Saturday, November 07, 2009

How We Discuss:
Probabilities and Bulverisms

Two things caught my eye this week related to the way discussions seem to go online:

The second one is first - Lewis's discovery of Bulverism:
We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought - in the sense of making it untrue - or not?

Now, of course
The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not - which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed.
In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [Note: This essay was written in 1941.] is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly.
Like Lewis
I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning - never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.
Now, anyone who has been involved in very many discussions online between atheists and theists, or between conservatives and progressives, has seen the symptoms of Ezekiel Bulver's invention. Here is one example:
We know the gospels were written decades later by educated, Greeks. I do not see any sense in arguing this point with you as you seem to be an ultra conservative who believes that Mark wrote Mark and that John wrote John. The overwhelming consensus of scholarship is againt you but I know you do not care.
So, without having actually presenting the evidence for what they (all dem der smart people) know, I believe the obviously silly because I am an ultra-conservative that "doesn't care". Or, this one
I, as a Harvard Professor, with very little concern for, or interest in the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, believed the Pope was infallible. Most Roman Catholics, outside the Ivory Tower types that seem to inhabit this place, have even less concern for these minutia, just believing any pearls of wisdom dropped from the alter as gospel truth. You can wring your hands all you want on this issue, but your church has blood on its hands from it's dealings with the GLBT community and there is no end in sight for their continuing down this hateful path.
Maybe the best (or is that the worst?) example of Bulverism I have seen this week was pointed out by Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse -- the political left and right ascribing motives to the killer at Fort Hood without really having an evidence to know why the killings occurred.
The rationalizations for Major Hasan’s rampage - his motives, his state of mind, even the environment in which he carried out his horrific attack - are being tossed about the blogosphere on both sides as if everything that can be known about the circumstances has already been revealed.

This must be the case because without any definitive word from authorities, from his friends and associates, or from Hasan himself, both lefty and righty blogs have already “solved” the mystery of motive and any argument to the contrary is “racist,” or “pro-jihad,” or “hate speech,” or “political correctness.”

As Lewis said:
Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.
* * * * *
The other interesting thing. C. Michael Patton starts with:
I often play this game with my kids that drives them crazy. Sitting in the room, with no one but us, while they are not looking I will slap them on the rear and act like I did not do it. They turn and say, “Daddy! I know you did that.” I say, “I did not.” ”Then who did it?” they respond (thinking they have settled the issue with this one question). I say, “A guy ran into the front door and slapped them and then ran out.” They look at me like I am crazy. “Look!” I respond to their skepticism, “The door is not locked. It is obvious that someone could have come in since the door is not locked.” Upon further looks of skepticism, I have them go check the door to see if it is locked or not. Once they check and see it is unlocked, I have won the day. I have poked a hole and their certainty and even caused them to confirm it. No longer possessing the indubitably that I have required for their epistemic verification, they now have lost poise in their former confidence. In other words, I tricked them into thinking that one has to be absolutely certain about something before it can be believed.
What happens when we are challenged in our beliefs:
once we cannot account for the door being unlocked, we find ourselves wondering why we are being forced to check the door in the first place. Yet we do it anyway. When the door is unlocked, those who are epistemically conditioned to find this substantial, like my children, enter into a state of suspended belief, doubt, or skepticism or opt for a “leap of faith” that demands no evidence, and then sneer at those who do demand evidence as if it is passé.
Patton does tell us what the kids really should say
“Daddy, I don’t care if the door is unlocked. It does not play a sufficient part in your proposition to warrant a disregard of the greater areas of viability with regard to our belief that you are the one who slapped us.” And if I respond, “But you don’t know with perfect, absolute, and infallible certainty,” they should say, “No daddy, probability is sufficient to warrant, yea, demand a belief such as ours and, as a consequence, to reject your alternative.” Well, if they said it like that, I would be scared, but you know what I am saying.
The point for us, as our beliefs are challenged, is to understand that
Probability is sufficient. We neither need to go into intellectual hibernation and accept our beliefs on blind faith nor do we need to suspend our belief until all the objections, no matter how improbable, are answered (i.e. we don’t need to check the door).

What I posed to my children was merely a possibility to explain the slap, but possibilities do not create probabilities. We are responsible in this life to act upon the revelation given to us, not to seek absolute indubitably.

* * * * *
As we stand ready to "explain the reason for our hope", we are going to be confronted with both Bulverisms and folks doing no more than pointing at the door and telling us it is unlocked. We need to challenge the truth of people's positions long before we talk about their psychology in believing them. And, as Collins said:
. . . believe that the resurrection of Christ is probable to such a degree that the only rational option is for all people to fall on their face and worship him.

1 comment:

  1. Francis Schaeffer consistently shared that God's revelation of Himself (in Scripture and the natural world--including the mannishness of man) was not exhaustive but sufficient in order for us to know him and trust him.  We as finite beings could not know exhaustively at any rate. The need to know EVERYTHING before acting (believing) would mean we would not act or believe at all.  This requirement to know with absolute certainty (before believing) is a position we do not take in any other area of our life.  It is rather an excuse to avoid reconciliation with God and will be exposed on the last day.

    The contents of your blog is very much appreciated.  Thank-you!


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly