Monday, 20 August 2012

Nobody Cares What You Think

     "Nobody cares what you think" is something they drill into you in law school, but sometimes I find myself wishing that it was taught to everyone, aspiring lawyer or not. Of course, much of the time it's used to correct the speech habits of students preparing for their first year moot, when prefacing any statement with "I think..." is just a bad idea anyway. But the true significance of this idea is subtle, and may take several years to sink in.

     It doesn't mean that no one wants to hear what you have to say. It means that whether or not you believe what you are saying, and how strongly you believe it, is of no relevance. What your audience cares about is whether or not there are good reasons for them to believe it. In the practice of law, especially, your actual opinion doesn't matter, because you might well believe your client is probably guilty, but your job is not to decide that, but to advise the court as to the best arguments available for why there's a reasonable doubt.

     I've had the opportunity to judge some junior high school debates, and find students very often falling into a similar trap. A speaker would stand up and deliver an impassioned speech starting out with "We strongly believe that the proposition must stand!" This is silly, because we know very well that in the next round, the very same speaker will be emphatically stating how strongly they believe the very same proposition must fall. And so the point here is the same as the one in law school: nobody cares what the speaker believes; we want to hear the arguments for why we should believe, preferable arguments we haven't considered before.

     I was recently reminded of this lesson on a message forum I frequent. We had been discussing some topic or other, the death penalty, I believe, and had gone on for some five or six pages of posts arguing about whether or not capital punishment is cheaper than life imprisonment (it's not, when you take into account the appeals process necessary to make sure we don't execute someone innocent). And then, of course, after all this lengthy and thorough discussion, someone joins in posting his opinion that we shouldn't waste money on keeping these monsters alive in prison, and should just shoot them.
     Obviously the poster hadn't read any of the thread, and was unaware or just didn't care that his arguments had already been presented and dissected in fine detail. No, he just wanted to tell us what he thought, sparking a new round of debunking the same old arguments. But why would anyone care to know that he, this anonymous person on the internet out there, happens to hold a particular and demonstrably common opinion? We aren't voting on it. We don't know him, we don't have any reason to be affected in any way by the fact that he holds or does not old that view. What we want to know is if there are good reasons why we should share that view. And if he'd taken the time to peruse the thread rather than boldly announcing his not-at-all unusual perspective, he'd know that the arguments he brought to bear were old news to the participants.

     Now, it's not necessarily true that no one cares what you think. Some people probably do, and of course when we're voting on something, what each person thinks is aggregated together to give a result. And when you're planning a dinner party, it's good to know what each guest's culinary preferences are. But most of the time, it's a good guiding principle to bear in mind that the mere fact of your preferring A over B is of no value to anyone but you.


  1. Your mindset makes every fact you don't like an opinion, so that you can dismiss it with aplomb.

  2. You raise two issues for me here, neither of which is what you likely attended.

    First, anonymity. I am a firm believer in facilitating free speech, which is why I have configured this blog to permit anonymous posting. I'm not about to take that away. But it DOES make it rather difficult to put things in context when someone posts a comment like the above. I THINK you're probably the same anonymous who keeps preaching about how I need to come to Christ, but that might not be so.

    Second, personal attacks vs. personal criticism and the fine line between them. Boiled down, the above comment really just seems to say, "Tom is narrow-minded and won't listen to reason." Well, that may be, but without any useful context (and posting anonymously is part of the problem here), what might be intended as a helpful personal criticism just comes across as a personal attack, and as such is easily dismissed (with aplomb, even). You see, the thing about personal attacks is that they are personal; you have some sort of personal motive in making them, distinct from the purely instructive and helpful motive of personal criticism.

    Now, the above comment seems to me to fall into the pattern of berating me for not appearing to believe in the Bible in the same way the commenter does. It also fits the pattern of not bearing much relevance to the posting it's commenting on. Seriously, why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish?

  3. Romans 1:28 speaks of those who did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God being given over to a depraved mind.
    One doesn't correct this problem by arguing. A renewal of the mind must take place. Your mind is not so far gone that it could not be used for God's glory. But it must be changed. My motive in taking time with you has been the glory of Jesus Christ. Jesus died to save us from ourselves and to use us for His glory. It is sad to see a mind that He has created wasted. May He bless yo with His truth!

  4. You still don't understand the fundamental epistemic problem here. You keep telling me to just do THIS (in this case, "ask Jesus to reveal Himself to me") and once I do all will become clear and I will believe as you do and feel this glorious sense of salvation. But you do not understand (or just refuse to accept) that this glorious sense of salvation is a well-known cognitive illusion, just one of many states of mind that may make one FEEL great, but have no real connection to the way things really are. I COULD believe that God exists in the way you believe He does, and I'm sure I'd feel just splendid about it, but how I'd feel about it is less important to me than the question of whether or not it's actually likely to be true.

    I realize that you are utterly convinced of its truth. Okay, fine. But that counts for nothing, because people can be utterly convinced of falsehoods. Your subjective experience remains just that: your subjective experience. That you THINK it is objective, divinely certified and ultimately real is still part of that subjective experience. It's tainted by the Original Sin of our fallible minds, and so is the belief that such Original Sin can be washed away and replaced with justifiable certainty.

    And because you have so thoroughly convinced yourself that you have access to divine knowledge, something that can never be questions, you have closed yourself off from the possibility of considering that maybe God is even greater than you can imagine, and that maybe God's reality can include a greater diversity of world views than just yours. You cannot comprehend how my faith in Truth could be every bit as or even more pleasing to God than your slavish literal obeisance to the Bible.

    And so I ask you: whose mind is wasted here?

  5. There is a real God that you can know, not as a collection of proposition, but personally, analagous to the way you know any person. Personally is the only way a human beng can know truly, since God is always infinitely beyond our ability to comprehend intellectualy. Jesus is Himself the way, the truth and the life. He calls us to submit to Him, to receive Him, to fellowship with Him. The human mind becomes more powerful, more expansive, more wonderful than it could ever be on its own, because this is what a human being was designed to pursue. It is worth your while to seek Him.

  6. Stop just asserting. We can just take all your assertions as read. What you need to convince me of is that I should take your beliefs seriously as something more than just your beliefs. I believe that your beliefs, though sincere, are a kind of hallucination. I also believe that I can share in that hallucination by embracing your beliefs, and I'll feel just as smugly certain of my place in the universe as you do and just as free of further doubt. What I DON'T believe is that those beliefs would be anything other than self-gratifying beliefs.

    You aren't going to get anywhere if you don't give me some kind of evidence or argument, ANYTHING that would tend to imply that your beliefs are more reliable than anyone else's? There are other people believing just as certainly that THEIR gods are real and that you are deluded. There are other people who believe that they have privileged knowledge and insight about the nature of the Universe, that God reveals things specially to them that other people don't get. How are you any different?

  7. With apologies to Tom and others for my failure to keep my cool and maintain the respectful tone Tom tries to maintain in this blog.

    As mentioned in a response to a more recent thread, I haven't followed the discussion in awhile because of things going on in my life, and am catching up in reverse chronological order.

    To be blunt, the behavior of "Anonymous" [including as Tom said, choosing to BE anonymous] gives in the eyes of even many Christians no glory to Jesus or God the Father or the Holy Ghost.

    If "Anonymous" is providing in these commentaries any glory at all, then that glory in all probability will be ascribed to Satan and his minions.