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In this year’s election, you may have noticed people clinging to unreasonable political beliefs. When they post their poorly considered opinions on Facebook, you try to argue against them, but you can’t convince them of anything. Why is that? Why can’t they change? How can you convince them to see things your way?
Clinging to unreasonable beliefs not an unusual phenomena. It’s seen all over. A drug addict will continue to believe shooting up dope will make things better, despite all the problems it brings. A person with a phobia, who crossed thousands of bridges safely, still fears the next one will collapse. What accounts for the persistence of ill founded beliefs?
It’s the principle of tenacity.
I’m taking the principle of tenacity from Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science. For hundreds of years, scientists said that the smallest, indivisible unit of matter was the atom. Then someone came along and identified particles within that atom. You know, electrons, protons, and neutrons, as well as more esoteric things like quarks. Scientists didn’t threw out everything that has been said about atoms just because they were wrong. No, they kept the basic understanding of atoms, build upon it, and revise it. This is called the principle of tenacity.
The principle of tenacity also explains why religious believers can continue to believe in a loving God despite the problem of evil. The problem of evil just makes the religious believer exercise more faith. The principle of tenacity is also at play when an atheist refuses to concede that there are some things that reason can never explain. A mystery is just another occasion for science. Without the principle of tenacity you would just change your mind every time a new piece of contradictory evidence came along.
What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it good to follow the evidence? No, not always. There’s always evidence that contradicts any belief, even true ones. None of our beliefs ever explain everything. You might think, then, that the principle of tenacity prevents change, but no; the principle of tenacity also facilitates change. Watch this trick and you’ll see how it happens.
Let’s start with the drug addict who believes dope solves all problems. She’s not entirely wrong. Dope does a pretty good job of solving immediate problems before it starts to create new ones. The principle of tenacity allows the belief that dope solve problems to take root and grow. It also allows the belief that dope creates problems to take root and grow. It’s not unusual to find a drug addict who believes both, even though the two may seem contradictory. The belief that problems are caused by dope can be just as tenacious as the belief that it solves them. Without the principle of tenacity we would not have a second principle, one which eventually undermines it: the principle of proliferation. The principle of proliferation allows a number of attractive, contradictory beliefs to coexist at any given time.
The principle of proliferation would not exist had the principle of tenacity not allowed a new beliefs to take root in thin soil and persist under adverse conditions. The principle of proliferation then invents new alternatives as the principle of tenacity prevents the elimination of older beliefs which could be refuted. These older beliefs contribute to the content of the new rivals. You end up, not with everything converging towards a single view; but an ocean of alternatives, each belief forcing the others to be more articulate.
A religious person’s theology is improved when she takes a skeptic’s challenge seriously. An atheist is more reasonable when he agrees there are limits to reason. Bridges don’t collapse every time you walk on them; and, if a broken clock can be right twice a day, so can the opposition’s political candidate.
Whether you’re leading a drug addict into recovery, a phobic over a bridge, a voter to stop supporting that odious candidate, or anyone in or out of church, the principle of tenacity can be your best friend, through this second principle of proliferation. You don’t have to argue against their beliefs; you just have to introduce other options.
Here’s where a third principle comes into play. It’s called the hermeneutic circle. We often think of the process of change in a linear fashion, like this: a belief will lead to a behavior, then a behavior will lead to a change in identity. For example, a drug addict becomes convinced that all her problems are caused by dope. Therefore, she stops shooting dope and joins NA. A phobic becomes convinced the bridge is safe, so he crosses it, and isn’t phobic any more. You convince someone on Facebook that their candidate is an idiot, so they vote your way, and join your party. You come up with an unassailable argument for or against the existence of God, and they will make a profession of either faith or doubt, and join your church, or quit theirs.
However, the process of change is not linear, it’s circular; and conversions are nowhere near as dramatic. A belief will lead to a behavior and a behavior will lead to a new identity. Then a new identity will lead to a new belief, which will lead to a behavior, then a behavior will lead to deeper identity. Deeper identity will lead to a more sophisticated belief, which will lead to more fine-tuned behavior, then a behavior will lead to even deeper identity. And so on and so forth.
Because the process is circular, it doesn’t need to be dramatic. You don’t have to convince the drug addict that dope causes all her problems all at once. You just have to convince her to try the coffee at the NA meeting. Then, if she tries the coffee and finds that no one judges her or kicks her out, she stays to hear the message. She comes back again, this time for the people, as well as the coffee, and hears more of the message. Over time, she knows as many people in recovery as shoot dope, so quitting seems a little more possible. She tried abstinence just a little, maybe for a day, then a week, then a few months. She is not fully convinced that dope causes problems until long after she stops using it. That’s how people change; little by little, in a corkscrew fashion. With each twist, digging deeper into transformation.
Similarly, if your friend has a phobia, show him how it would be nice, since bridges exist, to be able to use them. He might try a bridge now and then. As he tries bridges, he learns how to to cross them without having a panic attack.
There are no dramatic conversions. There are only dramatic stories of conversion. Dramatic conversion stories are good stories, but you misunderstand them if you think change hits you like a bolt of lightning. Take the story of the conversion of Saint Paul, for example. On the road to Damascus, where he was going to arrest Christians, he gets knocked off his horse, sees a blinding light, talks with the risen Christ, and goes blind. When Ananias, one of the Christians he was going to arrest, comes and heals him of his blindness, he is changed. He goes on to be an Apostle.
What you may overlook is how, long before he was knocked off his horse, Paul was getting prepared. He was learning about Christ, Christians, and Christian theology as he was persecuting them. The whole going blind and getting healed thing was just that one crucial twist of the corkscrew where you finally dig it far enough in to pull the cork out.
You may be tempted to just unfriend everyone on Facebook who supports the opposition’s candidate. You don’t want to have to read all that nonsense. However, these three principles: tenacity, proliferation, and the hermeneutic circle, suggest that’s the absolute worse thing you can do. Instead, keep the lines of communication open, so that we can all learn from each other until together we finally get it right.
Click here to listen to a philosophical discussion about these principles.