Thursday, August 20, 2020

Who’s Holding the Scales?

I have to admit I’m appalled by the debates flying around the Internet these days. More and more, they seem like merely the propaganda of angry factions, not the rational pronouncements of people who think things through.

And the sanctimony ... oh, the sanctimony! Every faction sees its perspective as not merely just, but as the only side a reasonable, compassionate, fair-minded, informed, civilized or decent person could ever be on.

“Just look at the facts,” they say, “and you couldn’t possibly be against what we stand for, or for what we stand against. No moral person could be.”

“And them ... the them on the other side ... Have you read what they say, how they think, and where they are trying to take us? How could you support that?”

On The Side of Truth

In all of this, there’s more than an ever-increasing deafness to anything the opposition might have to say; there’s also a mounting impression that our side is made good by the very extremity of the wrongness of the other side.

I’m not saying that nobody’s right or wrong in issues like immigration, sexual morals, free speech, nationalism, environmentalism, economic strategy or other kinds of politics. I’m just saying that more and more we look to establish how good we are by pointing out how bad other people are. And as our voices rise higher and higher, becoming ever more shrill and angry in protest, we feel reinforced in the solidarity we experience with others who share our mortal offence at the horrendous lack of principle we have discovered in our opponents.

They are the deluded. And however flawed we may be, we, at least, are on the side of truth. Or so the story goes.

And I worry that in all this we’re losing the key value of modesty. We’ve pretty much stopped looking at ourselves, and refocused on being the most virulent opposition possible to somebody else’s badness.

In the Balance

What’s pitched up in these debates is the rhetoric of righteousness. Sadly, most of this is just self-righteousness.

But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter a whit how “righteous” one is able to appear to oneself. Nor is it even of any consequence how many passionate others approve one, or how acclaimed one’s “cause” may be. At the end of the day, righteousness is a matter of actual, personal accountability to the One who judges righteously.

We’ve forgotten who’s holding the scales.

The Human Quest for Truth

Recently, I’ve been reading secular psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s bestselling book The Righteous Mind (2012). He’s writing about the alleged human love of truth, and his assessment is not entirely sunny. He cites Phil Tetlock, who some years ago did a study of how people form and defend their opinions. It seems there are two ways, says Tetlock: one he calls “exploratory thought” and the other “confirmatory thought”. Exploratory thought is “an evenhanded consideration of alternative points of view”, and confirmatory thought is “a one-sided attempt to rationalize a point of view”. The latter, says Haidt, is far more typical of the way most people think most of the time.

In other words, people don’t usually tend to go looking for new information or for the truth, so much as they go looking for excuses to believe what they want to believe, or to continue to believe things that they have already believed. Their first impulse is to defend those ways of thinking that have already informed their pattern of life, and to resist disruptions to that pattern, even if the disruption is ultimately right, true and beneficial. We might say that people “rationalize” far more often than they “reason”.

Scientific Reasoning

Even scientists, who may pride themselves on their objectivity, are not immune from Haidt’s assessment. Like anyone, they find it easier to feel confirmed in their hypotheses than to admit complete defeat. They even have a scientific name for this: “confirmation bias”. Add to that a community of scowling peers, and perhaps a financier with a particular stake in an outcome, and the incentive to fudge a difficult result is compounded. At the end of the day, scientists are human too: they may fight to be objective, but like anyone else, find it easier to see what they want to see.

Moral Reasoning

Like our thinking about facts, says Haidt, our thinking about morals is tainted. We are inclined to focus far more on shoring up our own confidence that we are good, or on appearing good to our peers, than to focus on actually being good. Human nature is content to stop trying to be moral at the point at which we are satisfied that we ourselves are “good people”, and that we are confident that other people will be given the same impression; after that, we are much less ardent about making sure we actually do the good that we attribute to ourselves.

It’s almost like the human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”.

Social Pressure

The deceptiveness of both our factual-inquiry processes and our moral reasoning is made much worse when we also already know what the general public believes. In such cases, says Haidt, our sense of accountability increases our inclination to conform to demonstrate that we are with the herd rather than on an individualistic inquest into reality. Indeed, the default in socially-accountable situations is to pursue facts only so far as they confirm the norm, then to quit before the facts push us back out of the herd. Says Haidt, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

That’s a pretty grim assessment of the human quest for truth, I think you’ll agree. But bear in mind that in putting these claims forward, Haidt and Tetlock are themselves straining the bounds of conventional wisdom, and saying something that their audience will unlikely be enthused to receive. They are not two Christian apologists with a stake in pushing a negative assessment of human character; they’re secular psychologists. They’re just both calling things as they see them, I think.


Hang on a bit … how can this be relevant to Christians? It’s a couple of secular psychologists speaking about how unsaved people do their reasoning. But Christians are indwelt by the Spirit of Truth, who regenerates the believer and gives him a new taste for truth. You can’t get the Spirit of God into a beaker, pinch him in your vernier calipers, level him off in your graduated cylinder, or evaluate his activity with an opinion poll. What relevance can any of this have to us Christians?

