On Objective Christianity, Part 3: I Never Thought to Think Differently

This is the third part in a series describing limits on objectivity. This third part describes an important way that culture limits the ways one can think critically, and different conclusions the culture will allow them to reach. The purpose of these posts is not to totally destroy belief in objectivity, but to develop a more accurate understanding of our own limitations. Hopefully this is the first step towards compensating for them, at least a little. [1]

In widely discussed questions, it’s hard to think of answers that have not been pre-legitimated (Legitimacy in this article will be used in the technical sense). In common debates, usually a few positions come to define the debate, and it’s really hard to come up with a position that isn’t one of those two or three. Now, to be clear, it isn’t quite impossible for you to have a different view, but it’s very unlikely. Further, if you do have an outside position, nobody else is going to recognize it, and you’ll wind up treated like you fit into one of the standard answers.

For a concrete example, consider the abortion debate. There are two positions which are legitimated: Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. I don’t even have to introduce these ideas for the purposes of this discussion: you know what these views are. So you can think a fetus is a human being, and therefore deserves protection from being purposefully killed, or you can think a woman should have rights over what goes on in her own body. You think one of these two things; it’s as simple as that. Almost everyone in the United States does. These are the two ideas the debate has given legitimacy, and everything takes place in the context of selecting one of these two options. Therefore when someone newly encounters the debate (say a young person growing up in the United States), they select one of these two options. There just isn’t a third position to have. Or is there?

What if you thought a fetus is a)too dissimilar from a fully developed human being early in its development to be considered genuine human life, but that b) as it approaches full-development it comes close enough to deserve protection? Maybe you think that for the first trimester or two the fetus is just too dissimilar to deserve protection (that’s just not a person yet), but in the last trimester or two it deserves protection (that’s getting awfully close to a person, and I’m uncomfortable letting someone destroy it)? In this way, you respect the rights of a woman to control what goes on in her life until it’s a question of a human being aborted, at which point the right to life trumps the right to self-determination. In some ways this view is very pro-life, but in other ways it is very pro-choice.

Recognize that I’m not advocating the particular theory, I’m just saying it’s a view that doesn’t fit well into either of the socially Legitimate positions. Imagine yourself telling one of your friends you believe this. Your friend will probably think of you as either pro-life or pro-choice. Heck, when you read this view, you probably thought of it as “well that’s pro—X” where X is the view you do NOT hold. This is a classic example of how culture shapes one’s thinking.

In fact, I think if you held to this view, sooner or later you would “recognize” that you are what others tell you, and become either pro-life or pro-choice. You would, in effect, accept the labels people put on you and adjust your view to be in line with your label. You would probably (not certainly, but probably) eventually and gradually abandon this position and embrace whatever view you believed you had become part of. So if you held the view described above, eventually all your friends would tell you that this view is pro-life, maybe. You wouldn’t think it really was at first, but over time, hearing that you are pro-life every time the issue comes up, you will probably change your position to the standard pro-life model. Now, it’s easy enough to accept that this happens to others. The more important lesson is that the only reason we don’t immediately assume it weighs on us is…well…uhm…there isn’t a good reason. These same factors weigh on your perceptions. This problem shapes your thinking.

For another example, see this story. Though it is not quite as strong an example, it is another way to see this basic principle in areas in which most of us believe we are objective, and have principled stands. Other scientists are unable to accept this professor’s views, which are neither Creationist nor accepting of Evolutionary theory. See that they throw him into one of the two pre-legitimated positions. Since he has serious qualms with their view, he is assumed to be a Creationist (which is to say, a “Not-One-Of-Us.”) Now, I’m not the sort of person who assumes there is a widespread conspiracy to present a united front pushing evolution so that the world will be able to accept atheism, as many Creationists argue [2]. I assume these scientists are as generally reasonable as are the rest of us. In fact, they are, at least in certain circumstances, such as a laboratory, probably much more reasonable than most of us are. However, they seem to have been genuinely blinded by this very common social phenomena discussed in this blog post. Much of the time, we do not have the principled stands we think we have. We are not as objective as we think we are.

