Circularity and conversion

As you may have gathered from my last “quote of the day,” I’m trying to plow through Michael Polanyi’s classic of philosophy of science and epistemology, Personal Knowledge. I’ll probably have to read it again just to get a better grasp on his arguments, but Polanyi essentially states, as his title hints, that all knowledge has a personal component. In other words, I am invested in whatever I claim to know; there is really no difference between stating “X is a fact” and “I believe X”. He goes into excruciating detail showing how science operates, and how it is driven by the passionate commitment scientists have to what they believe in. Without its practitioners fervently believing in science, it would fail. I won’t go into the details–maybe later…

What I do want to discuss, briefly, is another idea that he throws out. He discusses belief systems in general, science being one, of course. He claims that all belief systems are, to varying degrees, inherently stable, because they have three characteristics:

1. Circularity: they reinforce themselves, and have an explanation for essentially any objection by reference to another part of the system. Objections that contradict one part of the system can be dismissed by referring to another part. A witchdoctor’s failed cursing of a person can be explained by another witchdoctor having cursed him, and so on. Note that this emphatically does not mean that the circular belief system is wrong. As Polanyi states:

The circularity of the theory of the universe embodied in any particular language is manifested in an elementary fashion by the existence of a dictionary of the language. If you doubt, for example, that a particular English noun, verb, adjective or adverb has any meaning in English, an English dictionary dispels this doubt by a definition using other nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, the meaningfulness of which is not doubted for the moment.

2. Epicycles: they expand to take in new, seemingly contradictory data (like Ptolemy’s astronomical system, from which the name “epicycle” derives).

For example, Catholicism has changed (“devleoped”) its view of the physical workings of the universe over time to support heliocentrism, by reinterpreting earlier texts. Christianity in general has done the same with the Creation story in Genesis (fundamentalists notwithstanding).

3. Suppressed nucleation: the security with which adherents hold their beliefs makes it extremely hard to penetrate the system with ideas that contradict it.

For example, the fundamentalist confronted with a decisive logical argument against sola scriptura will, more often than not, simply dismiss it. A Mormon confronted with convincing evidence against the historicity of the Book of Mormon will point to his “burning in the bosom” and ignore it.

So, why am I so fascinated by these concepts? I think they go a long way to explain why logical argument is such a generally fruitless means of converting people, whether to Catholicism from Protestantism, or to evolutionary theory from creationism, or any number of other examples. Belief systems have within them so many reinforcing structures that negate the force of argument. I can argue till I’m blue in the face about evolution versus creation, giving countless examples verified by experimental data, but a Six-Day Creationist will refuse to budge from his position due to his fideistic reading of Scripture.

I am perfectly willing, on the other hand, to admit that my own beliefs follow the same pattern. That does not at all diminish my commitment to them; I firmly believe they are true. But, yes, Catholicism also has a circular component: the Magisterium, for example, teaches truth because Christ established the Church, and He being fully God and fully Man, is Truth itself. One of the truths that the Magisterium teaches is the truth about Jesus. It’s a self-consistent system; believe in it, and everything fits. As St. Augustine said, “I believe in order that I might understand.”

So, how would I go about seeking the conversion of, say, a fundamentalist six-day Creationist with whom I have argued vehemently about the horrors of evolution? I’m going to let GK Chesterton answer part of the question (though I am not calling my hypothetical fundamentalist friend a madman…):

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.

The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.

I believe that my circle, Catholicism (+ a commitment to evolution as an explanation for the creation of the living world), is larger than others, that it offers a more fulfilling, broader, truer explanation for the way the world works. I’m not going to be able to disprove another belief system by pure logical argument. As Chesterton says, I need to focus on my own beliefs being a way of “giving air”, letting the Holy Spirit do His work.

Thoughts?

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4 Responses to “Circularity and conversion”


  1. 1 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    My first reaction is that this explanation, while holding truth, is too simplistic. After reading the link, I think I have more questions then answers. There needs to be more to this.

    So, how would I go about seeking the conversion of

    This is the key question. If this theory of belief systems is correct, how does it account for people who change from one system to another? The article quotes former believers in Marxism and Freud-ism (?) using former adherents to prove the point about how convincing a circular system each were? What am I missing? Either the system (and all systems) have complete answers to everything, or they do not. It seems to me that the failure to provide an answer to *something* is precisely why systems fail and people change beliefs.

    Undoubtedly, systems will contain enough answers that most adherents are convince most of the time. People being who they are, we are usually unwilling to stand against a crowd and declare the emperor has no clothes. So as long as we remain within a group convinced that a system is correct, most of us will continue to adhere to it. But if confronted with enough questions, or enough individuals who are non-adherents, or enough data which doesn’t fit, then we go seeking a new system.

