Saturday, March 7, 2009

Wilful Ignorance

without understanding an opponent's position, you'll never learn anything. For all you ever get is confirmation of your own agenda.

- Kel on Pharynugla

People like to have opinions about everything - from politics to religion, philosophy, science, technology, parenting, etc. It's natural as humans to have opinions and to want those opinions validated, mostly by those close to us. We form groups of like minded people who share similar values and ostracise other groups. This of course can sterilise conversation, and ideas as a group becomes homogeneous, back-patting and dogmatic. Without a contrarian, without doubt, our ideas can never be challenged and we may never discover if we are ever wrong.

There are of course, some ideas which transcend opinion and are in the realm of facts and truths. The lack of (serious) flat earth societies is testament to the idea that peoples minds can be changed when it comes to issues of undeniable fact even if our basic intuitions (the earth looks flat) fail us. This doesn't work in all cases - to steal the ironic title of Ray Comfort's new book "You can bring a person to knowledge, but you can't make them think". The irony being that Ray has consistently been given the information, yet wilfully ignores it.

The difference between wilful ignorance and natural ignorance is the question of will. There are always going to be two sides (or more) to a story, and especially for controversial issues, the fact that a multitude of people exist on the other side means that you ought not to ignore it. Some people might be too scared to question their opinions or ideas they have for many reasons, including social ostricization, fear of hell, fear of being wrong, fearing the consequences, or an unhealthy belief that their position is indisputable - irrespective of what the other group has to say. Others are just arrogant and stubborn...

Natural ignorance is understandable. No one person knows everything, and some of us just go with our gut when it comes to things we do not know about. The question is, are you able to admit that you are not knowledgeable about something and that you might be wrong. If the answer is yes, then you are showing humility and an open mind. If you say no, you are probably closed minded and wilfully ignorant. Even if you believe you are knowledgeable about something, there is always a chance you might have missed something or new information has come to light. In either case, is there any justification for ever closing ones mind?

A novel idea I learned in high school when debating was to be put in *any* position. Which is to say, instead of just debating the side you already believe in, there is a chance you might need to defend the other point of view - even if you do not believe it. This is where debating becomes a game about convincing people you are right, or winning, even if you are in opposition to what is being proposed. This is the game lawyers play, especially in criminal cases where they know they are defending someone who really did commit the crime. Naturally there are bound to be sandbaggers who will present the case they do not believe in, in a negative light to convince people that point of view has no merit. This would make them fail the class or make their record look bad!

The easiest way to distinguish between someone who is wilfully ignorant and naturally ignorant is to ask them to argue for the other side. If they are unable to come up with even the basis of a cogent argument - they do not understand the other side. If someone claims they have "done the research" or presents themselves as an authority, yet does not present "common knowledge", it becomes trivial to identify those who have serious objections to those who are sandbagging for their cause. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you know someone is being wilfully ignorant - and you want to call them out on it.

I highly recommend Christians take the Debunking Christianity Challenge.
One of the next books on my list of books to read is "Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity" by John W. Loftus.
If there is one thing the "new atheists" cannot deal with, it's that fact that none of them were ever apologists for a faith and lost it, so they do not really understand the other point of view.


Kel said...

Not to take away from an otherwise well argued point, but there are plenty of the "new atheists" who were once apologists and lost their faith. For example Michael Shermer was an evangelical Christian in his teens, Dan Barker was a former evangelical preacher, Matt Dillahunty who runs The Atheist Experience was an evangelical Christian for over 20 years. Unless you are doing the tautological definition like Andrew Brown (where he complained none of the "new atheists" were philosophers and then left off prominent philosophers in the movement.)

Getting into the mind of a fundamentalist is tough, when there are those who completely engage in the notion that God controls the rise and fall of the stock market, how is one meant to approach such a position from an intellectual basis? It's like trying to reconcile that thetans cause depression or that martyrdom gives you 72 virgins in paradise.

Is it perhaps pertinent to discern between an intellectual appraisal of another's position and a personal understanding? Or in your view are the two different levels of thought inseparable? i.e. does one need to understand the psychology of cults or the particular beliefs of Scientology in order to successfully argue against Tom Cruise?

Reasonably Aaron said...

It's hard to define what a "new atheist" is, mainly because it can either be used as a term of solidarity or as something to be ashamed of. The common denominator for the most successful atheist speakers (I suppose in terms of book sales) have been an advocacy of a science based approach to life. It just seems like the philosophical side isn't popular!

I'm reminded of a debate between Scott Atran and Sam Harris at Beyond Belief 2006. Atran noted that religious ideas are literal nonsense (from Ayres' philosophy), but as Harris pointed out - they aren't nonsense to the believer. So the answer might be both! (Think PZ and the crackers)

Some of the next books I've been wanting to read are by Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran who study religion as anthropologists. Apparently there are common themes in all religions which help people bind these ideas to their life.

I sometimes get the feeling that as time goes by and when someone goes from believer to non-believer, they "forget" what it was like to be a believer and fall into the same traps all non-believers do when arguing...It's either that or there is very little difference between the non-believer and believer. Hard to say.

Kel said...

Sam Harris made that exact same point in Letter To A Christian Nation and it really stopped me in my tracks. PZ and the cracker is a great example, because really it's just a frackin' cracker. Yet the way believers reacted to it (death threats) it's like they legitimately believed by a priest saying a magic phrase that it turns into Jesus and they partake in ritualised cannibalism.

Now how is anyone outside of that religion meant to grasp that? Though is it that different to believe in that than it is to believe in wave-particle duality or the emergence of life over billions of years through the evolutionary process? Given the lack of understanding of physics and biology in the general community, surely our acceptance of evolution would be met with the same incredulity.