Saturday, 16 January 2010

On the problem of opinions

“Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”
Thus said ‘the Great Knock’, the tutor of the young C S Lewis, in response to his subject’s views on the Surrey landscape. But it ought, in truth, to be blazoned across our media generally and the internet particularly. Indeed, some people ought to have it as a screen-saver.
It is more than three weeks since I last posted a ‘proper’ article on this blog. Partly that is down to the busy-ness of Christmas, partly to a holiday thereafter, partly to trying to do some reading and partly to the demands of running the Benefice during our current interregnum.
However, I have continued to visit the odd blog or two and to look at the comments made in online newspapers, and the one thing that has increasingly struck me is that most of what is written is complete twaddle, not only in what is said, but how, and even why.
Too many people, it seems, have little grasp either of basic comprehension or of logical reasoning. The result, thanks to the internet, is a constant pouring forth of opinions fiercely held and rebuttals vitriolically delivered, but little actual engagement or sense.
I am reminded of a group of largely-unemployed men who used to gather at a church-run coffee shop I knew. What characterised them when they debated together was the great passion with which so little was said. It was clear that they had strong feelings on the various subjects under discussion, but they lacked the educational or intellectual ability to get very far in their analysis. The result was doubtless fun for them —and why should it not be? —but it would have made a poor radio broadcast.
Now some, I am sure, will feel I am mocking the ‘inferiority’ of these men. I am not. But I am asserting that argument or discussion may be of a greater or lesser quality depending on the abilities and skills brought to bear. My target is not the cheerful ‘bumpkin’, who is a threat to no one, but the person who really does believe they have understanding and that therefore they have something to say.
Such a person will probably have negotiated our educational system with some success. Indeed, it is likely they have a degree. However, as the scarecrow discovered in The Wizard of Oz, a diploma is not the same thing as wisdom.
The first problem I observe is the sheer lack of comprehension reflected in many people’s comments on an article or issue. Quite simply, people read without taking things in. Their responses therefore are often tangential to, or sometimes even unrelated to, what has actually been said.
When I was in my early years at school, we were required to write two sorts of ‘English’ essay —comprehension and composition. I much more enjoyed composition, where we were allowed to express ourselves on a subject. Comprehension essays, where we had to sum up the content of someone else’s work, I found dull and repetitious. Yet I now understand the value of the latter, for if I am to engage with the ideas and opinions of others I must first comprehend what they are saying.
Such comprehension, however, is clearly lacking in many today, as evidenced by comments which miss the point, which ignore what has been said or which, most frustratingly of all, attribute to an author ideas or views which he or she has simply not expressed. The latter, which is all-too-common, arises perniciously not from the words of the author but the opinions of the reader, who has gained nothing from the effort of reading save an increase in bile.
It was a very important lesson to me, in my university days, to realize that although one might be able to read very well, it did not guarantee one understood what was written. This was brought home to me by an assignment to read chunks of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding over the Christmas holidays. Sitting on a bus from West Croydon to Charlton, I realized that although I understood every word on the page in front of me, I simply had no idea what Hume was saying. Only during tutorials in the following term did I finally, and slowly, get the hang of comprehending Hume’s words.
Lesson number two also came through the philosophy module, where I eventually, and painfully, learned the difference between meaning something and saying it. Too often, essay marks suffered because although I knew what I meant, it simply wasn’t there in the words on the page. It was almost an epiphany when I realized this was the problem, and my writing improved dramatically. At the same time, however, I realized that what was true for me was also applicable to others, and that I could therefore only take their meaning to be what they had actually expressed in their words —for better or for worse.
Unfortunately, far too few people have any experience either of being taught to read or to write in a disciplined way. The result is too much careless reading and thoughtless writing.
And then there are the disciplines of argument and evidence. Too many people, again, imagine that philosophy and the natural sciences are about the ‘big ideas’, without grasping that these entail the basic building blocks of reason.
Recently, I was browsing the philosophy section of a bookshop, looking for an introductory work on the subject. The first book I picked up purporting to be such almost immediately introduced the reader to the question of the existence of God! (Indeed, it was surprising how many works on ‘popular’ philosophy and science touched on religion.) Of course, this is an interesting topic, and one on which much philosopher’s ink has been spilled. But the point is, how can someone who has not yet learned the basics of philosophy understand whether the presentation itself of such a topic is philosophically sound or otherwise?
Before we can usefully debate the arguments for the existence of God, we must understand the principles by which argument works, at the heart of which is the notion that “If p, then not not-p” —the axiom that two contradictory things cannot simultaneously be the case. Those who are unfamiliar with such a concept, or who find it too abstruse to grasp, are surely not in a position yet to trust their own arguments for the existence of the Deity or to dispute those of others!
As I hinted in the introductory quote, however, what is lacking today, above all, is humility —humility, in particular, about our abilities or understanding. People ‘read into’ more easily than they read, and opinionate more eagerly than they reflect. The Bible’s advice concerning the latter is clear: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself” (Prov 26:4). Equally clear is its advice regarding the former: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Prov 26:5).
It is the wise person indeed who will stop to think before rushing to comment on how to reconcile the two.
Revd John Richardson
16 January 2010

PS: Just to illustrate the relevance of, and need for, basic 'philosophical' skills, readers might like to consider this news item and list the points which require critical awareness of the nature and rules of argument.
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  1. So what you're saying then is that everyone is thick except you, and they should all shut up because they understand nothing - you big-head!

