Searching For Truth Versus Debating

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Alex Knapp

Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

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  1. Avatar ppnl
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    I have never really been interested in “converting” religious people to atheism. I see no point in it anymore than I see a point to convincing people that aliens aren’t abducting thousands of people and performing anal probes. Mostly I’m only interested in convincing them to leave me alone.

    Debunking silly things as a public service? Sure, but that really isn’t an active search for truth. It’s just an attempt to counter obvious nonsense. If a person sees the simple facts and continue to believe in vast alien conspiracies then there is a limit on how much time and effort I will spend on that person. A very small limit that will not involve a personal search for truth.Report

  2. Avatar Robert Cheeks
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    Alex, you’ll have to forgive me. I had some negative thoughts upon reading your piece at 5 AM with an urgent need for caffeine and sundry scenes from last night’s Netflicks move, “The Rite”, going through my head (I’m hoping one of the Gentlemen might comment on it).
    Alas, the re-read, which is something I should do more regularly allowed a more clear understanding of your nuanced and insightful remarks.
    The opening sentence, in your penultimate paragraph goes to the heart of the matter, I think: “In order to figure out the truth, I find that you have to strip away your thinking about identity, affiliation, and ideology.”
    I don’t know how much stripping is necessitated but surely it won’t hurt given modernity’s inclination to barnaclize perverse ideologies. I might note here, in the ‘modern’ age, a great danger in any analysis of the truth of God is the danger of being drawn into sundry pathologies associated with those gnostic dreamers common among contemporary atheists experiencing the failure/collapse of their political/immanest beliefs.
    “When you ain’t go nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”
    However, after praising your sound judgement in seeking the ground of the issue I’m required to reject your idea that the question revolves on the ‘group.’ I would argue no issue affecting the psyche of man is more personal, or a matter for the individual, than the question of God.
    In passing, I would argue that the person who is questioning, or asking, or seeking God/No-God would be rewarded in making a study of the Classical Greeks before venturing into, say, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, I argue this simply because the Greeks, as fellow participants in your own search, also ‘stripped’ being to its ground-essential nature, and discovered that within the process of reality there exists a tension between the light and the darkness. And, this might be a very good place to begin your inquiries.
    Please do let us know how your analysis of God and Truth and man proceeds!Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Robert Cheeks
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      The Athony Hopkins character is the best thing in there. The rest is a dumbed down Exorcist rip-off. I particularly hated the hero who is going through the seminary but doesn’t seem particularly into reading or religion. I wanted to see more about the older exorcist’s life and his faith- his few speeches on the topic were great and made me wish the rest of the film was better. Did you like it though?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Rufus F.
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        Argh, I hated it, for the same reasons. I’ve seen it before, and even the speeches by Hopkins felt a little forced.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Rufus F.
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        Rufus, you and Chris’s critiques are spot on and I cheat a bit toward favoring this type of Hollywood production-even if some are cheesy- being a follower of the Jewish carpenter and all.
        I did like the line from Antony, “What did you expect, ….and pea soup?”
        What fascinates me with these efforts (see The Book of Eli) is the effort to examine the flow of transcendence into the immanent world and in this instance and examination of the Chruches’ teaching on Satan et al. I think the “Kumbya” Christians have it horribly wrong and do a great deal of harm to curious atheists in their “happy” Jesus talk. An open reading of Scripture indicates that the opportunities for salvation/redemption do not go on forever and when they stop there’s Hell to pay, sorta-speak.
        I think it’s this side of the Biblical coin that so upset those Christians who have chosen to live exclusively in an immanent reality, when, as we all know, life is mostly spiritual.
        RE: Hopkins, yes his character should have been expanded. I read a book on the “Popes Exorcist” in Rome and AH’s performance reminded me of him, so I wonder if it was?Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Robert Cheeks
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          I think part of what bothered me was the weird effort to make the Vatican look like the FBI training centre. Not sure where they were going with that. Also the young lead was a boring character. Really, the main problem with exorcism movies is the rite is fairly well-depicted by now, so if they’re going to aim for accuracy, they’re showing us something we’ve seen already beat for beat.

