On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

In a recent post, I wrote the following:

Changing people’s minds to make them stop holding positions dogmatically and instead hold them tentatively is still a change of mind one may zealously pursue.

On Facebook, Greg writes in reply:

I want to address the peculiarity of this statement. One may passionately pursue such a change of mind, but the change of mind is one such that zealous pursuit is tempered/negated by the tentativeness of the mindset itself. Dan’s statement here is akin to saying that we can zealously present non-zealousness. It’s like saying we can coerce people to be free. Inherent in the content advocated is a negation of the activity. Entertaining. :)

Even if Greg does not hold the content of his beliefs more than tentatively, he does not tentatively hold his standards of evidence or, at least, his commitment to tentativeness itself merely tentatively.  There is nothing contradictory in him firmly adhering to a standard of tentative assent to propositions and simultaneously zealously insisting that someone else loosen a death grip on a questionable idea and instead hold that idea more tentatively.

If one’s zealous appeal to the standards of careful evidence persuades that person to now only scrupulously and, even, zealously, hold that idea at arm’s length as it deserves then one’s zealousness about believing tentatively can translate into appropriately tentative beliefs.  There is no contradiction in that.

Of course one might not zealously hold to a standard of evidence and standard of affirmation that demands tentativeness.  One might non-zealously commit to tentativeness.  But what happens in that case?  Well, one might go ahead and abandon tentativeness for some other standard of affirmations since this standard was only held tentatively and not as an inflexible principle.  I am okay with that (should a persuasive argument for not holding beliefs tentatively arise).

But is Greg willing to be tentative about the tentativeness standard or is it itself something he holds more than tentatively?

But even though I was only talking about zealousness about one’s standards for affirmation of propositions and practices of affirming (and not affirming) to various degrees, I will nonetheless go further and affirm the proposition I was not saying before but which Greg accused me of saying and which he considered ludicrous.

I will say that yes, we can hold beliefs both zealously and tentatively at the same time, only in different ways.  I have certainly done so before (and do so all the time actually).

The point is simple: the tentativeness of the belief is in our abstract recognition that it is revisable, that it has various problems that need to be solved, that other solutions remain open (even if we do not prefer them), and in our genuinely open-minded willingness to take new evidence that contradicts our belief seriously.

We can have all of these beliefs about the ultimate provisionality of our position and have a deep readinesses to change our minds at the end of a series of persuasive arguments, and yet, nonetheless, for the time being be rather zealous about advancing these same beliefs since for the time being we find them very persuasive and/or fruitful.

For example, anyone who knew me in graduate school would attest to my zealousness for Nietzsche or for any of a number of interpretations of metaethics or epistemology which I held at the time. And yet over a relatively short span of time (just a few years or sometimes months), despite all that zealousness, I reversed positions on a number of those ideas and stopped citing Nietzsche as often.  Those beliefs and my allegiance to Nietzsche’s system were always in some ways tentative no matter how I felt about them at various times.

How is this possible?  How can an idea or an allegiance be so passionately held one day and then another day, shortly later, be abandoned or drastically revised?  

Part of the reason is that there is a difference between getting excited about an idea and committing to it by faith. Faith is more than passion for an idea, it is a willful commitment to believe it against all future evidence that might come to light against it. The problem with faith is not specifically its passion towards what it affirms. Passion for ideas can sometimes play a valuable role in exploring ideas’ validities from a decidedly non-faith based mindset.

This is because accepting an idea, even tentatively and temporarily, means letting one’s mind treat it seriously as true (or as possibly true) and allowing the strong presumption of its truth to guide further inferences, and a passionate embrace of the idea helps one take it so seriously and sympathetically—even when this is only also a provisional attitude.

Even when I am teaching my students and advocating different, contrary ideas moment to moment or day to day, I can get zealous about each idea.  The reason is because in order to advocate for each position as persuasively as possible so my students can grasp why anyone would think it is plausible, I temporarily treat it as true and get excited about it as though it were true.

