Arguing Used To Be Fun

I used to really enjoy a rousing discussion about Big Things.  Now I’d pretty much rather have my teeth pulled.  Here’s why:

When we use the word “believe” I think we tend to use it like “believe in the Tooth Fairy”, ie something we believe because somebody told us once when we were very small and it sounded nice and was fun and we were pretty gullible so yes, we believed.  In the realm of adult discussion I think when we say “such and such believe such and such” it’s a way to downplay anything offensive in what we are about to say.  Well, sure I BELIEVE what you are doing isn’t the right thing to do, but hey, no biggie, it’s just a belief.  Yet this is not what I mean when I discuss what I believe.  I believe things because I have pondered them, studied them, and become convinced about them.  I believe things based on evidence, trust in the source, etc. and now I am certain.  I could more easily replace the word believe with “know” than with “suppose” or “think”.  Of course, belief is not synonymous with knowledge.  One way I know this is that I often meet other intelligent, thoughtful people, who firmly and certainly hold things to be true which are the opposite of those things I believe.  This can be an uncomfortable feeling.  If that person is as certain as I am, one of us, or I suppose possibly both of us, must be wrong.  And I’m sure it’s them.  I’m also sure they think it’s me.  Is the ground under my feet as firm as I think it is?  Eeeeeew doubt.  Doubt that is hard to remove.  I can go back and check my reasoning and say, yes that still all looks correct.  Good, I’m still sure I’m right, but then they do the same and here we are back again.  Perhaps this is the root of two common problems in debate today.

One is to simply pull a Pontius Pilate, shrug and say “what is truth?”  Everybody’s opinions are equally valid.  Which of course simply means that they’re all equally invalid, or at least pointless.  This way lies madness.  I once tried to argue with a firm relativist.  (Is that an oxymoron?) The discussion quickly devolved into a search for some starting point where we could agree.  In the end, he argued that 2+2 might equal 4 to me, but it might equal 5 to someone else.  I suggested that that would simply be a word game where the word 5 simply meant what everyone accepted 4 to mean.  To which he replied, “well that’s your opinion.”  At which point I decided to enjoy my beer and stop trying.  Also, this method usually ends with dishonesty because sooner or later it becomes clear that while “everyone is entitled to their opinion” those who think that is silly, certainly are not.  Those people are judgmental meanies.  They should be stopped.  Overall I would say it’s a method invented to avoid conflict and general unpleasantness, relieve any discomfort with one’s own doubts and make sure nobody can disagree with you because disagreement loses any actual meaning.

At first blush, the relativist approach seems pretty ridiculous, until you see just what kind of unpleasantness these folks are trying to avoid.  On the other side of the pendulum’s swing is the other solution to our problem of opposing beliefs.  Those who disagree with you must be utter idiots, supremely lazy, or just plain evil.  Reducing everyone who disagrees with you to pathetic fools is very comforting, but it simply flies in the face of reality.  The reality is, I may disagree with Stephen Hawking’s atheism but I cannot reasonably say he’s just plain stupid.  On the other hand, many incredible minds throughout history have believed in God, and it would be equally arrogant and lazy to dismiss the works of Thomas Aquinas, for one example, as religious fiddle faddle.  If you watch the news you’d think ALL intelligent economists agree that raising taxes is baaaaad.  Except that if you change the channel you’ll learn that ALL intelligent economists agree that taxes MUST be raised!!  Odd… could it be that intelligent people disagree and some are occasionally wrong?  Somehow though, in every realm of debate this is what we do.  Don’t like my politics?  I must be a bigot or a communist.  Don’t like my religion or lack thereof?  I’m ignorant or angry.  It seems like the signs of a great debater today are that he can most fully ridicule his opposition rather than most reasonably argue his case.  Mockery is not a proof.  Offending people is not a virtue.  Yet how often do people hold up their willingness to sneer at others as some sort of badge of honour and evidence of how firmly they believe what they believe?  The other flaw in all this, aside from being shabby debating, is that being a better debater doesn’t necessarily make someone  more right anyway.  Verbally expressing your reasons for a belief is a skill separate from reasoning to a belief.  Where does all this condescension, smugness, and mean spiritedness get us?  Precisely nowhere.  We haven’t proven we’re right, we’ve just proven we can yell down the opposition.  No wonder most people would rather crawl back into that safe, quiet, non-confrontational space where everybody is right and nobody is.

