Sunday, May 4, 2014

Alternatives: A Screed-Rumination "Twofer"

One who gets into as many exchanges and arguments as I must eventually accept that rhetoric admits of no such thing as an "irrefutable convincer:" an assertion that genuinely eliminates all possibility of a proposition being correct (or incorrect). Rhetoric itself is value-neutral, cannot enforce standards of objectivity, veracity, or propriety, and is susceptible to all the logical fallacies known to Man. In the famous phrase of Demosthenes, it's about making "the worse appear the better cause."

Thus, in addressing a particular proposition in a verbal exchange, the best one can do is to establish reasons to believe: reasons to have confidence in that proposition (or its negation). In this connection there are some famous but seriously flawed strokes that nevertheless have commanded great power over the centuries:

  • "If it's so clear that that would work, why hasn't it been tried before?"
  • "If that were so, the great geniuses of the past would have realized it long ago."
  • "Your motives for saying that aren't what you'd have us believe."

There are others, of course; those are merely the ones that spring to mind at the moment. The salient thing about all of them is that they address something other than the objective facts and logical implications pertinent to the proposition at issue.

In all cases, the target is the hearer's will to believe. That element of the human psyche is inherently vulnerable. More, it's present and voting even in considering matters that can be objectively verified. And a skilled rhetorician can sink shafts into it regardless of the logical and evidentiary merits of his case.

I can't enumerate the number of times I've engaged in an exchange like the following (fictional) one:

    “Quarter for your thoughts?” Redmond said.
    “Huh? I thought it was ‘penny for your thoughts.’”
    “Adjust for inflation.”
    “Mmph. Okay. Well, I was just wondering about...” His courage failed him.
    Redmond turned a final corner, steered the truck into the Iversons’ driveway. set the parking brake and turned toward him. “About me and the church, right?”
    Todd blushed and nodded.
    “Because you don’t believe.”
    Another nod.
    “And you’re smart and you know it. But by now you know that I’m at least as smart, and it flummoxes you. Because you just can’t imagine how anyone with half a brain could buy into such a load of total nonsense, much less someone who’s as smart as you.
    Todd remained silent. He fought to keep his expression from revealing his thoughts.
    Redmond smiled gently. “What would you say were the most important words in that little speech, Todd?”
    “Would you like me to repeat it?”
    Todd shook his head. “Uh, no, it’s just that...”
    “You’d rather not think about it?”
    The teenager’s discomfort deepened further.
    Redmond’s smile turned impish. “Or maybe you’re a wee bit off-balance from my having read your mind like a large-print book?”
    Todd started to giggle. He couldn’t help it. In a moment he’d surrendered to a gale of laughter, holding his sides against the spasms from his own guffaws.
    When he’d regained control of himself, he shook his head and caught Redmond’s eyes with his own. The engineer was still smiling gently.
    “Wasn’t it like that for you?” Todd said. “I mean, from everything I’ve heard about you—”
    “From your classmates?”
    Todd nodded. “Sideways, mostly. Some from Rolf and the others in the group. You had to have had the same reaction this stuff that I had. It can’t be true!”
    “Why not, Todd?”
    He started to speak, halted himself at once.
    He’s showing me something new.
    “Would you mind,” he said slowly, “repeating your ‘little speech?’”
    Redmond did so, enunciating each word with maximum precision and without detectable inflection. When he fell silent, Todd said “I think I’ve got it. The key words, I mean.”
    Redmond cocked an eyebrow and waited.
    “Can’t imagine.”
    A smile of approval spread over Redmond’s face. For a moment, Todd thought the engineer might applaud. Instead he nodded.
    “Just so. I’ll see you tomorrow at quarter to one.”

[From a novel currently under development.]

Ponder those two words while I refresh my coffee.

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. -- William K. Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief"
When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared...then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream! -- William James, "The Will To Believe"
Imagination is more important than knowledge. -- Albert Einstein

The three quotations above express the most important of all attitudes toward propositions that are both unverifiable and unfalsifiable: that is, toward propositions of a religious nature. Atheist Clifford's posture rules all religious convictions, however passionate, ethically indefensible. Empiricist James, in the course of demolishing the notion that one can "will oneself" into religious conviction, merely notes that the mental habits of the physical sciences and comparable disciplines can predispose their practitioners to dismiss religious propositions on scientific grounds. Finally, Albert Einstein, who has some claim to being the greatest physicist of the century behind us, reminds us that whatever we think we know, a sufficiently agile imagination can always concoct "enveloping hypotheses" that would explain still more.

Einstein comes close to being exactly correct. James is merely noting a predilection of the trainable human mind. Clifford has applied a wholly inapplicable standard to propositions that must be assessed by other criteria.

Yet religious propositions abound. They're all around us, starting with one that each of us must, in the course of living under the veil of Time, accept or reject, no middle ground being possible:

There is an objective reality.

Either "existence exists," as the Randians would say, or it doesn't. But one cannot prove that proposition to a determined solipsist, nor can one disprove it to a resolute believer. The former chooses to reject all assertions of fact as emanating from somewhere in his imagination; the latter, pace David Kelley, accepts the inputs of his senses as trustworthy reports about "a world that is what it appears to be."

Plainly, one's religious inclinations precede all others. Indeed, once recognized and heeded, they preclude certain orientations that others of different religious convictions find more plausible, more palatable, or both. But we cannot wrestle those who differ with us to the mat by rhetoric.

Propositions in political economy are religious propositions.

What's that you say, Gentle Reader? You hardly expected a statement of that sort from me, a dedicated apostle for freedom, free markets, and the sanctity of the individual? Well, that just underscores the importance of the topic at hand.

