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 on Our Moral and Political Language

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.  Maybe it’s his grouchy style, but I’ve found it enjoyably challenging. It’s the sort of book that I wish I could read with ease but can’t- considering the numerous threads of intellectual history that he is weaving into a coherent narrative. The quote below is an example of a typical passage. His comments about what our language reveals about our thinking are instructive.

41Q1DmHSlmLWhen President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” right-thinking persons joined in an angry chorus of protest against such provocative rhetoric. At other times Mr. Reagan has said that the United States and the Soviet Union “have different values” (italics added), an assertion that those same persons greet at worst with silence and frequently with approval. I believe he thought he was saying the same thing in both instances, and the different reaction to his different words introduces us to the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time, all the more astonishing in being almost unnoticed: there is now an entirely new language of good and evil, originating in an attempt to get “beyond good and evil” and preventing us from talking with any conviction about good and evil anymore. Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.

The new language is that of value relativism, and it constitutes a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism.  A new language always reflects a new point of view, and the gradual, unconscious popularization of new words, or of old words used in new ways, is a sure sign of a profound change in people’s articulation of the world. When bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. It was henceforward inevitable that the modern archbishops of Canterbury would have no more in common with the ancient ones than does the second Elizabeth from the first.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 141

Marco Rubio, Welding, and Philosophy

“Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” ~ Marco Rubio

GMAW.welding.af.ncsMarco Rubio’s recent comments have had some traffic since the most recent (39th?!) Republican presidential debate. (The scrutiny you receive as a presidential candidate is only one of the perks of running for office). The response on social media was as you might expect. The omniscient fact-checker gods flew in with their pronouncements on the Truth of how much philosophers really make. We also saw a host of articles written in defense of the learning of philosophy at the university level. Again, nothing surprising there. What did surprise me was the either/or nature of the debate on vocational vs. academic training. Either you think we need more vocational training in the manual trades or you think that philosophy is a study worthy of time, effort, and money. I smell a false dichotomy.

I’m qualified to address this because I have enthusiastically worked in the manual trades while pursing the liberal arts education that I wish began for me in high school. I have aspirations for pursuing pastoral ministry (when I grow up), and I have come to think that my apprenticeship as a carpenter has broadened and enriched my life experience for the kind of work that I’ll be doing. Manual competence changes the way we see and act in our world.

Probably the most surprising component of the manifold responses to the debate was the use of Matthew Crawford to support the study of philosophy. Indeed, Crawford does encourage young people to consider studying philosophy at the university level. However, Crawford, a philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, wrote his first book taking a jab at the dichotomy of “brain jobs” vs “manual jobs”. I’m thinking Plato and Aristotle wouldn’t have bought the distinction either.

I’m making no arguments about which field offers more pay because -to be frank -I don’t really care. If you’ve got the money to spend on a philosophy degree, have at it. Philosophy is wonderful. It’s a way of life. I do wish that the philosophers would take more strides, like Crawford, to encourage people to pursue the manual trades as a meaningful way to learn the world and as a means of attaining wisdom. Philosophers would better serve themselves in working to erase the popular stigma against philosophy by creating widespread interest in the history of ideas and the life of the mind. As Gracy Olmstead helpfully suggested, how about philosopher-welders?