What Would It Take To Prove You Wrong?

18 06 2010

This is a question I think we all need to ask ourselves (and others) from time to time. And if, for any particular belief, we find the answer is “nothing”, then we need to rethink our reasons for holding that belief.

Not only is this kind of dogma the enemy of rational discourse, but it obscures our own reasons for holding particular beliefs.

Climate change deniers are a case in point. I’d suggest that many deniers hold their explicit beliefs concerning climate change because of other unarticulated implicit beliefs they hold concerning liberty, free markets, the role of humanity in nature and the evils of collectivism. And they likely hold these beliefs for even deeper emotional reasons that are largely obscured from view and rarely reflected upon.

You can see the tell-tale signs of dogma in these individuals because no amount of empirical evidence or rational argument will shake their explicit beliefs, even when this evidence directly challenges their ‘reasons’ for holding those beliefs. In fact, those ‘reasons’ serve merely as proxies for their deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes. As such, arguing with them is largely pointless – at least on the level of explicit beliefs.

To argue with an individual who holds a dogmatic adherence to a particular view one must delve deeper and target the implicit beliefs lurking below the surface. This isn’t an easy process. But it can be fruitful. Often the dogmatist will not even realise these deeper beliefs exist; they’re more assumptions than anything reflected upon.

Yet if one can even form the link between the surface and implicit beliefs, then that can begin to make progress. Then, if one can encourage some reflection of those deeper beliefs, that can begin to erode the surface dogmatism. It’s not easy, but it’s a damn sight more effective than hurling yourself against the wall of dogma.

So, you tell me: what would it take to prove you wrong?



One response

19 06 2010
Mark Sloan

I’ll address the question about what would it take to prove me wrong about my assertion that: “Virtually all cultural moral standards and common moral intuitions are heuristics advocating behaviors which increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation within a group and are unselfish at least in the short term.”

On a superficial level, this statement could be proved wrong by counterexamples of cultural moral standards or common moral intuitions that do not “increase, on average, the benefits of cooperation within a group” and/or are not “unselfish at least in the short term”.

But could my “deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes” adversely affect my ability to judge if a proposed counterexample is a ‘true’ counterexample?
Since normal thought processes must make many assumptions about reality, it is almost inevitable that my judgment of counterexamples will be affected by my “deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes”. For me these include a naturalistic view of the universe and the, as yet, apparently unlimited ability of science to investigate and understand that universe. But dialog with a rational person who does not share these views (and therefore whose thinking will take other paths and perspectives) might still lead to a consensus on the validity of a counterexample even if our “deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes” did not change. Such a dialog would be a useful check on the ‘truth’ of both parties’ positions.

However, if our “deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes” actually prevented us from coming to a consensus by rational discussion, then we would have the problem you mention with respect to climate change deniers. I think it is useful for you to point out 1) a likely source for this kind of disagreement and 2) to be aware that people can rationally differ when relying on different “implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes”.

But, aside from avoiding frustration, it is not clear to me this information could actually help a great deal to convince climate change deniers (or deniers of my above hypothesis) that they are ‘wrong’. Changing known “implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes” will be difficult. Changing unrecognized “implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes”, which I assume are common, might be impossible.

But as you say, encouraging reflection on identifiable “implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes” is probably a better approach than ignoring the ultimate source of a disagreement.

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