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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Doubling Down | Fifth Sunday of Easter 2020

'San Esteban,' Workshop of Luis de Morales (1509–1586) 
Museo Nacional del Prado
The adaptations that made us work together as a species also had some unintended consequences. Figuring out how to get around at least one such characteristic seems both tricky and terribly necessary.

Human beings are social creatures. I'm convinced that even if our ancestors had evolved to attain sentience, without our sociability there would be no society. The species from which domesticated cats were derived (a population of which still exists) are solitary. They meet only to mate, and then the females raise the kittens, which subsequently go of on their own. Our friendly felines are derived from stock that adapted to life among humans. Not only are they sociable, adult cats are able to purr, while the wild variety only purrs as kittens. If humans were unsociable, the earth would be a wild and humans scattered and relatively few. At least, that's what I think.

The problem I'm writing about here is that of how people double down on what they believe, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. We see it most clearly in our times with QAnon, Flat Earthers, and Trump supporters. No matter how much evidence is offered to these, they reject it in favor of their 'alternative facts.' This is nothing new. We've been like this for as long as we've existed as a species. Part of today's reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter illustrates the point. 

A man named Stephen is depicted preaching to Jewish people in the very earliest days of the movement that became Christianity. This was at a point when Saul of Tarsus was not only not yet converted, but was actually present during the events described here. So far as we know Christianity was at this point still a weird new sect of Judaism. Stephen's rather long-winded sermon covered the history of the Jewish people and culminated in the condemnation of them for the crucifixion of Jesus. He then claimed to see into the heavens, with the Son of Man at God's right hand.
"But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him." Acts 7:57 NRSV
They stoned Stephen to death, and he's considered by the church to be the first Christian martyr. Look at how they reacted when Stephen uttered what, to them, was absolute blasphemy. He was proposing to them that Jesus was the Messiah, and with God (the 'Son of Man'), and by implication it sounded as though he was saying that he could see God. That is said within the Abrahamic tradition to be well-nigh impossible . 

Having heard something that challenged what they believed and who they were as a people, those gathered saw to Stephen's death. Granted, he hadn't provided any real evidence for his claims, but the same resistance is found in full force, and mostly with less violence, even when all the facts go against a belief.

In a 2018 article for Psychology Today, Steve Rathje wrote about The Enigma of Reason, a book by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.
"According to their theory of reasoning, reason’s primary strengths are justifying beliefs we already believe in and making arguments to convince others. While this kind of reasoning helps us cooperate in a social environment, it does not make us particularly good at truth-seeking. It also makes us fall prey to a number of cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for information that confirms what we already believe."
Shared beliefs and customs are what tie a group of people together. It certainly worked well for humans when we were tribes scattered across the world, though it caused people to consider those not like them inferior, and thus subject to raids. It's still in play today with our nation states, sports teams, and elsewhere. Its the root of a lot of racism and xenophobia. It's what keeps even seemingly unlikely people wearing MAGA hats and praising a dangerous buffoon for his 'leadership,' as he commits one embarrassing or illegal act after another. 

Continuing with Steve Rathje's article:
Why does political identity shape our thinking and perception so dramatically? NYU psychology professor Jay Van Bavel explains the results of studies like these with his “identity-based” model of political belief: Oftentimes, the actual consequences of particular party positions matter less to our daily lives than the social consequences of believing in these party positions. Our desire to hold identity-consistent beliefs often far outweigh our goals to hold accurate beliefs. This may be because being a part of a political party or social group fulfills fundamental needs, like the need for belonging, which supersede our need to search for the truth.
One of the more uncomfortable things about the evolution of my thinking over the years is how it has put me out of line with certain people who I still hold dear. There are people I simply don't contact any more, or keep conversation at a minimum, because I don't want the inevitable conflict to arise. I've gone from theologically conservative and politically libertarian to about as theological progressive as a person can go (and still call it 'theology') and politically aligned with social democracy and social market capitalism. That's quite a journey, and not one that many have made with me. That gives me some sadness. 

How, though, to deal with someone who differs from us? Right or wrong, how can we get them to see our side? If we have evidence, how can we get them to consider it?
"When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true."Blaise Pascal, Pensées
In other words, Pascal is suggesting that we can agree with someone that from their perspective, what they are saying makes sense. If the other party involved feels comfortable that they have been heard, then it might be possible to then share with them how you see things from your perspective. It's a question of feeling safe and understood.

This could be a rather optimistic idea on Pascal's part. I can imagine how it might work out, but there are many instances where success could be rather difficult. In any case, it certainly wouldn't have helped Saint Stephen.