Five-minute Explainer: The Conflict Thesis

How do you reach someone who believes the world is flat? How do you convert a global warming denier? How do you confront an anti-vaxxer? You may have noticed, when presenting facts contradicting their arguments, or even pointing out the self-contradictions in their own arguments, that your audience remains intransigent.

Why should this be? Especially where vaccination or global warming are concerned, the stakes ought to be too high to allow vagaries of ignorance to win out. Yet facts don’t cut it. You risk entrenching the other side, and you come away even more convinced of their wrongness. Everyone goes home angry.

There are strategies to take for winning over people with different viewpoints: the best one being to find common ground. This tack has nothing to do with the facts at issue, but it’s the best way forward.

How did we get in this situation where it’s possible to disagree with facts themselves? I propose that it’s not so much that we find ourselves arguing with a reasoned point of view but with an identity.

Meet Alice and Bob

Consider Alice, who believes that human-caused global warming is changing the Earth’s climate (hereafter “climate change”). She’s trying to convince Bob, who just doesn’t believe Alice. Everything he’s heard leads him to believe that there’s just too much doubt to know for sure if the Earth is really warming, and if it is, there’s no way that humans could be the cause.

No matter what Alice says, Bob believes Alice is wrong. What’s Bob’s deal? Fundamentally, this is not a discussion about whose facts win out over whose. Instead the question is about who is arguing from the more meaningful authority.

Some of you might be wondering, well, gosh, Alice isn’t arguing from authority, is she? She has facts and figures and charts and scientific consensus to back up her side. Here’s the problem: science itself has been turned into an authority over the years—in Bob’s mind and even in Alice’s mind.

Let’s leave them to their intractable argument and visit this idea of battling authorities.

The Conflict Thesis

It’s probably a vast oversimplification to consider Alice and Bob above as proxies for science and religion. However, they likely carry feelings that science and religion conflict irresolvably, and elements of that conflict almost certainly underlie several of their attitudes. Where did these feelings come from? What do they mean?

The conflict thesis is not so much a description of the reality of science as it is a historiographical approach to the history of science itself. It’s a belief that religion is inherently and attitudinally adverse to science and vice versa. It permeates Western science education and many current Western religious doctrines.

For most people raised in the United States, the idea of the conflict thesis will feel very familiar—it may conjure up images of Galileo’s house arrest or the Scopes Trial. Many contemporary popular scientists, speakers, and writers have promulgated elements of the conflict model, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Isaac Asimov. Quoting Stephen Hawking, who stated the conflict very forthrightly near his latter years,

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

The conflict model is not especially useful, though, for understanding the relationship between religion and science. Historians have mostly moved to more nuanced models for describing the history of science. The evidence available doesn’t support conflict.

Primarily, two episodes in history foment the supposed conflict between religion and science (or more particularly, Christianity and science): the Galileo affair and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In point of fact, before the modern period, religion was such a dominant force in society that scientific thought was not seen as in conflict with religion so much as aiding it by discovering God’s plan. This view is literally ancient: Saint Augustine of Hippo considered God’s word, as written, fallible because of the imperfection of language (PDF download). Therefore, where natural knowledge and science contradicted the Bible, God’s former scripture—creation itself—wins out.

In the case of the Galileo affair, Galileo’s persecution had less to do with the Church’s disagreement about heliocentrism or of Galileo’s supposed heresies than about Galileo running afoul politically of the pope. Heliocentrism as a mathematical model predates Galileo by nearly a century, and (even despite having some contemporary detractors and competing models, such as the complicated Tychonian model), the Church had no problem with its use. The pope also approved the publication of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems before subsequently banning it (possibly because some statements the pope had made within Galileo’s hearing which he had then placed in the mouth of a character he named Simplicio).

This is a five-minute explainer, so I won’t go into other historical examples in detail. Suffice it to say, many episodes of putative conflict in the past (such as the Galileo affair or the Scopes Trial) had political and personal motivations and issues at play as well as, or rather than, pure conflict between religion and science.

The Problem of Authority

So we come back to Alice and Bob. How does the conflict thesis shape their argument?

Recall that I mentioned that Alice and Bob are both fundamentally arguing from authority. This may seem like a sharp tilt on what’s happening, but here’s what I see. The conflict thesis has become common enough to make it into textbooks, popular writing, TV shows, and even public policy. People who believe science and religion can coexist (let alone build on one another) find themselves in a minority.

One of religion’s main functions as an institution is providing a foundation for community via shared mores and beliefs. From this position, religion becomes an authority, and in that capacity, the Christian Church served as a powerful authority for many centuries. The conflict thesis emerges naturally as a way of supplanting that authority in order to center a scientific model of reality.

The problem is that we have exchanged one authority for another. This happened as a natural outgrowth of the process of deconstructing religion as authority. However, science is not designed to be an authority, and it doesn’t function best that way.

Yet it’s taught that way. Consider how scientific news flows to the public—channeled through layers of intermediate journalism: the actual scientific publications, next scientific journalism, then mainstream journalism. Along the way, what remains are names of lofty institutions, their impenetrable facts, and their avatars of a new faith. Worse yet, consider what’s emphasized in school: not processes, not approaches, but perfected facts and great minds beyond impeaching.

Missing is the human element: the struggle with ambiguity, the charting of unknown territory, the failures and blind alleys. Science can contain narratives which empower people, if only we can burnish its anti-authoritarian stance: question everything and everyone. Finding the right questions is within anyone’s power, and science is more about questions than answers.

Resolution for Alice and Bob

Turning back to Alice and Bob again—isn’t that actually what Bob is doing? Questioning Alice? Questioning the science behind climate change? Unfortunately, he’s not really questioning them. This is mere denial because he’s not examining them in any rigorous, critical way. In his mind, however, he may have an anti-authoritarian stance, believing Alice has bought into climate change without critical thought on her part.

Meanwhile, Alice hasn’t taken Bob’s point of view seriously at all. She hasn’t sought to understand it, and therefore she has no idea how to engage critically with it. Maybe his point of view isn’t consistent, rational, or even coherent, but it’s where they have to begin if he’s going to join Alice.

Both sides are merely dismissing the other, and that’s why nobody is making headway. They both fervently believe in what they have learned, and they have bound up their own identities in those beliefs. Unfortunately for both of them, the conflict thesis has interwoven tightly into their beliefs as well, leading them to a place where their systems of thought are thoroughly immiscible.

Even if they can’t bridge the gap between belief systems, though, the hope is that Alice can reach Bob in a way that doesn’t force him to abandon his beliefs, his authority, or even his identity in order to incorporate new knowledge. For this reason, finding common ground is key.

An excellent place for Alice to begin is with this excellent video, Global Weirding with Katharine Hayhoe, produced by KTTZ Texas Tech Public Media and distributed by PBS Digital Studios, to allow her better to reach Bob and understand why butting facts against facts directly (or facts against faith) is a doomed effort.

Winning hearts and minds is about overturning the root of conflict through which we see science and religion. It allows Bob (and Alice!) to entertain multiple ways of seeing the world simultaneously. With the conflict resolved, Alice can move from changing Bob’s mind to adding to what Bob knows instead, and Bob can move from losing foundational beliefs to incorporating new ideas into those foundations.

A Taxonomy of Disagreements

I share my world with people with whom I disagree. The question is how and when to act upon it.

Not every disagreement deserves the same reaction. It’s not strictly necessary that I find common ground in every disagreement, and not every disagreement requires my engagement. Even among the cross product of these categories, I can respond in different ways.

I view disagreements along two axes which I’ll call triviality and consensus. By triviality I mean that the subject matter has little impact on at least one party’s life. Consensus means that agreement must be reached; this is not an agree-to-disagree situation.

I’ll lay out what each combination means.

  • Trivial, non-consensus disagreements—disagreements about an unimportant subject which doesn’t strongly impact all parties, or does so unequally. Food preferences are a perfect example. If one person likes mayo, another likes Miracle Whip, and yet another thinks they’re both kind of unpleasant, this is a trivial disagreement. It’s also pretty irrelevant to disagree because nobody has to change their lives too much over this disagreement. Live and let live.
  • Trivial, consensus disagreements—disagreements about an unimportant subject which impacts all parties and for which a single decision needs to be made. This is common in families and offices, like setting the thermostat or choosing where to go for dinner. Contention over shared resources, or picking common tools or workflows at work, can lead to a lot of nitpicking, but the problem is solvable, sometimes even with a coin-toss.
  • Nontrivial, non-consensus disagreements—disagreements about a subject which impacts all parties strongly but for which consensus is not needed, or is even impossible. The most salient example is any question of faith. Faith doesn’t respond to reason and occupies maybe the most important part of some people’s self-identity and self-determination, but agreement over the details of faith or religion are impossible to bring into accord. It’s unrealistic to try. Yet we have to try to find some way to live with people of different faiths. The very intimate, personal nature of their beliefs makes them immutable—non-consensus, as I’m calling it—since we can’t all share a singular faith and probably wouldn’t want to.
  • Nontrivial, consensus disagreements—disagreements which impact all parties strongly and which require agreement. This is the really hard stuff: fundamental human rights, ethics, land-use rights, traffic laws, and so on. For these disagreements, I permit no quarter for non-consensus because I believe that aspects of human rights are both of paramount importance and cannot be yielded to, appeased, or ignored. To do so—to say “live and let live,” “agree to disagree,” to fundamental questions of humanity, dignity, life and death—gives those viewpoints with which I disagree a place to dwell, a platform from which to speak, and an implicit permission for action. The crossover between non-consensus and consensus for nontrivial disagreements begins at the threshold for potential harm.

Within the triviality axis, the consensus degree of freedom actually can be a bit blurry. Taking the trivial disagreements to start with, it’s easy to see where certain topics that should have been non-consensus have blended into consensus in people’s lives—like food preferences, which culture has buried with spades of shame and influence in order to make people eat the same things in the same ways. I work in tech, where similar things have happened for decades, such as the Editor Wars: who edits what and how on their own computer should be an agree-to-disagree situation, but it became a holy war.

Unfortunately, at the other triviality extreme, the same kinds of confusion take place. Nontrivial disagreements which should be non-consensus (which should look like agree-to-disagree) have become literal holy wars. Worse yet, disagreements about basic human dignity and rights have begun to look like agree-to-disagree situations.

I believe we all have a similar taxonomy in our heads, that we believe we’re “entitled to our opinions,” regarding certain questions of faith and politics. In some matters, we are. We’re entitled to our opinions regarding how much funding the Federal Highway Administration should get. Whatever my beliefs about interstate highways, I could break bread with a person who believes in gutting their funding.

However, the idea that we’re “entitled to our opinions” leads to a simplified taxonomy that doesn’t take into account which opinions—which disagreements—are over harmless questions and which are over potentially harmful, dehumanizing, or traumatizing ones.

More complicatedly yet, matters of faith—a place within many of us untouchable by consensus or persuasion—have enabled some people to spread the non-consensus umbrella over many other areas of their worldview, seeing them all as speciously linked by faith and therefore unimpeachable. As such, their political opinions about personhood, their ethical behaviors, their votes—no matter what their source, they are all placed into a category beyond rational discussion.

I have found myself exhorted to meet these people in the middle, to attempt to understand them, to “agree to disagree” with them, or to attempt to include them in wider political efforts to advance my own political will. These efforts often come from centrist-liberal sources.

What I’m here to tell you is that if your politics touches a human, if it has the potential to visit harm and suffering, if it detains a person, I have no place for you at my table, in my home, or in my life. If you use the idea of free expression to shirk the responsibility of examining your own ideas, you have abrogated your duty as a citizen under the guise of entitlement.

Thematic Rewriting

I have been revisiting On Thematic Storytelling in my thoughts lately. Part of it is because I’ve been helping a friend story-doctor their writing a little. It’s also because I’ve been dwelling on my own story notes and refining them.

This has led me to questions I had not considered before. First of all, why do we write in symbolic, allegorical ways in the first place? Secondly, how do these themes end up in our stories at all, ready to develop, even if we don’t set out to use those themes at first? I think the answers to these questions are linked.

People have a long history of telling fables and parables to relate messages to one another, using figurative, allusive language. I believe this works because humans are designed to learn by example. We have wiring which internalizes vicarious experiences and reifies them as personal ones. Allegorical stories, like fables, adapt our ability to learn through example by employing our imagination.

We respond to fables well because of their indirection. On the one hand, it may be easier just to state the moral of a story outright and not even bother with telling “The Grasshopper and the Ant” or “The Tortoise and the Hare.” However, a moral without its fable is only a command. By telling the stories, the storyteller guides the listener through the journey. Figurative language and characters who represent ideas help to involve the listener and keep them engaged. The moral comes through naturally by the end as a result of the listener following the internal logic of the narrative, so the storyteller’s intended meaning does not need to be inculcated extrinsically.

In this way, indirect stories use symbolic language to draw in listeners. We, listening to the story, relate to the figures and characters because they allow us to involve ourselves. In turn, because we get invested, we take parts of the story and make them about ourselves. We care about what happens and empathize with the characters because we care about ourselves. This is what I actually mean when I say fables work well because of their indirection. We’re not actually interested in grasshoppers and ants, tortoises and hares, but we are interested in representations of our own values, our setbacks, and our triumphs. We put parts of ourselves into the story and get something else back.

And this is why I believe fables and parables have such staying power. Mythologies endure for similar reasons: their pantheons, even if filled with otherworldly gods or spirits, explain the ordinary—the sun, the night, the ocean, the sky—and embody our own better and worser natures—love, anger, and so on. In these myths we see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and our histories.

So on the one hand, highly figurative language involves the audience in the way that literal language does not. How do we write like this in the first place?

Fables, parables, myths, allegories—they all use symbols that have endured over the centuries and been recapitulated in various ways, but in one way or another, they’re told using a long-lived cultural language. When we tell stories, when we write, we use the basic words of our native language, and with those come the building blocks of our cultural language as well. It is as difficult to avoid using these as it is to write a novel without the letter “e.”

We may not often think about the kinds of cultural language we use because we’re unaware of where it comes from. This is one of the primary goals of studying literature, to learn about the breadth of prior influences so we can study our “cultural language” (I am not sure what a better word for this is, but I am sure there is one). Even when we don’t intend to dwell on influences and allusions, we write with the language of symbols that surrounds us.

What’s interesting to consider is what we’re saying without always thinking about it. Just as we grew up with stories that drew us in using powerful symbolic language, we imbue our original stories with ourselves, using similar symbols.

I’ve realized that different writers tend to perseverate on different kinds of questions and beliefs as their experiences allow, and these emerge as common themes in their writing, the same way certain stock characters persist in an author’s repertoire. If, for example, I find myself primarily concerned with questions of faith, my stories may spontaneously concenter themselves around themes of faith, through no real intentional process. In the process, I might even embed symbols which convey the theme without meaning it (for example, religious trappings such as lambs, crosses, or even clergy).

I have come to identify themes and symbols which are either inherent to the story itself or accidentally embedded by my execution as part of the planning and editing process in my writing. Once I understand them, then decide whether to keep those and how to refine and harmonize them. For example, if I do have religious symbols within a story, there are unavoidable allusions this implies, and I have to work through how to harmonize those with my story or cut them out. As another example, if I have a character who is alone on a desert island, the themes of isolation and survival are both inherent parts of the story structure which cannot be avoided and will be addressed in some way or another. If I write about political conflict, then cooperation-versus-competition is lurking behind nearly every character’s motivation.

In a practical sense, how do I develop themes and work in symbols? Generally, editing first occurs at a larger scale and then moves to a smaller scale, so I tend to think in similar terms with themes. I identify whether broader themes already exist and ask myself if they carry through the entire narrative. If there is an inchoate message buried in the subtext that I didn’t intend to put there, I should decide if it belongs or not. If I want to keep it, then I need to clarify what it is and how it works as a theme.

I examine the narrative through the point of view of this theme and see which elements fit and which don’t. I see how I can adapt it better to fit the theme—a process I actually love because it often burnishes rough narrative ideas.

To give an idea of what I mean, I’ve been writing a story whose central theme has to do with disintegrity of mind and body—the feeling of being not only under a microscope but flayed open at the same time. I began with a premise that didn’t really involve this theme, but I synthesized ideas from elsewhere that really pushed the story in that direction. When I began considering reworking the style and ending, I realized I needed more narrative disorientation and ambiguity to convey the protagonist’s feeling of disintegrity. The changes I had to make involved researching certain plays and removing dialogue tags to make it uncertain who’s speaking (implying that the protagonist could be speaking when she believes her interrogator to be speaking).

Before I go on, I also ask myself what the theme means for me. If I were making a statement about the theme, what would I want to say? More to the point, what does the story have to say? Sometimes, there are even multiple themes in conflict—hints at determinism here, others at fatalism there—so that the overall picture gets confused. The most important thing is that the narrative contains an internal logic that works at every scale, from the broadest thematic sense to the word-by-word meaning. I consider—at least at some point, even if it’s only after a draft is done—what the overall story is saying and then ensure no smaller element of the story contradicts itself.

After I’ve made some large-scale changes, there may be smaller narrative gaps to fill, and I find I can also add certain ornamentations to settings or characters based on theme. This is where I can use the language of symbolism. I try to be somewhat coy. Like I said, indirect, allegorical language allows for stories that are more interesting because they’re more relatable and let the reader insert themselves. The illusion falls apart if the allegory is naked and obvious.

I don’t mean that I necessarily want to make symbols which are obscure allusions, either. I personally like symbols which have a logic within the narrative. I believe it’s possible both ways. The Lord of the Flies is an example of an highly allegorical novel which uses symbols this way. The conch shell symbolizes civilization because it’s used as a rallying point for the boys who remain faithful to the rules. Golding embeds its symbolism completely within the narrative logic—expressed in terms of the story—and the idea it represents erodes as the physical item is neglected and then destroyed.

Sometimes I’m not working with a story but just a premise, and it’s one to which many themes could attach. I could choose a theme, and that choice would influence the direction in which I take the premise. A lot of the ideas I decide to develop end up being conglomerations of ideas, and I’m never quite sure which ones should go together. Themes can sometimes be links which join disparate ideas into a framework, allowing me to decide what to synthesize and how. This way, a premise and a theme determines how a story grows and what characters, settings, and events I place into it.

It may seem like a lot of effort to run through this exercise for a story which is purely fanciful entertainment, which sets out not to say anything in the first place. Not everyone sets out to write an allegory. However, like I said, I think to some extent it’s not possible to avoid planting some subtextual themes because we all speak with a shared cultural language. My goal is to consider what I say between the lines and harmonize that thematic content. Hopefully, I end up with a story with a wider meaning running through it, giving it some backbone. I never set out to make a moral—maybe at most a statement?—but I do at least try to structure my narrative ideas to make the most impact.

I am extraordinarily grateful to Zuzu O. for the time and care she put into editing this post.

The Religion of Cosmos

I finally figured out what bothers me so much about the new Cosmos series on Fox.

I had a conversation today about it because I mentioned I hated it. I went on for a while about the little things I disliked—the overfond and inaccurate cartoon about Bruno; the simplistic and outdated inaccuracies in describing the outer solar system; or discarding non-Eurocentric contributions to the development of heliocentrism.

That sounds like nitpicking. As long as more people get interested in science, right? That’s the point, after all, isn’t it?

I then mentioned that Seth MacFarlane produced the whole thing. He’s a pretty disgusting human being in general, and that was enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth about the show. I muscled through, though, and watched the whole first episode. I think it was the long Bruno fable which turned me off the most. MacFarlane comes down pretty anti-religion in his various previous cartoons, and it shone through most nakedly during the Bruno segment. I’m speculating here in supposing that MacFarlane’s attested bias against religion in general influenced Cosmos, but I don’t feel like I’m that far out on a limb, especially given the degree to which facts were twisted to support their narrative—one of an iconoclast setting science against the Church. As a fable, it smacked of a moral which I found hypocritical.

