Friday, September 09, 2011


In the "May We Trust Our Thoughts" series and Gardner's The Science of Fear which I just finished, I repeatedly ran across the laboratory evidence that people come away from having their ideas challenged with an even stronger belief in their original opinion. The act of defending seems to harden the thought.

I have to think this is variable. I know people who take being challenged as proof they are right. If this seems entirely backward, well, it is, yet I think most Christians know someone who regards opposition as proof that the devil is working against him, and thus proof he is on the right track. (I would use gender-neutral pronouns here, but I think this one is much more common in men. If you think otherwise, let me know and I'll change it.) I am also thinking of a particular political individual who seems to revel in the anger directed at him - as if that in itself were the goal, to bait and goad another tribe.

I get it that showing examples of one's opponents fuming, being jerks, and not responding fully rationally is rhetorically useful, as it carries the strong emotional suggestion that I am being the reasonable one here. My tribesmen are the reasonable people in this argument. But that is not a logical argument either. It goes no distance in establishing that one is in fact correct on the merits. It's a political sleight-of-hand masquerading as logic. It could be, and often is, that the anger and even rage one receives in response comes from one's own nastiness. The vicious put-down disguised in polite language carries a double danger. Bad enough that we be hypocrites, mock innocents who know we are driving in the poisoned blade while maintaining plausible deniability, as the politicians say. Far worse to have become gradually unaware of our own insults, until we speak to opponents that way because that is "what they deserve."

This strikes me as an especially dangerous aspect of human thought. I doubt I am immune to it. More likely, my impression that I respond to challenge by questioning my conclusions is but an artful disguise, to keep concealed from my self what My Self is doing. Still, I think it is important to at least make an appearance of an attempt. Much that is polite in discourse is not merely polite, not mere convention, but a reminder of what is required of us if we are to be our best selves. Argue with vigor and give a full-throated defense. But first, check whether you are actually right, or if your opponent may not have something worthwhile to add.


terri said...

I've been thinking about some of this for a while.

It seems to me that the first reaction to accepting any belief is to begin a thorough defense of it. You begin by limiting the opinions you listen to, the type of books you read, the people who you look to for advice, the friends you make, etc.

Some of this is done purposely, especially in terms of religious beliefs. Some of it occurs by drifting on the natural currents you have set out upon, you don't have to do much steering because you have put yourself on a path that practically steers itself.

When challenged from the outside, or by doubt from the inside, we usually throw ourselves into search mode, trying to remind ourselves why we believed something in the first place. WE may revisit certain authors that have influenced us, or talk with people who currently seem confident of the things we are now uncertain of.

Is it because we are trying to trick ourselves into holding onto a certain set of presuppositions because we simply want them to be true?

Maybe sometimes.

I think it happens because you can only hold onto certain ideas through the the constant reassurance of a community, real or intellectual. WE figure out what kind of people we want to be, or what of people we don't want to be, and purposely associate ourselves in the appropriate way by hanging out with people who can teach us how to be like them, or how not be like others.

There is theme that pops up in these posts of yours about the inescapable self-deception we wallow in....that we can never really trust ourselves...that even what we most sincerely think is prisoner of some hidden self that is seeking only to get what it wants.

Total Depravity, I guess. And Lewis is a strong architect of this idea.

I don't like it anymore because I find it paralyzing. If you really start to think that about yourself and everyone else, life becomes very dreary. Nobody can be trusted. You can't trust yourself, ever. Suspicion of the inner motives of everyone around us becomes the norm.

That kind of stuff used to drive me absolutely nuts. In a way it made me look down upon other people because I was always second-guessing them and myself.

I know that people often have impure motives, as do I. I know that wisdom and discernment are necessary. Yet, in the end, one has to believe that it is possible to trust oneself in order to make any decisions in life and in order to live without constantly rehashing every moment in the past.

I'm talking about average people here. Obviously you work with people on a daily basis who have to learn that they can't trust themselves in the same way because of mental illness, or addictions, or conditions that require medication.

james said...

WRT Christians and opposition: I can't think of anybody who seems to be encouraged by opposition as such, but I've met quite a few who try to encourage each other by attributing opposition or simultaneous troubles to the work of the devil.


I suspect that we can't not know that we are weak and fail often. So if I take up a new faith (in God or in party or in tribe) I cannot just say "I will do X from now on," I have to hold myself to that in daily decisions. Since what we immerse ourselves in effects us, I should therefore try to make my fidelity secure by immersing myself in the artifacts of my new faith. I should put an image of Che on the wall, read Chomsky daily before breakfast, make the right sorts of friends and assemble together to encourage each other, meditate on the evils of the market and our wrongheaded opponents and the joys of life when everyone lives in harmony with the new rules.

To read Solzhenitsyn might undercut my commitment. Only a little, perhaps, but can I afford to be less than faithful to my god?

karrde said...

I don't view this train of thought as an indictment of total depravity of man.

However, it does undercut the hypothesis of the 'rational mind' being supreme.

If I can trust what I think when I read your articles...

It appears that most people are not rational thinkers. They are members of tribes, who use rationality to explain the behavior and ideas endorsed by the tribe.

However, this does not describe all humans nor all human thought, else no rational discussion of the subject could take place. But it appears that most people exist on a continuum somewhere between Accepts the Attitudes and Ideas of The Tribe Without Critical Reflection and Does Not Accept Any Idea Unless It Is Shown To Be Rational.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was planning to comment, but the thoughtfulness of my readers is high enough that I hesitate. Perhaps later.

Noted: no one has misconstrued my meaning, and I have left out a possibly important piece which might get us beyond terri's posited paralysis.