I’ve come to a point of frustration. Let me explain.
A conclusion I’ve flirted with for many years is that humans are fundamentally NOT rational (which isn’t necessarily to say humans are irrational; a better word is ‘arational’). Humans have some minimal capacity for rationality, but I suspect most of what is considered ‘rational’ is too often largely just rationalization. This is no grand insight per se. Still, I’ve resisted it. I want to believe that humans can be persuaded by facts. I want to believe that truth matters. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that people don’t change much once set in their ways (which tends to happen early in life). As such, people don’t usually change their minds even when confronted with new facts and new ways of interpreting the facts. It’s just that people die and new generations come along (with new biases). The best hope one has of changing another’s mind is to meet them when they are a small child. After that point, there is little hope left for any further change.
Debating most people is about as worthwhile as bashing your head against a brick wall. Even worse, the people most interested in ‘debate’ tend to be the very people who are least interested in truth. It’s rather ironic. People tend to seek out debate because they want to ‘prove’ themselves right, not to explore possibilities, not to learn something new. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You might bash your skull to a bloody pulp before you find them.
And, no, I’m not excluding myself from my own criticisms. I know from my own experience how challenging it is to try to be ‘rational’ (objective, emotionally neutral, self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, being on guard for logical fallacies, genuinely trying to understand different viewpoints, being fair toward another’s argument, considering all the data instead of cherrypicking, and on and on). It’s hard enough for me to deal with all this within myself. It’s just too much to have to try to deal with it in other’s as well, especially when those others in most cases don’t want to (or don’t have the capacity to) deal with it in themselves. Spending so much time online, I end up interacting with many people who don’t bring out the best in me and who put me in a generally combative, irritable mood. And it’s my fault for being so easily effected. I’m the way I am. People are the way they are. There is nothing that can be done about that. In this post, I merely wish to explain my frustration.
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I’ll give some examples.
I recently wrote about the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. There are two ways of treating these differences. The standard liberal view is that cultures are different with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. The standard conservative view is that some cultures are inherently or fundamentally superior. The problem with the conservative view is that conservative states and societies don’t rank well on many factors most people consider worthy (education, health, economic equality, etc). The conservative will often dismiss this data outright or rationalize it away. And, of course, a lot of (most?) conservatives have little interest in conceding to the liberal view of openminded and tolerant multiculturalism. As a liberal, how do I win or how do I find a win/win middle ground of understanding? I often can’t.
When I was writing about the Southern/Northern culture issue, I also brought up the related issue of race and IQ because it’s a favorite discussion of conservatives. As a liberal, I have a bias toward believing in egalitarianism. It bothers me on a fundamental level that conservatives are always seeking to prove others (usually those different than them) are inferior. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to defer to science on these kinds of issues. Facts are more important than my beliefs and preferences. I take it seriously when conservatives reference studies suggesting a correlation between race (i.e., racial genetics) and IQ. Because I take facts so seriously, I’ve researched the subject extensively by looking at all the studies I could find along with meta-analysis of the studies. It’s true there are some studies that suggest a possible correlation between race and IQ. But what these conservatives don’t wish to acknowledge is that there are also many studies showing no correlation between race and IQ and also many studies correlating IQ to many other factors. Simply put, the data is complex and the research is inconclusive. There is no scientific consensus, as far as I can tell.
I find odd this conservative attitude. These conservatives will cite research that supports their preconceived conclusions while ignoring all the research that contradicts their views. They completely ignore the issue of scientific consensus. I’ve found conservatives quite suspicious of scientific consensus. Conservatives like science when it agrees with them, but they realize scientific authority is a two-edged sword. Once you accept scientific consensus, you eliminate your ability to cherrypick the data. As a comparable example, most conservatives utterly despise the fact that most scientists in all fields and vast majority (98% as I recall) climatology experts who are active researchers agree that the data supports the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It took decades for conservatives to accept global warming was even happening, but seemingly most still don’t accept that humans contribute to global warming. So, despite the strong scientific evidence and strong scientific consensus, conservatives are wary about science when it disagrees with their beliefs. They’ll ignore what most scientists conclude about AGW and instead they’ll find the small minority of studies and scientists who agree with them.
Accordingly, science is just there to be referred to when convenient and ignored when inconvenient. I don’t understand this attitude. I just don’t get it. If the majority of experts agree about something, I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that I know better nor will I simply cherrypick the data that agrees with me. Why would I do this? What is to be gained by such anti-intellectual tactics?