And this enthusiasm, even if only temporary, hypothetical, and/or revisable, helps open me up to seeing the strengths of a position I might not have if I were too tentative.  Trying on an idea means really walking around with it, really giving its defense some gusto.  I have convinced myself of some ideas simply by trying to get inside of them and really see how they might work and finding that, much to my shock, they did.

Years of giving lectures on the moral philosophies of Kant and Aristotle deeply convinced me of numerous of their ideas about ethics.  On the other hand there are other ideas which I cannot sell no matter how much I try to get inside them.  I can never feel them and they just never strike me as true to the world and this partially confirms their falsity to me.

In my dissertation’s task of explicating and systematizing Nietzsche’s philosophy, I needed to get inside his philosophy and think of it as though it were essentially true and from that perspective explore how it might vindicate itself.  I knew all along a phase would come (and it did come) in which I would exhaust the personal, philosophical, and scholarly value of so strongly and reflexively seeing through Nietzsche’s eyes.

Another stage would come in which it would be crucial to evaluate his thinking from an external vantage point from which I could critique it and not just assume it.  This could only happen for me once I deeply understood it from the inside and felt confident that my rejections of his remarks in one place or another were not just from a failure to imaginatively see something important from his point of view.

The value of provisional but wholehearted adoptions (and then reversals) of contrary perspectives  is all accounted for in some of Nietzsche’s own remarks about perspectivism (going back to remarks made in Daybreak and, of course, Genealogy of Morals III:12).

Nietzsche recognized that our emotions and our attitudes give us access to some truths that we might not otherwise realize.  Feeling strongly about an idea or a thing, whether for or against it guides the mind towards aspects of it that a disinterested mind might never even think to look for because, being so dispassionate about it, such a mind fails to feel its importance.

The key thing in being truthful and careful reasoners is not that we renounce all zealous embrace of ideas from within a perspective but, as Nietzsche advises, that we are willing to constantly reverse perspectives so that we do not become prejudiced by any one vantage point.  This is why it is fine that people dig in their heels when a debate starts and try at all costs to save their threatened propositions instead of immediately conceding defeat.  The exercise in adversarial advocacies is clarifying for both parties.

What is necessary is that after the dust settles and everyone goes home that both parties ruminate and come to appreciate whatever truths they may have just argued against and proceed to improve their own opinions.

I try to incorporate this approach into the blog.  In one post I will explore and defend the salvageable parts of religion or those religious things about my religious friends towards which I am sympathetic, and then, in another post, I will adopt an alternative (but consistent) perspective from which I can launch into an anti-religious polemic.

I take care not to logically contradict myself (or at least to recognize when I do so and consider it a change of mind), but nonetheless I find it important to embrace the issues literally from different perspectives, each of which I try to feel and advocate for as I go.  My posts exploring many conservative religious and political viewpoints, for example, often go step by step sympathetically through their perspectives before really launching full blast into my critique and statement of my own ideas.

And, so, on the meta- level I am quite open to the possibility that my various zealously advanced stances on proper epistemology or ethics or metaphysics or philosophy of religion might wind up being drastically revised in either the near or distant future.   In fact, I think my zealous exploration of my current ideas now will make me come up against their limitations more quickly (as long as I am responsive to counter-evidence and cognitive dissonances when they arise) than if I avoided too bold advocacy altogether.  In fact on the blog I personally can see my own evolution and am proud of it, even as I have zealously advocated positions I would now zealously qualify or reverse.

Your Thoughts?

  • Greg Teed

    Honestly, this seems like a ton of words used to say what I did in:

    “What this essentially represents is a denial of my claim that the content matters when it comes to evangelism.”

    Dan then proceeds to offer examples of religious words being applied to non-religious examples. Fair enough. He has some examples. I have some examples to the contrary. What this would seem to suggest is that the word’s meaning is in the process of being negotiated. Dan embraces religious words and applies them to himself. I do not. I suspect there is content to these words that influences the discussion (against us) and I suspect the use of these words is an attempt to confuse careful distinctions we need to make.

    “Nowhere have I ever said anywhere on this blog that this is a matter of just “equal and competing ideologies”.”