Does not the work of the Holy Spirit convict men of their sin? And does it not also enable us to fight the impulse to tip the moral scales to our own side? So how can I even suggest that Christians could ever be susceptible to the sort of moral and rational self-deception that Haidt and Tetlock describe?

Differing Scales

Good question. Now, admittedly, neither Haidt nor Tetlock reckons with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Only God really knows us; even we do not know ourselves. We think we do, sometimes; but we really don’t. Our love of self-justifying makes it very hard for us to judge ourselves honestly. Even many convicted criminals often see themselves as really “good people”, who perhaps made one mistake but are otherwise just fine.

Nevertheless, if we are wise, we must recognize that it is an impulse against which even Christians must guard; for in our most honest moments, when our minds are set on the Spirit, we are reminded of the fact that our minds can also be set on the flesh. We are not free of the old nature just yet. We live with a foot in two worlds. And whatever is a common human tendency will likely prove a temptation to us as well, especially in those moments in which we are inattentive. If the natural human inclination is to self-justify instead of seeking truth, then that is not a tendency from which the Christian will find himself entirely free.

Leveling It Out

Now, if much of our reasoning is really no more than self-confirming fiction, does that mean that we should just write off any possibility of knowing truth? Does it demonstrate that even for Christians, all truth is relative, all perspectives are biased, and there’s no hope for fairness — we just have to pick a side of two dishonest extreme factions, and ride the situation out?

A lot of people think that today. But here, as in everything else, we have to be on guard against quitting our inquiry at the superficial point of agreeing with common opinion. Maybe they’re wrong.

In fact, Haidt would say they are. After all, what would be the point of him talking about people’s dishonesty about truth or morals if, in fact, there is no truth about which they are being dishonest? Not only that, but he points to a further discovery by Tetlock, namely that there are three combined circumstances under which the human tendency toward merely confirmatory inquiry is naturally curbed, and people go searching for the truth instead:
  • The opinion-former knows in advance that he or she will be accountable to an audience;
  • The particular views of this audience are not known in advance; and
  • The person forming his or her opinion strongly believes that the audience in question is both well-informed and interested in accuracy.
“When all three conditions apply,” concludes Haidt, “people do their darndest to figure out the truth, because that’s what the audience wants to hear. But the rest of the time — which is almost all the time — accountability pressures simply increase confirmatory thought.” Absent all three criteria, a bigger audience just makes us more conformist.

Confirming Discourse

Now, what of all this?

On the one hand, it’s interestingly supportive of the biblical account of how human beings normally relate to truth, both moral and factual. It’s an interesting secular caution about how far we can trust secular reasoning, and indeed, about how far even secular people should trust it.

But my point is not to pour salt into the wounds of secular humanist pride; the Bible does that well enough on its own. Rather, I’m thinking of the implications of this realization to Christian discourse today. For if it’s true that atheism is often the product of people reading nothing but material that confirms their prejudices, it’s quite possible for Christians to do the same.

Challenging Discourse

I think that all of this indicates a sort of failure-of-nerve, really. The people who soak in confirmatory discourse while avoiding listening to the other side are not nearly so confident about their beliefs as they profess. They’re scared. They might be exposed to something that would shake their faith in their position. They might lose their way. They might become confused, unsettled and unhappy, having lost their restful certainty, or find themselves alienated from the community of those who believe likewise. At least, that’s what they fear. So they just avoid the possibility.

But without better beliefs, we cannot change and grow. Learning depends on one’s ability to improve what one knows, and improving means that when you are inquiring after truth, you don’t stop until you get hold of the truth. And then, because it’s the truth, you’re able to hold onto it without relying on one-sided propaganda; you know what you believe, and why, and what the opposition says, and when they have a point but also when they don’t, and you have the ground under your own feet in a solid place.

Tracking Truth

You see, the truth isn’t partisan. And while doesn’t automatically favor one side or the other of any contemporary debate, neither does it hesitate to lend its power to one side or the other when that side is actually right. But it takes to itself no labels, and never signs on to a team. It speaks what it speaks, be it a liberal or a conservative, a left-wing or right wing, a conventional or innovative truth. And the person who follows the truth will, today, inevitably find himself or herself weaving between the extremes, following the truth wherever it leads, not settling comfortably into a package of prefabricated arguments designed merely to confirm what he or she wants to think, or is instinctively inclined to believe.

Truth has its own agenda. It’s uninterested in what everyone else thinks. It leads where it leads; and those who follow it quickly find themselves stepping outside of conventional narratives and the easy confirmations offered by unthinking partisans. It belongs to God, not man; and man only ever finds it by bowing to the greater wisdom of God.

