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I made an analogy earlier about going down into the basement of a house you’d spent years building, only to notice some dark lines that might just be innocent shadows, or might be cracks in the foundation that would require you to tear down the entire house and painstakingly build a new one from the ground up. I said that it might be perfectly understandable if your first impulse in that situation was to avoid looking at those lines too closely, lest they turn out to be cracks after all, and instead to just reassure yourself that they were probably shadows and there was nothing to worry about. (I also compared it to someone refusing to go to the doctor for a potential medical problem, lest they be forced to face the possibility that it actually was a problem that they’d have to deal with, and not just some minor thing that would go away on its own.)
But given the way things had been shaping up with my religious beliefs, I was starting to realize that if there really were cracks in my proverbial foundation, ignoring them wasn’t going to make them go away. In fact, trying to remain blissfully unaware of the problem would only make it more likely that the whole structure might suddenly come crashing down on my head someday. It was the same as if I’d been showing signs of a serious medical ailment: Ignoring the signs wouldn’t just somehow make them a non-issue. Either they were already an issue – in which case I needed to acknowledge that fact right away so I could address it – or there was nothing to worry about – in which case there was nothing to fear from making sure that was the case. Either way, I’d be better off checking than not checking; my reflexive aversion to the idea was just a defense mechanism that I needed to overcome.
We humans have a bad habit of convincing ourselves that just because we find something unthinkable, that’s the same as it being impossible – and then we use that rationale as our subconscious justification for never giving those unthinkable ideas the consideration they deserve. But if anything, the fact that they’re so unthinkable should make us want to look into them more thoroughly – because if they did turn out to be real, then the consequences would be all the more tragic for our having ignored all the warning signs. William K. Clifford provides a parable here:
A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those families. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.
The real question, then – whether you’re talking about ships or houses or health conditions – isn’t whether you want to face uncomfortable questions; it’s whether you need to face them. And that goes for religious worldviews too.
As I became more and more willing to look past my internal defense mechanisms and critically examine my own beliefs, I finally came to a point where I was able to ask myself: If there really were cracks in the foundations of my most cherished religious beliefs, would I want to know about them? If it turned out that the Bible was fatally flawed, in more than just a superficial way, would I want it proven to me that it was? If it turned out that the entire religion of Christianity was false, would I want to know that? At this point (notwithstanding certain Bible stories), I did still believe in Christianity in general; but more and more I was starting to feel like I needed to venture down into that dark basement full of uncomfortable questions, even if I didn’t want to. Despite my continued belief that my religion was true, I was coming to realize that if it was actually flawed in some serious way, the only thing worse than finding that out would be not finding it out and unknowingly persisting in a false belief.
And besides, considering that I did still think it was true, that meant that there was no reason for me to feel nervous about questioning it. Truth has nothing to fear from honest inquiry; so if Christianity was as right as I thought it was, I could freely subject it to even the harshest possible scrutiny, and it would come out the other side completely unscathed. In fact, it would make my faith stronger than ever, since I’d now know that it could withstand any possible challenge. If God were real, he wouldn’t be the enemy of truth; seeking truth would always be the right thing for me to do. Here’s Loftus:
[Something that Dr. James D.] Strauss drilled into [his seminary students] is that “all truth is God’s truth,” and by this he meant that if something is true, it’s of God, no matter where we find it, whether through science, philosophy, psychology, history, or experience itself. All truth comes from God wherever we find it. There is no secular/sacred dichotomy when it comes to truth. There is no such thing as secular “knowledge” at all, if by this we mean beliefs that are justifiably true. Neither sinful, nor carnal, nor secular “knowledge” exists as a category because such “knowledge” isn’t true. All truth is sacred and it comes from God alone, whether we learn it inside the pages of the Bible or outside of them in the various disciplines of learning. Since not all truth is to be found in the Bible, it follows that the Christian apologist must try to harmonize all knowledge, since it all comes from God.
With this attitude in mind, then, I made a seemingly simple decision that would turn out to be a pivotal turning point: I decided that instead of digging into these questions with the sole motivation of reinforcing what I already believed, I was going to start approaching them with the goal of just finding out what was actually true. Instead of continually trying to force the facts to fit my preferred conclusions, I was going to let the facts come first, and then let my conclusions be determined by those facts – even if the conclusions they ultimately pointed me to weren’t the ones I preferred. (To quote Jefferson: “We [must] not [be] afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead.”) If Christianity was fundamentally watertight, then great – that’s certainly the outcome I was hoping for. But if there were some issues there – well, I needed to know about them. Whatever the truth was, I wanted to know it. Maybe it would be an uncomfortable process; but I’d gotten to the point where I felt even more uncomfortable about the prospect of continuing to believe in something false without realizing it. The only way I was going to be able to do ease my mental discomfort was to face the facts, not avoid them. As Eugene Gendlin writes:
What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.
