Is Nuance Good? The Answer Is Not That Simple

Is Nuance Good? The Answer Is Not That Simple July 25, 2017

Sometimes the truth has shades of nuance; other times, it's clear as day. (image via Pixabay)

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of nuance these days.

A year ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. I sometimes reflect with amusement on the lengths that I have sometimes gone to carve out positions that fall not into the simplest of binaries even when I take a fairly definitive stance. I frankly didn’t even realize the extent to which I did this until I wrote a piece on praying with dying relatives and noticed that many responses to it — even from friends — almost seemed a bit annoyed at all the nuance that I put into it.

A conversation this week with a Christian acquaintance brought some of that into perspective for me. It started off somewhat as an inquiry into my own deconversion (which I don’t talk much about anymore), and when the discussion veered a bit into social issues, I found myself making a simple point: Things are almost never as simple as people make them out to be.

And that makes a lot of sense to me, given the fact that my experiences have largely consisted of being confidently told what The Truth™ is and later on finding out that, well, The Truth™ was not as true as I thought it was. Frequently, this was because I had been given simple, overly reductive answers to questions that are far more complex.

This incongruity served as much of the catalyst for my own explorations that eventually resulted in my deconversion. Even more significantly, it has made me extremely cautious about taking positions that could be seen as black-and-white.

Whether we realize it or not, most people do tend to adopt certain epistemic heuristics when first judging the apparent truth of something. Some of these heuristics are automatic and also fairly easy to game: a notion’s congruity with established conclusions or preconceptions (confirmation bias); an inclination to trust members of our own groups (ingroup bias); and so on. Others are more conscious.

But regardless, these heuristics affect our interest in pursuing further investigation of a claim. The heuristic I had learned, albeit unconsciously, was that truth is simple and the world easily explicable if you viewed it through the right lens (which in my case was that of a specific religious viewpoint). When this heuristic seemed to fall apart upon closer inspection, I adjusted my heuristic fairly dramatically, starting from the point that truth is usually more complex than it seems at first glance.

Much later, I would come across a paradoxically simple formulation of this heuristic by YA author and vlogger John Green: The truth resists simplicity.

I love this formulation for a few reasons: first, that it is remarkably concise; and second, that it actually expresses the heuristic in quite a nuanced way. This is no “Only the Sith deal in absolutes” — the statement actually leaves room for propositions to be true as well as simple.

This kind of view is one of the aspects of skepticism that I think makes it a valuable way of addressing truth claims. It does not discount the existence of simple truths but instead forces us to orient ourselves such that it is more difficult for false positives to sneak through. After all, we are the easiest ones to fool.

If I am confronted with a statement that seems true on its face, the path of least resistance would be to accept it as true and go no further. But experience tells us (when we’re willing to listen) that simple acceptance often leads us to accept falsehoods when further investigation would provide information that would call those truths into question. So there comes a trade-off: more resources are expended scrutinizing claims, with a much higher potential benefit from believing more true notions.

The catch here is that there is a point of diminishing returns, where investigation beyond a certain point — let’s call it the point of reasonable belief — expends resources with a significantly decreased potential benefit. And that point happens for most truth claims, or else we would rarely or never make firm conclusions about anything.

I’ve written before about how my atheism has largely passed that point for me, and while I don’t discount the possibility that I could be persuaded otherwise, it isn’t a question that takes up much of my cognitive resources these days. The matter is settled enough for me. (Your mileage may vary.)

For matters that have been scrutinized and investigated rigorously, there may indeed be truths that are plain and simple. In many of these cases, the truth claims are also incredibly consequential.

This is where one of my biggest lessons of the past year has come. My inclination to scrutinize and qualify claims almost obsessively has left me in situations where I could not robustly champion truths that are in fact simple.

Yes, I still think that teasing out nuance is a worthwhile endeavor. But nuance isn’t something to be sought after in its own right but instead as a mechanism for coming to the most reliable truths.

It does no one any favors to fetishize nuance in this way. Nuance functions as a microscope, a lens to magnify its subject and identify it accurately. But I don’t need a microscope to tell me when I’m looking at a tree.

The truth may indeed resist simplicity, but that doesn’t mean that we should resist when the truth looks as simple after we look deeper as it did from the start.

And when we find those straightforward truths, we shouldn’t be afraid to speak them.

Image via Pixabay

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