One last example. I was looking at reviews of some books by Jim Wallis. One reviewer (in reference to God’s Politics if I remember correctly) mentioned the abortion issue. The person was criticizing the ‘moderate’ position that Wallis was proposing. As I understand it, Wallis is against abortions except when they are absolutely necessary (such as to save the mother’s life) and so is against banning abortions entirely. This position is ‘moderate’ in two ways. First, it strikes a balance between the practical and the moral and seeks a middle ground between two extremes (of pro-life and pro-choice). Second, it is the view held by most Americans and so is the ‘center’ of public opinion. The critical reviewer was promoting the common conservative view that abortions are bad and so compromising principles is to let liberals win. In a sense this is true because compromise is a liberal principle but not a conservative principle. Polls show that liberals support and conservative don’t support compromise. Even independents, although more supportive than conservatives, don’t have a majority that supports compromise. So, when Wallis is promoting a ‘moderate’ position he is by default promoting the ‘liberal’ position. Also, on many issues, most Americans hold positions that are ‘liberal’ (even though Americans don’t like to label themselves as ‘liberals’).
It just seems like liberals in America always lose even when they win. The liberal can have facts and public opinion on their side… and, yet, liberals are treated like an elitist minority to be dismissed and distrusted. It’s understandable that conservatives are wary about science considering most scientists identify as ‘liberals’.
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All of this has made me increasingly pessimistic. I grew up among idealistic liberals which rubbed off on me a bit, but I’ve over time become cynical in response. What is the point in bringing up facts and analyzing the data? Those who agree with me probably already know what I know or are at least open to learning. And those who disagree with me probably won’t accept the facts no matter what.
My frustration isn’t entirely limited to those on the right. I often find a simplemindedness in the idealism and egalitarianism on the left. Even so, I rarely find the same radical anti-intellectualism on the left as I described above. Plenty of liberals don’t understand science and misrepresent scientific research, but they tend to do so out of an admiration (albeit a confused admiration). There are, for example, the New Age type liberals who want to turn science into a pseudo-religion about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the universe. It’s well intentioned even if naive. From my view, this liberal simplemindedness is mostly harmless. Liberals generally aren’t interested in trying to use science against some race or culture. This isn’t to say I don’t feel frustrated by the liberal New Age woo, but it doesn’t usually make me angry and it won’t make me lose all hope in humanity. Even if a liberal dismisses out of hand scientific studies suggesting a possible correlation between race and IQ, they do so because of worthy ideals of egalitarianism. Liberals want to make the world better for everyone, not just better for one group. Liberals are correct that many conservatives will use any scientific research, with or without scientific consensus, against those they perceive as ‘other’. Yes, we should be wary of ulterior motives when scientific research is being cited.
It’s hard for me to grapple with my frustration or to fully understand it. It’s my own personal issue (which relates to the depression I’ve experienced for a couple of decades), but it’s obviously not just about me. I’m a liberal in a society that is dominated by a conservative ruling elite. I see the polls showing most Americans agree with liberals like me on many issues, but none of that seems to matter. Those with the most power and those who are loudest aren’t generally the liberals. It’s rare for the majority public opinion to become visible such as with the protests in Wisconsin. The liberal majority is largely a silent majority. Most ‘liberals’ (whether or not they identify themselves as such) are ‘moderates’ and so they aren’t radicals who want force their opinion onto others. Anyway, polls showing what most Americans believe or support is quite likely irrelevant to most conservatives. Either they just know most Americans agree with them (no matter what the polls may show) or else the general masses isn’t to be trusted (any more than the intellectual elite).
I’m just frustrated. I have many non-fiction books that interest me and many posts I’d like to write if I had the time… but what is the point? Time is a precious commodity. I could be spending it on activities less frustrating. Yes, I enjoy learning new things, but the process of learning can be less than enjoyable at times because of those I run into while doing research online. I think I just have to accept that what interests me isn’t what interests most others, including in many cases most other liberals. I can get obsessive when my curiosity is piqued. It’s not unusual for me to spend weeks or months doing research and thinking about some subject before writing about it and it can take equal amount of time to gather my thoughts into the form of a post. After all that, very few people typically will ever read what I write. I largely do it for my own reasons and so this shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. It just makes me feel isolated. Truth matters to me in the same way God matters to a religious believer. Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.
Honestly, does truth matter? Why should it matter? Why should anyone care about truth?
