Open To Criticism

It is good to be exposed to a range of viewpoints. We learn from being challenged and having our horizons widened. But this can’t happen if we automatically close our minds to what we don’t want to hear.

The other morning I sat with one of my fellow directors on a board that I belong to. We had listened the previous evening to a passionate guest speaker supporting the case for global warming. He was articulate and his material well-researched and presented. We briefly discussed the current doubts that are being expressed by the general public about global warming and how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now in some form of damage control because some of its assertions haven’t been backed by the proper scrutiny of peer review.

The lady in question is a very committed environmentalist, with good principles and intent. She reminded me that she had said in the past she had been greatly alarmed by the fact that the proponents of climate change had discounted and belittled those that did not share their beliefs. “We must listen to everyone,” she said, “and if they disagree with us we need to substantiate our arguments in opposition to them and not just discount them out of hand.” That, I thought, was a courageous point of view.

Now I don’t want to get inveigled in the global warming debate again, but her point of view is so enlightened I want to extrapolate it into other areas.

When it comes to matters of importance we come to our opinions through diverse paths. All our opinions are built on a platform of our underlying assumptions and beliefs. This platform is developed quite unconsciously and is largely laid down in the early years of our lives. Once laid down it is hardly ever brought into question again. These assumptions and beliefs provide the underpinnings of our world-view.

Our world-view is a very important in creating our sense of self. When our world-view is questioned our sense of self is threatened. Therefore we develop psychological defence mechanisms to discount these assaults on our world-view. We ignore them, downplay them, or rationalise away their confronting potential.

It takes a large degree of psychological maturity to deal with them in a rational way.

The phenomenon I am describing is manifested as fundamentalism and xenophobia, and it is a reaction to growing uncertainty. The Post-Modern world has challenged many once well-accepted truths. The traditional churches struggle to retain their monopoly on revealed truth. Just as the Marxist doctrine is being discredited, Capitalism comes under threat from environmentalism. There has been a proliferation of spiritual and pseudo-psychological cults seeking to offer new certainties to those who have abandonned – or been abandonned by – the old ones.

Almost a hundred years ago, William Butler Yeats, wrote these lines in Second Coming giving an apt description of this phenomenon:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In the past it seems to have been the duty of those in authority to maintain the official worldview. But most people did not appear to know that they had a worldview because so much of what was believed was ubiquitous and never questioned.

Walter Truett Anderson in Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be wrote,

“Premodern societies did not generally entertain the idea of any possible gulf between objective reality and social belief systems, much less the idea that it might be possible for other societies to have much different but equally good worldviews or that multiple worldviews (and views about worldviews) might coexist in the same social space.”

As we have discussed in previous blogs, our view of reality is shaped by our worldviews which are in turn often accepted by us, without question, as part of our socialisation. It is somewhat disappointing, but nevertheless accurate, to come to an understanding that our most cherished beliefs are seldom acquired through rational processes.

The problem is magnified by the fact we often invest a lot of our sense of self into these belief systems. When we are asked to define ourselves often we will respond (even if not to others, at least to ourselves):

“I am a Christian.”
“I am a Muslim.”
“I am a Liberal.”
“I am a Conservative.”
“I am an environmentalist.”
“I am a Freudian.”
“I am a Keynesian.”

Or again to quote Anderson,

“Wherever you find such a consensus, a group of people united by a belief system and conviction it is reality itself – be it Scientology, Marxism or the American Way of Life – you will find individuals within that group who have built their lives and fortunes on the belief system and who are deeply interested in maintaining it.”

In this way we link our sense of identity to some particular value system or other. Once we have made this investment we have a vested interest in ensuring that our investment is not threatened. As a result, we can not afford to accept information and arguments that threaten the value system we have invested in!

A fair indication of how much we have invested in these belief systems is often the emotion (not the logic) we evoke to defend them. When protagonists resort to anger and obduracy I usually conclude their beliefs are not backed by informed deliberation and not voluntarily entered into. Yet they must be preserved at all costs because they are a part of their (albeit irrationally derived) definition of who they are. If you didn’t understand the underlying problem you would be inclined to admire these sure-minded citizens be they fundamentalists or hard-nosed scientists, Marxist ideologues or believers in Gaia. Superficially we might believe it must be very comforting to be so sure of our beliefs. Such unshakable beliefs must provide stability in a world of such turbulence and uncertainty. But then we come to understand that such beliefs are not built on substance, and therefore there is no substance to defend them with. Consequently their proponents are either dismissive of criticism or rely on anger and invective to counter it.

Someone compared this dilemma with that of hermit crabs. When you look into a tidal rockpool you see hermit crabs scurrying around on the bottom. They have shrouded their soft, fragile bodies in the shells of other, dead, crustaceans. So many of us, to deal with our particular vulnerabilities take on the beliefs of others without much question to so readily identify with this group or that which then provides us with solace and a sense of belonging. We take on the mantle of beliefs, not because we are convinced, but because we need the sense of identity and protection from an uncertain world. And then of course, we can not afford to have the underpinnings of such beliefs questioned.

