Small Bites (response) and Clarifying “The Problem”

Hi Pascal!

In Small Bites you said…

My conclusion was that I was in love.  I might not be thinking straight, but I could and should still engage my intellect to answer your honest and challenging questions.

Thank you. I respect your candor and I respect you. Yes, we both can and should still engage. I’m going to skip over many points I agree with and just respond to a few that I think could use a follow-up. Here we go…

The first problem I have is this:  the problem.  I agree with you that critical thinking, even amongst the intelligentsia (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as an example) is in decline.

Interesting. I have written a lot here but I don’t recall making that point. If I did, it was probably a mis-wording or something. I’m not sure if critical thinking is in decline. I would like to see it a stronger focus in education and public value, but I don’t know that it’s worse than it used to be. Maybe. I would need to do more research before committing to that. 🙂

I’ve been looking for a description of the phenomenon that assumes we think better than our ancestors because of science.  Modern arrogance is all that I can come up with, but that isn’t quite right.

I would agree. Maybe it’s just modern misunderstanding of what life was like back then. I’m not sure who thinks that, though. I guess it depends on what you mean by “think better than our ancestors”.

I do think that you are providing too much credence to the scientific method … and not enough acknowledgment that rhetoric and logic existed far before that.

Oh, I see. Thank you for raising that point. It may be a disagreement. Let me clarify my position and then you can let me know.

Through our face-to-face conversations and the first few paragraphs of The Solution – Part 1 I intended to explain that I do not think we are any brighter than those ancestors. Evolution has had virtually no impact in the minuscule time period that has elapsed since Paul and Aristotle. Each of the writers I’ve read from that time were incredibly intelligent; after all, they are the ones whose ideas were preserved and revolutionized the world. They are far more intellectually adept than I will ever be, and I respect them greatly for their contributions. As I’ve stated, much of our modern rhetoric and logic comes from Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle, and other great Roman philosophers. They developed many of the ideas that form the basis for our culture, government, philosophy, science and ethics today. They first articulated formal logic and put us on the path to the scientific method and the benefits of a modern scientific understanding. For many, Paul’s understanding and interpretation of those philosophies in light of his experiences are every bit as relevant as those who developed the formal methods of logic and rhetoric. Most of the things we discover today are only possible because we are “standing on the shoulders of the giants” that came before. Science is generally a slow grinding process, a refinement of the knowledge of our forefathers. If you feel I have failed to properly express homage to this rhetoric and logic that existed before Paul, please forgive me. It was just a failure to sufficiently credit on the blog, not a failure to acknowledge in my own mind.

As for giving too much credence to the scientific method, I’m not sure. I don’t know that I can give enough credence to the scientific method. I think it is probably the single greatest achievement of mankind. It is something we have that those great thinkers did not. It does not make us brighter, but it does give us an advantage in coming up with ideas that are more likely in line with reality. If you disagree, let’s talk about it. 🙂

What is there to be said for training at the feet of the greatest rabbi of his day, Gamaliel the Elder?

I’m not sure. Did he? I don’t know that it matters. I have no doubt that he was brilliant and likely well-trained, understood classical Greek and was well-versed in the rhetoric of the day. I think that position is well-justified based on his words alone even without the appeal to Gamaliel.

For me, interested in Jewish law, but not even a neophyte I can only say that study was and is part of the culture.

We agree. I respect your attempts to understand the culture and context of the time. I think you have a better understanding of it than the average American. I’ll be happy to pursue this line of study with you further if you’re interested.

Why do you say Paul was unaware of confirmation bias?

Not just confirmation bias but the other fallacies I explicitly mentioned in The Problem. As I mentioned in the quote you were using (which I didn’t re-quote here) I haven’t seen any evidence that all of these particular fallacies were known to the ancient Greeks or to Paul. For example, confirmation bias was uncovered clearly in the 1960’s. The ancients around Paul knew of rhetoric and many logical fallacies, but some of the more non-intuitive ones required large data sets, modern psychology, neuroscience, rigorous controls, MRI machines, and a lot of testing in order to discern… so they weren’t known until recently – well after the advent of the scientific method.

Didn’t his conversion drastically alter rather than confirm his path?

