The State of Public Discourse (Part Deux): The Incredulous Attitude


In a previous article I wrote about the state of public discourse in which I used the illustration of No Man’s Land (i.e. trench warfare) to describe some of the present issues which hinder a fruitful discussion. The two main points I made were: first, that the polarizing nature of politics and traditional party platforms do not allow for republicans or democrats, conservatives or liberals, to take a moderate position without losing the safety of party-support and making themselves easy targets; secondly, and related, that there is a kind of political-stalemate as a product of this.


In Addition

In addition to this sad state of public discourse, there is a sentiment held by those uncompromising stalwarts of party lines that concerns their attitude toward any and all opposition. That sentiment, I feel, is best described by the term incredulous.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “not wanting or not willing to believe something”.  Other sources say more strongly, “not able to believe”.  As a person who prides himself on his open-mindedness, the notion of being incredulous troubles me.  

To say a person is incredulous is generally an accusation made about an individual who is guilty of one or more of these attitudes: close-minded, stubborn, heartless, self-righteous, ignorant.  Day-to-day I watch the news, as many of you do, and I see the same scenes unfold on our streets, on our campuses, behind news desks and town-hall podiums, where people act incredulous toward one another.  It breaks my heart. An attitude of incredulity is not a moral virtue for the ignorant or informed (1 Cor. 13:1-2).


Being Inquisitive

Just because a person is informed and in possession of truth does not give them special allowance to be incredulous toward the uninformed.  Rather, it should make them that much more willing to listen to someone else because it is through that process of listening with an open mind (and open heart) that they received truth (i.e. learned) in the first place.  The more informed and educated a person becomes the less incredulous they should be.

This might be the saddest irony when it comes to much of the education system (in particular liberal arts and social sciences).  The purpose of academia is purportedly to train people in a discipline, and more broadly to teach critical thinking and problem solving skills.  The irony is that many youths who enter into the university system end up exchanging one set of beliefs for another, whether from conservative to liberal, or vice-versa, all on the moral authority of their esteemed degree-wielding professors.  Sadly, no critical thinking was actually entertained during the process.  Rather, much of the university system now is mostly a prolonged defense of liberalism (or conservatism if there are such colleges), not a fair critique or even invitation for criticism of ideas.*

*Practically, there has to be a basic transfer of knowledge and skill which assumes a predominate one-directional mode of communication; teacher-to-student. Students attend lectures not debates. I don’t support or propose the doubt or question of everything you learn from educators. Rather, I propose a testing of it. Just like in mathematics, you are not taught formulas that never interact with substance, but you are given problems to solve, and by application and testing you prove the validity and explanatory power of those formulas.

This is why people who are attributed with being the brightest in our society are often the most naturally inquisitive, constantly asking questions about things they are both ignorant and knowledgeable of.  They aren’t satisfied with simply knowing and believing a thing to be true.  They also seek to understand why it is so!  They are constantly asking questions about things that are already accepted as true, and yet there are times when even those things which have been legitimized through scientific discovery (things we believe to be unchanging scientific law) that are radically challenged or revolutionized upon further investigation.  


Lessons in the History of Science

Take for example the classical model of Newtonian physics and the modern enterprise of Quantum Mechanics.  For more than  200 years Isaac Newton’s discoveries were the prevailing-accepted model that described how matter moved about in the universe.  In the early 1900s Albert Einstein challenged that model with his own theories about the material universe.  Thus, the discipline and field of Quantum Mechanics was born.  What’s helpful to note is that the two competing models of physics aren’t necessarily in conflict with one another (though some would say they are).  

Rather, classical Newtonian physics does quite well in describing the nature of observable-physical objects all the way up to the size of stars and planets.  Newtonian physics accurately predicts the movements and paths of planets around stars based on their size and gravitational pull. Quantum Mechanics isn’t concerned with objects that are as easily observable though.  QM makes predictions about objects on the atomic level: atoms, protons, electrons, etc.  At the quantum level it appears that gravity and other physical laws that accurately describe movement on the large scale fail at this scale.

This revolution of scientific knowledge would not have come about without a certain willingness to question and say that the prevailing model of physics might not describe all matter.  But the problem with incredulity is not in the abstract where we engage a world of impersonal ideas and philosophies. The problem with incredulity occurs in the real world where ideas and philosophies are advocated by real persons whom you disagree with and have negative feelings towards.  

It’s this personal element which can prevent us from being daring and adventurous enough to ask questions about our own strongly-held beliefs. Perhaps it’s an innate fear that if we concede that we’re wrong, or that the other person’s argument is valid, somehow that diminishes our worth.  For Einstein, his challenge was not his own incredulity but rather the scientific community’s incredulity towards him and his new theories. Much of what he had to say seemingly undermined everything that physicists had worked to establish for so many years. 


To summarize, my point is that the incredulous attitude is one which is all too pervasive, and which undermines our attempts at fruitful public discourse. It makes us feel morally superior in such a way as to convince ourselves that we need not really consider the argument or viewpoint of those we engage with. As a result, discourse is no longer a healthy exchange of ideas and criticism. Instead, it becomes another medium by which a person sinks deeper into the hole of self-righteousness.

So, what can we do? Be humble. Being humble doesn’t mean you have to think of yourself as wrong and the other person right. You don’t have to sacrifice any kind of intellectual honesty along the way. Rather, you simply have to respect the other person as a thinking-feeling human who has serious concerns about doing the right thing, much in the same way that you do. Having this mindset will help us become better listeners for those we disagree with. That can go a long way. (James 1:19)

Be inquisitive. So many times in my life I’ve come to the conclusion that things aren’t as straightforward as we like to believe them; things aren’t always black and white. There’s a lot of mystery and complexity, both out there in the material universe, and deep within the inner-human, and across human relationships. That mystery demands that we keep trying to understand the world in which we live, in order that we might flourish in it.

Finally, don’t take things too personal. If you find out you’re wrong, consider it as a chance to grow, not as a kind of personal failure. If you can never change your mind then you can never learn. No one is inherently right about everything.

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