Think about it- a Conversation

I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)

I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:

First voice, John Locke

Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.

Second voice, Allan Bloom

In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.

Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield

I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7

Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.

Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.

Finale, Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).

Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.

BL

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.

Liable to Error

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.