    ...thought perhaps I'd warm to theme and give a quick example of what you despair of.

  2. This is a great post. I'm a student at a Reformed seminary here in the US, and this sort of thing seems to be especially problematic in these circles, although to be sure, every tradition has its overly-loud voices. I have a professor who uses the label 'Reformed Controversialists' to refer to the group of people who use blogs and other internet forums just to tear down others, much in the way you described. We certainly have a responsibility to contend for truth, but to do so in a spirit of unity. As Paul calls us to in Ephesians 4, we ought to be "speaking the truth in love."

  3. "The result was doubtless fun for them — and why should it not be? — but it would have made a poor radio broadcast."

    I fear a lot of radio producers would not agree with you. So much of our 'factual' programming nowadays cares more about 'jepardy', emotion and heat than experts engaging with a matter with competence and clarity.

  4. I should add, I love this cartoon as an example of the right way to reason.

  5. Dear Revd. Richardson,

    I am delighted to hear about your journey into the exciting world of philosophy. If you thought Hume was difficult, wait until you hit Kant!

    There are some gems in your comments, particularly about the 'big ideas' vs the building blocks. If you want my words of advice, watch your starting point. It will determine the destination of your thinking. I do hope you're discussing some Aristotlean/Thomistic philosophy on your course.

    I totally agree with your comment about "being taught to read or to write in a disciplined way." Mortimer Adler, that great American Aristotlean wrote "How to Read a Book" I highly recommend it to you.

    God bless you, Revd. Richardson!

  6. Jakian, thanks for your encouragement, but I should point out that the philosophy modules I did were back "in my university days" - which finished in 1972. I am still in proud possession of an essay marked by A G N Flew in his prime! I did dip into Kant in the early 1990s, but decided life was simply too short, and Kant too long.

  7. Ah, the irony! Time for me to reread Adler's classic I think...

  8. '...the notion that “If p, then not not-p” —the axiom that two contradictory things cannot simultaneously be the case.'

    Bah! & who said that? Aristotle - another of those DWEMs with his sickening discourse of oppression. Logic! Pshaw! Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

    [Wait a minute, are you absolutely sure about that? That makes you a ...]

    Mark B.

  9. O dear. I fear you have been reading some of my comments.

  10. Ihe standard of debate that I read on most Christian blogs often reminds me of 'Angry Frank'


    Not on this blog I hasten to add..

    Chris Bishop

  11. Tom Watts, Winsford18 January 2010 at 15:51

    Have you heard of Godwin's law? It states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

    More importantly, I'm not sure I agree that you can only debate the existence of God once you agree on the law of non-contradiction. I'd be more inclined to say that you can only believe in the law of non-contradiction once you have established (or at least pre-supposed) the existence of God. The same goes with almost anything else.

  12. I have never commented on a blog before but after reading this post on Sunday and then listening to Radio 5 in the evening I felt compelled to write as everything that you said summarised what was said by Stephen Nolan who was presenting the show.

    The discussion was regarding the Tory policy to give a tax incentive to married couples. The basis of this was that the best parents tend to be those who stay together and those who are married are 5 times more likely to stay together. Stephen Nolan accepted these statistics but could not comprehend why marriage was better for kids. He kept saying unmarried couples could be good parents and summarising the view of the Tory MP as something which was not in fact what the guy had said. What annoyed me most was not Nolan's liberal attitude but his inability to follow a simple argument. Fortunately Ann Atkins was on hand to provide the voice of sense.

  13. Thank you for a very "proper article."

    Count me as one who can read entire passages of a philosophy tract and fail to comprehend. When this happens, I have a couple of choices. I can either throw the book down, and blame the author for writing something incomprehensible, or I can slow down and carefully reread the words on the page and think about their meaning.

    This also works well when reading the Bible (lectio divina?).

  14. Very well put, as always.

    I think I would add to this the poor way that arguments are often developed in books. Management books are the worst offenders, with good practice of setting the context for an author's opinion entirely absent. The 'due diligence' part of writing in an academic manner no longer exists, so that a typical management book (for example) consists of 12 chapters making the same point from different angles, with different anecdotes. This persists because it works well for staccato reading on the morning commute.

    I'd highly recommend Frank Furedi's 'Where have all the intellectuals gone?' as a response to this phenomenon.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.