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Friday, March 13, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Facts and Opinions

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I read it in the New York Times. And frankly, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. The Times distinguishing between fact and opinion in a rational way? The Times pointing out the deficiencies in modern education?

Who’da thunk it?

Tom: As in the wee hours of every Friday, I have with me career educator and teacher of philosophy Immanuel Can. IC, is it your experience that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts?

The Opening Line

Immanuel Can: This reminds me of the famous opening line of the late Allan Bloom’s celebrated book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987). He writes, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative”. And in my own experience, I would add that you do not need to wait nearly so long as first year undergrad; by Grade 9, this confusion is securely locked into the mind of almost every child you encounter in our schools. It is a deep, defensive prejudice against all discernment. It impinges on any subject that is not presently evident to them: all of history, any political or personal viewpoint, all declarations of value, all laws and social arrangements, and every moral axiom. 

And they hold to this visceral relativism with a complete and unthinking trust. As Bloom continues, “If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the student’s reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4 …” Such inquiries are routinely greeted with stunned silence and blank faces.

A Barrier to the Gospel

Tom: A tendency among the educated to dismiss everything that is felt or believed as intrinsically non-factual makes a formidable barrier to the gospel. The writer of the article in The Times, Justin McBrayer, is an associate professor of philosophy in Colorado, and he says this attitude is absolutely pervasive; that among the college educated, “without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion”. Prof. McBrayer blames it on public schools. You seem to agree that this sort of groupthink starts earlier than college too. Do you have any thoughts about where or how this sort of mindset originates, and how it has become so pervasive?

IC: Yes. I have no doubt that schools — public or private — are contributors. But so are a great many parents, who have a stake in rationalizing their lifestyle and avoiding being judged. Likewise, our political speech, which is targeted to producing social peace and cooperation, not to promoting truth. Then the media does more than its fair share in inculcating relativism, especially through the blandishments of commercialism and the wide-open elective nature of the internet and modern telecommunications. The pace and variety of modern, urban, affluent life contributes, because we have so many activities and choices that settling on one becomes difficult. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has done good work on identifying some of these causes of the dissolution of belief in objective truth.

So to suppose we will simply locate it in schools and defeat it there would be, I think, exceedingly naive. It’s a more general social phenomenon, to which schools are but one contributing factor. But it’s in schooling, where we need children to have a grasp of some basic truths, that the problem often becomes most pressingly evident: it’s when we ask them who George Washington was that we realize they don’t believe in facts, for example. So I would suggest it’s possible that schools are the diagnostic tool that reveals the problem, not merely the institution that causes it.

Setting “Opinion” Against “Fact”

Tom: That’s thought-provoking. I guess what I’m not comprehending is how so many people can make a rigid and entirely artificial distinction between “opinion” and “fact”. The very same students and eventual college and university graduates who will dismiss matters of faith and morality as “opinion” accept the opinions of those they consider experts as “scientific” and therefore factual. But scientists change their minds all the time, and with increasing frequency are caught sacrificing the scientific method on the altar of political expediency. Calling something “scientific” or “proven” does not necessarily make it any more profound or true. The things we in our ignorance call “facts” are often merely opinions expressed at a more impressive distance, or that come with the imprimature of a pseudo-authority in whom we have faith.

IC: Well, fair enough: I really don’t think people know what a “fact” is … they think it’s a synonym for “known truth”, whereas a “fact” may be either known or unknown, just as the article points out. Likewise, an “opinion” may be a true or false opinion, regardless of who holds it. And neither the sincerity of the holder, nor his right to hold an opinion, nor even the number of people who agree to the opinion, make that opinion either true or false. That has to be confirmed solely by knowledge of the facts.

In regard to relativism (and this is an extremely important realization), logically speaking, the existence of public confusion, debate and disagreement is not even a mild indicator that there is no answer to a particular question.

People With No Convictions Don’t Fight

Tom: What is it about value claims — moral judgments, if you like — that seems to compel the educational system, government, many parents, the media and pretty much everyone who wields authority in our society to propagandize in favour of dismissing them? And (it’s same answer, probably), what makes so many kids so inclined to buy in?

IC: Oh, that’s easy. People with no convictions don’t fight — or so our policymakers firmly believe. Instead, as the assumption goes, they live and let live. They also never know when you lie to them because, well, anything could be true, after all. So from the point of view of control and the promotion of a liberal democratic social ethos, citizens are best with an irrational belief in blank, undiscerning equality between genders, cultural groups, religions, sexual preferences, etc., and without any beliefs they would dare advance at a level stronger than private personal preference. Such are thought to be likely to be very cooperative.

Tom: This is all very far from the teaching of Christ and the apostles, but it reminds me of the book of Jonah. God sent the city of Nineveh a prophet because living in Nineveh were more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who, God says, “do not know their right hand from their left”. That didn’t mean they were unable to navigate through their secular lives, but that they were without a moral compass. This is where we live: a place where people are not merely unequipped to pass moral judgments, but where any inclination in that direction is methodically trained out of them.

Subverting the Process

As a teacher, do you have any desire to subvert this process; to teach kids to ask questions that matter?

IC: I don’t think being a teacher would have anything to do with that desire. I would think that any decent, honest human being would be inclined to it — that is, if our society could even figure out how to find one anymore. These things are so hard when you have no standards ...

Tom: You were saying that in your classes you notice this cavalier attitude to truth and the tendency to disqualify new information on the basis of whether it has a moral component as early as Grade 9. Let’s be frank: I know you stir the pot. Care to give us any real-life examples? I’m curious how difficult it is to get kids to reconsider learned assumptions that are simply untrue …

IC: Well, yes, I do stir the pot. For example, I teach kids to think critically and to use logic. I reintroduce them to the rationality of moral judgments, and show them the absolute emptiness of secular morality. So yes, I mess with the liberal-democratic indoctrination program.

The first concept that needs confronting is this relativism of which we speak. And it’s not easy: though they will call almost anything a person can want to do “good” for them, they will also call almost nothing that a person can want to do “wrong”. These are just not concepts they use … much. They reserve condemnation only for people seen to be standing for something, or more correctly, as standing against some extravagance that someone else wants to practice. Having a moral compass, judging other people’s activities as immoral, or advocating your religious beliefs exclusively are all wrong, in their view; but little else is.

Pulling on a Loose Thread

Tom: I guess what I’m wondering is whether in every case this is a conviction or simply a pose, and if there’s any obvious threads a believer can pull on to make such a worldview unravel.
                                          
IC: Two important questions. Let’s take the first one first.

I think it’s not so much a conscious position they hold as a knee-jerk reaction in favour of leaving all choices open. It’s a bit adolescent, really: very conscious of one’s own desire for freedom and completely unthinking about the implications for others generally, or for the larger society. It comes down to little more than, “I can do what I want, and so can everyone else; now leave us alone”. And that is coupled with a feeling that criticizing anything about anyone is unjustly paternal and condescending — and, of course, completely unwarranted, since relativism is, so far as they know, true.

Tom: So what we’re dealing with is an inculcated and unchallenged baseline assumption, not something that has been worked out logically and is easily defended. How about a thread to pull on?

IC: At the first heat of a good question, this relativism starts to dissolve in sheer self-contradiction. They assert their freedom as a right, but do so by denying the existence of objective truth; so it cannot be an objective truth that they have a right to do so, or that it’s wrong for someone to deny it to them … you get the contradiction, I’m sure.

Tom: Now you also have the sort of individual Prof. McBrayer mentions who does not deny objective truth outright, but believes it to be confined to the realm of what he thinks has been demonstrated scientifically. Now of course, these folks have never actually seen even quasi-scientific proof of the many of the things that they call “facts”. In fact, they accept some of them on far more tenuous grounds than the assertions of truth in the moral realm that they dismiss for “lack of evidence”.

IC: Yes. But they usually don’t even have any particular, clear idea about what they mean by “science”. Usually it’s just the vague sensation that “they” out there have “proved” something to be true or false. People could not tell you who this “they” is, or precisely when and how anything was “proved”. It’s just a sort of bandwagon fallacy on their part, and idea that most people think X, and that X is said to be scientific, so X must be so, and every right-thinking person knows it is.

That also gives us a couple of those “threads” we can pull that you were talking about. One is the self-contradictory nature of the position itself, and the other is the mythical origins of the proof they have never hitherto questioned. 

Challenging the “Either/Or” Mentality

Tom: One thing Justin McBrayer says that sticks in my mind is this:
“… students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.”
This is something that’s very easy to demonstrate with examples, and perhaps another thread that can be pulled on to unravel a faulty worldview. But it’s an easy trap to fall into. For instance, you’re explaining something about the Lord to a friend, and they reply, “Well, that’s your opinion”. My normal reaction to that it is to agree and carry on, because of course it’s my opinion, but it’s also true. To me it goes without saying that it can be both.

But maybe not to my friend. Maybe what my friend is actually saying is this: “Your claim is ONLY an opinion, and therefore I am being completely logical in dismissing it”. I need to hear that assertion for what it is, and respond to it, don’t you think?

When a Fact is Not a Fact

IC: Yes. “Opinion” is for many people today a synonym for “personal preference”. That is, until it applies to their own opinions, in which case it’s a synonym for “rightful belief”. Bit of a double standard, really.

But on the subject of “facts”, it’s really, really important to have a firm grasp on what a “scientific fact” is. A “scientific fact” is not an absolute truth that cannot be contested — no real scientist thinks it is, either. What it is, is a high-probability guess at what will happen if you do X or Y under laboratory conditions. Beyond that, it’s a further not-quite-so-high-probability guess as to what will happen in relevantly similar situations outside of the lab or experimental context. So, for example, we might study bacteria in a cat’s stomach and extrapolate to the work the same bacteria will do in a human one; or we might observe our own sun because it’s close enough for us to study, and then jump to the assumption that other suns are like ours in most ways. That’s reasonable and probable — but it’s not a fact on the level of 2 + 2 = 4: it’s just a probability calculation, and one that is only ceteris paribus — meaning, until further notice and all things turning out to be equal.

