Wednesday, May 15, 2013

If I Don't Believe in Mormonism, What Do I Believe?

There's a hackneyed joke that goes like this:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Mormon?
A: Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason. [1]
Aside from taking a cheap shot at Mormonism, part of the humor of this joke is the idea that Unitarians supposedly don't believe in anything. This is a fairly common assumption that religious people sometimes make about systems of freethought such as Unitarianism, humanism, atheism, etc. I think this stems from their belief that God and religious values are the immutable source of morality, wisdom, and happiness. I can understand why most people have this perspective since many people are first introduced to questions of ethics and morality in a religious context. Moral behavior is also generally the main topic of discussion in nearly all religious settings. And many people are motivated by their love of God to act in moral, pro-social ways. Therefore, religious people often feel that to reject religion must mean that you reject a belief in moral values. It means you don't believe in anything any more.

While I can understand that perspective, I don't think it's accurate. It's true that I no longer believe in religion any more, but that doesn't automatically mean I condone moral relativism or that I don't have moral values any more. So I wanted to articulate here what I do continue to believe in.

The Virtue of Scholarly Dialogue

Generally speaking, I'm fairly wary about believing in "truths" any more. I am hesitant to make bold, dogmatic statements declaring things to be absolutely "true" or "right." The reason I hesitate is because it's always possible that my understanding of the issue could be limited by cognitive bias, a lack of evidence, shortsightedness, etc. (as has been the case in the past, unfortunately).

But even though I hesitate to believe in absolute truths any more, that doesn't mean I reject the notion that truth exists. I still believe that truth exists---and if push comes to shove, I'd be willing to take a stand for the things that I currently believe to be true based on the evidence available to me. However, I am less interested in believing in Truth (with a capital "T") and I am more interested in how to access the truth. In other words, I prefer to believe in processes that have good track records for helping me to get closer at approximating the truth about important matters.

In my opinion, the process of scholarly dialogue is the most superior process so far. When I say "scholarly dialogue" I'm referring to the process of researching a topic thoroughly, articulating an argument based on your research and submitting it for critique by other scholars who have also researched the topic thoroughly.

Under this system it is important for individuals to be as educated as they can about the topics they discuss---but it's also important to keep in mind that oftentimes the process of dialogue is itself a form of education because it exposes us to alternative perspectives that we might not have been aware. Ideas must go through the crucible of scholarly argumentation. If they emerge from that crucible intact, they are worth considering.

Honesty, Courage, and Respect

With that in mind, I've come to feel that the chief requirements for scholarly argumentation are honesty, courage, and respect. I've created a laundry list of what these three virtues mean to me:

  • Before making your argument, will you research your topic thoroughly to the best of your ability? Are you willing to diligently and objectively search all possible perspectives and information on this topic?
  • As you research, will you use only those sources which are of the highest quality and credibility to support your position on the topic? Will you check and re-check your sources to make sure they are highly credible?
  • Will you cite your resources fully and accurately so that others can verify that your resources are credible and reliable?
  • Will you refuse, on principle, to distort the evidence or another scholar’s point of view? Will you make sure that you do not take quotations out of context or misrepresent them in any way?
  • If an occasion for an argument arises and you have not had enough time to conduct sufficient research, will you mention that as a caveat to your argument? Will you acknowledge any personal biases that inform your argument?
  • Will you make sure that you define key terms in a way that can be mutually agreed upon so that your readers will understand the fundamental assumptions of your argument if needed?

  • Are you willing to change your mind on this topic? Are you willing to risk your own ego for the sake of truth and in order to do what’s best for society? [2]
  • Are you willing to abandon any long-cherished positions when it is clear that there is substantial evidence to the contrary?
  • When your perspectives change, are you willing to acknowledge how and why your mind was changed?
  • If one of your arguments or some of your supporting evidence is shown to be flawed, will you revise that argument or stop using that evidence altogether?
  • Will you recognize the full complexity of the issue and add qualifications to your argument when necessary?

  • Will you acknowledge counterarguments to your own claims in a fair and balanced manner?
  • Will you resist the temptation to disparage the character of persons who take a different position from your own? Will you strive to have empathy for others, recognizing that everyone has valid reasons for believing the things they believe?
  • If another person concedes that your position is reasonable or correct, will you refrain from belittling them, recognizing that the purpose of scholarly dialogue is not to “win,” but to find the best possible solution or perspectives on the topic?

