Pete Wehner reflects on Jonathan Haidt’s challenge to Sam Harris. You’ll remember that I blogged on it last week. Harris offered $10,000 to anyone who could convince him, in a short essay, to believe in God. Based on his research into the foundations of morality, Haidt offered to cover Harris’s bill if someone could do it. He doesn’t expect to pay out; his contention is that there is no argument likely to change Harris’s mind about God, because even though he posits himself as perfectly rational, Harris is fiercely committed to the atheist position, and, being human, is unlikely to give ground. Excerpt from Wehner’s commentary:
Haidt observes, too, that “disconfirmation”–being open to having one’s views challenged, learning from this experience, and as a result improving one’s reasoning–depends in part on social relationships. “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he writes. “Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”
This doesn’t mean reason doesn’t have a vital role to play or that some individuals aren’t capable of more self-detachment than others. And in terms of Harris’s atheism, Haidt would agree with me, I think, that his arguments about morality, science, and faith still need to be confronted even if Harris harbors great antipathy for religion which skews his judgments.
True, true. This brought to mind occasions I’ve witnessed when anti-creationists have undermined their own case by treating creationists they were debating with haughty disdain. It was more important for them to be right than to change minds. Whether or not the anti-creationist scientific types are nice people or not has nothing to do with the soundness, or unsoundness, of their argument. But people are not robots. As Haidt indicates, we are much more likely to have our minds on an issue changed through personal relationships than through rational argumentation. This, as many gay activists have come to understand, accounts for much of the cultural sea change around homosexuality over the last 20 years.
Similarly, I’m not sure I know anybody who was converted to religious belief through rational argumentation. Most of those I know who were converted — including myself — got there first through personal experience (e.g., an experience of wonder) and/or through knowing other believers and being influenced by them. Those personal relationships and experiences aren’t enough to make one believe something one doesn’t think is true, but they do open the door to consider truth claims that one would have previously rejected out of hand.
That’s a positive way to put it. A more skeptical way is to say that the personal experiences (or relationships) create within one a desire to believe, and the mind rationalizes a case for it. Some would say that’s what I did when I left the Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church. I would say that the former happened. In truth, it’s probably a mixture of both. I can’t say for sure.
Anyway, here’s a great point by Wehner:
We all engage in this to some extent; it’s a matter of degree, of whether we’re able to absorb, let alone dispassionately examine, evidence that challenges our presuppositions. That’s true of Sam Harris–and it’s true of me. He has his biases and predilections, I have mine, and you have yours. The question, really, is whether we recognize them and what we do with them. Are they instruments or obstacles to ascertaining the reality of things?
It’s fair to say, I think, that one of the gifts we sometimes receive in life is to have people who have standing in our lives alert us to our blind spots–and, in the process, gently remind us that searching for truth requires us from time to time to reexamine and refine our assumptions. If you think it’s easy or common, just ask yourself the last time you did it.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I’m thinking about some new friends I have made, African-Americans, who are opening my eyes to some truths that I had not been able to see before. What made that happen? The fact that they accepted me as a person first, and not as a White Person. And I did the same, because we had common ground. Somehow, we were given the grace to be open to each other, and not be defensive. I am so grateful for the gift of friendship with these folks, in part because the things I’m learning through this relationship makes me reconsider some of my understanding of history and culture. I can’t write more on this right now, because a project I’m contributing to occasioned the start of our friendship, but I will have a lot more to say when I’m done. The point is, my own recent personal experience has done more to challenge and change my thinking than any number of books I might have read. And maybe that works reciprocally.
Questions to the room: When is the last time you have seriously re-examined or refined your assumptions about something? Did a personal relationship have anything to do with it?
Details, please. Tell your story.