Of course, these two schools feed each other.  The more people try to say that the only thing that matters is that everyone be “nice” and nobody feel bad, the more those who actually hold something to be true want to yell “stop worrying about everyone’s feelings and STAND for something already!”   The more the clever debaters slice and dice with nasty witty mockery the more the average person wants to say “ugh this is just so unpleasant let’s never talk about anything important.”  So next time we find ourselves believing something in opposition to another let’s remember a few things we have in common.  Let’s remember we’re both human beings yearning for and sincerely searching for truth.  That’s generally the case, even when the person really isn’t the brightest or the nicest.  And let us not be too disheartened by the doubts this situation may engender.  They are an invitation to learn more and more about what we believe.  They are also an opportunity for humility.  My amazingly but often secretly brilliant husband said the other day that the best way to ensure our children didn’t fall into crazy errors in life was to make sure they were humble.  I hope that they are able to see what they know, what they have yet to learn, and when they must be guided by faith and by the wisdom of others.  Humility allows you to see that reasoning can only take you so far.  Faith gives you peace as you continue to learn.  Humility and Faith go hand in hand.

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12 Comments

Filed under Religious Ramblings, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Arguing Used To Be Fun

  1. Theresa

    This is great! I often get so frustrated that discussing the things that really matter to us usually ends up being a contest of who can come up with the most withering comebacks. Debate isn’t about questioning what we assume to be true; it’s about yelling the loudest. I find it both insulting to our intelligence and degrading to our human dignity.

  2. You had me, until this:

    Humility and Faith go hand in hand.

    While a nice sentiment (and something I wish people of faith would try to remember), I’ve found the opposite to be true in practice. In the words of Bertrand Russell:

    The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic.

    A rhetorical exercise: if there were suddenly conclusive evidence in favor of a religious claim, like transubstantiation, scientists would absolutely embrace it and integrate that knowledge into their existing data. But if there were suddenly conclusive evidence against that claim, would the Pope renounce his faith in it? Who then has more humility? Look as well to Teresa of Calcutta, who (privately) spent the last half-century of her life seriously doubting the very existence of God, but who never once publicly expressed anything except certainty in God’s love.

    • As with most rhetorical questions, it doesn’t really make a very good argument because who can say what somebody would do in the face of absolute evidence for or against transubstantiation? Of course, I don’t believe there ever would be such evidence against it so it’s hard to imagine the Pope having to worry about this. There are interesting evidences for it actually, but incontrovertible they are not. Check this out though, it’s pretty intriguing. Can’t speak for the proofs of this man’s claims as I’m not sure where you’d look. Hmmm not savvy enough to link it here in the comment so I’ll have to post it, sorry. Wanna gimme tips on how I would do that in future? 🙂
      Anyway, back to your point that “persecution is used in theology not arithmetic.” Point being that those with “faith” are often not humble or charitable? This is true, sadly, although I would say this is a flaw in their faith not a symptom of it. All I mean is that, humility can leave a door open to faith where pride in one’s own ability to reason through to pure and utter certainty about everything cannot. If you have that degree of “faith” (sorry, it’s a pain how one word can be used in so many different ways and it’s hard to think of a different one. 🙂 in your own abilities then you’ll have no room to say, “I’ve gone as far as I can right now, and I’m learning more but I’m at peace with not understanding every in and out of this yet.” As for Mother Teresa, two things. One, if I had a world of people who followed everything I said, I would be careful what I said about things I was unsure about. That seems more responsible and careful than prideful, although other saints have discussed their Dark Nights of the Soul so I see what you’re trying to say. Also, it’s possible to have deep doubts about the very existences of God and still have Faith. You would probably say this is to ignore your own rational doubts out of fear they’d be proven right and I’m having a hard time wording what I mean. I mean that you can reason to something, believe it, and then, find yourself thrown off by the opinions of others or a rough time in your life or whatever and be shaken but also feel that you are shaken for less than legitimate reasons. You examine your fears, acknowledge you have them and they need working through, but also see that they are more emotional than otherwise. Just like you could love a person, know why you love them and be committed to that, and go through a time where you feel angry, distant, “out of love”, but make the will power decision to work through that because you see it’s irrational. Sigh. Well this is probably way too long for a comment reply 🙂 Sorry 🙂

      • On a less serious note, I apologized about a million times in that last comment, It’s a Canadian thing. Had heard about it as a stereotype but didn’t know it was true until I started writing things on blogs and facebook. Also, when JD learned to talk and he just randomly interjected “sorry” into everything like some form of polite turrets. It would seem that I’m slowly being cured, or that Michael just takes after his Dad as he is thoroughly Americanized and rarely apologizes for anything 🙂 Anyway I’m compelled by this horrible inner need to apologize for all the apologies. It’s sick really.

