I ain’t the only one

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

~ Michael Shermer in an article titled: When Facts Backfire. This article appeared in the January issue of Scientific American.

This was the opening paragraph to Shermer’s article. While my own experience confirms the truth of his statement, the cartoon of a flat-earther and a round-earther (what shall we call them?) shaking hands confirmed my suspicions of who Shermer had in mind when he wrote the paragraph.

He continued to argue that creationists, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, and Obama birthers, in his view, double down on their positions in spite of overwhelming evidence, due to their worldview commitments.

He provided at the end of the article six suggestions for tackling this difficult problem of talking with such Cretans:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange.
  2. Discuss, don’t attack.
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately.
  4. Show respect.
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion.
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

I appreciate that Shermer is working on the tone of his tribe, considering that many of them consider that my belief in God is as rational as belief in a flat earth. An unfortunate number of articles in Scientific American have an unnecessarily pedantic and antagonistic tone. Following these six steps would take the magazine in a helpful direction. I would like to humbly suggest a seventh piece of advice for Shermer and his intended audience: realize that you too regularly deal with the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and the very real possibility of ignoring or even distorting evidence in support of your positions.

I work hard to identify and describe this tendency in my own life and in my own circles. My worldview demands this type of introspection. My conclusion is that Shermer’s concern isn’t a problem that afflicts religious people or conservatives alone, but all of God’s children. Shermer should be able to encourage his readers to acknowledge this without considering such an admission to be a blow to his community’s credibility. In fact, the absence of such an admission further undermines my willingness to trust such advocates of Science as impartial.

I recommend this article from the Hedgehog Review by Ari N. Schulman. Schulman addresses the pervasive sense of mistrust that society shares of the scientific community and offers balanced perspectives how the various groups involved can constructively move forward.

I’d also like to point out that I’ve got Locke on my side here:

All men are liable to error, and most men are in many points, by passion and interest, under temptation to it. If we could but see the secret motives that influenced the men of name and learning in the world, and the leaders of parties, we should not always find that it was the embracing of truth for its own sake, that made them espouse the doctrines they owned and maintained.

Let ever so much probability hang on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other; it is easy to forsee which will outweigh. Earthly minds, like mud walls resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them… Quod volumus, facile credimus; what suits our wishes, is forwardly believed.

~ John Locke, quoted in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, by W. Jay Wood.

Allan Bloom- We Are a Bit Like Savages

We are a bit like savages who, having been discovered and evangelized by missionaries, have converted to Christianity without having experienced all that came before and after the revolution. The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism, and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.  

~Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 156, emphasis mine.

This came from the concluding paragraph of a chapter on the influence of German philosophy on the American mind. If I knew more about Nietzsche, I would try to evaluate Bloom’s argument that Nietzsche provided the grounds for our current cultural value-relativism. However, I can say that Bloom’s words addressing our unconscious intellectual dependency are worth dwelling on.

Slavery and Abortion- Appropriate Analogy?

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Slavery reveals how anyone, now as well as then, can come to accept, perpetuate, and justify an exploitative system that seems essential and immutable. After all, we live with our own monsters. Alan Taylor

Is abortion the new slavery in America? Perhaps you’ve heard this analogy used in the past few months with the recent controversies surrounding Planned Parenthood and the consequent resurrection of the debates about prochoice and prolife positions. This analogy between chattel slavery and the rights of the unborn is striking and controversial, and I’d like to make some distinctions and examine its merits.

What are the unborn?

The question of the abortion of the unborn and the rights of the mother must invariably turn on the question of the status of the unborn. What are the unborn? Are they living human beings with full rights to life from conception? If we ignore this question and proceed to discuss the bodily autonomy of the mother, the risks and financial hardships, etc. we assume, in advance, the status of the unborn, namely, that they are not human in the same sense as ourselves. This assumption is evidenced when we consider the case of the toddler, and- believe me, toddlers restrict the autonomy of parents. But what of the prochoice advocates who concede that the unborn are human, but who insist that the mother’s right to choose whether she will face supporting a child in severe adversity ultimately outweighs the rights of the unborn?

To free, or not to free…

It is here that I would like to turn back to Taylor’s quote above regarding slavery. To be clear: Taylor was not drawing an explicit parallel between slavery and abortion, but I think it will be clear why the inference is justifiable. From Taylor’s work, it’s apparent that many of the founding fathers, themselves defenders of liberty, found themselves facing difficult choices with what to do with slaves on American plantations. Many of them agreed that black people were indeed men like them, entitled to freedom. Sadly, emancipation seemed to them to carry too great a cost. Many slave owners would lose their livelihood, not to mention that they were unsure how millions of freed slaves, deprived of an education, would be able to provide for themselves. Thomas Jefferson recommended mass deportation. Widowed land-owners would sell slaves (many times splitting up families) to avoid poverty.

