We often say that its a mistake to discuss politics and religion, but why? Aren’t these the things that are often most obvious to us, where our convictions run deepest? Isn’t the difference between right and wrong most apparent in issues like these? And don’t we have good reasons for believing what we do? So why is it something that only brings out the worst in others (and ourselves!) and that is seemingly immune to simple rationality?
The truth is that our convictions don’t always align in a way that facilitates much common ground. We can’t discuss these issues very easily because we are like aliens to one another. And the deeper truth is that we did not come to these perspectives by rational means. Our reasoning about them is only the veneer over something much deeper and more primitive in our consciousness. We come by our beliefs in ways that are rarely touched by rational influence. Perhaps it was the only way to make sense of a traumatic event. Perhaps we simply learned to see the world through our parents eyes. Perhaps it was a rejection of our parents. A suspicion of others’ motives….. Anything, it seems, but rational discovery. And yet we often talk as if persuading others was a simple matter of telling them the right reasons, and their own rational discovery…..
Surely within the world of our own beliefs things make eminent sense. We may not have started the road through reason, but there grows up a scaffolding of reasons and rationality to hold it in place. We are so good at our confirmation bias that we accumulate all the evidence we need to validate our own opinions. Amongst our like minded fellows we can appear the pinnacle of reasonableness and rationality. We have that agreement necessary to make sense of one another. The blasphemers and philistines are all touched by an unexplained dementia. They are foreign in a way that we cannot comprehend. They fail to see what is so obvious to us. Their assumptions are wrong. Their facts are disputable. We take exception to their version of logic. And they draw illegitimate conclusions. While we are so obviously the bright standard of our own rationality these others hold positions that seem baseless, trenchant, and a sort of incomprehensible absurdity. And paradoxically they look at themselves and at us in exactly the same way! As if we are the aliens and they the righteous….. Is rationality really so tractable, so fickle, so faithless?
Rationality follows causes. Seldom, if ever, is it the first cause. It is the means we have to support our versions of the truth. Its not the impartial underlying code of the Universe any more than a gun in the hands of a soldier is impartial or decides what is right. It gets pointed at things, and only fired off when it is to our advantage. Its a tool we use to promote our causes and defend them.
And it is therefor quite often of little value in mediating between different perspectives. Its not always a case of comparing guns and deciding. When the rational bullets fly our own guns are our immunity. And because these others don’t believe in our wisdom even our best aimed bullets can’t harm them. Why would anyone put stock in what we had to say if they already believe the opposite? If they have good reasons for believing it? When we believe what we believe despite their evidence…?
We’d like to think that we are all rational actors playing on the same field and by the same rules, but really we are playing different games by different rules and often on different fields. Appealing to rationality doesn’t always help us, as if all it took were showing these others that they are playing the wrong game, have got the rules all wrong, or that they should be playing it on our grounds instead of their own shabby venue. “Our game is much better! Don’t you see?”…. That’s what we say. And that’s what they say to us…..
Causes are simply partisan affairs. And if the tools of reason are only of limited value in conducting a conversation across party lines, maybe its not a conversation that we need to convince them by. If they have an impetus to change it will be because they look at our game and decide that it is somehow also worth playing. In a sense, we have to get them to stop playing their game first in order to learn to play ours. Their conversion has to take hold at a deep level. We are, in effect, asking them to be more like us.
But old ways of doing things die hard. We have to detour around them. Barring schizophrenia (or art), opposing rules and values can’t be in operation at the same time. But we can often suspend one way of doing things in order to pick something else up. We can decide that its good to play baseball at some times and football at others. Occasionally we can never return to the games we once knew……. There are incompatible and mutually exclusive ways of doing things, after all, and it is here that our passions, beliefs, and rationality become the most ingrained and stubborn….
And rather than convincing them of our rationality, our rules, first, we can teach them the way we ourselves learned: We can let them play and pick the rules up as they go. The scaffolding doesn’t come first. Its the activity itself that engenders belief, and the belief that builds the scaffolding….. Reasons accrue as we become more intimate with the new game.
Sam’s McNerney’s new post has a discussion of some of these ideas:
The conclusion he draws can perhaps be summed up with the quote in which Steven Pinker says:
Reason is… an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interest of ever-increasing numbers of others. It is reason too that can always take note of the shortcomings of previous exercises of reasoning, and update and improve itself in response. And if you detect a flaw in this argument, it is reason that allows you to point it out and defend an alternative.
To which I’d respond that Steven Pinker’s take that rationality will win out is probably a bit optimistic and wishful rather than objectively sound thinking. I’d even rephrase his quote above as the following:
Reason is a whip that drives forward our partisanship and bolsters our prejudice. Once it has secured its base in a particular perception of the world it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of narrowness and intolerance. It becomes reasons not to act open-mindedly. And while reason constructs this scaffolding of reinforcement and imperialism, it is often only some emotional trauma or some non-rational experience that can undermine its foundation. Seeing the world differently is sometimes only possible through letting go of reason and accepting a new basis for our passionate appraisal of the world. Confronting the world is not an argument on a level playing field of reasons. Belief is not a contest of competing rationality. We believe first, and then make up reasons to talk about and justify those beliefs…..
See this study by Dan M. Kahan at the Yale Law School on “Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection” for an interesting insight into the problem.
Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper describes a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the normative significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity.
When discussing our passions, have we learned to “develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity”? Does our advocacy merely skim the surface of already partisan and divisive rationality? Is our model of advocacy based solely on means of rational persuasion, or have we learned that dismantling a structure of rational prejudice often relies on non-rational means? If our beliefs often follow what we do, where we grew up, who we know, how we identify ourselves, perhaps we can only change what we believe by changing what we do…. And while how we talk about things is part of what we do, the toggle switch between default mental pictures surely has to be more than just words. And the deeper change has to be so much more than simply how we talk….. In fact, I’d say that it comes down to an issue of self-identity. Lets not make the mistake of confusing the cart for the horse……
And for all you arts advocates out there let me put it this way: Its not a question of finding a place for the arts within our community, but shifting the question to finding the arts community within us all. A bit of a Copernican revolution (in reverse?), perhaps…..
Something to think about at least!
Make beauty real!