    Perhaps – I have not read every entry (of course, you haven’t read all I’ve written either. Otherwise, your straw man from earlier would not have happened), However, I think Dan, myself, and the reader will be aware that this claim is used, even if without the word ideology by the religious on a regular basis.

    The attempt is to suggest that, given an environment of epistemic nihilism (or thoroughgoing skepticism, if you like) that all options are equally substantiated and thus equally valid. with nothing to choose between them. The religious person will then imply that they are then justified in affirming/choosing their dogma by means of a contrived mental/emotional function they call faith. Now, what faith really represents, it seems to me, is the distinction between an affirmation and a positing, a justification (albeit a poor one) for affirming truths instead of tentatively positing. I suspect this is the ultimate source of the, “well you can’t prove me wrong” conceit. Essentially, this attempts to turn all discussions about epistemology into “it’s my word against yours” disputes, with the faithful having a trump card (faith) that those not afflicted wth faith, and actually taking the matter seriously, are too honest to play. This puts the faithless at a seeming, albeit only illusory, disadvantage. Nevertheless, it is an illusory disadvantage that is persuasive.

    I bring this up because it is an argument I am attempting to answer, and because whether Dan does or does not claim that “this is just ‘equal and competing ideologies,’” the religious often do in argument, with the intent of confusing matters by dropping the convesration into a epistemically nihilistic hole and then offering faith as a means of escape. This argument, despite its errors, is nevertheless persuasive/influential because most are terrified of the abyss (a colloquial way of saying people are unwilling to confront much less embrace uncertainty/not knowing/fallibility). Even the much-discussed Nietzsche blinked…

    And this is where the use of the word “evangelizing” comes into play. When we speak of evangelicals we think of religious persons and with respect to religious content. Now, by “religious content” I do not (just) mean the symbolic cannibalism of christianity or the Mecca-centricity of islam or the “we are the chosen” mentality of judaism. I mean the approach to matters epistemological. To call the atheist or skeptic “evangelical” is to imply that the atheist/skeptic is playing the same epistemic game of affirming without substantiation that the thiest/dogmatist is – making unsubstantiated, indeed unsubstantiatable, truth claims. I put it to you that we are not (at least not in better thought out cases) doing this. I put it to you that the use of the word “evangelical” is an attempt to frame the conversation within a realm that we then have to go to great pains to fight our way out of to get to the real point. When an atheist adopts the weaker version of “evangelical,” applying it as if mere passion of advocacy is all that is being referred to, we are allowing the theist/dogmatist to frame and control the context of the discussion in a way that is stacked against us. We then find ourselves attempting to assert truth claims, and we lose by default.

    Rather than just getting roped into their quagmire of “yours is an expression of faith, too” drivel, I offer another way. That other way is the recognition that we are tentatively positing, rather than affirming. I recommend that we adopt tentative positing as our engine of exploration, I recommend that we adopt a mentality of tentative positing in order to allow room for growth and change, and I recommend that we talk the talk (as well as walk the walk) of tentative positing as well. That means stepping outside the context designed so that we lose the rhetorical fray. Now, this is not a trivial or semantic distinction – it is a distinction of basic mindset with respect to knowledge, certainty and how we approach our inquiries, be they empirical or metaphysical. The religious make wild claims about Truth and knowledge and certainty and they do so with a persona of absolute confidence. We have been trained to think this is a rhetorical strength and people are actually moved by it, so we try to do the same thing – decimating our own position in the process and playing a game stacked against us.

    In a way Dan and I are disagreeing to agree. He seems, at times (correct me if I’m wrong) to be sharing similar epistemic views to mine (or vice versa) on a sub-rhetorical level. We seem to be parting company when it comes to rhetoric. Now, that doesn’t mean we are merely disagreeing on semantics. While it is true that we humans stipulate stiulations at will, the stipulations are also how we understand things. Now, the language is under constant negotiation and that includes our stipulations.