I don’t intend to convey by writing this that the early American’s could simply have pushed the ‘fix’ button to make all these evils disappear with no consequences. I want to portray, however, that there were intense sacrifices that they were not willing to make to protect the rights of enslaved men, women, and children. With regard to the life of the unborn, we are in a similar situation. For the prolife position, convincing our hearers that the fetus is a living human being may not be doing enough.

Some (many?) pro-choice advocates acknowledge that the fetus is indeed a distinct, living human being, but that the hardships facing the mother can (and should) outweigh the ‘right to life’ that the unborn may have. As the case of slavery showed, men and women around the globe argued that slavery ought to be abolished, let the costs be what they may. In a similar manner, the prolife cause is backing up its cry for the unborn by seeking to aid these women who courageously chose to bear these children amidst almost impossible adversity. As of 2010, crisis pregnancy centers in the US outnumber abortion clinics 5:1.

Remembering our own monsters

In conclusion, Taylor’s quote reminds us to walk humbly as we fight for the unborn. “After all, we live with our own monsters.” In spite of the founding fathers fight for liberty, many of them considered slavery as an institution that was necessary and immutable. As Christians seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in our culture, bear in mind the sacrifices that we haven’t made for the unborn, and prayerfully consider what changes you can make today.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

A Shortcut Worth Skipping

Back when I knew everything

IMG_20150808_131737086_HDRI vividly recall sitting one morning in a class called ‘Biblical Interpretation’. On the particular day I have in mind, I was especially excited about beginning a semester of Bible College, as we called it. I was listening attentively as the teacher carefully walked us through the syllabus for the course. As it turns out, the final assignment was to be a research paper entitled: Why I am a Premillennialist. If you’re not entirely familiar with the term ‘premillennialist’, no worries, this post isn’t really about that as much as it is about the ways in which we think and evaluate ideas. You see, sitting in that classroom, I had no grounds for saying why I held to such a position. I was just out of high school, and at that point in my early Christian walk I hadn’t read through the entire Old Testament (only one of my many problems, but that’s a pretty big handicap if you’re studying issues like premillennialism). Also, if this wasn’t a position that I was informed enough to offer an opinion on, how was I to conduct research with the knowledge of what my opinion was going to be in advance? I began to think that this paper was not designed to equip me to critique and evaluate, but to reinforce assumptions that I was supposed to possess.

A problem we’re all familiar with

This example may seem unique, but I think we do this more often than we would like to admit. How many times have we been trying to get someone to share a political position, agree on a theological doctrine, persuade someone of the best place to buy groceries, or help someone to understand why your diet is best- all as though these were self-evidently (matter-of-fact) right positions? We hear this sort of angle all the time: Republicans don’t care about women’s health, Democrats are all really socialists, Walmart is THE place to shop, and carbs are evil. Whatever merit these propositions may have, they can’t be treated as self-evident. Evidence needs to be put forward in support of these claims.

For all the good intentions of the paper that I was assigned, the fundamental problem was that I was asked to assume something that I needed to demonstrate through rigorous research. This is not to say that there are not matters which we do not, as it were, hold to a priori. It is safe (in most circles) to assume that we exist, that numbers are real, that the laws of logic are reliable, etc. But we do serious damage to our capacity to learn if we treat all controversial matters of life as axiomatic.

Unargued propositions = opinion

When addressing a gathering of pacifists, C.S. Lewis pointed to this very idea of someone affirming as self-evident what everyone sees as controversial. “A mere unargued conviction is in place only when we are dealing with the axiomatic.”[1] Lewis continues to respond initially to a possible, though unlikely position for pacifism:

-that of the man who claims to know on the grounds of intuition that all killing of human beings is in all circumstances an absolute evil. With the man who reaches the same result by reasoning or authority, I can argue. Of the man who claims not reach it but to start there, we can only say that he can have no such intuition as he claims. He is mistaking an opinion, or more likely, a passion, for an intuition. Of course, it would be rude to say this to him. To him we can only say that if he is not a moral idiot, then unfortunately the rest of the human race, including its best and wisest, are, and that argument across such a chasm is impossible.[2]

Now, in fairness to the professor who assigned the paper, if I merely restated the proposition, “Premillenialism is true because that’s obviously what the Bible teaches,” my paper would have received an ‘F’. I was required to provide well grounded arguments. However, the point Lewis made about knowing something intuitively applies here because the position of the paper was decided before the argumentation and evidence was considered.

To wrap up, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we think through issues like these. In your experience, do we prematurely commit to positions on all sorts of issues that we haven’t thought through properly? If so, what’s the big deal? If you’d like to receive updates to this blog, simply select the ‘Follow’ button below.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1949), page 71.

[2] Ibid.