My frustration makes me feel cynical, but I don’t want to be a cynic. Still, I do understand the attraction of ‘giving up’. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, in response to superficial optimists (which can apply to all the superficialities of human society): “Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords.” I can’t begin to explain how much I sympathize with Liotti’s words, but he presents a conclusion of radical pessimism that goes far beyond even my own frustration. What I like about his advice is that bashing one’s head against a brick wall becomes unnecessary and avoidable once one realizes the brick wall for what it is. The brick wall ain’t going to move, not easily anyway. Even the best of us can only bash our heads against a brick wall for so long. I can’t say I’ve given up on my ideal of truth. I just need to let my fractured skull to mend a bit for the time being. Maybe I should read some fiction.
9 thoughts on “Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?”
Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.
Ben, you are not alone in that. Since I first encountered the concept of “truth” as an early teen, it has been MY “religion.” Even my so-called “woo-woo” stuff is in pursuit of “Truth.” Though my concept of it has been modified greatly.
I’d like to say first that what can one expect of these odd animals called “humans?” Their brains are built funny. The “rational” part is a late development, and subject at all times to being swamped by the more primitive parts which are indeed arational. Best to just accept that. Arguing with reality leads to suffering, but only 100% of the time. (A paraphrase of Byron Katie, http://www.thework.org.)
Second, I had a blinding realization some days ago that the kind of world I want does not require the cooperation or agreement of everyone. I and the folks who align with my Vision have the power to create it, and no one can stop us. Such is the power of creation.
I am left wondering if your frustration contains a root which is that you can be blocked by these folks, that you are “victim” in some sense, that your success in creating your world is dependent on their agreement. I do not believe our success is dependent on THEIR agreement. Just enough of us, that’s all. Doesn’t even matter if “they” are in the majority. Just enough of us.
Finally, I’d say the way OUT of any dilemma is always UP — to the meta-level. At which “us/them” and other opposites and conflicts and paradoxes can be seen as “wholes.” The solution to most problems I have found is to ZOOM OUT in perspective. See a bigger picture. Then zoom further in, see more details. Then put all 3 perspectives (current zoom, out, and in) into synergistic wholeness within my awareness.
Has a rather miraculous effect, even on seemingly “external” reality. In my experience, and others report the same.
IOW, the best ally of “truth” is MORE TRUTH.
I objectively know I’m not alone in that, but I at times subjectively feel alone in that. My speculative side wonders if there is some truth that we are all alone with God… and, in my case, my God is Truth.
My own Truth doesn’t exclude the ‘woo’, but I find it beneficial to not conflate Truth as objective fact (i.e., science) and Truth as subjective insight or inter-subjective experience (i.e., ‘woo’). The reason I do this is because my preferred conflation is no better than someone else’s preferred conflation. Conflating science and ‘woo’ is no more true than conflating science and racism.
That said, science doesn’t disprove ‘woo’. I personally like ‘woo’. And maybe one day what seems like ‘woo’ today will be scientifically understood. Until then, the distinction remains necessary.
Arguing with reality is one of my favorite activities. If you take that away from me, then what do I have left. I’m a bit of a gnostic in this sense. Reality (or what appears as reality) must constantly be challenged. Yes, arguing with reality leads to suffering, but everything leads to suffering. The world is suffering (another gnostic concept). Not being aware of the suffering isn’t the same thing as there not being suffering.
As for your second point, I’ve at times thought along those lines. I don’t, at the moment, have a strong opinion on the matter. All that I know is that reality is weird. I also know that people have blinding realizations all the time. Some blinding realizations are the same or similar. Others are entirely different, even opposing. Most of them tend to go away after a time. I’ve had blinding realizations and I know how they slip away.
I’m frustrated because life is frustrating. If you want to talk about self-empowerment and reality creation, tell it to the starving children, the homeless veterans, the prisoners being tortured.
If you think no one can stop you, I say more power to you. Go for it. Prove your vision is true. Make it real. I’m honestly open to being persuaded. I’ve spent my whole life wanting to be a ‘believer’ in something. Give me something worthy to believe in and I will believe. Demonstrate to me your truth and I will pronounce it to the world. I’m not kidding. I’m not being dismissive.
Yep, I understand what you say about the meta-level. I’ve had blinding realizations that have felt meta-level. It intuitively feels true to me and I suspect that it is actually true, but I don’t know to what extent or in what way.
There are many truths in life. Nearly everyone believes their own truth is THE ‘Truth’. Your truth is a meta-level blinding realization. I have no desire to take away your truth nor can I take it away. It’s yours. However, in this post, I was mostly speaking about objective truth which may or may not correlate to ‘Truth’. I can’t speak for ultimate truth, but I can speak for what science has proven to be true (as far as science can prove anything). I’m wary of the dangers of conflating factual truth with personal truth and of conflating both of those with the ideal of ‘Truth’ Maybe you think my caution is unjustified.
