Belief and Perspective

(This continues the line of thought started in my last blog entry)

One interesting question that comes up either in political debates, or in looking at history, is why do we think the way we do — why do we hold the political, religious, moral and social beliefs we do?  Because of the enlightenment, most people like to believe that they have considered the arguments, analyzed the issues, and have come up with what they think is the most reasonable perspective.   Even those who embrace a more conservative view that tradition should be upheld tend to support that with an argument that goes back to Burke’s progressive conservatism: traditions maintain social order, which is good for the community and makes people more likely to succeed.

I am convinced that we use reason primarily as a way to rationalize beliefs we have ‘from the gut.’  I see that in campus debates on things such as academic policy, in discussions between people of opposing political positions, and in religious and moral questions.   Moreover, I don’t think this is a bad thing, I suspect it’s simply how we think and behave.  Emotion motivates, reason rationalizes.

So where does our emotional perspective come from?  Some of it is hereditary, certainly.   Much of it comes from how children are raised, and the experiences they have early in life.  And while some of that can be very specific to the family and the parents, cultural has a tremendous impact.  It conditions us, and helps determine how basic genetic predispositions are expressed.

If you travel from Maine to the deep south, or South Dakota to New York City, you’ll see fundamentally different cultural perspectives expressed across the spectrum of politics and life.   Travel Europe, and vast differences exist not only between the US and Europe, but also within Europe itself.  I noticed once back when I was living in Bologna that litter lined the Italian train tracks (this was the 80s), but when you crossed the Austrian border suddenly everything was spotless.  I saw an Italian father once instruct his child to toss an empty can out the train window, something which just would not have happened in Germany.  In Germany people stand in line to wait to board a train, allowing the arriving passengers to first disembark.  In Italy people shove their way aboard, and those leaving often have to push past.  At first Americans and Germans look down at the Italians for being so pushy and disorderly — but when I lived in Italy and learned how the game was played it made sense, and worked just fine.

In my first year seminar we’re looking now at the renaissance, and it’s very difficult to get students to try to see the world through the mind of someone in that time period.   The core beliefs were so much different, our 21st century experience is hard to put aside.  When Steve Pane, the music professor, plays music from that era, and compares it to an earlier era, most people think it sounds pretty similar.  But Steve points out that to the ear of that age these would often be radically different pieces, and could cause outrage.  We don’t hear that any more, we experience the world differently.

When I hear political debates, and experience people with vastly different views on some core issues, I realize that my own perspective cannot be proven with reason.  No perspective can.  In fact, I believe what I believe because it is who I am.   Particular views on policies or details may change (e.g., I may be convinced to support a tax proposal, I might decide that International Studies maybe shouldn’t require study abroad), but core beliefs about fundamental issues are from, if not my gut, at least my heart and soul.  They are an expression of something inside of me, something shaped by my experience and to some extent my genetics, but they are not simply the result of my mind analyzing and assessing external data.  I think this is true for everyone, and explains why so many people who are honest, intelligent and good, often hold completely different perspectives on major questions.

So what does this mean?   First, to recognize that reason doesn’t give us an answer key, that meaning for life is dependent on things outside of our ability to materially measure, analyze and assess.   From there, we need to learn to understand different perspectives on their own terms, and in fact be fair to those perspectives — understand why good, smart people can believe differently.  If we do that, we can get along well with and respect people who might be otherwise seen as “political or cultural enemies.”

The biggest barrier in all of this is ‘fear of relativism.’  That argument goes: “you’re embracing relativism, that all that exists is different perspectives.  I believe in truth, so I can’t go that route.”   But I would say I’m actually arguing against relativism.

What most people who proclaim truth do is to say that their subjective values are true, and denying their ability to claim them as truth is relativist.  But what could be more relativist than to say that one can assert what they hold true as true?  Isn’t that relativism defined?  But people who do that also claim other perspectives are false, so they aren’t embracing the principle of subjective relativism, they’re taking a rather solipsistic view towards truth — they have it, anyone else is wrong, and to claim otherwise is to be dismissed as saying there is no truth.  After all, if one believes they have the truth, then to deny their belief would be to proclaim truth does not exist.

When put that way, it’s clear the ‘fear of relativism’ is misguided.  Nothing I wrote says there is no truth, only that in the murky world of human existence we see reality from a variety of perspectives and thus we have to recognize that it’s virtually impossible to know if what we believe is true without relying on an unproven assumption or belief.   This suggests that while we can’t find certainty, we might be able to reasonably think we are moving closer to the truth if we are willing to explore why we feel what we feel, recognize that those emotions are driving our beliefs and our actions, and then work to understand why others react/think differently.

A concrete example: After I lived a year in Italy and in Germany, I viewed American culture differently.  Things I took for granted, I suddenly appreciated more, or found fault with, having experienced a different way of doing things.  Learning to speak German caused me to also look at my own language differently, better understanding the grammar and how some concepts cannot be translated directly.  In short, as a person I believe I grew and my life became richer by incorporating an other culture and language — understanding it and living/speaking within it.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for intellectual travel — to spend time learning another perspective, different ways of thinking, and the like?  And if we do, then won’t it be easier to see our own motivations more clearly, and perhaps realize that once firmly held beliefs really are no longer in line with who we are.  By reflecting and understanding more perspectives, we change ourselves — just as learning a language or living abroad changes a person.

To me that’s exciting, it suggests a chance for continual growth and discovery.  We can look to other cultures, other languages, other periods of time, or other disciplines.  Learning about music, art, literature, politics, or various things outside our usual experience is rewarding not because we can get a better job or win trivia contests, but because it can help us grow, learn and expand our understanding of reality.   Does it really help bring us a step closer to “truth?”  I’d like to think so.

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on September 22, 2008 - 20:11

    I have to agree. We all hold to what we believe is true, but I can’t stand when other people can’t or don’t try to understand other points of view. I see this especially in my ‘conservative’ friends, who are so steeped in their ideology that they blind themselves from the simple logic of their opponents. That really bothers me, I make every attempt to understand my opponents and their view. I probably gained this trait while I was the Captain of the Debate Team in high school. We were given an issue and had to prepare to defend both sides. At the actual debates, a flip of a coin decided which side we were on. I think those experiences gave me a better appreciation of ‘the other side.’ I also find myself being a very tolerant person, many of my friends are very different from me not only in beliefs, but in actions. I find many of my best friends do things that I would never do on moral grounds, yet it doesn’t bother me, it actually attracts me. All my friends are my ideological opposites. Frankly I can’t stand most of the people who are my ideological equals. I don’t know why, but that’s just me. I enjoy taking in new information and having my beliefs challenged.

    I always told my debater that the best debater is the person who can argue for the side that they completely disagree with, and win. I think empathy and appreciation of other values, no matter how different, is the most important skill a academic can learn.

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