I am about to leave for three weeks with my wife to East Asia, where I have not been since my undergraduate years in 1968. I will be leaving the blog inactive for those three weeks, and have been thinking about the final posts I’ll make before I leave. I’ve been having a private correspondence with a Jeffrey B. who has challenged me to reveal more about myself to my readership. I will only partly satisfy his request, but I do think he raises major issues that the blogosphere and the 21st century need to deal with in terms of evaluating information, presentation, argumentation.
Dear Dr. Landes,
Thanks for your reply. You seem reluctant to divulge any information beyond your CV. I’m sure there are legitimate reasons for that stance, but I’d like to take one more stab at persuading you that making some background info available to your readers would be valuable.
My sister Heather is a “born-again” Christian who believes in the literal inerrancy of the bible. Although she has no training in geology, paleontology, or archeology, she teaches classes on “Creation Science”. You can know all about Heather’s education and employment history, but unless you know about her religious beliefs, you can waste a lot of time talking to an apparently intelligent, reasonable, open-minded person, who just doesn’t seem to “get” what you are saying and will never admit doubt or error about an opinion. Only when you understand that her knowledge is based on “revealed truth” rather than empirical data is it clear that it is pointless to discuss scientific facts – she will always have an explanation for fossils, speciation, etc. even if it devolves to “God said so”. The only fruitful discussion would be about the biblical basis for her beliefs , but she has no real interest in discussing the limits and contradictions of her belief system. She is convinced that she already has the truth, and is only interested in promulgating it to others.
If Heather had a blog, I think it would be very useful for readers to know “what she knows and how she knows it”. They would realize that there is no point in discussing the fossil record showing that organisms become progressively more complex in progressively higher strata. The creation scientists have already shown that this is simply a result of differential settling after the flood. Readers would realize that only informed discussions of the bible (creation as allegory?) would be potentially useful in challenging Heather’s thinking. I think disclosure of one’s formative experiences is crucial for understanding/evaluation/criticism by self and by readers and should be made available by [the writer](?)
An eloquent case for self-revelation. And of course I’d want to know this kind of information about a person. But I also think one can find that kind of background material from a careful reading of the person’s writings (or speech) without being given it predigested (and self-consciously) by the person (or even someone else). I like to think that anyone who reads me, and my responses to their comments, can get to know the timber of my mind without my giving them my potted self-presentation. It’s why as soon as I realized what cyberspace and the blogosphere permitted, I moved over here from academia.
(Not that I don’t have any more academic ties and commitments. I love academia, and nothing gets me going more than a good seminar with high level exchanges and arguments. Of course I prefer light to heat, but heated exchanges can illuminate.)
But right now, it’s not from academia that the next generation of successful civic paradigms (and their curricula) will emerge. Just like the printing press replaced manuscript culture in “early modern” Europe, creating the “city of letters” in which the modern paradigms emerged, so has cyberspace given birth to the community blogosphere and the conversations that will generate the orientations we need to survive this onslaught against our hard-fought for civil society.
This won’t be easy, and if we lose, the whole experiment in freedom represented by the WWW (with its anarchic genetic structure) will be taken away by an ruthless elite that will most resemble those mafioso and fanatic rulers who have so dominated the history of mankind for lo these many millennia. But this is where it will happen if it does. And I want to be part of that great intellectual adventure.
As for religious issues, I feel that I am sufficiently iconoclastic to say, “that’s not at issue.” It’s not what we believe about the nature of the divine that matters so much as how much integrity we have. If I understand your description of your sister, it’s a waste of time for someone to speak with her about scientific matters because she has an religious agenda and for her the evidence is subordinated to dogmatic demands. I once met a very impressive minister who said to me, “If you’re a true Christian, you don’t have to tell people, they’ll figure it out.” Precisely.
People who feel they must press their denominational identities on people — either by converting them, or insisting on their “literal” interpretations of sacred texts — are often working out other problems. The very notion that there can be a single “literal” interpretation of a text (or of reality for that matter), is a kind of idol worship.
There’s a joke about how the atheist says, “The god I don’t believe in would never do that” [where "that" stands for a tidal wave or earthquake that kills thousands of innocents, or orders to exterminate another people]. So the theist can say, “The G-D I do believe in would never demand I do that” [where "that" means reading the Bible literally, being dogmatic, burning heretics, or even speaking explicitly about matters of belief].
While in my close friends I may prefer people with whom my personal beliefs and commitments resonate, what I am concerned about with others is not their beliefs, but their moral commitments to “others.” What I find so terrifying about Islamist Jihadis, is that for them there are no moral commitments to non-believers. In denominational soteriology you are “saved” by which faith you hold; in moral soteriology, you are “saved” by how you treat your fellow man. You don’t have to be any denomination to do that well, indeed you don’t have to be a religious believer to do that well.
I want you to trust or not what I say based on your sense of the evidence and the argument. Not on who I am or where I’m coming from personally. Granted, you have a right to wonder whether or not I might be manipulating you. That’s always a possibility. It’s our inability to ask these questions of Muslims that has us paralyzed right now. That’s why I spend so much time talking about demopaths and their dupes. But that’s also why I think we have to develop the crap detectors not to be dupes.
So part of my answer is, it’s not in what someone says, but how they respond to challenges, how they respond to being wrong, that tells you what’s up. You can spot a demopath in a second, just by giving him a hard time. Not needling and hostile. Just firm and penetrating. Very few of them handle challenges well, partly because their positions are so fragile, partly because no one challenges them. So why should they get better?