[1] The idea in this blog post was pointed out to me by Scott Cormode’s Making Spiritual Sense. He didn’t conduct the research either, but he does have plenty of end notes. Back to Article

[2] Don’t deny it, it’s true. Back to Article

  1. I wonder if I’ll simply prove your point, but I hope not.

    First, I think you’re right with the labels discussion. Calvinism is another great example. Say enough ‘Calvinistic’ things (and have it pointed out to you), and you might find yourself reciting TULIP in your sleep (or at debates).

    What I think you’re wrong about is the discussion of abortion. The whole issue always boils down to when you believe a fetus becomes a baby. Many ‘pro-choice’ advocates don’t condone late-term abortions (recognizing that the fetus is just too much like a human). The title is based on where you draw that line. Pro-life people draw the line at conception. Pro-choice people draw the line later, whether that is a week later or 8 months later seems besides the point. That isn’t to say that all pro-choice positions are equal, rather, it is to say that they disagree about the placement of the line while pro-life believers say that the ‘line’ should not exist. Conception makes a baby, which is a human being.

    Now, you might be able to find a different belief concerning abortion, but I’m not sure that you can use the ‘where do you draw the line?’ reasoning to reach it.

    I think I’ll try to make up a new position to see how else we might approach the subject.

    Suppose you met a person who, in America, is completely against abortion. She one hundred percent pro-life, but not because she believes abortion is murder. In fact, she believes that people in [insert country that has too high density of people] should be allowed to have an abortion, anywhere up until, say, the third trimester. She would not land into either camp, since she actually finds justification on either side. Now, many pro-life people would say she is pro-choice, only they would suggest that her ‘choice’ is cultural and not individual (America’s ‘culture’ decided abortion was wrong simply by its virtue of not being over-crowded, for example). On the flip side, pro-choice people might argue she is pro-life, saying that she condemns abortion in America, and thus must not believe in the rights of a woman.

    I hope that makes my point clear. I think you’re ultimately right about labels, but I think your example falls flat. Perhaps I’m just labeling the position (as you said I would), but I think this time it is justified.

      • Stephen Hale
      • December 26th, 2010

      Aw, crap. I knew somebody was going to notice that. You’re absolutely correct.

      In way of an explanation, I assumed most readers of this blog are pro-life, and wouldn’t be bothered by the difference. To be honest, I hate it when i see pastors doing that. I thought I’d get away with it…

      At any rate, both of your points are 100% correct, as I see it.


      • You’re going to have to be trickier than that if you want to slide something past us here at Push of Pikes, good sir.

        Your point was good, though.

        Glad to help sharpen iron with iron.

        Or, at least I hope I was using iron…

        Christ Abide.

  2. Stephen, could you explain what you mean when you say:

    In way of an explanation, I assumed most readers of this blog are pro-life, and wouldn’t be bothered by the difference.

    What is the difference and why would they not be bothered?

    When I read the example you used about abortion, I understood your point but thought that it was a slightly ill-fitting example. James addressed this wonderfully already, so I will spare you further commentary.

    I agree with your viewpoint totally. Francis Bacon said something about man’s ability to measure to the universe is relative to man and not the universe. Have you ever looked into Bacon’s Four Idols? He presents a systematic way of thinking about just how it was that you were wrong. http://www.sirbacon.org/links/4idols.htm

      • Stephen Hale
      • December 29th, 2010

      *hangs head in shame.

      I mean that most people in very heated social discussions do not mind misrepresentations of their opponent, so long as they make them look more ridiculous. Further, I assume most pro-life Christians are unable to accurately describe what the average thought out pro-choice person thinks.

      Both of these assumptions were assumptions that I could be sloppy. Again, something that irritates me to no end when others do it, so I’m not exactly happy to have done it myself…

  3. Were you trying to ironically portray an error in yourself that you were cautioning against? Sometimes I try to make a point of doing that. It might be a variation on self-referential humor. If that WAS what you were trying to do, I have found that subtlety demands context to secure it. Sometimes I make a joke but it falls flat because it connected only to my train of thought. I try to shoot more for subtlety in the fashioning of words rather than paragraphs. It’s like if you want to build a train track, you have to be very, very conventional and straightforward about what you are doing. If you want to have a fencing match moving across the tops of train cars, its context heightens its poignancy.

  1. February 2nd, 2012

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