    Dan approaches the word “evangelize” entirely from the perspective of enthusiasm. I approach it from a content basis. We have both presented natural language examples in support of our differing approaches. Which is right? Well, neither, of course. They are stipulations. However, we can ask which is useful for a given purpose and get a coherent answer. Just as distinctions between terms leads to precision in other inquiries, so too it can here. To treat evangelism as mere passion allows faith-promoters to control the rhetorical battlefield and obfuscates the critical difference between affirming as true and positing tentatively. To treat the content as interesting, as I do, is to promote further inquiry (what about the content is different?) and defence against the theistic claim that atheism is just another faith, which most of us recongize as the mere rhetorical ploy it is. I put it to you that Dan is playing the faith-purveyor’s rhetorical game and is destined to lose becasue of that. Worse, he is, perhaps unknowingly, presenting passionate presentation as valid argument (or at least legitimate rhetoric).

    So, when looking at this discussion between Dan and I, I think we have to ask ourselves a question and ask it seriously. Is there a difference between an athiest and a theist? Is there a difference between someone who argues from faith and someone who doesn’t? Or is it just a matter of louder and louder talking heads? If there is a difference, what is it? I offer a difference – the difference between a mindset of tentative positings and the mindset of faithful affirmation. I answer the claim that skepticism and science is just another faith.

    For some folks, recognizing the potential for fallibility is something you do only when driven into a corner and pressured. For me, it is up front and open. My language reflects that.

    “I just think conversations about the word “evangelical” are easier if we do not pointlessly try to restrict an understandable analogy or deny that at least part of our goal mirrors our enemies’ (we, like they, do want to confront people about their fundamental beliefs—an endeavor which many people automatically assume must be impolite). I think the conversations would be better spent articulating how our approach and our views vindicate our adoption of the goal and how our methods of pursuing it and their approaches and their views do not.”

    I hope the reader will see from what I wrote above that I do not see the distinction as pointless. And I would hope, given something Dan writes in another post about (to paraphrase) “adopting a position to test it out” that he would be willing to hold (tentatively) the possibility that it might not be pointless. The difficulty with Dan’s paragraph here is that he is assuming a context of inquiry and honest consideration of alternative views. Interestingly enough, it is my view (of tentative positings rather that faithful affirmations) that promotes the context that Dan seeks to exploit, while Dan’s view results in endles arrays of screaming heads, all trying to be more fervent than the other. Before we can learn we must have a context in which we can learn, don’tcha think?

    However, I must say that I found something Dan wrote in a PM to me distressing, and it actually accounts for my delay in responding:

    “I am reiterating a point I already made but which you don’t seem to be grasping so I may not reply again if you do not acknowledge the distinctions but send us down the same rabbit hole.”

    I must admit, this took me aback. Did a philosopher just say that? So, if I don’t accept his point (whatever it may be) Dan will end the discussion. That’s an … unfortunate … stance. I may have just written a lot of words to no effect, but at least I didn’t threaten to end the conversation because Dan disagrees with me…

    I am not sure what “rabbit hole” he is referring to, but I guess I don’t really need to. What matters is the threat.

    Because, you know, screaming from soapboxes *is* ending conversation…

  • Daniel Fincke

    I wound up writing a full enough reply to Greg’s thoughts (despite only intending a paragraph) that I wound up just posting them in their own post. (So many of my blog posts begin as reply comments that take on a life of their own like that.)

    Anyway, normally I would leave an issue at that but I do want in this case to put my rejoinder to Greg’s last, more personal, accusations here too since this is where people will also be reading them.

    Here is what I wrote:

    This whole notion that my position on zealousness amounts to advocating “screaming from soapboxes” is such an absurd strawman of my position that just ignores numerous careful distinctions in my previous post and disregards all the nearly equal platform I have given Greg on my own blog, in the body of blog posts. As a representation of either my theory or my practice it is flat out unfair and false.

    But as to the other charge of behavior unbecoming a philosopher, I do feel pressed to defend myself. Professional philosophers pick battles that they either think has value for their own thinking or for some educative purposes. While if you and I were merely discussing as friends, I might have an easy openness to an interminable, redundant discussion, I was talking to you about the prospects of continuing our debate on my blog. I carry out extremely unusually long running dialectics with particular commentators on my blog.