To track truth is the opposite of settling into self-confirming narratives. It’s to risk the self as it now exists, in favor of a better self to come. Not a safe option: that is, not unless you actually have help to find the truth.

In our own poor way, that is what we hope we are trying to do with this very blog. We are not trying to be conservative for conservatism’s sake, nor liberal for the sheer fleshly delight of poking orthodoxy in the eye. We just want to cultivate thought and provoke debate, with a view to the truth winning out. We want to be in the middle. We want to have the “Berean” attitude.

And if you’re one of our readers, and find any sympathy with that, maybe that’s what brought you here too.

Tipping the Scales Back

So the call we would wish to issue to Christendom today is not back to the traditions of the past, far less to the winds of the present, but rather to an honest searching of the scriptures for the will of God. And if this is to happen, it will only happen if we believe three things:
  • Firstly, that we are accountable to an Audience. I mean to the Lord, of course. At the end of the day, we will all give our account to him, says the scripture. Verbally. In detail. Personally. And if we think that because we’re Christians we will get to skip that bit, well, we’re sadly mistaken.

    Sobering, no?
  • Secondly, we will not know in advance what assessment this Authority (the Lord) will make. We do know what he wants us to do and be; the scriptures tell us all of that. We do not know exactly how well we are doing at achieving it — that’s for him to say, at the appointed time.
  • Thirdly, we know for certain that he is very, very interested in the truth, and nothing else. No justifying of ourselves, and no hiding in the herd will serve our turn here. Whatever was really true will be brought to light and tested, and we will answer for the extent to which we managed to conform our own lives to that truth. As Christians, we will not be lost or condemned to eternal fire; but the “fire” of the truth will test the value of our deeds, and whatever was not real, true, righteous and genuine will be burned up and lost.
In the Balance

So what does it mean that today some of us, even we who call ourselves Christians, are becoming very fond of compromising the truth in order to gain favor with the political environment around us?

I think it means that we’re operating a whole lot more in the flesh than in the Spirit, don’t you?

I’m speaking of the liberal innovators, of course; but also of the traditionalists. For there are two ways to indulge in merely confirmatory inquiry — to seek merely to confirm the actions of the past, or merely to confirm the prejudices of the present. We can seek to preen ourselves as “orthodox” and “faithful”, and to ingratiate ourselves to the conservative voices; or we can preen ourselves as “forward-thinking”, “open-minded”, “socially responsible”, and even “Christianly loving”. But either posture is simply that — a posture. It’s a fleshly strategy targeted at confirming present prejudices, not a search for truth.

And God knows our hearts. If we are not really looking for the truth, we can be certain that he knows it.

Weighing It Up

The upshot of all this is as follows: if Tetlock and Haidt have their analysis right, and if we see Christians tending to form groups more interested in compiling confirmations of their present practices or their political agendas than in bowing to the truth, then it would suggest a failure of belief on our part.

Maybe we’ve forgotten we’re accountable.

Maybe we’ve forgotten who the Judge is.

Maybe we’ve forgotten that the truth, and only the truth, will be any defense.

Which do you think it is?


  1. IC, I get the points of your comments but don't quite agree on the mechanics and status of confirmatory opinions as described by your references (and by you?). The way I see it is that my mental processes always start with an exploratory evaluation of events, communications, and observations and from there, based on experience, research, etc., progress to a confirmatory stage. In other words a confirmative stage is actually always needed to convey knowledge to yourself and your peers. It is of course highly desirable that that stage approximates reality and truth as much as possible. If that is the case then it is in no way a bias to hold and express confirmative knowledge privately and express it publicly and to base your life on it. As a matter of fact I see it as dishonest and self-defeating if confirmative knowledge is not used and applied in the most effective ways possible whenever available. I am not talking about spurious and false confirmative knowledge based on nothing but opinionating and even dishonesty but about what I think most reasonable and honest people do. In that case, the best researched knowledge confirmed in truth should be accepted, expressed, and confirmed as the norm. And that is of course where the secular left fails and why there need to be no regrets if confirmatory conservative religious principles are valued more highly and espoused publicly.

    1. I don't think you've got Haidt's point there, Q.

      It's not about "approximating reality and truth" with your "confirmatory knowledge." It's about what people do when "truth" and "confirmation" are not the same thing...which is most of the time, actually.

      If "confirmation" were a good stopping point, we'd all still believe the Earth was flat.

    2. Naw, that's too pessimistic, IC. Please note that I am assigning different properties to confirmatory knowledge than Haidt does since I think he is actually an example of what he is criticizing. He equates it simply to holding uninformed and even prejudicial knowledge. I see confirmatory knowledge as being attained after having been confirmed by honest and objective exploratory research (knowledge). What he is implying is that in that case people still cherry pick exploratory knowledge to confirm their prejudices. I am doubtful that that process predominates to the extent that he thinks it does. After all we are now on our way to Mars. In other words it seems that I am more of an optimist than Haidt.