Sometimes I’ve found myself frustrated arguing with people about deep important beliefs. I’ll come up with what I think is a good argument and they will remain unmoved. For example I once forwarded to a scientologist the devastating New Yorker piece which showed that a major part of the founding belief of the Church of Scientology — that the founder, L.Ron Hubbard had been injured in a naval battle and cured himself through mind science — was based on a forgery. His response was “Meh.”
It occurred to me that I was violating the old maxim — you can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason themselves into. People embrace big views — religions and political ones — for reasons having to do primarily with emotion, aesthetic response, and group identification. If they embrace views like that you are not going to get them out of them with a rational argument. Even in the case of a cognitive enterprise like science, scientists embrace a paradigm because it works for them, personally and sociologically. The new paradigm doesn’t win new adherents, but new people are born for whom it doesn’t work. In the words of Max Planck theory advances, funeral by funeral.
This view strikes me as discouraging. If there is no way for me to convince anybody else then there is no way for anybody else to convince me. And that means I am barred from the truth, which I don’t want.
Here is an example of how I think it can work.
I once came close to embracing orthodox Judaism. I didn’t think it was literally true, but I thought it was a valid way of understanding reality. I came to it from an emotional reaction to the consumer-based nature of modern life. I really pined for some way of putting things together that didn’t reduce everything to the maximization of subjective expected utility — in other words making money. I thought Judaism might be an alternative for me.
I never accepted the homophobia and I never accepted the rejection of science, but I thought there was something serious at its core, and even tried to observe some of the ritual laws. I found friends I emotionally connected with and communities I enjoyed belonging to.
Nevertheless I never could quite believe it. I had increasing cognitive dissonance which came to a head when a read a book by an orthodox mentor of mine, who argued that the ancient civilizations of the near east had access to “Spiritual technology” which they lost when human beings acquired material technology. He thought, for example, that Pharaoh’s sorcerors literally could change snakes to sticks.
I challenged him over the email and said “Look, I know we disagree. But surely there is a way we can resolve this that is acceptable to us both. Why don’t we look into, for example, the health of Egyptian mummies. If the ancient Egyptians really had spiritual technology, as you believe, that should be reflected in the health of their rulers.” He never wrote back. I started to re-gestalt my cognitive views and also my re-evaluate my emotional connection with my mentor. Everything that I had put on a back burner — the intellectual naivete of orthodox thought, the obscurantism of its prose, the authoritarian nature of its institutions, the personal failings of its representatives — came roaring back, and I took off my yarmulke.
What role did my seeing through the problems in my mentor’s book about “spiritual technology” play in my evolution out of this religious belief? It crystallized a mounting disquiet.
My conclusion is that getting out of a religious belief for me was a question of changing my emotions and my cognitions. Reasoning wasn’t a sufficient thing to change my belief, but it didn’t play zero role either.
I’m glad. I’m sure there will be advances made as a result of my funeral, but I’d like there to be some advances that I am around to enjoy.