I will agree with the general sentiment of your last statement. However, I would state it a bit differently: the best ally of “truth” is more “truth”. I can’t speak for all caps TRUTH.
oops. Misunderstanding. By “arguing with reality” is meant arguing with the fact that it is what it is right here and now. Quite different from wanting it to be different in the future and working for it to be different in the future. Most people when they say “It shouldn’t be this way” are doing the former, not the latter. That’s all I meant.
Will read more later….
I see what you mean. I think we’re still not exactly meaning the same thing, but we have views that aren’t entirely dissimilar. I have a good friend who is very similar to you in his own worldview. I’m very sympathetic to it, but I’m conflicted about my own understanding. I value scientific truth so much maybe partly for the reason that all other truths seem less clear.
I’m frustrated with the world and with all the people in it. I do judge harshly the standard viewpoints of particular groups, but I’m not fundamentally blaming any person. There are many people who fit the conservatives and liberals I describe. On the other hand, there are many who don’t. Most people aren’t clearly any one thing. The data I’ve seen shows most Americans are moderates. So, my criticisms are focused on a minority, although my criticisms more generally touch upon the human condition.
I don’t know where that leaves me in my understanding (or lack thereof). I think my wariness about conflation symbolizes a split I feel, an inner conflictedness. An element of it could be Cartesian anxiety, but I don’t know if that fully captures my experience. I would say the idealization or idolization of ‘truth’ is largely a modern phenomenon. We moderns are obsessed with finding certainty and perplexed by our inability to find it. The ground is shifting and some are more aware of this condition than others.
On a slightly different note, I feel we are all trapped in stories. Some of our stories may seem more enjoyable or uplifting than others, but all stories are simultaneously our homes and our prisons. We live in them without the ability to stand outside. We can look into the reality tunnels of others and speak about them ‘objectively and yet we do so from the ‘subjectivity’ of our own reality tunnel. Even a meta view is just another reality tunnel. It’s reality tunnel within reality tunnel like Russian dolls. It’s turtles all the way down.
Reason is for winning arguments, not for finding the truth, as described here:
Social science research also shows that conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do, and that conservatives understand liberals better then liberals understand conservatives. This and more is described in this easy read:
The consequences of these things are summarized quite well by R. R. Reno in his review of the above linked book:
“Haidt offers an analogy to our capacity for taste: The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” Our innate moral intuitions fall into six categories or “foundations”: care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity. Care, freedom, and fairness tend to focus on individuals. We see someone suffering, and our care taste bud is stimulated. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity focus on social realities. They are what Haidt calls “binding” foundations, because they unify people into social groups. No individual is harmed when someone uses the flag as a cleaning rag, but doing so involves a symbolic disregard for the moral value of patriotic loyalty.
Seeing with the social [i.e., the binding foundations] as well as with the individual [i.e., the individualizing foundations] eye, as it were, unites American conservatives with the vast majority of human beings who in all known cultures place a great deal of importance on the “binding” foundations. All known cultures, that is, except the subculture of people who grow up in Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic societies, WEIRD societies, as Haidt calls them.
This subculture, the liberal subculture that formed Haidt in his childhood and throughout most of his education, produces people like the Penn undergraduates who say that it’s alright to have sex with chickens as long as nobody is harmed. They are statistically weird, “outliers,” as social scientists say. Unlike the vast majority of humanity, they’ve been socialized to disregard their emotional responses when faced with offenses to loyalty, authority, and sanctity. They’re blinded in the moral eye that sees the social valences of moral situations.
It’s this difference in the scope of moral concerns that underlies the deep and bitter divisions running through American public life. People who respond so differently to reality can’t argue and debate. Too much separates them, and politics does indeed become a culture war by other means.
Haidt’s research suggests an inconvenient truth about our divided country. The ill-tempered rancor stems in large part from the moral myopia of liberals. They have a great deal of difficulty grasping the “binding” moral concerns that engage American conservatives, especially when those concerns are heightened and given shape by religion. And their response to this difficulty has been to summarily dismiss those who see with two eyes. Those of us who are concerned about loyalty, authority, and sanctity are subject to rhetorical extermination: We’re denounced as “not mainstream.”