    These theories do provide a good explanation why it is difficult to provoke someone to change beliefs, though. In order to do so, we need more than an individual incident to rock the current ideology. Otherwise, we would be continually running after each new belief which causes an apparent contradiction with the current belief, and then demonstrates some explanation. Usually, before changing a belief system, the current belief system is searched for an explanation, and then the potential new system is searched for discrepancies or relevancies, etc. The process can be long enough for any individual, but then extrapolate to a whole system, like medicine or Catholicism, and the time takes exponentially longer.

    I think I’ve determined the crux of my discomfort with this man’s thesis. There is no possibility of absolute truth, if he is correct. If a system is internally consistent, it’s just because all systems are. It makes no distinction between epicycles (should that be used in that way?) which change core tenets versus those which cause incidental changes. There is no acceptable proof by which man can determine truth.

    So, the question, “What is truth?” becomes modified, “How can we know truth?”

    I submit that if there is only one truth, there is only one system which will not succumb to the “too many” formula, which core tenets are not modifiable nor need modification by outer assault. So, if the first is proven, we can add another question, being, “Which system holds all truth?”

    And that is where I’ll stop for input. You certainly know how to make a girl think!

  2. 2 Monte January 2, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    You wrote: “I believe that my circle… offers a more fulfilling, broader, truer explanation for the way the world works.”
    When I left fundamentalism twenty-some years ago, I felt something that may be similar to what you express here. Friends may have thought I was leaving “the narrow way.” In fact, I felt that f’s fascination with details and super-literality had resulted in simply missing the point. I didn’t leave because it was too Scriptural, but because it wasn’t Scriptural enough.
    The pursuit of Jesus himself, by contrast, seemed to be a “more fulfilling, broader, truer explanation for the way the world works” – and for how Scripture and reality mesh. Thanks!

  3. 3 Edmund C. January 2, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Monte,

    Welcome… We seem to have taken different paths away from fundamentalism, but you’re right: fundamentalists are missing the point as they try to divine all truth out of a literal interpretation of Scripture.

    Bekah,

    What am I missing? Either the system (and all systems) have complete answers to everything, or they do not. It seems to me that the failure to provide an answer to *something* is precisely why systems fail and people change beliefs.

    I think the distinction that needs to be made is between an answer and a complete answer. I may not be understanding Polanyi completely, but I think he would say that these systems, Marxism and Freudianism, provide answers for everything, or perhaps more correctly, can answer any objection. The “madman” in the section from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that I quoted (and for which I need to provide a link…forgot it) can also provide an answer for everything. That does not make him correct. I don’t think it’s a lack of an answer that causes people to change beliefs; it’s a lack of a good answer.

    I think I’ve determined the crux of my discomfort with this man’s thesis. There is no possibility of absolute truth, if he is correct. If a system is internally consistent, it’s just because all systems are. It makes no distinction between epicycles (should that be used in that way?) which change core tenets versus those which cause incidental changes. There is no acceptable proof by which man can determine truth.

    I should have also mentioned that Polanyi, although Jewish in ethnicity and upbringing, was a devout Christian, floating somewhere between the Catholic Church in which he married, and Protestanism. He vehemently believed in absolute truth, and was adamant that his theories were not relativistic. But, like you, I thought so at first. Then, I started pondering on them.

    The reason these ideas are not relativistic is that Polanyi is not saying that all these belief systems are equally correct or truthful, but just that they all provide explanations, however good or bad, for essentially everything. They are all, to varying degrees, seeking universal validity for their beliefs, or in other words, seeking truth. You and I believe that Catholicism has the truth and we have plenty of ammo to back us up. That’s why I quoted Chesterton: I think the essential difference between various belief systems is how well they explain everything.

    As far as there being no acceptable proof by which man can determine truth: I get a bit worried when we start talking about “proof” and Christianity. While our faith is historical in nature, ultimately it is not about logical proof, but about faith. Once you have faith (once you’re within the system, so to speak), then logic comes more into play. Reason complements faith, but does not establish it.

    And, I agree completely with:

    So, the question, “What is truth?” becomes modified, “How can we know truth?”

    St. Paul was onto something when he said, “now we see in a mirror dimly”.

    If other thoughts come to mind, I’ll write more later. Must eat…

  4. 4 Bekah January 3, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Proof is tricky, isn’t it? But it is undeniable that there is something that “proves” faith, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to grasp it. I’m not exactly talking about logical proof, but just that certainty that something is worthy of our faith. According to circularity, proof is internal and self-supporting to all systems.

    But in considering this further, most people subscribe to more than one belief system. If you consider the two systems of science and Catholicism, you can see that at points they are supportive of the other, and at points they diverge. The individual is then forced to make a choice as to which system is predominant in their beliefs. For example, science has shown that prayer has a good effect on health, and may result in miraculous healings…supportive of Catholicism (and other faiths). Catholicism has always supported that there are natural laws institued by our Creator and worthy of study, and many preeminent early scientists were Catholic.

    Within these overlaps, I believe we can substantiate proofs for systems that diverge from the circularity phenomena. While no faith is completely provable, because you are right, then we wouldn’t need faith, we can support and substantiate enough to make faith reasonable.


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