Anyone who's even peeked into the trenches of politico-economic discourse has surely noticed that ideas are immortal and invulnerable. Yes, even ideas seemingly founded on demonstrable fallacies, ideas that have never worked no matter how many times they've been tried. The reason is quite simple: Imagination.

A sufficiently agile imagination can always come up with a premise or premises that will explain away the contradictions between one's politico-economic convictions and the consequences of their application. Some such premises are crude -- "devil theories," such as Hitler's blaming the Jews for the defeat of Kaiserine Germany in World War I, are of that sort -- while some display amazing sophistication. Nor is it a sufficient rejoinder to such a defense to accuse the proponent of intellectual dishonesty, as he might be perfectly convinced of the soundness of his explanation. The premises themselves may be targeted for refutation, but such is the "infinite regress" afforded by imaginative scope that there is no guaranteed conclusion possible even thus.

In this connection, James's dismissal of the "will to believe" is plainly incorrect. Many an ideologue pins himself indissolubly to his ideology, such that Christ come again could not dislodge him from it. Regardless of what others might view as a definitive refutation of his thesis, he himself will never abandon it.

In such cases, we sometimes speak of "sunk capital" of the mind: an investment of allegiance so complete that it cannot be retracted without endangering the mind itself.

The implication should be clear. It's best that we accept the limits of rhetoric, of human reasoning, and of the emotions that propel us toward or away from particular convictions. That doesn't mean we must display infinite tolerance toward notions we regard as nonsense; it does mean that we should strive to identify those whose religious alignments have rendered them unpersuasible, and avert our attention from them before we commit ourselves to rhetorical efforts guaranteed to have no satisfactory result.

We cannot persuade them; we must not force them. Their souls are their own, to squander or save. Their minds are their own, to impoverish or enrich. Their hearts are their own, guarded by gates of adamant to which only they possess the keys.

Yes, some of them will attempt to force us. That doesn't alter the equations in the least.

This subject is on my mind for several reasons. Among them is an unpleasant encounter I had with a self-nominated Objectivist, whose gratuitous condemnation of religion and contempt for religious believers, injected into a discussion about a topic far distant from religion as conventionally understood, flicked me on the raw. I allowed myself to be drawn about three paces deep into rhetorical combat before I realized that I was trying to persuade him that his religion -- Objectivism -- is no more provable than mine.

Talk about a pointless undertaking! If you've ever known a hard-core Objectivist, you'll understand the fatuity of such a crusade at once. As well try to convert the Pope to Scientology, or persuade a paranoid that you're not out to get him. There was no conceivable rhetorical course by which I could compel the gentleman to activate that portion of his imagination that would permit the existence of God. Indeed, had I pressed the attempt further it might have rebounded upon me disastrously.

In William James's paradigm, I had neglected to note a "live alternative:" the shrug. I wasn't obligated to dispute with the fellow. I could merely have said to myself "Let him go to his church and I'll stick to mine," and walked away. My innate combativeness kicked in before I could recognize the more profitable course.

Dale Carnegie would have clucked his disapproval. Einstein would have smirked, were that great man given to such expressions. It was the sort of illumination for which I regularly thank the God in which my conversational opponent refuses to believe.

Ours is a contentious age, fraught with anger and resentment and inhabited by far too many persons incapable of tolerating the opinions of those who differ with them. Yet there is no obligation upon any of us to participate in such a melee...most of the time. Just this morning I was made aware of an important exception.

One of my parish priests described a conclave of our region more than a decade ago, called together by the presiding bishop of our diocese, to discuss the "problem" of clerical sexual abuse of children. A visiting bishop gave a long lecture to the assembly in which he deplored such sexual assaults as inappropriate behavior.

Yes, you read that correctly. Worse, all but one of the priests listening to him applauded his take on the atrocity. The one -- Father Edward J. Kealey -- stood up and dissented vigorously. "Inappropriate behavior," he said, is using the wrong fork at dinner; the sexual abuse of children is assault and rape. The Church should do the most vigorous, abasing penance -- he suggested that all the priests in America should converge in Baltimore and walk barefoot all the way to St. Mary's in expiation -- and petition for divine guidance about how to cleanse such evil from the Catholic clergy, such that it might never, ever recur.

The bishops present were not pleased, but Father Ed stood his ground. It's cost him heavily in the years since that conclave, but he's refused to relent.

Sometimes there are no alternatives. At least, not for a sincere man of God.

May God bless and keep you all.


Guy S said...

God Bless Father Ed. Judging from that bit alone, I expect he would also have little truck with anything of a politically correct nature.

Objective Reality...(Will someone get that damn cat out of the box already!)

As a species (the human race) we can not come to an understanding/agreement as to origin of our world/universe. Theologies aside, "science" won't even come to complete agreement. Asking one about (assuming they accept the "Big Bang Theory" as "The Beginning of Things") what put that into motion...will usually get you the same kind of look you get (got?) when you asked your catechism teacher if "God can do anything, can he make a rock so heavy that he himself could not lift it?"

Something/Someone had to have placed all this in motion....some higher level of consciousness. It is this single question which has always placed me in the "There is a God" camp. In my own stumblebum fashion and limited logic...I can see no other alternative.

If my (again, limited) understanding is correct Objective Reality demands one may only believe in that which is "provable" by some facet of science/scientific method, with the obligatory "peer review" being that which legitimizes any given bit of reality. Everything else is allegedly smoke and mirrors.

I have meandered about enough for one comment...and my head is already fuzzy for trying to think so much on an early Sunday.

A Reader said...

Mr Porretto,

Would you favor your Gentle Readers with the geographical relationship between Baltimore and St Mary's? I gather that the distance is significant, but more than I cannot guess.

Thank you.