First, a confession.
I'm not the best at responding to blog comments. For that I apologize. I'm not horrible, but I'm not as good at responding as I'd like to be.
There are two reasons about why this is the case.
The first has to do with the speed at which my blog moves and the kind of posts I write. Given that I try to post every weekday, the minute one post goes up I'm already hard at work on the next post. Consequently, any given day my attention is mainly on writing the next day's post. In my mind I'm always one day ahead of the blog. Yes, I do read all the comments. But more often than not when I have a moment I'm writing the next post rather than weighing in on the post live on the blog.
Happily, there is a strong contingent of regular readers here who ably add to and expand upon anything I write. More, when people ask questions ya'll jump in with answers. Everyday I'm grateful for how you collaborate and participate in the comments.
So that's the main reason I'm not as active in the comments as I'd like. The second reason has to do with the subject of this post. And it has to do with dumbfounding.
If you've read Unclean or The Authenticity of Faith you know I've been thinking a lot about how dumbfounding affects groups. For example, in a recent post I used dumbfounding to analyze why groups, like churches, get into fights about appropriate dress.
To review, dumbfounding (discovered by psychologist Jonathan Haidt) occurs when people make normative judgments based upon their feelings and then struggle to produce reasons for those judgments.
Dumbfounding takes its cue from the thought of David Hume who famously argued that "reason is the slave of the passions." The argument here is that emotions are primary. We feel before we think. Thinking, in this instance, is more about post hoc justification than a process of discernment.
This very different from how we think things should work. We tend to think our feelings follow our reasons. We like to think, when faced with a judgment we have to make, that we reason things out and then respond, emotionally and behaviorally. Deliberation and reasons come first followed by feelings and actions. We discern something to be bad and, in light of that discernment, feel moral outrage well up within us.
But it doesn't really work that way. According to Hume it's the other way around. Feelings come first. We feel the moral outrage and, in light of those feelings, go in search of reasons as to why. Thinking, in this instance, isn't producing our outrage but is being used to explain the existence of our feelings, to ourselves and our neighbors.
Here's the practical import of all this: Reasons aren't persuasive. Reasons are self-justifications.
And this explains why I struggle with certain comments on the blog (and on other blogs). Particularly comments disagreeing with me.
To be clear, I'm not saying that when people disagree with me they don't have good reasons or solid arguments. It's just that I don't find those arguments persuasive. Largely, and this is key, for a host of emotional reasons. Consequently, until I feel differently about things, until my affections change, exchanging self-justifications in the comments section of a blog isn't going to move the conversation forward. It's a dumbfounding situation.
We've all experienced this or seen it happen in blog conversations. Like many of you I've engaged in a lot of blog debates over the years and I've never seen two people who have disagreed sharply on an issue reach an agreement by the end of the exchange. And more often than not, rather than bringing people closer together these conversations tend to deteriorate. And why is that? It's because we are dumbfounded. Things get emotional because beneath all the verbal give and take there is a set strong feelings sitting close to the surface that regularly spills over.
So at the end of the day if you and I disagree strongly I'm not sure we have a whole lot to say to each other. I'm not trying to be dismissive in saying that. I'm making an empirical prediction.
Consider an example. Let's talk about our current President. Is he doing a good job? Imagine two people with strong feelings on the subject, someone who thinks he's doing a horrible job and someone who thinks he is doing a great job (or the best job anyone could do). Do we really think these two individuals can objectively exchange reasons and data that could convince the other?
And if that's the case, why bother arguing about it on a blog?
That said, I do think there are people on the fence. People with no firm opinions. Seekers. People who at a particular time in life, due to their life experiences, feel their affections changing. I'll respond to the questions of seekers. And you can sense this openness pretty quickly in a comment/er. By contrast, I will tend to leave outright disagreement alone.
Beyond the dumbfounding research, my choice here is informed by the work of William James, particularly his essay "The Will to Believe."
In the essay James talks about hypotheses (positions and arguments we might offer to each other in these blog debates) being, using a electrical metaphor, either live or dead options for us. James describing this:
Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature--it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Mahdi's followers), the hypothesis is among the mind's possibilities: it is alive. This show the deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.Our emotions are hugely implicated in how ideas become alive or dead to us. And you can sense in an argument the degree to which the other person is "live" to the position or argument you are offering. By contrast, when you sense the person is "dead" to the idea I'd say it's time to move on.
And to be confessional, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. I'll readily admit to being "dead" to a host of ideas. For example, I'm pretty "dead" to Calvinism. Nothing in it attracts me, emotionally or intellectually. Calvinism does not "scintillate with any credibility" in my heart or mind. So yes, I admit, I'm pretty hard to talk to or convince on that score.
But this isn't to say that I don't want dissent registered on the blog. Dissent reminds everyone that there are many sides to an issue. And that's important to prevent the creation of echo chambers.
And to be sure Hume wasn't 100% correct. Many of us make decisions based upon rational deliberation. More, these reasons are often used to battle our emotional and knee-jerk reactions. Ideas previously dead to us can come to life.
But then again, I still think this has more to do with emotional maturity than with anything else. Wisdom is learning to hold your feelings in abeyance to give yourself time to think, listen and learn. You can't think well if you can't control your emotions. Emotional self-control is a prerequisite to critical thinking.
At the end of the day, this is what I think about strong blog disagreements. I think we aren't really disagreeing. We just feel differently about things. About God. About government. About moral issues and hot-button topics (and emotions are why they are called hot). About all sorts of stuff.
You feel one way and I feel another way. And that about sums it up.