V for Vulnerable November 12, 2008Posted by caseyww in Essays, Faith, Skepticism.
After what I consider to be a fairly emotional week last week I was planning on steering Valence towards a more light hearted topic. Has anyone seen the Tijuana Mule video? Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the discussion in the comments section has struck on an essential topic which I was planning on addressing eventually. I suppose now is as good a time as ever to clarify what exactly I mean when I call Valence a place for vulnerability.
There are a couple of specific contexts that I want to highlight concerning vulnerability:
- Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe
- On Asking Questions Vulnerably
Being Vulnerable vs Being Safe
One of my most urgent hopes for Valence is that it would be a place where people are able to express their genuine ideas about any particular topic at hand without the threat of personal attacks or arguments ad hominem. After all Valence is, in limited capacity, my effort to redefine my own belief system in the light of critique from a new community. If anyone is leaving themselves open to attack it’s me so I would certainly prefer our discussions to be civil.
That being said we should not equate being vulnerable with being safe. No argument is safe once we throw it out there and similarly here at Valence. Arguments need strong evidence to cling to in this blustery world of ideas lest they be swept away. Arguments are subject to rebuttal (possibly even strongly so) if we are vulnerable enough to listen. We should not be surprised if arguments are labeled with strong words like silly, arrogant, biased or blind (all have been given to yours truly by the way). It’s vital to keep in mind that recognizing a poor argument as such does not immediately defame the character of the person making the argument and is no cause for personal offence. However, it is cause to better explain or defend your argument!
Where this issue of safety becomes sticky is when our arguments blend with personal experience and testimony. Some amazing stories have been shared so far in the comments and I’m grateful for each of them. I would never begin to question that peoples’ experiences with the divine have been transformative, sustaining and defining moments in their lives and I hope that more of us will be willing to share our own stories in the future. These are unique windows into each others’ lives that are important in understanding how we all approach the world. In that sense testimony is invaluable.
Conversely, once we begin to make authoritative arguments about the nature of truth based on our personal experiences we need to recognize that we have left the realm of just sharing personal history and opened ourselves up to rebuttal. In this sense our testimonies are no longer safe and their value has different weight. Once we make this subtle shift from sharing to arguing our testimonies inexorably become simple anecdotal evidence.
On Asking Questions Vulnerably
Early in the life of Valence one the first commenters enjoined me to ask:
“What am I looking for?” Make sure you are looking for what you want to find. If you are looking for God, you will find him. If you are looking for something else, you may find something else less valuable.
This is a really interesting premise and a perspective that I appreciate even though I ultimately disagree. In fact, I’m not sure even the Bible supports this assertion. Was Abraham ‘looking’ for God? How about Jonah? Moses was a murderer hiding out, Peter was fishing and Paul was on his way to quell a rebellious new cult when God supposedly met them. Comparatively, I think I’m in a rather advantaged position for hearing from the divine if the divine so chooses to meet me. That being said, I refuse to begin with the premise that the God of the Bible is the de facto answer when asking questions. In fact I feel like this would be kind of dishonest. Let me explain:
I posit a simple statement that seems obvious but is sometimes missed: Asking a question vulnerably implies that the answer is not predetermined nor is it limited to outcomes that would specifically affirm my already held beliefs.
I know, I know, I’m seriously flirting with losing all intellectual credibility by espousing such base platitudes but hear me out. This aspect of vulnerability touches on a fundamental problem I have with faith as a form of knowledge. Faith predetermines answers to questions without reliance on evidence and is rarely open to revising belief when new evidence is available. To me it seems rather dishonest to feign vulnerability in asking a question if faith already has limited the answer set.
For example Christian friends have often supported my doubting “as long as it strengthens faith.” Then why ask the question? This advice seems disingenuous in that it limits the available answers and severely hinders our pursuit of truth. If we are discussing the question “Is God loving?” but we limit the only valid answers to those that affirm a loving God are we really even asking a question?
Quick side note, to my dismay ‘skeptic’ has already begun to be used by some with a negative connotation in the comments section. I guess this means I haven’t argued my point very well that skepticism is virtuous in its vulnerability. Aside from my premise that we are all skeptical of outside prospective beliefs and it’s only our own that get special pleading I’d like to reinforce that I also believe skeptical to be synonymous with intellectual honesty on this point.
Vulnerability to me is putting aside the way I want the universe to work and committing to follow the evidence towards how the universe actually works all while trying to limit my emotional investment in the answer. Is this dangerous for belief? Sure, but honestly I’m more interested in truth than the certainty of belief.
If you challenge your belief tenets and end up as a nonbeliever, then apparently your faith was not all that sound to begin with and you have improved your thinking in the process. If you question your religion but in the end retain your belief, you have lost nothing and gained a deeper understanding… -Michael Shermer “How We Believe”