At this point, there was no other way out – if I wanted to make any real progress with my beliefs, I was going to have to be willing to let my beliefs be dictated by what I perceived to be true, rather than the other way around. I was going to have to be able “to hear unwelcome truths,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Or in Yudkowsky’s phrasing, I was going to have to get “good at thinking of uncomfortable thoughts.”
I’d already had a bit of practice with this kind of critical introspection throughout my earlier process of reconsidering the inerrancy of the Bible. But taking things to the next level – really questioning the absolute fundamentals of what I believed – was undoubtedly going to feel even more uncomfortable and unnatural, and was going to take a sustained effort. As Mark Manson writes:
Most people, when their beliefs are challenged, hold onto them as though they are a life vest on a sinking ship.
The problem is that often times their beliefs are the sinking ship.
Still, though, I’d found that it was in fact possible to modify your beliefs, as long as you were deliberate and honest with yourself about it. Manson continues:
You’re going to be wrong a lot in life. In fact, you’re going to be wrong pretty much all of the time. And in many ways, your ability to succeed and learn over the long-term is directly proportional to your ability to change what you believe in response to your ignorance and mistakes.
You may be asking, “How do I do this?”
There is no “how.” It’s all in your head. There is literally nothing to do here other than mentally try on new perspectives and ask yourself, “What if [thing that is opposite of my assumption] were true about me? What would that mean?” And then psychically traverse the answer.
This will be scary, at first. Your brain will resist it. But, of course, that’s where the practice of the skill comes in.
As Yudkowsky points out, a big part of developing this skill is just being able to consciously notice your mental discomfort in the first place. If you can notice when your ideas don’t quite seem to be fitting together as perfectly as they should – if you can notice that “quiet strain in the back of your mind” when your justifications start to “feel a little forced” – then the mere fact that you’ve identified the presence of these factors is practically 90% of the work. Most people’s response to mental discomfort happens subconsciously, so they never even realize it’s there; they rationalize some way of pushing it out of their minds so quickly that they never even give themselves a chance to notice it in the first place. But if you can actually notice yourself experiencing feelings of uncertainty, then you can recognize those feelings as the red flag that they are, and focus in on them the way a detective focuses in on a clue. The fact that they’re making you uncomfortable is a sign that you should be paying more attention to them, not less – because it suggests that your current beliefs might not actually be as airtight as you thought, and there might be some issues there that need to be addressed. So despite the temptation to want to spare yourself the mental discomfort of wrestling with those difficult issues, simply bringing them to the forefront of your own attention is an effective way to keep yourself from dodging them – and this is a good thing, because the most difficult questions are often the most important ones to wrestle with. It’s only by taking a deep breath and embracing the discomfort that you can ever elevate yourself to a higher level of understanding. It’s only by really challenging your own views – seeking out the strongest counterarguments you can find, actively trying to disprove your beliefs, and only being satisfied with them if they’re strong enough to survive that gauntlet – that you can ever be confident that your beliefs are justified. As McRaney writes, it’s only through this kind of intellectual fearlessness that humankind has been able to flourish as much as it has:
Your natural tendency is to start from a conclusion and work backward to confirm your assumptions, but the scientific method drives down the wrong side of the road and tries to disconfirm your assumptions. A couple of centuries back people began to catch on to the fact that looking for disconfirming evidence was a better way to conduct research than proceeding from common belief. They saw that eliminating suspicions caused the outline of the truth to emerge. Once your forefathers and foremothers realized that this approach generated results, in a few generations your species went from burning witches and drinking mercury to mapping the human genome and playing golf on the moon.
The approach of actively trying to refute your own beliefs isn’t always easy. The fact that you’re challenging your ideas so aggressively, after all, can sometimes mean that your challenges actually prove successful and you actually do have to give up certain beliefs. (To quote Joseph Campbell: “There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering that you’re on the wrong wall.”) That being said, though, if truth is really what you’re after, then unshackling yourself from flawed beliefs and making your way toward more accurate ones should be a cause for celebration, not despair. After all, you can never improve your worldview unless you’re willing to change it – and you can never make big improvements to your worldview unless you’re willing to make big changes. Even if the process is a difficult one, then, it’s one that you should embrace fearlessly.
Peter Watts provides a parable:
We climbed this hill. Each step up we could see farther, so of course we kept going. Now we’re at the top. […] And we look out across the plain and we see this other tribe dancing around above the clouds, even higher than we are. Maybe it’s a mirage, maybe it’s a trick. Or maybe they just climbed a higher peak we can’t see because the clouds are blocking the view. So we head off to find out – but every step takes us downhill. No matter what direction we head, we can’t move off our peak without losing our vantage point. So we climb back up again. We’re trapped on a local maximum.
But what if there is a higher peak out there, way across the plain? The only way to get there is to bite the bullet, come down off our foothill and trudge along the riverbed until we finally start going uphill again. And it’s only then you realize: Hey, this mountain reaches way higher than that foothill we were on before, and we can see so much better from up here.
But you can’t get there unless you leave behind all the tools that made you so successful in the first place. You have to take that first step downhill.