      • Hmmm not savvy enough to link it here in the comment so I’ll have to post it, sorry. Wanna gimme tips on how I would do that in future?

        <a href=”URL”>text</a>

        Or, you can just drop a URL in by itself, and it should auto-link.

        who can say what somebody would do in the face of absolute evidence for or against transubstantiation?

        Well, scientists follow the evidence. It’s sort of the definition of science. Just look how quickly scientists dropped the idea of a static universe when it was shown that the universe is expanding (and accelerating in that expansion). In fact, this is a perfect example, because the person who proposed the idea of the Big Bang was a Catholic priest (Monsignor Georges Lemaître). Scientists were wary of the idea. There was no evidence for it, yet, and many thought that it But a few years later, Hubble found the evidence showing that red-shift of galaxies was proportional to their distance. Later, the background cosmic microwave radiation was found. The evidence mounted. And scientists were convinced. Note that this was idea that the Catholic Church was quite happy to embrace, because it at least left open the possibility of a creator (whereas a static and infinite universe rather rules out a creator). Despite this, the scientific community embraced the theory, because it agrees with observations. So that’s scientists. Let’s take the Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church. Galileo provided evidence that the earth orbited the sun in 1610. The church famously persecuted him, brought him up on charges, and reaffirmed its position that the sun orbits the earth. It wasn’t until 1992 that a Pope gave any indication that the church might have been wrong. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the trial of Galileo.

        So something that buttressed church teaching was quickly embraced (the Big Bang), while something that contradicted church teaching (heliocentrism) took nearly 400 years.

        You’re right that there will never be absolute evidence about transubstantiation either way… because it is defined in such a way as to defy study. It requires that you believe in relativistic ideas of nature. That is to say that what something “is” can be different from its natural form. So what might look like a penny might in fact be the planet Mars — it would have the “substance” of Mars, but the “species” (physical attributes) of a penny. That’s A ≠ A territory.

        Regarding the video, well, it’s a third party account of someone else’s words. And that someone else sells books that do “forensic studies” of alleged Christian events and artifacts. Not a great source. Regarding the rest of it… if they have evidence of something miraculous, they should submit it for independent verification. But I’m guessing they won’t.

        All I mean is that, humility can leave a door open to faith where pride in one’s own ability to reason through to pure and utter certainty about everything cannot.

        “Pure and utter certainty” is overstating it. I mean, we’re as certain as we can be that life on earth evolved gradually, and we have a good handle on the timeline. But evidence of rabbits that are 3 billion years old would certainly require us to rethink a few things.

        If you have that degree of “faith” […] in your own abilities then you’ll have no room to say, “I’ve gone as far as I can right now, and I’m learning more but I’m at peace with not understanding every in and out of this yet.”

        And I agree: no one should have that level of certainty about their knowledge. One of the best features of science is that it gladly admits to ignorance when the evidence is thin or absent. “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer in science. And it gladly amends positions when new evidence comes in.

        One, if I had a world of people who followed everything I said, I would be careful what I said about things I was unsure about.

        She stated things that she didn’t really believe or feel. She chastised herself privately for this hypocrisy (her word, mind you). I would have had more respect for her if she’d said something like “every day I struggle to believe that Jesus loves me”. As you said, crises of faith aren’t uncommon. By setting up a façade of perfect faith, she made millions of people with imperfect faith think there is something abnormal about their experience, when in reality she had extreme, long-lived levels of doubt.

      • Here we have, in this comment thread, a classic example of two people who hold two completely opposing world views to be true. In light of that, I will attempt not to rehash things which have been discussed to death with greater skill and scope than can be done here, and try to stick to a couple of points. I’m not going to argue the legitimacy of the video because I already agreed with you that it would not be a very reliable source all by itself. I’m also not going to rehash the whole Mother Teresa question in any great detail or go over the whole story of Galileo. As I say, these have all been dealt with, on both sides of the question, numerous times in numerous places.

        I’d just like to clarify where we DO agree. I agree on your definition of transubstantiation of course, and that it can never be proven or disproven. That’s why I think your rhetorical question is pretty useless. Bringing up a time that the Church erred in overstepping it’s bounds and attempting to pronounce on matters of science hundreds of years ago in a time where science was very new and where Galileo’s theory was not the only theory that could be used to explain what was known about the universe (see Tycho Brahe) doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what a theoretical Pope in a theoretical situation where an actual integral tenet of the Faith could be disproved by modern scientific methods,. One hopes that if Galileo had shown up at the Vatican with pictures from the hubble space telescope cooler minds would have prevailed.

        To go back to transubstantiation just for a moment, I would say you have a too physical understanding of the terms involved and thus picture Mars trying to hide behind a penny much like a child “hides” behind a tiny sapling and thinks nobody can see him. You probably think I’m willing to do all sorts of mental gymnastics in contemplating the philosophical terms so again, we can’t convince each other here, just thought I’d mention it.

        I’d also like to make sure it’s clear that at no point did I say I have a problem with science. Your reply seems to indicate you think that in saying humility and faith go together, or in holding my religion to be true I am impugning science. I am not. I do not find them mutually exclusive but rather, complementary, as do many actual scientists in every field, not just my armchair scientist self. I agree with this statement:

        “One of the best features of science is that it gladly admits to ignorance when the evidence is thin or absent. “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer in science.” Some scientists do go farther than this and say that those things they cannot ever know, must therefore be false. That’s where I would disagree.

        My only other remark is that throughout your comments you argue from individual cases to make broad statements about religion but at the same time you ignore other individual cases. You point to those who condemned Galileo, and to Mother Teresa, as proofs of how humility does not go with faith. Yet you do not use the humility of John Paul II carefully and minutely going through the whole of church history and acknowedging the many errors commiitted therein as proof of the opposite. Or the nuns who revealed Mother Teresa’s personal writings knowing what it would do to the reputation of a woman they loved, an order they belonged to, and a faith they held. In the end we could spend a very very long time bringing up back and forth individual cases of good Christians and bad Christians and be no closer to having proven much.

      • Also, Galileo and Copernicus were both, themselves, men of faith who embraced new scientific knowledge.

      • Do you hold to the position that religion and science have “non-overlapping magisteria” a la Stephen Jay Gould? You called it an error for the church to make a scientific pronouncement, which made me wonder. (For the record, I do not think they have (in practice) completely non-overlapping magisteria, as religion frequently makes proclamations about the natural universe).

        Your reply seems to indicate you think that in saying humility and faith go together, or in holding my religion to be true I am impugning science.

        I don’t think that. I was just addressing the question of humility by comparing the humility inherent to a scientific view with the wide range of humility-to-unfounded-certainty possible within the religious experience. But it seems upon further exploration that you were initially expressing an ideal, and not an estimation. And on that ideal, I think we are in agreement.

        Some scientists do go farther than this and say that those things they cannot ever know, must therefore be false. That’s where I would disagree.

        Not all “things we cannot ever know” are equal. There’s a difference between something that is not knowable in practice and something which is not knowable by definition. If the “veracity” of a claim would have no bearing on anything in the universe (transubstantiation fits the bill), science should reject it, as science is the study of nature. Science doesn’t strictly say “true” or “false”, of course — it says whether or not a theory is consistent with observations. That’s the only bar, so you cannot fault it for rejecting things which by definition have no natural consequences.

      • I’m cautious to reply about agreement with Gould as I must admit I’m not familiar with him. But from my Wikipedia search I got this: The non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) principle therefore divides the magisterium of science to cover “the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.” and on the face of it I would say I agree. I must make the exception that in a world with a God as the author of the universe I would leave room for His ability to occasionally suspend or “break” his own laws in a miraculous way, but generally speaking I think I do agree. It doesn’t seem in opposition to the Catechism’s pronouncement on faith and science

        ” Faith and science: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”37 “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. the humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”38

        The authority the Church claims for itself is in the realm of faith and morals. Much as you say transubstantiation is beyond the scope of science and not important to its study, I would say that the physics of the universe are not within the scope of religion and, while fascinating and good in the expansion of human knowledge, not integral to a religious world view. In the end, I like to know how God made His universe but I only NEED to know that He did.

