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Orthodoxy, Belief, Cynicism, and Credulity 8 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, American Pragmatism, Ethics, Religion, Teaching.

I’m teaching a course about Nature and Culture this summer, and I’m in the middle of the first section which gives the evolutionary psychological background of the origins of human cognition and, by extension, culture. I take a naturalistic approach to social theory, and this is my favorite class that I teach right now because I get to bring that to the fore in the content of my class.

For the most part, my students in California are at least liberal and very often secular, but California has a solid conservative religious community, and in the central valley, a large evangelical community. In my classes, I’m as likely to have religiously conservative Muslims and Hindus of various stripes  as I am Christians, and this term I have several students who are extremely uncomfortable talking about human evolution. So far, we have only covered the basic theories of human physical evolution, but on monday we will do the evolution of mind and then on wednesday we will move to culture and, problematically, religion.

As a professor, I find that some of my basic  personality traits are in conflict. I have always been the kind of person who refuses to take anything on face value, I question authority (I did a lot of eye-rolling throughout my teens and twenties), and I personally believe in open-minded exploration of ideas. However, as my intellectual career has progressed, I have come to accept the basic tenets of scientific method (in the broadest of senses) and that credulity is merited by substantiated claims. Watching my students sit with their arms crossed, refusing even to take notes as we talk about evolution, and then hearing them assert their independence of mind in the hallways during break (summer courses are 3.5 hours long, so I give a couple of breaks), or reading their papers where they disengage from rational discourse and simply assert their right to believe anything, I find myself frustrated by the lack of credulity.

Have I become “The Man”? Am I now just an old fart, stuck in my ways? Has my mind closed? Or have I simply become a stereotypical professor where, god damn it, I’m right and everyone who disagrees can go fuck themselves?

What is the relationship between what I consider to be a moral obligation to the truth (small-t, because I believe “truth” is contingent, a process, an end-in-view) and the ethical stance of freedom of conscience. In a public sphere, this is easy. I make my argument and if you disagree and even after examining the evidence still don’t believe, you can walk away and I never have to see you again. But as a teacher, do i not have more of an ethical responsibility to my students? Obviously, I can’t make them believe; indeed, the classroom is not a place for orthodoxy and I would never want that. But have I failed as a teacher if even after having taught them how to think (how to analyze and critique data and generate theories), and after I have presented the evidence and the state of the field theories, the students still refuse to believe?

Orthodoxy is a scary to me, probably because of my experience growing up Mormon. Orthodoxy is a relatively new development in monotheisms that a requirement of belonging to a community is that you have to believe in a particular set of ideas, dogmas, tenets, or interpretations. It used to be that most monotheisms were orthopraxic, that is, that what the community cared about was that you practiced the rituals and behaviors of the community. Generally speaking, the reformation and enlightenment in Europe (Christianity), sectarian splits in Judaism in the 18th and 19th century, and modernization in the Muslim world over the past 300 years or so changed that, so that religions now require belief for salvation. The result has been an inward turning of the control mechanisms, so now instead of just having to control what adherents do, religions have to control what adherents think and believe, and monitor membership based on those thoughts and beliefs. because of my experience in mormonism, with its “testimony culture”, i’m hyper-sensitive to dogma now.
Orthodoxy in Academia would be detrimental to the process of learning. And yet there are orthodoxies within academia nonetheless. When plate-tectonics were introduced to geologists, people lost their jobs and were laughed out of meetings. Of course we all know plate-tectonics are true now, but it was extremely controversial at the time. When E.O. Wilson presented his theories of sociobiology in the 1970s, he was protested, booed off the stage, even received threats of violence. Luckily he already had tenure. Today, although social scientists are still less friendly to his ideas, that bodies and culture interact is pretty much taken for granted.  I recently had an article rejected for publication, and the reasons given were, in my opinion, basic orthodoxies concerning method and content.

Perhaps I am an idealist. Coming from my immersion in Pragmatism, I see the search for truth as a lifelong, noble cause. And I see it as a never-ending process, a goal never fully achieved; but I also see that ‘truth’ exists as we currently understand it and so the truth we have now is good enough to work now, even though it will change tomorrow. So I also believe in credulity where credulity is merited. I believe in being skeptical, requiring evidence and reason for belief; but I believe that cynicism is ultimately detrimental to the entire process of knowledge-seeking.

Whereas I used to find myself in a sort of knee-jerk way questioning everything and refusing to believe anything, in my old age (and probably as a result of my education), I have come to believe that there are things that are true. Maybe it’s from having to teach somewhat coddled children of baby boomers, but I’m tired of knee-jerk incredulous reactions, as if refusing to believe is an end in itself. The refusal of orthodoxy should manifest as a constant openness to new ideas and new evidence. What I find in some of my students is not open-mindedness and a spirit of exploration and discover, but rather an egocentric cynicism, a willful refusal to believe for the sake of not believing, as if refusing to believe anything were itself a sign of their intellect and moral superiority. [I’m speaking of one trend among my students; not how they all act. The most common attitude among my students is simply apathy.]

So now I find myself in the odd and, given my personality and personal ethics, uncomfortable position of getting angry when I present evidence and solid argumentation for a position, and people (i.e., students and colleagues) decide simply not to believe. I know that I don’t want orthodoxy, but I do think that replacing orthodoxy with cynicism is not the right answer. There are times and places and circumstances where credulity is required, namely when the evidence and reason warrant it.



1. SeanT - 8 June 2007

I think orthodoxy and cynicism are two extremes, and the ideal lies somewhere in the middle. People who subscribe to an orthodox position simply because it is orthodox have an assumption or assumptions they are not willing to question—all arguments and hypotheses are evaluated with that unquestioned assumption in mind, and those that contradict it are rejected a priori. To me this is a very frightening philosophical position, partly because of my own orthodox Mormon upbringing and partly because orthodox fundamentalists have a disproportionate (and, in my opinion, negative) impact on the world today.

Cynicism is not much better, since rejecting every assumption without evaluating it is extraordinarily unhelpful, not to mention frustrating and obstructionistic.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the right balance between orthodoxy and cynicism is, and I have never been good at convincing either side to change their ways. On my Mormon mission to Italy, I would regularly run into college kids who would quote Nietzsche and Kant and Spinoza and say (in somewhat of a non sequitur) that they were nihilists and there was no point in talking about anything. On the other hand, now that I’m a godless atheist, I have likewise had no success convincing entrenched, closed-minded believers to consider any possibilities outside those delineated by their dogma of choice.

Oh, well. Whaddaya gonna do?

2. wry catcher - 9 June 2007

I really like this post, especially the part about maintaining credulity. And the point you make about cynical disbelief as its own end is spot on, IMO.

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