A friend of mine was telling me a couple of weeks ago that the most serious issue in this country is the lack of firm beliefs and convictions, that no one believes in things anymore so strongly that they cannot have their opinion changed or be swayed.
It took me a while to respond to this because it seemed so. . .foreign, I suppose, to what I was always taught to be the hallmark of rational thinking.
But I started to think about it, and began to realize that there is really no place in the public square for this kind of wishy-washy thought. Heaven forbid a politician should change his or her mind and perform the dreaded flip-flop. Any normal human who, when presented with new facts and changes his belief on something used to be called rational. Now, this is to be avoided at all cost, and when the facts stack up overwhelmingly against your beliefs, denounce the facts.
This is most apparent in the attacks on science by right wing types.
Evolution is only a Theory, they say, and using the general definition of the word—an idea formed by speculation: an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture—is not much more than a belief system, a religion. Proof is given that over the last 150 years, it has been modified and adjusted. Therefore, it is not a fact, but only a theory. While the Bible is a fact.
The problem is that the general definition is not the one used in science, which contains the following:
A scientific theory is a set of rules that explain and predict things that happen; it must be able to be tested and repeated. The relevance and specificity of those predictions determine how potentially useful the theory is.
In practice, a body of descriptions of knowledge is usually only called a theory once it has a minimum empirical basis, according to certain criteria:
- It is consistent with pre-existing theory, to the extent the pre-existing theory was experimentally verified, though it will often show pre-existing theory to be wrong in an exact sense.
- It is supported by many strands of evidence, rather than a single foundation, ensuring it is probably a good approximation, if not completely correct.
Liberal and elite claptrap. It can be changed; therefore it is not absolute and until it is absolute, it is not fact and should have no place in public discourse.
I am reminded of the professor who asks his class if anyone knows what electricity is. One student raises his hand, looks around and, seeing he is the only one with a hand raised, drops it. The instructor questions him and the student says he forgot the answer, to which the professor says,” the only person in the history of the world who knew what electricity is and he forgets. . .”
But yet, we use it all the time. We have formula that work because they describe how it does what it does. You don’t have to understand Einstein or Newton to fall when you step off a skyscraper—gravity works whether you understand it or not.
My friend was talking about religious beliefs, which in this year, are almost indistinguishable from politics. We experienced a Republican Primary season where each candidate tried to out-God the other, to try to stake out the most conservative position possible and proclaim to all who were listening that those who disagreed with their often newly found perch on the extreme tip of the right wing were godless and were staging a war on Christianity.
The media has helped immensely in this process by not putting moderate or liberal Christians in front of a camera, but of died-in-the-wool atheists who essentially call these guys imbeciles and Flat-Earthers. It makes for better TV. No middle ground, only the most extreme and opposite positions are presented, and of course, these people deride all the rest of us who are open to new ideas, whose minds are not so hard-wired that they cannot accept new information, even if it challenges long-held beliefs.
Of course, most of us would not grab the microphone and step in front of a camera and be the dancing bear for the rock-hard right or the intransigent left, nor would we be given the chance because our wonderings, which might make for a good study in ethics or philosophy, just don’t make for good sound bites.
The North Carolina preacher wants to put an electric fence around all gays and lesbians because of their sinful lifestyle choice; the left call him a Troglodyte because being gay is not a choice but genetic; most of the rest of us don’t know the truth of this, but want everyone treated fairly. The two extremes—his congregation defending him and the protestors lining the streets—are what make news, not considered reasoning.
In some ways, I envy my friend because he has not had to spend much of his adult life evaluating his beliefs and can hold fast to that which he learned when very young. I am glad I have learned and been willing to change my beliefs and am willing to continue to do so, even though it means I can never be fully sure that what I believe is “correct.”
Part of this is that as we age, most of us have stuff happen to us or to people we know and love and in dealing with this stuff, are forced to re-evaluate what we always thought to be true. Maybe those who are rock-solid sure of things, have never had to deal with misfortune or trouble and have not been forced to rethink things.