There is an instinct within most all of us to attempt to explain away the fact that folks of seemingly sound judgment hold positions contrary to our own. This is especially prevalent, it seems, when the positions in question are ones of central existential importance – religion being perhaps the most obvious example. I am sure that readers of RCA are well-acquainted with this peculiar phenomenon; after all, explaining away religious disagreement is a cash crop in the world of apologetics (and one in which all sides indulge in). Occupying the place it does in the world of apologetics, I think this phenomenon worth exploring, on both a descriptive and normative level. Why do we engage in the practice of explaining away disagreement? How do we, in fact, engage in this practice? Should we engage in this practice; what place, if any, should it have in our discussions over questions of religion?
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On the face of it, there are some legitimate and good reasons as to why we “explain away” disagreement. For starters, there is our natural inclination to seek out the truth on a given matter; and there is our further inclination to seek out that truth by means of seeking further warrant for the things we presently believe on the matter (since, normally, what we believe is what we take to be the best candidate for the truth-of-the-matter). Because we care about truth, we want the beliefs we presently hold to be held on the best possible grounds, and this moves us to go in search of better and better grounds. Such a move requires not only that we gather evidence in favor of our belief, but that we deal with “defeaters” to our beliefs — pesky bits of evidence which suggest that our belief is false, and which detract from the warrant of that belief. And among the various types of defeaters out there is the defeater of disagreement, the fact that another person disagrees with our belief. The movement to build up one’s warrant will often bump one up against disagreement; when it does so, the movement to build up one’s warrant will require of one that he or she reckon with such disagreement.
When I go out searching for my escapee husky, I inquire of my neighbors whether or not they have seen him, and where they have seen him. I will often be pointed by a handful of folks in one direction, only to be pointed in entirely the opposite direction by someone else. When this happens, though I continue to believe the word of the majority, I cannot hold to that belief as strongly as I did before I met the dissenter. I am forced to reckon with this disagreement, to take stock of it. And what form does this “reckoning” normally take? In the case of disagreement, it almost always takes the form of explanation: I reckon with the disagreement by explaining why this dissenter is mistaken, by telling a story which makes sense of the fact of disagreement. It’s an old man with bad eyes; it’s a deceitful neighbor with an axe to grind; it’s a drug-addict prone to hallucinations. The upshot: the phenomenon of “explaining away” disagreement is a perfectly natural response to disagreement; it is a perfectly natural response because it is the perfectly natural product of a perfectly natural motivation to seek after the truth.
That said, we would be plain stupid if we did not acknowledge that, despite their being a natural basis for the phenomenon of “explaining away” disagreement, the reality of the matter is that a great many of our explanations are shoddy explanations. There might be a natural basis for our practice of “explaining away”, grounded in the inclination to seek the truth, but the phenomenon of “explaining away” as it is in fact practiced is often an act of ignorance — an act which leads the person away from the truth.
Earlier I cited religion as a subject around which the explanation of disagreement abounds. It is magnet for this phenomenon. But for reasons that I will attempt to explore in my next post, religion is perhaps an even stronger magnet when it comes to attracting shoddy explanations. It is in the arena of the religious that the absolute worst explanations of disagreement show their face. It is here that the natural basis of explanation seems furthest removed from the actual practice of explanation.
… to be continued.