May 24, 2009

Arguing About the Important Stuff

Over the years, I’ve read a number of Paul Graham’s essays, and I’ve enjoyed them greatly and I think I’ve learned a lot from them. The first one I was introduced to was “Why Nerds are Unpopular”, which is well worth the read. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of them: a year or maybe more. I ran across this one, apparently published in February of this year: “Keep Your Identity Small”. This is the one I want to discuss here.

Paul Graham shares in the dislike of religion and Christian orthodoxy that is common among most geeks on the Internet (in my experience anyway). He certainly doesn’t rank among the worst offenders, and his insights are usually shrewd in spite of what appears to me as his prejudices. At the start of the article, and apparently at the start of his idea, he was wondering why discussions of religion and politics usually are so fruitless: “As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?”

His initial thought is that it is a forum where anyone feels free to speak their minds, where no-one keeps silent because they don’t know very much, because in these areas, everyone considers themselves an expert. Or at least that the real truth of who is right in politics or religion is so abstruse that no-one they speak can be certain if they are hearing nonsense or truth. He speculates that politics and religion lend themselves to this because people’s ideas usually cannot be tested against reality easily or quickly. Will the current president’s policies lead to wreck and ruin? Will the acceptance of homosexuality lead to a glorious new day of tolerance and peace on earth, or some debauched hell? In general, the truth can only be seen over time, and even then is hard to know. For example, did President Roosevelt ruin or save the United States? The debates, even among the learned, go on.

His second, and far shrewder (in my thinking) thought is that people’s view of religion and politics is closely tied to themselves. To their identity. When I argue about Christianity, I am not a disinterested observer. If Christianity is false, a very significant and treasured part of myself is wrong. In debates about religion and politics, it quickly becomes a case of people defending their very selves against an enemy rather than a discussion between friends.

Paul Graham’s advice is “If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”—though he adds as a footnote “There may be some things it’s a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual label—like putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initial—because it doesn’t commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn’t committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a bibilical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he’s committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.” Personally, I think his footnote falls prey to the same arrogance that religion-disliking geeks on the Internet commonly fall prey to: the belief that their commitment to what they think of as “science” is a pure commitment to “follow the evidence wherever it goes.” More common, in my experience, is that there are hidden assumptions in what they think of as “science” that constrict what they are willing to believe in. To most religion-disliking geeks I know, believing in “science” is code for believing in the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. But here I’m just exercising my ability to “talk back” to something I’ve read and express a bit of often felt frustration.

Anyway, so Paul’s conclusion is that it is dangerous to let any belief become part of you. “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” He’s right, you know. It is dangerous. And for most ideas, I think he’s correct that avoiding such beliefs is wise. I think having a firm commitment to the Republican party, to pre-millenialism or post-millenialism, to Windows or to Linux, is foolish. Because those are things I think should be compromisable: I am willing to be wrong about any of those things.

But I think there is a class of things that no-one is willing to be wrong about. Or rather, a class of things that should cause one great pain to be wrong about. For Paul, that footnote of his makes me suspect that scientific materialism may be one of the things he would suffer great pain before allowing it to be extracted from him. My orthodox Christian beliefs are beliefs that could not be extracted from me without great pain. I agree with Paul that you should be careful when you feel the prick of anger in an argument: it’s a near-sure sign that you are emotionally committed to a belief under threat. But I think that there are things that should have this sort of commitment. The alternative is a belief that no idea is worth fighting for, dying for, living for.

I wish to discuss those things: those things closest to the heart. But how can we discuss them? How can I discuss Christianity with someone of the opposite side? From personal experience, I can say this: only with pain. It hurts. It hurts because you are arguing about something you care about deeply. You are not an emotionally disinterested observer: you are (in a sense) locked in mortal combat: for either of the contending beliefs to prevail, the other has to die. But these are the really important things. Must we go all our lives without talking about the important things? In polite, civil society, perhaps so.

So I guess I have two questions. First, should these “highest” questions be discussed in public? Second, how should they be discussed when they are discussed at all?

Posted by Leatherwood on May 24, 2009 at 12:07 AM