I recently read Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape. I’ve always loved his ability to argue reasonably and rationally, this time on a subject that even atheists have a hard time agreeing with – that morality can be defined by science. He makes a strong case, bringing up every objection to his hypothesis and quashing them. It would seem, as I’ve read the critiques of this book, that people disagree with him not because they don’t believe he’s right, but because it’s objectionable to believe it. I don’t have a hard time believing things that I don’t want to believe in, and have no trouble seeing Harris’ logic and agreeing.
The pages contain a very profound message about the attempts to persuade people from their beliefs, and I thought I’d share it before expanding on it.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put forward a very influential thesis about moral judgment known as the “social-intuitionist model.” In a widely referenced article entitled “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,” Haidt summarizes our predicament this way: [O]ur moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the“wag-the-dog” illusion: We believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion: In a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of our opponents’ arguments to change our opponents’ minds. Such a belief is analogous to believing that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy.
I make moral arguments all the time, and I expect that these are based on moral reasoning. I have sound logical backing for this idea, as almost everything I believe morally is the result of hours of research and personal contemplation. However, I will always be biased to think that this is true even when it isn’t. It’s an inescapable bias.
Second, I believe that if I make an argument and it can’t be rationally answered, that I’ll win over my audience. It’s possible to persuade others, but as Haidt puts it, this is largely as “illusion”. For instance, I’ve remarked about contradictions within the bible. Some of these are absurdly hard to rationally answer, such as “When did Jesus drive the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem?” There are 3 different dates
given in the bible. The link here is to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which allows Christian authors to post rebuttals to things such as found contradictions, but you’ll notice this one doesn’t have a posted answer. It’s likely to be impossible to give a logical answer to this.
And yet, I’ve put forward arguments like this to my Christian friends, expecting them to concede that an unanswerable challenge to the literal truth of the bible should change their minds. It hasn’t. It doesn’t. The human brain simply doesn’t work like this, although from an objective standpoint it ought to. If you asked somebody if an argument based on factual evidence that has no reasonable counter-response would change their mind, you’ll almost always get positive feedback… until you give them an example that contradicts one of their own held beliefs. Faith is only convincing to it’s subscribers… but that doesn’t change the fact that it does convince them, against common sense.
Now is the point where you’re probably thinking “you’re a hypocrite”. Would my own mind be changed by a rational argument that I couldn’t rebut? YES
. I’m not in the majority when it comes to faith. My mind is often changed by argument, as I read debates on political, scientific, and religious topics. When I gain new evidence, I always weigh it against the evidence at hand and come to a new (or unchanged) belief. I’m not worried about being consistent… I’m worried about being right. You’ll often hear me respond to criticism, and this doesn’t mean that my mind is unchangeable. The response you hear will be me, presenting the evidence on the other side of the scale for you to weigh. If I believe that you’re right
, I’ll admit it
. I really do believe that if I can’t reasonably respond, then I’m probably wrong. Do you keep this same open mind, dear reader? I can only hope so.
Does this mean that I’ll stop putting forth debates because I’m not likely to change minds? No. Hitting a brick wall is merely a challenge. There’s no reason a challenge should stop somebody from pursuing what they believe is right. And I believe that it is right that people be skeptical of their value systems, just as Christians believe that Muslims should be skeptical of their value systems. What’s good for the goose really is good for the gander, and nobody should be exempt from self-criticism. And I’ll continue to present reasons why Christians should re-evaluate their beliefs until the day that this religion passes away like the once-widespread belief in Greek Mythology, on the same principles… under examination, its core is superstition, not fact.