The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

The Lost Art of Thoughtfulness: Dismissing Ideas Because We Fear Them

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I love philosophy for a lot of different reasons. One of those is that philosophers often have a particular skill that is lost in many discussions of politics, religion and anything else in which people are deeply invested.

Here’s the skill: inviting and welcoming others to press one’s idea without being personally threatened by being pressed.

Call this: thoughtfulness.

An Intellectual Virtue

Thoughtfulness is a genuine intellectual virtue. It is hearing, and I mean really listening to, an objection for the purpose of finding truth. The reason why this is intellectually virtuous is when we get good objections, we are either going to be able to address those objections or we won’t. If a view can address a really difficult objection, one’s view is ipso facto now better supported. If it can’t, then we are going to have to reject or change our view. But our rejection or change will be due to something epistemic (rather than something nonepistemic, like social pressure). Either way, we’ll be on stronger rational grounds.

Now I’ll be quick to say that I’m generalizing about philosophers quite broadly. Let’s just say not ALL philosophers have this intellectual virtue and certainly no philosophers exhibit this virtue all of the time. We all (and I am chief) have our weak moments. Also, some are able to engage thoughtfully in certain areas (say, systematic theology or metaphysics) but then become unhinged as it relates to something else (such as politics, religion, or when they are on a church committee).

It’s hard work, but we should all strive to be thoughtful. We sometimes fail to be thoughtful, I suspect, because we are scared we are wrong. We don’t want to honestly look at an objection because there might just be something to it. So we distract ourselves from being thoughtful.

3 ways we distract from thoughtfulness

How do we do distract? Here are 3 ways we distract ourselves from being thoughtful and engaging the ideas of others:

    1. We get emotional!

Emotions are really not your friends when it comes to defending and engaging ideas. Sure, we are and should be passionate about what we believe. But there’s a big difference between defending an idea passionately and feeling so threatened we have to yell (online or otherwise!). Look, if an objection is so obviously bad, then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Just critique the idea. Getting emotional about ideas will almost always work against rationality.

What’s amazing about this is we tend to get super emotional about issues in which we are deeply invested. But presumably we are deeply invested in ideas which we see as clearly true. If that’s right, then we should be able to defend the ideas and rest assured on the evidence without getting all worked up. Maybe we are not able to defend the ideas and this is a problem.

If you can’t help get upset when your ideas are challenged, this is an excellent reason to genuinely evaluate said ideas.

    1. We simply dismiss ideas or challenges.

I’m convinced that most ideas are serious ideas that are put forward in a serious way. But how do we know if an idea is serious? One way to know is if it has a long tradition and especially if, within the tradition, there are genuine scholars, past and present, who hold the view. If a view is truly ad hoc, then it can be dismissed. But otherwise, it should be treated as serious.

A good example of this, for me, is Mormonism. It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone believes Mormonism in an kind of informed way. To think that God was once a man who worked his way to an exalted state and has populated our planet with his spirit children is is, in my view, fraught with difficulties of all sorts. Or to believe the ever changing Book of Mormon is inspired Scripture is hard for me to buy.

However, Mormonism is a serious belief and it should be engaged seriously. This is a view that has existed for the better part of two centuries and there are very fine scholars who defend it. I shouldn’t, therefore, merely dismiss it. I should attempt to listen to the reasons Mormons give in defense of the view and critique the view accordingly.

I’m not saying one needs to take all views as a serious contenders. Just don’t simply dismiss the view especially when it is seriously held. If it is ludicrous, then you should be able to say why it is ludicrous.

If we simply dismiss a view, then it may be because we are afraid to try and actually confront it.

    1. We call names, mock, or impugn someone’s character.

Even when it seems clear a person deserves to be called a name, it’s almost always not worth it. There’s almost no discussion on these fronts that goes by today without someone being called a liar. Someone might be being dishonest in a discussion, but 99% of the time you will not know if this is the case. How could you? You would have to know someone is intentionally trying to mislead or misrepresent. Disagreeing with you is not lying. Even being factually inaccurate on something is not, by itself, lying. Maybe one is just wrong. And if they are so obviously wrong, then say why they are wrong.

So don’t call names. It’s too easy and it completely ruins a discussion.

If you are quick to call someone a name, mock or impugn their character, this suggests you don’t want your views challenged. You are being a bully and nobody likes a bully.

Being thoughtful

So what should we do to be more thoughtful?

First, we should do our level best to listen to the views of others. The next time you are in a discussion, here’s a novel idea: clarify what someone means before critiquing!! Try to repeat back how you are understanding what they have said and then, after that and only after that, critique the view. You can critique beforehand, but you’re likely to be critiquing a view they don’t actually hold, and this is pointless.

Second, we should invite having our views critiqued. Dogmatism is wide spread in our cultural moment. This is true of many Christians, to be sure. Christians tend to be rather dogmatic and can often be dismissive of opposing views or objections. But I’ve got to say, I often see extreme dogmatism from atheist circles and discussion groups. There are many things that are not genuinely open for discussion for many atheists. When one tries to challenge or take a different viewpoint, one gets ridiculed, called names, and summarily dismissed. It’s not everybody and it’s not everywhere, but Christian/atheist discussions are very often not fruitful.

But I think who takes the cake on this is our politicians and pundits. When was the last time you saw a politician honestly hold his or her position out for critique and possible correction? The problem of course is many of the views are not held because they are true but because they are politically expedient. This makes for a toxic intellectual culture, for sure.

Now this isn’t always fun. It can be a bit painful to see a weakness in our deeply held view. But the point is we are always better for it. The moment we fail to be thoughtful is the moment we fail to genuinely seek after truth.

Bonus Tips

(Here are a couple of bonus tips:

Bonus tip #1: Be original. I’m a big fan of sarcasm and wit. I don’t mind someone objecting to me, but I really love it when it is interesting and somewhat witty. This is good times. What I don’t care for is when people trot out the same ol’ tired quips and memes and then pronounce victory. It’s not genuine discussion. Memes are not arguments and 99% of the time the meme is not something you’ve created. Be original. It’s much more fun.

Bonus tip #2: Don’t say someone is committing a logical fallacy unless and until you are clear what that logical fallacy is and how and when it applies. It’s really easy to signal the strawman or non sequitur or false equivalence alarms, but these are very often false alarms because the signaler isn’t straight on how these fallacies are supposed to go.)

 

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