    I am as open to prominently highlighting and seriously engaging my commentators’ thoughts as any blogger I know of outside of Andrew Sullivan. I risk losing readers who feel like they’re coming in on the middle of a conversation and get disoriented to do things this way, but I love doing this because I think best in conversation, not in monologue. And I am sharpened by the endless challenges of my many provocative interlocutors who I am daily grateful give their time and energy to offering their thoughts on my blog.

    But in this context, I have some limits. I cannot adequately address everybody who comments on the blog and who writes me in private–not while also fulfilling my three jobs teaching six sections of philosophy across three schools in three states. I am engaged in philosophical debate day and night. I do not stifle any conversation from fear of challenge or refusal to come to deeper understanding.

    But, I have to choose what to post about and when comments do not advance discussions by adequately addressing distinctions I have made (either by acknowledging or refuting them or properly accounting for them in the next challenge), then it becomes less worth the precious little available time I have to make a substantive post or two per day.

    I have given plenty of vent to your thoughts and as long as you continue to provide worthy stimulation, I will continue to do so. I apologize for badly wording a warning that I might move on from our particular discussion if I was not finding it fruitful anymore such that it was misconstrued as a sign of refusal to continue to talk to you simply for disagreeing with me. Seriously, I am not so petty.

    Again, the record should make that clear. But I do move on from disputes where I feel like we are both just spinning our wheels. I move on when distinctions I make are not being accounted for (whether in refutations or modifications of positions, etc.) and that is becoming a stumbling block to any further ability to persuade me. And on my blog, I move on when to reply to someone again may just mean repeating myself and boring my readers.

    I expect that we have probably explored the major sides of this topic of “evangelical atheists” enough for now that for the sake of avoiding redundancy for readers, I will confine future replies to you on this topic to the comments section of this or the earlier posts unless a distinct point that deserves its own post becomes central.

  • http://wildernessvagabonds.com Mike Lewinski

    I’d like to make an argument for the value of cognitive dissonance. It helps illuminate the limitations of logic as a way of knowing the world. Picasso said “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.” That is an example of another way of knowing the world which I like.

    I make contradictory arguments from time to time in part because my beliefs change, but I also think my process is different and I’m able to hold such beliefs together as equally true in different perspectives, or in different contexts. As I seek out my own direct experiences of truth, I consider how little I can really depend on that my mind generates.

    So I am not zealous for much, except maybe an understanding of the principle of change that Heraclitus described. I come closest to having faith in change, as defined above: “a willful commitment to believe it against all future evidence that might come to light against it”. In part I can stake that claim because I’m pretty sure that the cessation of change is the cessation of life.

    I skimmed the complete fragments of Heraclitus after reading this (PDF) and the one that means the most to me today in this context is: Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.

    Also: Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain.

    That is, given that the only constant is change, attempts to discern truth are mostly futile. It’s like looking for truth in pi. Given that there are such infinite series of numbers possible, plus so many possible definitions for “truth” in a numerical context, it seems reasonable to find almost any answer and claim to find truth in pi and revere it. That metaphor is inspired by my reading of Heraclitus too: “In the circumference of the circle the beginning and the end are common.”

    I’m not pure enough logically to be a good and proper atheist, but too blasphemous to be accepted by any of the major creed-based faiths. I admit some of my inspiration comes from Buddhist and Taoist inclinations.

    Also I’ve lately been pondering something along the lines of Greg’s statement: “inherent in the content advocated is a negation of its activity”. Specifically there’s the claim that democracy is too open and that it provides the means for a hostile takeover by some other sect or race of people who move to the U.S. (commonly: Muslims or Mexicans).

    So I’ll tentatively take that idea as true to see what the implications are. It seems that we are fated to either become the thing we hate (autocratic theistic rulers), or to be consumed by it. I’m concerned this might be relatively “true” of the dilemma our culture has painted into a corner.

    Must we be intolerant of intolerance and risk the charge of hypocrisy? Most days I’m willing to take that risk and argue Yes.