And not just American conservatives. Liberals tend to be unable to muster much respect for the moral outlook of billions and billions of people throughout the globe whose traditional societies train them to use both eyes. Hence, for example, the Obama administration’s desire to make the advancement of homosexual rights part of our foreign policy. It’s just the latest part of the WEIRD subculture’s effort to expand the influence of it’s individualistic ethic.
Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye–yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.”
Above review available here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/05/our-one-eyed-friends
The first post I ever wrote about Haidt was prior to my having more fully explored his theory:
Since then, I’ve analyzed Haidt’s theory in great detail:
In another post, I also discussed Haidt in a different context where I analyzed his use of Sowell’s constrained/unconstrained theory:
I also discussed in an earlier post a quote by Adam Smith, either the origin of or an influence on Sowell’s theory:
Of course, I’ve many times written in great detail about the larger issue of the conservative/liberal divide, the second one down is particularly detailed:
“Reason is for winning arguments, not for finding the truth”
It seems to me that, as usual, Haidt is making a conservative argument for conservatism. In some of the above posts (about Sowell, the Enlightenment, etc), I analyzed the conservative and liberal views of reason. Each of the two positions is partly correct in that the conservative view of reason applies to the conservative use of reason and the liberal view of reason applies to the liberal use of reason. This becomes much more clear when you look at the psychological differences.
“Social science research also shows that conservatives understand human nature better than liberals do, and that conservatives understand liberals better then liberals understand conservatives.”
I’ve read Haidt’s book about moral foundations. In some of the Amazon reviews, I was even involved in some extensive debates. It is those debates that led me to write several posts about the topic.
So, I’m familiar with the science research you refer to. As I argue in those posts, there are so many problems with Haidt’s theory that any research based on it becomes problematic. This isn’t to say that I dismiss it out of hand. It just needs to be analyzed with a wary eye. There is a broad range of science research that Haidt is downplaying or in many cases ignoring entirely.
I was in the middle of writing another post about this one particular aspect of Haidt’s research, but the vast number of crticisms of the entire model made me feel less motivated to spend even more time analyzing it. However, since you’ve brought up the issue again, maybe I’ll finish it and maybe I’ll get it posted here soon.
I randomly came across this again. And I happened to find something else that was relevant.
It occurs to me that all of American society is WEIRD, both liberals and conservatives. What is called conservative in the US (laissez faire capitalism, hyper-individualistic idealization of liberty, etc) is called liberal in other societies. Also, as Corey Robin makes clear, there is very little in common between conservatism and traditionalism.
Along with this line of thought, I’d suggest that Haidt’s moral foundations are also a bit WEIRD, at least some of them. The following study by Douglas P. Fry seems to support this conclusion:
The relevance of nomadic forager studies to moral foundations theory: Moral education and global ethics in the twenty-first century
“Moral foundations theory (MFT) proposes the existence of innate psychological systems, which would have been subjected to selective forces over the course of evolution. One approach for evaluating MFT, therefore, is to consider the proposed psychological foundations in relation to the reconstructed Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. This study draws upon ethnographic data on nomadic forager societies to evaluate MFT. Moral foundations theory receives support only regarding the Caring/harm and Fairness/cheating foundations but not regarding the proposed Loyalty/betrayal and Authority/subversion foundations. These latter two proposed foundations would seem to reflect the historical classic assumptions of modernity, involving self-interest, competition, individualism, hierarchy, authority and so forth. Studying the ethical dimensions of nomadic forager societies can highlight our biases about the foundations of morality, some of which may be steeped in particularist Western political and social traditions. Some recent developments from cosmopolitanism are discussed as an alternative evolving worldview that parallels nomadic forager ethos.”
This commentary by Kurt Gray is also relevant:
Disconfirming Moral Foundations Theory on Its Own Terms: Reply to Graham
“People see immorality in sin and sex, but is “purity” a unique type of moral content, with unique cognition? Domain-general accounts—and parsimony—suggest that all moral content is processed similarly and that “purity” is merely a descriptive label. Conversely, domain-specific theories (e.g., moral foundations theory [MFT]) argue for a special purity module. Consistent with domain-general accounts, we demonstrated that purity concerns are not distinguished from harm concerns—in either MFT or naturalistic scenarios—and that controlling for domain-general dimensions eliminates effects previously ascribed to moral “modules.” Here, we reaffirm the strength of our data, exploring how issues raised by Graham reflect only weaknesses in MFT. Importantly, we identify several clear contradictions between Graham’s comment and past-published accounts of MFT. To the extent that MFT stands by its published stimuli, methodologies, and theoretical assumptions, we believe that we have disconfirmed MFT on its own terms.”