People who know me well find it surprising that I’m not completely tied up in petty debates with believers of various sorts (in political party X, or religion Y, etc). I tend to dismiss it with an air of worldly wisdom: it takes a lot of work to attempt to convince someone, and it usually requires repeated interactions. Some relationships need to continue to exist despite core disagreements, so an armistice is silently agreed upon. In the middle are people whom who you neither care to convince or remain in contact with, and sarcastic dismissal, when deployed, goes in their direction.
This lack of conflict is a problem, actually, particularly when it’s absence is marked amongst those with whom I ostensibly share beliefs or values. The agreements turn out to be surface phenomena, dissipating quickly as soon as one delves deeper, turning enthusiasm into confusion and even feelings of betrayal. What we lack is a shared episteme.
An episteme was, for Foucault, “precisely that set of statements that allow opposed theories of, for example, language, to be opposed.” A line between two binary staked positions marks an episteme, of sorts; a position not on that line confounds matters immensely (is it closer to position A or position B? It might be equally close/far to/from both). Another way to think of this is to say that, while all communication miscommunciates, some communications miscommunicate more than others.
The most striking example of this that I recall was hearing Luke Muehlhauser interview philosopher/theologian John Caputo on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot and his responding to a question about god with the aside, “I just think that the theism-atheism decision is lame.”
I’ve found that, particularly in regards to politics and religion, my potential opponents and I simply don’t share enough common ground to argue.
The immediate trigger for this post was a throwaway anecdote Chris Reid put out there:
Recently, when a Christian friend of mine wanted to shoot bull with me, he claimed that I had become less atheistic because of the kind of arguments I was making. I didn’t really understand his claim, but I think it had to do with the fact that my responses no longer were direct reactions to his because we didn’t share enough assumptions there anymore.
What instead? For me, it’s systems thinking, ecological thinking, broad curiosity and ice-water vision. On that latter, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, reflecting on Tony Judt’s history of Europe in Postwar:
Judt has the courage to look dead-eyed at ideology and all its limitations without lapsing into nostalgia or cynicism. The writer Jake Lamar once called this “ice-water vision.” If I could cultivate any intellectual quality, outside of curiosity, it would be Judt’s “ice-water vision.”
Later, Coates writes:
I am often asked for solutions to many of the problems I raise. Almost as often I demur. That is because I am increasingly convinced that my particular great problems don’t actually have solutions.
Fixing the last problem yields a new situation with its own problems. Rather than an excuse for inaction, I find it to be a peace where I understand that there are no unmitigated ‘good’ actions, no positions one can take that will be unassailable by all future judgments. “Have better problems” would be a suitable motto. There is some space for sincerity amidst cynicism.
As for teasing out a different sort of dialogue, I’ve begun efforts to expand a “miscommunication-reduction strategy” beyond one-on-one conversations; I was interviewed on the local cable TV show Atheists Talk this past week (should air sometime in March, I believe), and we were able to talk about the meaning-making/meaning-unmaking divide that rests perpendicular to theist/atheist. My ribbonfarm posts will likely attempt at something similar.
It’s unclear whether positive efforts alone are sufficient. I’ve begun the Specific Carbohydrate Diet this past week, and part of the objective is to selectively starve the part of your microbiome that is causing problems while continuing to feed and maintain the rest. Both the starving and the feeding are essential components in change the relative ratios of different bacteria families.
I suspect our collection of mental perspectives, memes, and other mind fodder have similar structures; tightly-networked beliefs are unlikely to be given up even in the face of strong evidence, but weakly-networked beliefs often need only a nudge. Changing a perspective requires weakening and breaking old network ties while simultaneously cementing new links. Practiced action or new social formations are often better vectors than mere postulates.
Or as I tweeted earlier this week:
Counter-narratives & counter-cultures are more effective than counter-arguments— hewhocutsdown (@hewhocutsdown) February 7, 2014