        One more quote, from Warren Carrol’s chapter about Galileo in The Cleaving of Christendom “Heretical (heliocentrism) was not, by any rational criterion, and the Inquisition took out the word before publishing its decree against Galileo. But the condemnation of a scientific theory ‘as false and absurd’ was one of the mose grievous mistakes in the history of the Church. The Church was not empowered by its Founder to decide scientific questions.” The Bible is not a science text book.

        What do you mean by “reject”? Do you mean, set aside as outside the scope of science like Gould is saying, or do you mean reject as in declare worthless or untrue? Because I would agree science doesn’t need to consider the question of transubstantiation because it cannot. Still, because something is outside natural consequences doens’t make it worthless. The scientific view that only the natural realm is entirely knowable and therefore only the scientific realm is worth studying is what I have a problem with. That doesn’t seem a full argument. Because something is not entirely knowable does not mean it is not worth studying. As I said above, the study of the physics of the universe does not seem integral to a life of faith. I don’t just jump from there to saying it’s not worth anybody’s time or attention. Thus I enjoy pondering both the natural and the supernatural. Ok I feel myself starting to ramble.

      • The Bible is not a science text book.

        Amen to that.

        What do you mean by “reject”? Do you mean, set aside as outside the scope of science like Gould is saying, or do you mean reject as in declare worthless or untrue?

        Certainly the former. As you said, it cannot even consider it, because no natural claims are being made. And maybe the latter a bit, in that it is an idea that is worthless within the realm of nature (because it places itself outside of nature). I wouldn’t say “untrue”, because no claims of natural truth are even being made. We’re rapidly approaching “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is” territory with this one.

        The scientific view that only the natural realm is entirely knowable and therefore only the scientific realm is worth studying is what I have a problem with. That doesn’t seem a full argument. Because something is not entirely knowable does not mean it is not worth studying.

        How do you study something that is not knowable? Earnest question. Where do you begin, and what metrics define your progress?

        As I said above, the study of the physics of the universe does not seem integral to a life of faith.

        Sure, but a life only of faith is not possible (if praying could wash dishes, I might be on board). No matter what other domains humans may inhabit, we are, at the very least, physical beings. We are all, on varying levels of consistency, scientists. It’s how we learn what is true about the natural world we inhabit.

      • Well I can only give a partial answer to your question of how to study something not knowable because what I consider not entirely knowable you consider nonexistent. To give a full answer I’d have to explain why I believe in God, how I can trust revelation, the relationship between faith and reason and so on and so on. That’s at least a books worth of argument just to get going. Still I think there’s a way to start answering it even putting that aside because in fact there are those who would agree with me on most of that and still think it’s not something you can study. So first I’d point out that I did not say not knowable, but rather not entirely knowable, at least that’s what I meant. Now I can think of three ways something is not “entirely” knowable. One, it’s infinite and so no matter how much you learn there’s still more. That’s certainly true of God but at least in practice it’s true of nature too. Two, it’s beyond human understanding, a “mystery” in the religious sense. Here there is a need for revelation even to start to know a thing and as I’ve said I can’t prove that in the time allotted :), but with revelation it becomes possible to study it because we can say “given what we know from revelation what else can we reason to about such a thing”. Three, something can be not entirely knowable NOW but we can reasonable assume that with time and advancements it will be. That happens in science all the time. For example back when science wasn’t really even called science but rather natural philosophy philosophers got quite remarkably close to understanding things like the atom etc though they didn’t have the tools to fully understand this. As you know, there’s lots of room in science for hypothesis and theory as well as for laws. In theology this is also true. Having reasoned to the existence of a God (see this is where my answer is by necessity lacking here) we can easily begin to consider attributes that must follow from the nature of God. Or in the realm of revelation, given what is revealed we can begin to reason about how such a thing could be or what things would be true about such a thing.

        “Sure, but a life only of faith is not possible (if praying could wash dishes, I might be on board). No matter what other domains humans may inhabit, we are, at the very least, physical beings. We are all, on varying levels of consistency, scientists. It’s how we learn what is true about the natural world we inhabit.”

        Agreed. Although I might swap the word scientist for the word philosopher. We are all physical beings. I also believe we are all spiritual beings, and given that I believe that, I certainly consider it worth study as, in the case that it exists, it’s as integral a part of being human as the physical aspect.

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