particularly interesting—or not—about dogma is its unquestionability. This attribute implies that it cannot or should not be criticized.
In higher education, dogma has a subtle appearance when used in the context of different fields of study.
As much as axioms are evident in Philosophy, Science, Politics and Economics, among others, a lot of assumptions are made in order to simplify complex bodies of work, which may be obscure, rather than understandable. These assumptions often count as dogma and are made in order to be able to validate a postulation.
In classical philosophy, these assumptions take the form of ‘axioms’ and are used throughout the field of Mathematics.
As is customarily used in modern logic, an axiom is a starting point for reasoning from which other statements are logically derived. These axioms are statements so evident or well-established, and should be accepted without controversy or question.
For instance, the popular statement given in The Elements of Euclid (1908) by Sir Thomas Heath: “The whole is greater than the part,” is one such example. Another is “Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.”
Are axioms true? Yes, they are, but that is still a subject of debate, especially in the philosophy of Mathematics.
Is dogma bad in higher education? No, or not entirely.
The simple unavoidable truth is that higher education cannot be without dogma. There is no objectivity without subjectivity. Even professors and scholars of knowledge have a leaning towards some schools of thought or philosophical movements than others.
As a Quora user, John Bruss puts it: “Dogma is only a tool and has no inherent good or bad in it. It’s the humans who might use the tool in virtuous or perverse ways.”
One of the most distinguishing human characteristics is that they are rational beings, hence, capable of thinking, inferring, predicting, deducting and whatnot. So, commonly, the use of dogma in higher education sometimes is to build a self-consistent formal system that provides some useful evaluation of a case study. In rare cases, the boundaries and limitations of the system would be established. Likewise, what situations in which the system would not provide useful evaluation.
“Dogmatism is not a part of university culture,” affirmed Miguel Angel Escotet, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas, Brownsville.
“Rigid thinking clashes with the principles inherent to the pursuit of truth and with the endless breadth of knowledge.”
While patronage of higher education is on the rise on an exponential scale, “the expansion of knowledge and the degree of certainty are inversely proportional.”
In other words, as more people go deeper into an area of specialization, they soon discover the truth of their lack of knowledge, which drives them to keep learning.
Dogma could then arise from carelessness or not considering different possibilities before drawing conclusions. This could result in committing a logical fallacy and “for this reason, intellectual vanity is not an attribute of those who know their limits, but rather of those who pretend to know what they do not know.”
Professor Escotet likened dogma to “intolerance, authoritarianism and conflict,” the opposite of which, according to him, is “participation.”
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
This is the statement of Max Planck’s principle in sociology of scientific knowledge. It is the view that scientific change does not occur because individual scientists change their mind, rather, that successive generations of scientists have different views.
We—pursuers of knowledge and higher education—are the current generation, growing up and getting familiar with well-established truths. We can only make advancements and tangible contributions by actively participating.