Tom: Right, but this is rarely fully understood by students, and more rarely admitted by those who tout science as a be-all and end-all.

IC: When its claims are kept rational and modest, science produces superb findings. But the further we get from rationality and modesty, the wilder any supposedly “scientific” guess gets. Witness how wild the advocates of evolution are in adjusting their estimates of the age of the earth, for example, and you’ll see they have rather weak confidence about their supposed “facts”.  

The upshot: there are “facts” and facts: things we think are probably true, and things we know with certainty. True certainty does not happen in science, but only in fields like mathematics: self-referential systems involving abstraction. Bring in any real-world observations, and the best we get is a chance to increase the probability of a tentative hypothesis. Things in the world of science, then, are not nearly so settled as the rhetoric suggests.

Probabilism and Faith

Tom: Final question. You mention probability: we’ve had some discussion in the blog comments about ‘probabilistic knowledge’, which is in some ways a more mature way of looking at the fact/opinion dichotomy. Rather than shouting “fact” about everything he believes or dismissing everything you believe as mere “opinion”, the probabilist assigns a measure of likelihood to each possible option based on the available data and whatever other factors may be relevant.

My question is where does faith come into the equation? Is the person who claims faith in Christ merely giving his opinion? Should we imagine Peter declaring, “I’m about 78.5% sure you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”? That would certainly be a probabilistic take. Or is the person who claims faith in Christ uttering an inarguable fact?

IC: Let’s not be afraid of this: what God is requiring of us is faith.  

Now, “faith” is not what its detractors say it is. They say it means, “Believin’ what you know ain’t so”. They are wrong. Faith is rather a projected hypothesis, based incomplete but compelling present evidence, applying to future cases. Just as the scientist claims his test of heating mercury in the lab will apply to mercury heated in the real world, the person of faith takes the evidence God has provided to us, and from it ventures a guess toward the future.  

Faith and Evidence

That evidence is considerable. It begins with the written word of God, in which we find truth well explained to us. It continues in prophecies fulfilled and divine promises kept. It also is found in our spiritual experience with God, which can be very powerful evidence (since it is first-hand), if only for the person having it. But ultimately, the evidence that carries the day for us is the person, words and work of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. On the basis of His character, we venture a confident belief in the kindness of God’s intentions toward us. We believe Him and obey Him, on the hypothesis that He is faithful and will do what He has said He will do.

But all that said, no knowledge of real life — empirical knowledge — is ever more than probabilistic. That’s science, and it’s also faith. Faith is confident expectation of things not yet seen, but is ventured on the basis of things already seen and known.

Tom: Quite so. We need to distinguish faith from knowledge, don’t we, whether knowledge takes the form of opinion, fact or best guess. Faith is based on knowledge, but faith is not merely knowing something. Faith is, rather, a response to knowledge. It is only really complete when it produces actions.

In the end, the real issue is not whether you have probabilistic or certain knowledge of Christ or whether you merely hold an opinion about him.

The real issue is what will you do about him?

1 comment :

  1. Good, rational, observations that also hint at and contain the bigger question that needs to be addressed (and that holds my interest in particular). Why, if something rationally makes sense, even such a concept and insight that all knowledge, mundane or extraordinary, is probabilistic, then simply why is not everyone arriving at, and acting on, similar conclusions? The answer obviously is that the (private or public) procedure of assigning probabilities itself is probabilistic. The latter ability or tendency itself can be all over the place because it depends on the inherent characteristics of each human being like intellectual ability, good will (character), open or closed-mindedness (prejudice), and so on. So, e.g., if I assign a probability of 75% to Christ's authenticity as a historical figure and a total probability of 99.9% to the suggestion that he truly is who he and the apostles said he is (adding the framework of his moral teaching and his exemplary life, the probability of true miracles, etc., to increase my probability score), then someone else, out of spite, mental laziness or incompetence, or possibly for reasons of personal convenience (it may be a bother) will only still assign, let's say, 32%. This is the real issue here. How does one address that? I think that only the Holy Spirit can do it since it basically and mostly is a question of character as well as inertia (and less of ability). The Holy Spirit has to act as a motivator here (and undoubtedly most often does through human agency) so that a person feels compelled and motivated in their life to make a midcourse correction.

    Another key point, that I have commented on previously, is the fact that God has clearly stated that benefits are obtained from making the effort to seek him out. They have been shown to be statistically significant for the individual and communities (see my previous comments with statistical studies provided). That now is clear and SCIENTIFIC data, no longer opinion. And even then, based on their (poor) inclinations alone people are more than willing to reject that that would impact their convenience. To summarize then, following Christ is merely a question of convenience or inconvenience and all other numbers and insights are bent to that purpose.

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