Yes, but if you’re implying that means he understood confirmation bias, I don’t see the connection. Strong evidence can alter anyone’s beliefs whether or not they understand confirmation bias. I don’t doubt that what Paul experienced was real and convincing to him, I just can’t be certain that it had a supernatural cause.

One more word about the problem.  Lack of critical thinking does not seem big enough to me to explain poverty, injustice, rape, murder, neglect, envy and all of the horrors of men.

The Problem is not just about the lack of critical thinking skills. It’s about the lack of understanding and consistent application concerning the non-intuitive fallacies, specifically the ones I mentioned – but the others as well. We can have critical thinking skills but if we lack understanding in some of those key fallacies, or if we exempt some beliefs from examination (i.e. special pleading due to motivated reasoning) then we are still victims of the problem in the strongest way (see Why I Respect Pascal). Does it explain all the horrors of men? I don’t know. There’s never been an experiment of people living in a society where no rational creature was ever subject to the problem. So all I can come up with at the moment are hypotheticals (I must be channeling John Rawls). I don’t know enough to be certain that The Problem alone is the cause of all man-made horrors of men, but that isn’t relevant to the rejection of Christianity. I don’t need to have an answer to all philosophical issues I thought my faith had answered. It turns out that faith actually doesn’t answer many of those issues (in my present opinion).

I will say this – identifying the problem and applying the solution prevents us from being certain about our beliefs while still allowing us enough confidence to commit, helps us understand one-another which prevents hatred and promotes love, and helps reduce irrational behavior while enhancing the beauty in life. It (hypothetically) could accomplish all that while lacking the one thing that all religions claim – a certainty in a particular set of unjustifiable beliefs that one could die or even kill for. Does the problem lead to all the horrors of man? Maybe. Is the solution perfect? I doubt it, but it’s a start. I look forward to examining it further.

Where were the critical thinking skills of Stalin’s acolytes as he purged tens of millions of his countrymen.  Is lack of critical thinking, innumeracy, and confirmation bias an adequate explanation for real life problems?  I say no.

I agree their critical thinking skills were probably lacking. Further, and more on point, I think I can safely say that Stalin and his acolytes did not fully understand the problem as I view it. As I mentioned, it is not just a lack of critical thinking skills, but a lack of filtering beliefs and actions through a knowledge of specific mental fallacies that (like Paul and most of our 21st century peers) they probably were not even aware of. If your going try to hold up Stalin as an example of a person who fully understood the problem I’m speaking of and fully implemented the solution I’m advocating, I’m going to pull out my big anti-straw-man club. 🙂

The version of the problem I’ve outlined is very likely incomplete or inaccurate in some ways. It was cobbled together to provide an example of the kinds of issues we face, not a definitive thesis of all of them. Even if it were completely representative of all the errors in thought that led to human-caused suffering AND all humans knew of it and the solution, that would not guarantee that we would have utopia. We are each subjective humans who often ignore our meta-cognition and make decisions based on emotion, bypassing our higher-brain filters. I was going to say that’s part of being human, but it’s part of being a living organism. Fear of pain (or the desire to avoid strong negative stimuli) drives us. Desire for pleasure is secondary. We have these emergent qualities of complex thinking, but they are often too slow or overwhelmed by our desires. So is it a pipe-dream, forever out of reach? No more than the process of sanctification or striving to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. It requires understanding, commitment a kind of continual effort often gets easier with time.

Is The Problem an adequate cause or explanation for real life problems? I think so, especially for most of those causes attributed to humans. Is the solution, properly understood and applied, sufficient to break the pattern of human atrocities? I’m willing to try to defend the idea until it breaks just to find out. I’m curious, but I don’t put much stake in it at the moment. It’s an extremely difficult topic that philosophers have sunk their teeth into for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. I don’t expect to crack it. I’m not Paul or Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Rawls, or the real Russell. But, I do believe that no challenge is too great or complicated when given enough time, energy, and the right approach. I think all those people would agree.

As important as the conversation about non-theistic morality is, I don’t want it to confuse our discussions about the problem of Christianity. Those are separate issues. Having a fully developed backup world-view we can jump to is not a prerequisite for rejecting the Bible.

That’s all for now. I look forward to seeing you again, my friend!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

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