It’s that overall narrative, which the fable embodies, that gives me the most pause. To hear Cosmos tell it, you’d think that science were some sort of higher truth which simply reveals itself to its earthly avatars: like Copernicus being the first to dream of heliocentrism—which pit him in opposition to a false religion motivated by delusion at best or avarice for power at worst. It gives no clue into the story of how Copernicus came to his conclusions or how they were accepted. Heliocentrism simply becomes a new truth, and woe betide those who deny it.

In other words, this new version of Cosmos robs science of its human element and simply establishes its own divinity in place of the Catholic Church, which it rejects. It leaves little place for human inquiry and human ability, by simply presenting another truth, whole cloth, with no room for the story of debate, mistakes, dead-ends, or discovery. We’re asked to trade one authority for another. That message isn’t empowering or inspiring. It isn’t even a message; it’s indoctrination.

That appeal to authority bugged me the most about the episode. For that reason, I felt harshly critical about every other little detail out of place because viewers would feel little room to question what they saw. For example, mentioning the Oort Cloud as a proven fact, without mentioning it’s still hypothetical and unproven, really bugged me—and this with no mention of the Kuiper belt at all!

When Giordano Bruno, a non-scientific mystic, forms a core part of the parable, what’s the lesson? When we come away from Cosmos that only a few may be initiated into the secrets of science through methods wholly unknown to us, how can Cosmos inspire new scientists?

(Clarifying edits were made on 7 May 2018.)

Waiting

I keep repeating to myself, this moment has never happened before.

When I remember that, I find it disrupts my life narrative completely and brings me forcefully into the present moment. It’s one of the few coping mechanisms for impatience that I have. Most of the time, my narrative thread I carry with me extends into the future, attempting to impose my past experiences onto it. I live bound within expectations, whose tension I wait to resolve. I array my life along this thread and look both behind and ahead, longingly.

I feel like there’s a lot of waiting going on in my life right now, taking me out of the present moment constantly. So I have to say to myself, this moment is new, nothing like it has ever happened, and I find myself right here and now. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Sometimes it helps calm me, and other times it makes me even more anxious.

Habits of Mind

From as near as I can tell, the act of meditation entails practicing and cultivating habits of mind. Nothing more than that.

I’ve been thinking about meditation for a really long time, as I’ve read a bit about it, especially the lojong practice discussed in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. When you get into the whys and wherefores of it, you start approaching a rather religious discussion, but putting that aside, I’ve been wondering what will happen if I diligently practice it.

Maybe it’s not fair to say that I’m wondering, what’s the point? What’s the purpose? Is there a goal? I admit that sort of language crossed my mind at first. It doesn’t seem to be a useful line of questioning. Rather, those questions seem to impose a kind of value judgment on your practice: Am I achieving a goal? Progressing towards a desired outcome?

That’s not necessarily what I want. In fact, there’s no place for “want” in this. Just an exercise.

So along and along, I’ve indulged in the practice in quiet moments. Not a lot. Perhaps I haven’t been as diligent as I would if I were practicing under a formalized setting. But I don’t hold that against myself. I used to. I’m learning more and more to observe that fact and then let it go.

I can’t say that I’ve accomplished things. I can talk about what I’ve noticed, and I can talk about what I’ve focused on.

I try to focus on awareness. When I was having angst about the experience, like I said, I wondered where I was supposed to be going with this, but after a conversation with a friend, we talked about awareness, and I thought, well, there doesn’t have to be some end goal. Awareness is a nice thing to have. Who doesn’t want to be more aware?

I’ve noticed how quickly my thoughts blow me away from the current moment, how quickly they carry me forward in time. As I live and grow and accumulate time and experiences, the more quickly I tumble forward, out of control, my thoughts and experiences aggregating around me until the current moment is hard to see.

So I just want to be more aware, and this has this side-effect, one I’ve found really beneficial, of slowing down the passage of time. Maybe I shouldn’t call it a side-effect; that implies there’s some primary effect I’m chasing. Just an effect.

I don’t have much else to report. I just wanted to share that experience, in hopes someone else out there is thinking about meditation.