          I saw the Book of Eli at the drive-in, incidentally, and really enjoyed it. I felt like they combined The Road Warrior and the Old Testament with a bit of the spaghetti westerns thrown in. It really worked in my opinion.Report

          • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Rufus F.
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            I’m pretty much in agreement re: the ‘exorcism’ type of movie. What might be of interest would be a drama centered on the ongoing nature of the exorcism, which as I understand it, may take considerable time. The drama would include the ongoing exchange between the demon and the priest, God, and the ‘possessed.’ Surely some clever writer could catch the indepth essence in these very real relationships first existing between the entities, then developing into….what?
            I reviewed ‘The Book of Eli’ referring to it as the ‘greatest’ movie ever made over at the other blog which generated a great deal of arugment and a conversation with the genteman who wrote the screenplay and an advertizement from the movie studio.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    This Leah person doesn’t mention “sides” in the passage you say you disagree with because once we choose sides, confirmation bias, etc. etc. And converting someone from belief in God or deities or other non-material entities to atheism or materialism is not recruiting them from one team or side to another. It’s just convincing them they were wrong and something else is right. In other words, persuasion. Persuasion is a perfectly good, useful enterprise. I don’t disagree that seeking truth is even better. But persuasion is just fine. Just fine.Report

    • Avatar kenB in reply to Michael Drew
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      says:

      I think the problem is not the persuasion itself, but the adolescent arrogance and self-righteousness that motivates the attempt.Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to kenB
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        says:

        I cannot comment on Leah specifically, as I don’t know her, but I can say that when I find myself in a situation where I’m trying to persuade someone of something, I find that I am usually doing so to aggrandize myself and not enlighten or help others, even if I am right.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pierre Corneille
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          I find myself in three different situations where I am trying to persuade someone.

          1) To use a particular application in the lab, or scripting shortcuts, faster way to get terrabytes from hither to yon…

          2) To argue over whether Batman or Spiderman would win in a fight.

          3) To argue over health care policy, or tax policy, or security policy, or welfare policy…

          I have succeeded with 1. I tend to be unsuccessful with 2 or 3 but take great pleasure in the fact that the people I argue with go and do research with which to do battle for next time. I suspect that there are other reasons 2 and 3 have overlap.Report

  4. Avatar DMan
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    says:

    I thought this post was useful in terms of understanding attempts at persuasion:

    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/

    Just knowing this effect along with the effects of confirmation bias is a good way to avoid falling into common human traps.Report

  5. Avatar Elias Isquith
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    says:

    I think changing peoples’ minds through simple argumentation or reasoned debate is exceptionally rare. Much more often, it’s an emotional experience that causes us to reevaluate our supposedly rational beliefs. What this says about the prospect for true understanding between those holding divergent worldviews isn’t quite as gloomy as some may initially think, but it is undeniably different than what the Enlightenment ideology implies.Report

  6. Avatar Adam Bell
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    says:

    Yes, the ancient division between sophistry and philosophical dialogue exists. Well done on re-discovering it. What you’re missing is that both forms of argument have their worth depending on the context and the goals of the person involved. You want to find the truth, and that’s great. She wants to promote the truth to achieve a particular purpose, and that’s also great. Both types of argument have different criteria of success, and comparing them is largely pointless.Report

  7. Avatar Jazgar
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    says:

    I think hanging out with friends who agree with you, and watching programs you agree with can give one a clearer, bolder vision of the world. When people disagree, well, I guess that’s why they call them “disagree-able”!Report

  8. Avatar michael reynolds
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    says:

    I agree that the search for truth begins with a thorough stripping away of presuppositions, team loyalties and self-interest. Further, it’s an on-going process. Strip it down, build it up, strip it down again.

    Confirmation bias is a potent force. It can be minimized if your devotion is to the truth. But few people devote themselves to the truth — it requires ruthlessness, and the ratio of people who think they are intellectually ruthless to those who actually are is thousands to one.

    I settle for a sort of phony peace with myself. I know what the stripped-down model is, and I try to keep it shiny and clean. But I live my daily life with the comforts of some few assumptions: that love is good, for example. I know that to an extent I’m living a life with unproven assumptions, but I tell myself it’s okay because I’m aware of the game. I’m choosing comfort over rigor.

    Still there are many times I’ll find myself in a debate with someone who has asserted that there is “No solution,” or “No way we can. . .” and then I turn to the stripped-down, presuppositionless model and offer some solution that is instantly denounced by one and all as amoral and horrific. It often is. But I like knowing that a path from Point A to Point B does in fact exist, even if it’s not something I’d ever want to put into action. If nothing else it illuminates the self-imposed limits with which we bind ourselves.

    As for arguing to persuade vs. arguing to find the truth, I like a bit of a mix, myself. I like to find a worthy opponent and then try to beat him. If I win, I shrug and try again with someone else. When I finally lose I’ve learned something new and perhaps gotten closer to truth. If I can’t win a debate point it’s probably because I’m just plain wrong — and that’s valuable information if your goal is the truth.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to michael reynolds
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      says:

      Very nice, Mr. Reynolds. My egalitarian self dislikes Plato’s story of the cave, but there it is.

