Monday, November 24, 2008

On "Being Wrong"

I’ve run into a bit of a wall with my thoughts on religious language, they’ve become scattered and tangential. I feel that part of the problem is I have so many concepts which need shoring up I’m not even certain where to begin cleaning the beach; and then something came to mind.

One topic that has always left me in a funk is the nature of debate, more importantly, someone being wrong. The more I engage in debates on various blogs, the more I see people simply squatting, taking sides on a given issue and not budging; myself included. So I’ve changed my attitude a bit as this taking of sides seems to miss the point of why a handful of people came together in the first place.

For Example:I tend to frequent blogs that debate Atheism vs. Theism, Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. Regarding the debates on these blogs I’m baffled by a couple things; in the event that the blog owner happens to be a theist, why is the blog full of atheist individuals trying to stir up trouble and all around being contentious? If you don’t agree with the Theist, why trouble yourself with the debate? I tend to assume, somewhat solipsitically, that either the atheist just wants to satisfy his ego by using what he would consider his superior powers of logic, or perhaps he really does have an interest in religion that he is unwilling to admit to. I think about it this way, when it comes to friends and coworkers, we tend to gravitate towards people who we share common ideals and/or, people who we find we can make connections with. Or in a more general sense, in face to face life people tend to steer towards making a connection before making a divide, that is, people have a natural desire to be understood by others and this cannot be achieved by being contentious with everyone you first meet. We humans don’t meet people on the street and immediately start arguing with them, we engage in small talk about the weather, we talk sports and news, we stick to themes where we know immediately there’s a commonality. Yet go to a Theistic blog and at any moment some stranger jumps in and starts calling people idiots; it troubles me….

What I’d like to talk about here are two things; what does it mean to be wrong? And secondly, Davidson’s Principle of Charity.
First, what is the principle of charity?
The principle of charity asks; what are the conditions under which on conversation can take place or can actually happen? What Davidson would suggest, is that in order to interpret a person we must assume up front that what they say, the beliefs they convey, are mostly true about the world, and furthermore they have mostly the same beliefs about the world as you do. This works for the following reason; the more falsehoods and/or error you attribute to someone in conversation, the less evidence you have that your interpretation is a correct one. To simply discard someone’s beliefs or thoughts entirely, drains your case that you’re interpreting this person at all, or that this person even has beliefs.

In other words, in the case of a debate between theist and atheist; if the atheist simply makes the claim that the theist is entirely wrong about the world, about God, so on, he now has no idea whether or not he’s even interpreted this person at all. He may as well be talking to some evil blog demon who’s simply spiting out nonsense; and yet he sticks around for more. I find it vary infrequent that the atheist (or the theist for that matter) tries to reach out and find some common ground on which to stand.

On being wrong:
Let me sidestep for a moment and talk about being wrong, then I’ll come back to the principle of charity. Being wrong, I tend to believe, is nothing more than falling into contextual error; in other words it’s not so much that we’re deceived about sensory input as much as we speak about that sensory input in a way that’s contradictory to our cultural language game. For example, let’s suppose you put 3 rocks in the hand of some individual and ask the question, “How many rocks are you holding?” and they respond, “5 rocks.” Now, of course, you’re going to immediately interpret them as being incorrect, and rightly so in one sense as they’re holding only 3 rocks.

Hold the show though; certainly we don’t want to say that this persons experience has deceived them do we? In other words I think we’d all agree that this person is in the very least experiencing (seeing, feeling) what we would generally consider a quantity of 3 rocks. However what they report to you is not consistent with your expectations; which of course are based on a language game that you’ve learned to play. So in other words, the person is wrong relative to the way they conveyed they’re experience linguistically. However the way we speak to each other immediately assumes (on the surface) that we’re attributing to them false beliefs about the world, when (unless they’re insane or hallucinating) how could this ever be so?

Is this person an idiot then? Perhaps they simply don’t understand numbers, or perhaps the way they think about numbers is different then yours? We’ll never understand this by simply calling the person wrong and correcting them, we’ll only understand by asking them what they mean by 5, or if they even understood the question at all. If we go with the principle of charity and assume they are correct, our natural next move will be to make specific inquiries about the meaning of the answer “5 rocks”. We should assume that their experience is genuine, that they see the same thing we see; in this sense we’ll find that the confusion over rightness and wrongness was not about the world at large, but about the way we talk about the world at large.

The next step is, how do we make up the difference between the atheist’s and theist’s language game? There is a definite gorge existing between the two that seem unbridgeable, so much so that we’re unable to have intelligent conversation back and forth, which in turn leads to, “You’re an idiot”, “No you’re an idiot” so on and so on. In most cases (at least in the blogs I roll) the theist understands quite well the logic which is at play, and the losses for logical explanations they’re faced with. However this in no way diminishes they’re sense of a transcendental identity, feeling or faith in a God, so on. How then do you interpret that without falling into a situation where you have drained your case that a person even believes in anything at all? The atheist will say that the burden of proof is on the theist to provide “rational” evidence to support they’re positions, however A.) This evidence is really non-existent for reasons I won’t get into here, and B.) When has rationality ever comprehended the emotions?

Only by taking a personal leap of faith will the atheist ever begin to understand the theist. In Buddhism it is well understood that “The Way” is a personal experience, not something that can be spoken of. After all, when has a word or phrase (spoken rationally) ever captured your spirit? There as well, we can understand each other quite well face to face, because we can see in the eyes what the person is feeling, but words on a computer screen are always somewhat confusing and lacking of any emotion; what more evidence does one need that words are ultimately meaningless?


  1. Andrew,

    You are correct:

    " the case of a debate between theist and atheist; if the atheist simply makes the claim that the theist is entirely wrong about the world, about God, so on, he now has no idea whether or not he’s even interpreted this person at all."

    The inverse is also true.

    I have found that by engaging people in conversation - especially if their beliefs and opinion differ from my own - I have at the very least learned a bit about the word that I didn't know before.

    I have also discovered a variety of different philosophical positions and lines of reasoning that I have never come across before - your own included - that have made me question my own world view and my reasoning in accepting and rejecting what I do.

    I'm not out to convince anyone they're wrong, really. If I come out and say that right off the bat, they're more likely to defend their position and I get to see their reasoning - it's that equal and opposite reaction thing.

    Of course sometimes, sometimes people are just plain wrong.

  2. Ego is definitley a root cause for this 'uncompromising' positioning (we always beat up on Communists while fighting for Socialist ideals such as universal health care and free education for example). Add to this fear. People do not like to shift beyond their comfort zones. Imagine, you are raised in a religion and it's traditions to come to the revelation that it's all a lie, or, alternatively, living as a non-theist only to find G(g)od late in life and think "oh shite!" Let's face it, we will all argue a lost point out of pride and a fear of exposing a potential weakness over our lives a multiple of times. If one's thinking does not evolve, than neither will the person. Imagine, refusing to drink any other beer than Bud - think of what you would miss out on (i.e. Guinness!).

  3. ExPat,
    I appreciate the sentiment. It seems to me that at a fundamental level (this is simply the way I like to put it) we’re arguing over a language game, more importantly between the theist and atheist, incompatible language games. I’ve often argued from the position of being right and the other wrong, and in doing so I/we, never learn to understand each other.

    Let me refer you to this post I could.
    "The Beginning of Dogma" , this has a reference to another post.

    This is nice point:
    “(we always beat up on Communists while fighting for Socialist ideals such as universal health care and free education for example)”

    All I really want is to understand other people and for people to understand me, however, ego has a tendency of getting in the way sometimes; it’s easy when you’re talking with someone you already agree with.