Without these conditions in place, there can be no productive, rational discussion. It is best not to engage in these kinds of arguments for your own health and well-being. However, when these conditions are in place, it can be a remarkably transformative, powerful experience. Those kinds of discussions are worth seeking out because they will benefit all the participants involved. Society as a whole will be a little bit richer because of it.

Caveats to the Process of Scholarly Dialogue

I'm a big fan of Eliezer Yudkowsky (author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). On his Less Wrong website for aspiring rationalists, he has an article entitled Twelve Virtues of Rationality that are somewhat similar to the three requirements I've articulated above. One of his virtues is evenness, meaning that you need to apply skepticism and argumentation evenly to positions that you agree with as well as positions that you disagree with.[3] So, in the interest of being even-handed, I need to acknowledge some of the problems with the process of scholarly dialogue that I've discussed above.

Scholarly dialogue takes a long time to achieve. It takes a lot of resources to get to the point where a scholarly dialogue can even take place. It takes time and education to conduct scholarly research. Furthermore, scholarly dialogue benefits from involving as many people as possible during the argumentation process in order to get as many valid, creative perspectives in the forum as possible. When scholarly dialogue is working at its best, it becomes synergistic and collaborative. But when more people are involved it, it also slows down the process immensely. Consensus takes an incredibly long time to achieve and the conditions have to be just right for it to occur. It's a long, arduous and messy process. And that's why it doesn't happen very often.

Good research is not freely accessible to the public. My biggest pet peeve with academia is how many barriers it places around open access to good information. Scholarly research is among the most credible information available, but it requires esoteric permission to access it. You pretty much have to work at a university in order to have access to scholarly materials because it is too cost-prohibitive otherwise. Many academic databases and journals have incredibly high subscription costs. One librarian at my work estimated that database and journal access costs my university close to a million dollars a year. That's a big problem for a host of reasons (and one that I applaud Harvard, Princeton, and MIT for trying to combat). Beyond the tremendous cost for access to journals, most scholarly journals are written in "academese," a highly complex and sometimes unnecessarily technical style of writing that is quite difficult for lay readers to understand. Although some of this jargon is justified, it can also just be an excuse for poor writing. The high cost and the obfuscated language in scholarly journals make it difficult for most people to have access to good information so that they can better educate themselves about key issues.

Scholarly dialogue is not intuitive; it has to be learned. Rationality is not the default way in which human beings approach the world for many complex cultural, psychological and even biological reasons. [4] People usually have valid reasons for behaving and thinking irrationally, but that doesn't make the process of scholarly dialogue any easier. It's sometimes difficult to engage in a productive exchange of ideas when the cultural and biological odds are stacked against you.

Scholarly dialogue doesn't always get it right---nor does it pretend to. Sometimes experts are wrong. Sometimes the scholarly consensus is wrong. It's important to remember that scholarly dialogue is not about giving you THE TRUTH. It's about approximating truth, getting closer and closer to the truth with every new day---even though you know you're never going to fully arrive there. Scholarship isn't about giving you certainty about the way the world works per se; it's about telling you the probability that this is the way the world works given the current evidence that is available to us. You have to stay on your toes and be willing to diligently keep searching for new evidence and updating your probabilities as you go along. And that's the true beauty of scholarly dialogue: it's a self-correcting process. Even though it gets it wrong sometimes or even a lot of the time, eventually it will correct itself.


As costly and seemingly impossible to attain as it is, I still maintain my commitment to scholarly dialogue, to independent thought, and to the openly democratic exchange of ideas. Compared to nearly every other system, I maintain my confidence that scholarly dialogue has the best track record for improving the human condition so far. And so, yes, that's what I believe in today.


[1] Lenny Bruce is also quoted as saying: "I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad that they burn a question mark on my front lawn."

[2] Christopher Lasch’s once wrote: “It is the art of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions,’ gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experience as well. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others. The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents’ arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable---and therefore educational” (qtd. in "The Lost Art of Political Argument." Harper's Magazine Sept. 1990. Web.)

[3] When you fail to apply skepticism evenly to your own arguments, this is also known as "motivated skepticism." See Taber, Charles S. and Milton Lodge. "Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs." American Journal of Political Science 50.3 (2006): 755-769. JSTOR. Web.

[4] There are a lot of people who have written about this better than I have. An interesting book to get started with this concept is Chabris and Simon's The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.

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