Monday, October 10, 2005

The war against objectivity

"Some people today would say that there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions.

...Today we often hear phrases like 'that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.' To those that hold that there is no absolute truth, truth is seen as nothing more than a personal preference or a perception and therefore cannot extend beyond a person’s boundaries."
Thus sayeth Josh McDowell - Christian apologist, youth minister, and author of popular religious books such as "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" and "More Than a Carpenter". As a masochistic listener to Christian radio, I've heard him and many like-minded Christians repeat this charge many times over the years, generally following it up immediately with an assertion that this is bad news for religion and undermines faith.

What surprises me is how much I agree with the underlying principle. There ARE a lot of people who seem to think that truth is nothing more than opinion, and it is a serious problem for everyone who likes to deal with logical debate. Where I disagree with Josh is that I don't think the cause is atheism. On the contrary, subjective reality is fundamentally a faith based proposition.

The dictionary definition of "faith" in the religious sense is "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." The Bible declares that "faith is he substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Mark Twain, through the mouth of Pudd'nhead Wilson, said "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Any way you slice it, having faith means coming to a conclusion first, and then filtering the facts to match your expectations.

I argue on message boards a lot, and I notice a trend among certain types of people. Often I go to considerable trouble to research an argument, make sure there are no holes in my reasoning, and prove beyond all reasonable doubt that I am making a solid case. Yet hours of work are tossed aside with a single dismissive comment, such as, "Well, that's some pretty good research, but I still believe what I believe. You're welcome to your opinion, though."

Or, "You can't trust polls / mainstream news sites / that website, they're biased!"

That's depressing because there's no real response to it without getting into a whole metaphysical argument about what constitutes evidence, and whether there really is a difference between fact and opinion. I expect to have to deal with mistakes on my part. I expect to be taken to task for my own misinterpretation of the facts. At the very least I want some kind of canned response to refute my points. But instead, I get "thanks for sharing, that's just your opinion." Or as one of Josh McDowell's students might say, "That may be true for you, but it's not true for me."

Except these aren't liberals I argue with (most of the time). They're Christian conservatives. Hence, they've made up their mind, and even acknowledging any serious flaw in their argument would be tantamount to heresy or treason, depending on the subject.

I think this is an absolutely poisonous attitude that goes beyond some bandwidth wasted on a message board or blog; it's something that infests our national debate. One way that it manifests itself is in the way they attempt to undermine the perceived accuracy of any and all forms of media.

Sometimes even a relatively straightforward link to a reference site, such as Wikipedia will lead into a whole can of worms about how everything Wikipedia says is automatically wrong because it's "open source". Now, I think that every skeptical person should be at least aware of what Wikipedia is, and not take everything they say as gospel. It's important to be aware of the review process, and make sure to check out their secondary sources, and use your own critical judgment to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. But those are general concerns that everyone should have about every source: some are less reliable than others, do your homework.

That's not how this kind of person argues, though. They don't argue with the contents of a particular article, or explain why they find a particular claim to be likely untrue. They just dismiss the source outright, and refuse to read any further.

Now hang on just a second. I realize, of course, that NOTHING written by human beings is ever going to be 100% objective. That's a basic principle of scientific thought. But if everything in Wikipedia can be dismissed because there are multiple authors... and everything we read in newspapers can be dismissed because it's "liberal"... and (according to creationists) everything coming out of the "scientific establishment" can be dismissed because it's advancing the agenda of the scientists... what are we supposed to do?

Is it seriously the position of these people that there is NO WAY to know anything at all with even a tiny bit of confidence? Is it then absolutely impossible to arrive at something that we can refer to as "The Truth"? Is it a waste of time to even try?

This attitude comes pretty darn close to solipsism. Solipsism is defined as "The view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing really existent." I might call it weak solipsism, because they don't necessarily believe that the self is "the only thing really existent." But if you took their arguments seriously, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that they think there is no truth or reality that extends beyond themselves.

Is that what they really believe? Well, probably not. I think that they believe in objective truth, or at least they believe that they believe it. What they really want is to overthrow research and investigation as a legitimate way of arriving at the truth. What does that leave? The answer can be summed up in a word: FAITH.

Faith in an ancient holy book. Faith in the administration. Faith in the fundamental and unshakable goodness of everyone whom they, personally, hold to be good and right. That is truth to them. Facts are fickle; they have this nasty habit of not supporting your most cherished opinions. But faith can never be undermined unless you want it to.

But, yikes! If there was EVER a method of knowledge that could be called subjective, it's faith. To judge the reality of the universe based on what you have decided is true, regardless of any sort of study or skepticism? Not only does that make no sense, but I would say that the odds are astronomically stacked against any pre-conceived belief system just happening to be the one that is in tune with reality.

What it does do is entrench power. If I can't hope to decide for myself what is real, then my only choice is to go down to my friendly neighborhood priest and ask him what to think. Then he'll be happy to open up his holy book, point to chapter and verse, and tell me that this sentence here is absolutely true and the answer to all your moral dilemmas. I can also go to the rabbi or mullah next door, and get a totally different answer that is also absolutely true. Ultimately, though, the sect with the most power will amplify itself and crush out the other absolute truths, until it's the only one left.

Unless we recognize the fact that there is such a thing as reality, which is not changed by our little beliefs. Unless we recognize that it is our job to FIGURE OUT and INTERPRET the available evidence, so that our beliefs might become more in tune with what's really out there beyond ourselves -- not rewrite the facts so that they better fit into what we believe.

Look, I know that all information-gathering organizations make mistakes, and many times even lie. The New York Times had their Jayson Blair incident. Dan Rather should have checked his sources better. But the solution to that is not to say "From now on, I shall never again believe anything that the New York Times or any other news source say, about ANYTHING AT ALL, just because they have printed it and they have been wrong." The solution is to treat each story with an appropriate level skepticism, try to cross-check and cross-reference their information, get as close to you can to the original sources, and accept that everything you know is tentative to a greater or lesser degree. But when all's said and done, you have to recognize that basing your beliefs on the evidence you can get is a better way of knowing things than basing your beliefs on your beliefs themselves.

In my opinion, the whole problem with our national discourse right now is how much people are buying into the idea that there are no facts that can be learned through observation; there are only opinions, and YOUR opinion is the one that matters. It cuts to the heart of the problem with batshit crazy fundamentalist types. It is on display every time we see another press conference in front of a pre-screened audience. It explains how people can hear about Terri Schiavo being brain dead and blind, and then immediately start off another quest to indict Michael instead of saying "Oh my God, we were wrong about her condition!!!" And it's why people hear reports of people being tortured by Americans, and they simultaneously say "That's not true" and "They deserve it!"

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:54 PM

    Russell, you mention masochism and arguing on message boards... Here's a link to a current message board from ABC's Lost which has been infiltrated by theological debate... thought you might find it interesting... I've been an Atheist Experience viewer for about three years -- I'm an atheist from a theist family and always enjoy brushing up against some logic :)