I’m aware that my continuously starting new series’ and then letting them linger unfinished for ages is getting ridiculous. But I can’t help myself.
This new series is about doubt, rationalization, being mean while debating, and a problem with the empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arguments.
I’ll use myself as an example of how certain arguments affect people doubting their position, but to do that I first need to explain my experience of serious doubt.
Like many Christians I suffer occasional pangs of doubt. Like the common cold, they come, make me miserable for a while and then leave. In the big picture of things that’s not all that important.
But staying in that picture, I’ve also had the spiritual equivalent of chronic pneumonia. For several years giving up on all those strange ideas was a very real and at times attractive possibility.
It wasn’t an intellectual problem and there was no particular argument I was struggling with. Actually it happened after I had resolved all the intellectual questions of my teen-age years to my satisfaction and had a fairly good understanding of most stock arguments and their stock replies. Contrariwise, the root problem was that my religion was a purely intellectual thing. I wasn’t going to confession ever or to mass with any kind of regularity and I surely wasn’t praying outside of mass either. The real life Church is often not a particularly fun group to be part of and at the time my strategy to deal with that was avoiding interaction with Church folks. Not so long ago I met someone I got to know around that time at a church function and she was extremely surprised to find out I’m Catholic, because back then I surely wasn’t giving even the subtlest hints of it. She actually told me that of the reference group she knew me in she would have thought me almost the least likely person to be a Christian. Outch! I did theoretically assent to all the propositions but there was nothing relational there. I think the best way to put it sounds awfully Evangelical: I assented to the abstract system but I didn’t let the living God into my hart or try to have a relationship with Jesus.
On the purely epistemic level the difference this makes is fairly subtle. I was firmly committed to believe the truth even if it sucks, but at the time I felt that it did suck. Even then, far from looking for an intellectual excuse to drop my faith, I was actually very vigilant against convenient rationalizations. On the other hand even now I hope that I would still change my mind if I found compelling evidence against Christianity, so it’s not like the option has actually disappeared. But maybe I can put it like this: If I found compelling evidence against my religion now I would be sad that I’d have to give it up. If I had found it then I would have felt relieved.
I still interested in understanding unusual beliefs but back then it was more urgent. I talked to some Mormon missionaries and asking God about that Moroni 10 thing might have been my only prayer in months. If my experience hadn’t been so strongly disconfirming it would make a fine conversion story! Then like now mainstream atheists defined themselves by a mere rejection and were totally disinterested in actually providing arguments for anything. But I did look into some actual atheist philosophies on offer. I read Das Kapital and Atlas shrugged. I also followed The Sequences, which were then being written. And it was not just for a collection of 1000 philosophies that suck more than Catholicism, I was actually interested in giving a chance to other attempts at coming up with a coherent philosophy.
So long story short, I wasn’t convinced by any of these alternate philosophies, but at that time of my life they all had a much better shot than they do now.
Next up: How I managed to hold on to my faith.