      The sophists bother me, at least the smart ones, whom I think know better but are cheating the argument anyway. I like to think they’re just blinded by their desire to win at any cost, and genuinely believe what they say at that moment.

      As one thinker put it rather definitionally, the sophist is “unconcerned” with truth, which I think puts it best.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to tom van dyke
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        My egalitarian self dislikes Plato’s story of the cave, but there it is.

        Who are you and what have you done with Tom van Dyke.

        More strangely, the conservative and mystic in me understands that he who has experienced enlightenment finds it difficult to communicate said enlightenment to one who hasn’t

        As one thinker put it rather definitionally, the sophist is “unconcerned” with truth, which I think puts it best.

        Said thinker was on a smear campaign against his competitors and in fact used many of the same kinds of techniques that he accused the sophists of using. Point being, when he was finally arrested on charges of corrupting the youth (surely this must be a serious charge in a culture where pederasty was normal and accepted) Athens was probably saved a lot of trouble from this particularly irritating fellow.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Murali
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          Nope, that’s the real TVD talking. He may approach it from a different perspective than you, but don’t confuse his original perspective with his good-faith efforts to search for the truth — and if you are willing to observe his progress down the paths he choses to search for that goal, you could learn something from him. If you (that being the generic “you”, including but not limited to Murali) at least attempt to tackle your own truthward journey with candor and curiosity, I suspect you’ll find an interested fellow-traveller in TVD.

          That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him. I don’t, always. But I’m quite convinced of his good faith.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Burt Likko
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            Aye.

            TVD’s good faith in argument is unassailable to me.

            One of the things I’ve learned in the 2 and a half years of this site is that more often than not (the occasional hit and run troll notwithstanding), when I find myself frustrated or confused by someone else’s argument, that says at least as much about me as it does about that someone else.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to michael reynolds
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      While I agree that an open mind is important to maintain up to a point, and that point is pretty far down the road, ultimately, I it seems like a clear intuitive probability that we’d not be better off had everyone always followed the advice to maintain noncommitment to ideas whose truth they retained any doubt of (whether in the service of a commitment to seeking truth or any other reason). That’s because, in order to do things, you need to make at least provisional commitments to certain ideas. And while many bad things have been done, I still think it’s better that we have done things on the whole.

      To the extent I am wrong about that view now, it is because we stand on the benefitting side of a great divide between a time when almost nothing had been done, including a cataloguing of the benefits of cooking meat for example, and a time when a great many good things have been done. And I don’t think the bad things that have been done come remotely close to outweighing (for humans) the benefits of the good things that have been done. And the great majority of those doings have come as the result of people forming and holding beliefs rather than maintaining a fully open mind. Some of that progress has come about because people acted pursuant to wrong beliefs. But had the belief-forming and action been simply avoided altogether, it’s not clear to me that the knowledge we have to day would have been developed, or developed as quickly. By all means, some pure scientists have been arounf doing their thing for five hundred years, maintaing a perfect scientific objectivity. But I think we know that, for the most part, scientists are as human as the rest of us; they get attached to ideas and form beliefs; they want the data to come out right, etc. And yet, we have developed the knowledge we have (that is, if this discussion will even allow us to all agree to that simple proposition).

      I think I simply don’t subscribe to this intuition that the formation of, and even development of a degree of irrational attachment to, beliefs is the obstruction to the overall human enterprise of pursuit of truth that this discussion has suggested that it is. Rather, the formation and resulting (sometimes painful) refutation of individual beliefs about truth is what has propelled that enterprise through its millennia of successful progress. No one human mind can ever contain all of human truth, of course, but by forming beliefs about parts of it, each can contribute to its development at large. To the extent, though, that, in hopes of simply better positioning ourselves to perceive or judge “truth” (since that is what we’d have to do to successfully “seek” truth), we consciously remove ourselves from that iterative function of knowledge-development by avoiding commitment to testable belief (because of the possible cost to us in our actually being able to ultimately hold “truth” within ourselves), the more, I suspect, we actually remove ourselves from the real role we play in our species’ method of development of knowledge, which is iterative across minds and trans-generational, and not a function of individual judgment.Report

  9. Avatar Jason
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    says:

    I am not going to be as verbose as xome of the others, but I think this could be one of the better articles I have ever read. Great job!!!Report

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