How Polarisation Can Get In The Way Of Truth

In a perfect world, when faced with a contentious issue, we would assimilate the facts, weigh them against each other and come to a reasonable consensus (pending further information, of course). We don’t live in a perfect world however and I’ve observed in myself and in others that we often tend to treat our existing beliefs about the way the world works as if it were our favourite football team; we’ll stand behind them through good times and bad, through confirmatory and contradictory evidence.

This is a fairly natural thing to do and if we are aware of our own confirmation bias we can do a lot to gradually eliminate those ideas we previously held to be true but which were, in fact, false.

However, I’ve noticed that when two people attempt to discuss a contentious issue from two very different starting assumptions, instead of fostering a willingness to seek the truth regardless of the impact to our existing beliefs, we are driven further toward defending them against this new ‘enemy’.

I think that if our goal is truth then we ought to spend most of our time challenging our existing beliefs in dialogue with people with whom we have much in common. That way we’ll be less inclined to go into defensive mode and more likely to gracefully discard what was previously an incorrect belief.

This would mean that in many cases there would have to be a certain level of exclusivity to discussions but I think it would go a long way toward self-improvement even though it may take a very long time to unravel long-held presuppositions.

I want to be able to thrash out what I see as difficulties to do with consciousness or first causes without having to deal with the distraction of religious dogma or new age pseudo-science and, more importantly, I’d imagine that there are many conversations that other people would like to have without me jumping in and blurting out what I know must be true.

So, for those of you who have found me an irritation in the past, I hope to be less in your face with what I perceive to be the absolute truth. If you think I’ve got something wrong and you hold very similar starting assumptions to me then please feel free to rigorously discuss your ideas with me. If you hold very different starting assumptions please try to allow for the fact that you may be wrong and I will try my best to do likewise. We may, after all, both be wrong.

In a perfect world we should be happier to learn that we have been wrong than that we have ‘won’ an argument.

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5 Responses to “How Polarisation Can Get In The Way Of Truth”

  1. Good post, Damian. You’re one person who I’ve always ‘had time for’, meaning: even though we have some/several fundamentally different starting assumptions, I don’t feel like discussion with you is a waste of time.

    In my mind, (and I think you’ll agree) I think it’s necessary for a person to both:

    a) be sharpened by (and sharpen) those with whom they share foundational assumptions (example: an evolution-denying christian talking with an evolution-accepting christian)..


    b) engage with (patiently, humbly and open mindedly) those with completely different foundational assumptions (example: a christian talking with an atheist or agnostic).

    If one only does in-house stuff (‘a’), they’re not going to have their foundational assumptions challenged/sharpened/etc. (and that holds true whatever foundational assumptions one has)…

    If one only does the out-of-house stuff (‘b’), they’ll probably end up spending way too much time putting angry comments on an ever-increasing number of blogs around the net – and (perhaps paradoxically) can end up not having their foundational assumptions challenged/sharpened/etc.

    Having said that, I’ll close by saying that I think both types of interaction (both ‘a’ and ‘b’) need PATIENCE. Patience in terms of 1) being prepared not to ‘win’, and being satisfied with at least getting closer to mutual understanding; and 2) being prepared to spend enough time working out the nuances of differences to achieve that mutual understanding.

    happy engaging everyone :)

  2. Simon says:

    I agree, great post Damian!

    To my mind, truth exists on far more than just the ‘foundational’ level. Contrast the fundamental tenets/truths of Christianity or Metaphysical Naturalism with the truths you write about here – tolerance, patience, empathy, humility. Indeed, I am ever leaning towards the opinion that it is these latter ones which are really the foundational ones.

  3. Ian says:

    Thirded, excellent post and comments too :)

    Actually most people in our little commenting community are really good to discuss things with – not afraid to make points and defend them or dig deeper into questions and usually willing to follow up on questions which is more than many online communities can offer lol.

  4. Grant Dexter says:

    You couldn’t be MORE WRONG!


  5. Damian,

    I think forming beliefs is a part of a more general thing we humans do: we form a model of reality and operate on our simplified model rather than operating directly on reality. We see an object with 4 legs, a horizontal surface and a vertical service and recognize it as a “chair” – the model we have of a chair relieves us of having to constantly evaluate every object to decide which ones are meant for us to sit on.

    I think it’s natural to cling to one’s beliefs to some degree because establishing beliefs may be an important part of our model forming process. Imagine what would happen if we automatically re-evaluated every belief we held as soon as we were presented with a new fact. We would become paralyzed by having to constantly evaluate our beliefs instead of responding to the world in real time. And the more foundational the belief, the more “cycles” we would be forced to spend to evaluate other beliefs that depend on the foundational one.

    It seems natural and beneficial to me that people hold on to previously formed beliefs to a certain degree. That often means arguing in favor of the belief to see how it holds up to scrutiny. It might mean admitting that there are facts that seem to contradict the belief, but at the same time recognizing that certain key facts aren’t in yet.

    On the other hand, it seems quite odd and detrimental to me that some people will hold on to their beliefs at all cost, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their belief is wrong. To me, this indicates more of an emotional attachment to the belief than a reasoned one. Delusion is defined as “an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary.”

    One measure I personally find enlightening when evaluating my own beliefs about more emotional issues like religion, is to compare those beliefs (and the reasons I hold them) with other more mundane beliefs I might hold – beliefs about whether someone is lying to me or telling me the truth, or the health benefits of T’ai Chi. That kind of introspection helps me to identify those beliefs which I hold primarily due to emotional attachment, vs. beliefs I hold primary as the result of critical thought.

    Another “tool” I like to use is to suspend my own belief/disbelief long enough to understand as best I can what the other person believes and why they believe it.

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