[By the way, this issue of reliability of information providers, is absolutely critical. It's the failure of the MSM to c lean their stables that puts us in our present dilemma, and cyberspace introduces a whole who realm of players we need to become familiar with. Ultimately, it's going to be an important part of the emergent blogosphere that we have brief bibliographies of key players. (We're planning that for the key players in the "second intifada" for an initiative we're preparing.) I think the cyberspace should have a "Watchers" portal that does the best job it can keeping track of the reliability of various "news and analysis" experts and sites. That way the people who want the public's trust know they are being critically appraised, and the public can consult to know more about the people and sites they consult.]
Please take the following comments in the “opposition is true friendship” context, and with the knowledge that I don’t know much about history and have only read a fraction of the material on augean stables. Also that I am diplomacy-challenged.
My kind of guy.
So one question in my mind is whether you (or any blogger/writer) are on an objective quest for truth, open to alternative points of view and willing to revise your opinions as new evidence warrants it? Or are you seeking to promulgate your opinions and hone your presentation of them in preparation for the next debate, conference or book? I see evidence of the former in the choice of many topics (you have set up an excellent framework for identifying and addressing issues), but I also see strong evidence of the latter. Of course all the comments I have read have been affirmative, and when one doesn’t get challenged one’s thinking can get pretty far off base.
Let me take each question/comment in turn.
So one question in my mind is whether you (or any blogger/writer) are on an objective quest for truth, open to alternative points of view and willing to revise your opinions as new evidence warrants it?
I would not phrase the first part as you have: “objective quest for truth.” I have a radical sense of modesty where the “truth” is concerned and believe that I can never claim to “possess” the “truth.” Equally I have no confidence in our ability to (or even its desirability) to reduce reality to some “objective” verbal formula. Every “fact” (data point) needs interpretation to have meaning, and all interpretations are subject to correction and revision. Nor would I ever claim to have produced some verbal formula that was “objectively true.”
(Note this is not necessarily how scientists think, but then I’m interested in humans [subjects] not things [objects]. You can’t be objective about subjects, despite the silly claims of economics or psychology or “political science” to be sciences.)
Now I do come closer to the second part of your sentence: “open to alternative points of view and willing to revise your opinions as new evidence warrants it.” That’s certainly one of my ideals. My thought has constantly evolved over time in response to the evidence. For me, Al Durah was a paradigm buster. I had no idea the media could be as bad as they were in this case. I looked at the footage of the rushes, and my jaw dropped. And when Enderlin said, “Oh, they do it all the time“, I knew that as cheap and obvious as these Pallywood fakes were, that our MSM had was recycling this stuff without a second thought. That did “blow my mind.” And much of the framework you find interesting, came about as a result of meditating on the problem (and failing to get the MSM to pay the slightest attention to it).
As for correcting oneself. The only time I made an outright mistake that I’m aware of, was during the Lebanese war this summer in a picture of corpses at Qana. I corrected immediately.
Overall, our ability to “reality test,” which means taking in the evidence that contradicts our icons of understanding, is a major factor in both our effectiveness and our freedom. This means the ability to listen, reconsider, re-evaluate, and, where necessary, self-criticize. An intellectual (a term that came in during the Dreyfus affair), is not someone who’s smart or knows a lot, it’s someone who can change his mind based on the evidence. And that is our constant test, ours and every generation to come.
Aayan Hirsi Ali says that she never heard a grown man say he was wrong before she came to Holland. That’s passing from an honor-shame culture to an integrity-guilt culture. That’s the basis of freedom for others precisely because you won’t sacrifice someone else’s freedom to your vanities and insecurities, which is what, ultimately both the Inquisition and current Islamist aggressions are all about.
Or are you seeking to promulgate your opinions and hone your presentation of them in preparation for the next debate, conference or book?
Of course I’m trying to promulgate my own opinions and hone my presentation of them. Do you think I spend this much time thinking about these matters and forming my opinions so that I can present them sloppily? Especially now, when how we interpret what’s going on is so important. These two should not and need not be “either/or.” There was a bumper sticker in the 60′s that read: “The Mind is like a Parachute: It only works if it’s open.” Of course, a parachute only works once if you can’t close it. We need flexibility not dogmatism either of belief or disbelief. Yang and Yin, firm and yielding. We don’t possess the truth, we wrestle with it.
I see evidence of the former in the choice of many topics (you have set up an excellent framework for identifying and addressing issues), but I also see strong evidence of the latter. Of course all the comments I have read have been affirmative, and when one doesn’t get challenged one’s thinking can get pretty far off base.
That is something that I’ve been puzzled by. Most bloggers talk about the trolls they get. I’ve never really gotten any. I wish I had more challenging responses than I do. I try and respond respectfully but substantively to those I do get. If you look back, you’ll see a number of posts where I take a comment (like yours) and respond point by point. Helas.
My advocacy position: I am, like everyone who is passionate, an advocate. I believe in civil society and the freedoms it fosters and wealth it generates and distributes more generously than any other civilization on record. It is a miracle that it exists and the West fought long and hard as a civilization to achieve it, and it takes a sustained commitment to positive-sum interactions with others. It is not perfect, far from it. But it is so superior to every earlier effort that I watch with astonishment as people who say they are committed to its values (especially “progressives”) throw it away with abandon.