Monday, January 4, 2016

How to avoid dogmatism

Dogmatism is one of the principle obstacles to consensus. I've thought a lot over the last year about the psychology involved when people accept or reject new information and perspectives. This post comments on overcoming dogmatism.

Bertrand Russell made a good point when he wrote "The most savage controversies are those as to which there is no good evidence either way." Now, I have my problems with much of what Russell wrote, but I think he made some good and relevant points on this issue, so I'll expand the quotation before commenting.

"To avoid the various foolish opinions to which mankind are prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.

"If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men by the simple device of asking Mrs Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don't is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone."

In my experience with most proponents of the Mesoamerican setting, they think they know about the North American setting, the Times and Seasons, and so forth. It's a fatal mistake they continue to make. Their willful ignorance is evident not only in their writing but in their Orwellian suppression of information and viewpoints that contradict their beliefs.

Here's what I say to anyone who seeks a consensus on the question of Book of Mormon geography: make the observation yourself. Don't trust what someone else has written about the "other side." Examine the information yourself.

Russell continues:

"Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the text of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If someone maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction."

If you want to see good examples of this kind of anger, read the late-era FARMS material or the current Interpreter (which are basically the same thing). It has been fascinating for me to observe (first hand as well as in writing) the angry responses of some Mesoamericanists. Notice I say some. I know other proponents of Mesoamerican theories who are rational and objective. Not many, but some.

It is at this point that Russell writes what I originally quoted: "The most savage controversies are those as to which there is no good evidence either way."

Russell was referring to theology when he wrote that. I think his point is more effective if one assumes he meant to write "convincing" or "conclusive" instead of "good." There is almost always "good" evidence in the sense that someone will accept it; if there is zero evidence, there is zero belief. The evidence may consist in someone else's say-so, but that is still evidence. Even the Mesoamerican theory has "good" evidence in the sense that some people believe still it.

The quality of evidence is particularly problematic with respect to interpreting historical events, which by its nature requires some degree of inference and trust in sources, combined with a basic understanding of human nature.

"Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants."

I agree that most aspects of theology are opinion when shared with others, but like most LDS, I also think theology accommodates knowledge (such as insights given by the Spirit). The Book of Mormon is a unique example of a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, if one accepts that evidence. Russell's concept of knowledge here really means an objective, demonstrable, repeatable fact such as simple arithmetic, but it could also extend to facts of geology, archaeology, and history. As a former Mesoamericanist myself, I'm empathetic with the anger of those current Mesoamericanists who sense, but don't want to admit, their beliefs go beyond what the evidence warrants (or, worse, contradicts evidence they would readily accept if only it didn't contradict their theories). Some have accused me of "excoriating" other authors, but I don't think I have, I don't mean ti, and hope I don't come across that way because the reality is, I enjoy differences of opinion and the process of analyzing arguments. What I don't enjoy is the suppression of information and alternative points of view that occurs at fairmormon, BMAF, the Interpreter, and the Maxwell Institute. The people in those organizations and publications, IMO, manifest the anger Russell discusses for the reasons Russell lists.

"A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own... seek out people with whom you disagree."

I'll conclude with this one, because I think it is essential to reach any sort of consensus. I've sought dialogue and meetings with several Mesoamericanists, who outright refuse to even have lunch together. These are the dogmatic authors you read at fairmormon, BMAF, the Interpreter, and the Maxwell Institute. I've scratched the surface of their irrationality, fear and dogmatism on the bookofmormonwars blog, so I won't belabor that here, but it's a point to emphasize, so I'll repeat Russell's comment again:

"A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in social circles different from your own... seek out people with whom you disagree."

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