Most of us tend to assume we have a special claim on the truth. Call it our dogmatic instinct. Particularly in a university setting, it seems almost commonplace to find two parties standing in opposition, one claiming to know the truth while the other insists on an incompatible piece of wisdom.
This attitude has some good consequences. It encourages us to argue with passion, exposing others to the strongest appeals. It gives us the comfort of viewing beliefs as grounded and worthy of pursuit. It can direct our lives in ways that have meaning to us. But our dogmatic instinct also leads to an instinctual intolerance of the views of others, an intolerance that prevents us from listening properly. We already know that the opposition’s train of thought leads to their calamity, so why hop on for a ride?
I have been thinking about these issues ever since I read William James’s essay, “The Will to Believe,” a couple weeks ago. In it, James distinguishes between two ways of understanding the pursuit of truth: the empiricist way and the absolutist way. The empiricist way is to view truth as something we can attain but cannot know we have attained. This view, notably prevailing in the physical sciences, helps us overcome our instinctively assuming attitudes and be more hesitant to assert the finality of our conclusions. It renders the latest discoverer a little less smug.
The absolutist way, by contrast, views truth as something we can attain and can know we have attained. This view is more commonplace, pervading our public forums and inner thoughts. We may not express it, but our language suggests our assumption of infallibility (that is, up to the moment we change our minds).
The most obvious examples of this attitude occur where debate is most heated: in the realms of politics, faith and personal relations. Last year, a friend told me and two others at a dinner table that she had never been in the habit of believing other people are plainly wrong, but when it came to gay marriage, those who oppose it are completely and plainly wrong. In a somewhat ironic twist, the two others at the table said they opposed gay marriage, one because his faith obliged him and the other because she believed the definition of marriage is a union between man and woman. In remembering this exchange, I wonder, what is the best way to understand disagreement in a diverse world?
The history of ideas is largely a history of mistakes. From geocentric to heliocentric views of our solar system, from Creationism to Evolutionary Theory, from ancient medicine to modern medical practices, the human population seems to be constantly denouncing the beliefs of the past. And our fallibility is further highlighted in the present contingencies that shape our beliefs. A person from rural America is more likely to favor gun rights; a woman is more likely to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The contingencies of our beliefs and our history of mistakes should encourage us to think and speak less dogmatically, to eagerly pursue the strongest arguments on the other side and listen to dissenters with an open mind. This is hard work. The dogmatic instinct is well ingrained. Being open to justifications for prohibiting same-sex marriage, using torture in interrogations, allowing abortions, discontinuing foreign aid, legalizing prostitution and a whole host of other passion-filled issues can wear on our moral instincts in different ways. Just considering opposing arguments feels like a betrayal on the heart. So what are we to do?
As I see it, we have two options: transcending or suppressing the dogmatic instinct. We can transcend it by adopting the empiricist way of understanding the pursuit of truth. Once we purge ourselves of a feeling of absolute certainty about our beliefs, challenging and improving them becomes much easier. But maybe this is an impossible task. Maybe the dogmatic instinct is too fundamental to our natures for us to ever throw it out. If this is the case, then knowledge of our fallibility should teach us to suppress our assuming attitudes, to fight against our dogmatism. This does not mean we should not argue for our beliefs or campaign with passion in defense of them, but it does mean we should question them all the while. It will be a constant battle of head versus heart, and it will never get easy. But why should that stop us?
Aysha is fighting her dogmatic instinct, and maybe you can help! Send her your comments at email@example.com.