So, in the end, we must believe that those who cannot abide criticism and respond with emotions, and not argument, have beliefs that are relatively insubstantial or difficult to substantiate. Those we admire and whose views impact us most are those who can manage criticisms with equanimity, just as my friend was advocating on the climate change issue. (Sorry Edward – I just had to use that word again!)

13 Replies to “Open To Criticism”

  1. Is there a “personality type” relationship here as well?

    I am a strongly analytical person. I have a natural desire to convince myself and others of pretty much everything I hold as important. When I work or discuss things with other analytical folk all goes well and at least based on the facts we have at our disposal we come up with conclusions that are agreed upon in the main. At times though I come across someone who is not interested in logic or facts but rather just believes in a point of view and nothing will change their mind. Over time I have come to the conclusion that these people are not intentionally being unreasonable it is just the way they approach the world. The question then is why are some people analytical and some belief driven? Is this a result of nature (genetics) or very early nurture (environment). If it is nature then according to Darwinian principals “beliefs based” people had a competitive advantage at some time past or present. Any thoughts from anyone in relation to this?

  2. An observation… researchers these days seem in the main to be attempting to prove a belief they or their sponsor has. They have an idea that appeals and that they believe in and then they set about to convince others of its correctness through research, experimentation and all too often these days modelling (the least reliable mechanism of all). I suggest that a better approach would be to set out to disprove the theory. If there are repeated attempts to disprove something we end up with a much more credible outcome I believe. If we truly seek truths we should be encouraging and assisting our critics to disprove our theories and beliefs. As Einstein found out, there are no greater supporters than reformed critics.

  3. Thank you for your encouragement, Father Robin.

    Greg, your original comment is an interesting one. If you remember your Myers Briggs (and Jung maintained that your type preference was genetically determined) there are two ways of making decisions – T (a rational thinking process) and F ( a values based approach which seeks to have the world conform to a set of values, particularly with respect to how the decision impacts on people). Those who are strongly T (as you are) enjoy debating the facts and using their logic to help them make sense of the world. But this approach will make little impact on the opinions of someone who is an F.

    But the vested interest argument is also a strong one. If I have been a scientist working with the IPCC for ten of fifteen years, published papers and spoken at conferences on climate change, I have invested a great deal in this enterprise and will find it hard to cope with arguments undermining my belief.

    It might be useful to quote again Walter Truett Anderson (mentioned in the text of the blog).

    Anderson believes our sense of reality is embodied in the stories we create about the world.

    “Faced with information, the believer becomes either a constructivist or a fundamentalist; the former takes stories lightly, changes them or abandons them entirely when it becomes necessary; the latter deals with troublesome information through psychological denial and/or political repression.”

    As usual both nature and nurture will play a part in determining whether we take one approach or the other.

  4. The bottom line (in my opinion of course) is from opinion to fact to Truth.

    In my opinion of course.

  5. Christianity seems a very exclusive club whereby if you dare question it with rational thought and argue against it, as opposed to taking a blind leap of faith and accepting god etc, you will go to hell.

    I think many people in western society, with less developed world views, are default believers in god merely because it’s the safest bet. There is less at stake. If you believe and there is a god you will go to heaven and if there is not a god you won’t go to heaven. But, if you don’t believe, whether god exists or not, you won’t go to heaven. It prisoner’s dilema (game theory). The thing is this is not true belief and therefore, according to the teachings, you might as well be atheist.

    To have a world view must be defendable, but in mounting a defense, by default, you oppose other world views. The danger is fundamentalism which leads to war.

    A world view is a serious choice with serious ramifications.

  6. Matt, as I would expect, your comment is a perceptive one.

    I have read something recently, (I am sorry I can’t remember the source) of an Australian convict in the early years of Australia’s European history, who murdered someone in prison. His rationale was that he would have to appear before a catholic priest to justify his actions. When he did so he could plead his remorse and he would like as not be forgiven of his sins. With this frame of mind he committed a murder in order to come before a tribunal that would forgive his sins and hopefully give him access to an afterlife. I am sure that the church, despite its shortcomings, did not have this end in mind!

    You mentioned the subject of world views. World views come to us because of our socialisation and (possibly) our genetics. Most of us act out our lives in ways determined by our world views even though we are not consciously aware of them. They have been subsumed into constraining and modifying our lives through the lenses they provide us for relating to the world. Our world views are not conscious constructs but are a reflection of what we unconsciously believe about the world and in particular how we perceive and relate to our fellow human beings.

    Therefore, with respect, we don’t consciously choose our world view. Our world view is a manifestation of our underlying assumptions and beliefs that are not normally brought into consciousness. Our world views, however, can change. But they change largely as a result of the discomfiture they cause us when our world views are out of kilter with the way the world really works.

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