Friday, June 24, 2011

Close-Minded Me

In another discussion, I was informed:

You are the first skeptic to essentially tell me that his mind is closed to what I have to say, and most of the skeptics have also been very friendly, so I always end up giving them the benefit of the doubt and putting time and effort into answering their questions.

My initial reaction was to respond (due to the generally negative connotation), “Hey, I’m not close-minded. I’m as open as the next person,” but I started thinking about it.

Am I really?

In point of fact, I am close-minded about a number of topics. And is that really all bad?

Take an extreme example—the heliocentric theory of our solar system. The idea the planets (including Earth) rotate around the sun. Although I’ve never been in a spaceship, I have seen the evidence, including the paths of other planets, the sun, the moon, the shadows all pointing to a heliocentric theory.

Indeed, you could say I am quite close-minded regarding the topic. Perhaps, even in my persistently stubborn state on this subject, it would be possible to persuade me different. So I may qualify as only 99.99% close-minded. (If that does qualify.)

BUT, in order to change my position, one would need to present some very compelling argument; doing so immediately, forcefully and with strong evidence. Merely asking a question, such as, “If the Earth orbits the sun, how come we see the sun move across the sky?” will never be sufficient.

As I pondered the concept of close-mindedness, I realized we spent our first 18 (or more) years being taught this very topic. We were given homework assignments, quizzes, tests—all designed to close our mind regarding possible alternatives. “2+2=4” Not “5;” not “giraffe.” We close our minds to water’s chemical composition being “H2O.” To “You’re” being a contraction of “you” and “are” and not possession. The list, as you can see, goes on and on.

The list goes on and on. Yes, there are occasions when we learn new information, and realize what we thought was so certain (and perhaps had closed our minds), may not be reality. Newtonian physics comes to mind.

And that is the word I hinged upon—“new.” I looked up the definitions, to see what the common usage would be when utilizing these terms. Google god came up with:

Open-minded: “Receptive to new and different ideas or the opinions of others.”

Close-minded: “Intolerant of the beliefs and opinions of others; stubbornly unreceptive to new ideas.”

In both definitions, the word “new” sprang at me. Is it “close-minded” to be unreceptive to old ideas?

At one point does one study a topic enough to say, “Unless someone presents something new here, I have made my decision”?

The reason I ask—I have studied Christianity. I am very familiar with the fundamentalist Christian position. I know the arguments, the argument style, even the authors, books and sites they will point to.

And I am unconvinced. Must I hear it again to be “open-minded”? How many times must I hear a proposed resolution to a contradiction in the Bible before I come to the conclusion it is a compilation of human documents? How many times must I hear the excuses…er…”apologetics” for the differences between the God of Tanakh and the God of the New Testament?

Are we not entitled to reach a point of saying, “Look. I’ve studied this. I am unconvinced. Unless you present something new--some bold evidence or intensely compelling argument at the onset--I have no need to re-capitulate (for the 100th time) why I was unpersuaded before”?

So I guess, if one wants to call me close-minded because Presentation Number 101 (presenting nothing new) fails to convince, just like Presentations Number 1 – 100 failed to do so…well…I am fine with that.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Why Apologetics Don’t Convince

In every criminal trial, the defense attorney performs an obligation—presenting a possible scenario creating reasonable doubt their client is guilty.

See, each trial has certain facts. A witness who claims a person matching the Defendant’s description was at the crime. Doctors who testify to the cause of death or injury. Police officers explaining data taken from the scene. Exhibits. Fingerprints. Blood results.

And those facts led the police to arrest the accused as a suspect. Those facts led the prosecutor to authorize charging the crime. Those facts led the magistrate to bind the defendant over for trial. And now those very same facts will be displayed to a group of neutral jurors, who are very likely to equally find the most reasonable conclusion is that the defendant is guilty of the crime.

This is where the defense attorney steps in. She must explain an alternative interpretation to the facts. Just because the Defendant was captured in the video right before the robbery, doesn’t mean he entered the store. Just because the Defendant’s fingerprints are on the gun, doesn’t mean he pulled the trigger. Just because the technician claims the blood results are one thing, doesn’t mean we have to trust them.

The Defense attorney constantly presents “possibilities.” Not probabilities (not their job.) Something…anything…to give the jurors an opportunity to say, “No, maybe there is enough doubt here, we should not convict the Defendant.”

Two things happen; the second sometimes more interesting than the first.

1) Jurors--despite all these “possibilities”--overwhelmingly convict Defendants.

See, the jurors understand the Defense attorney’s job. They understand the inherent bias—unless the attorney has no other choice, everything must be bent toward the scenario whereby the Defendant is not guilty. If someone sees the Defendant arrive at the crime scene at 7 p.m., and another witness sees them leave at 7:30 p.m., Defense counsel will argue the Defendant left at 7:01 and came back at 7:29. That is their job.

“It is possible the Defendant could leave and then come back…” “No one saw them there the entire time…”

Yet jurors realize people rarely are under constant surveillance. That people rarely come onto a scene, leave it immediately, and come back later. While it is certainly a “possibility”—not a probability.

They understand, taking into consideration the other facts, the high likelihood the Defendant arrived at 7 and stayed until 7:30.

In every trial we bob and weave and dance and twist, showing over and over how there is another “possibility” to the prosecutor’s theory. The jurors look with sympathetic eyes and quietly reject the “possibility” for the probability. The fact set conforming to their ordinary life experiences.

“We find the Defendant Guilty.”

2) The second phenomenon is that often Defendants become convinced by their own press. They hear the attorney present these possibilities and the alternatives begin to solidify in their minds. Rather than just “possibilities” they become stronger and strong probabilities. Soon they becomes facts—“It’s not on video, is it?”

The Defendants begin to think their case is pretty good. Real solid. They could win this thing! Their relatives in the galley are impressed with the lawyer cross-examining the police officer. The technician admitting they are not 100% certain—there is room for error. The fact all these “holes” are seemingly punched in the prosecutor’s case.

Besides, O.J. heard “Not Guilty” because of that glove. Every movie (except To Kill a Mockingbird) has the Defendant acquitted in a triumphant Perry Mason twist.

Defendants begin to believe the “possibilities” are sufficient. They are not.

“We find the Defendant Guilty.”

I find this same attitude amongst Christian apologetics. As if “possibilities” of alternative interpretations fitting the Christian’s desired conclusion are sufficient to overcome the overwhelming probability to the contrary. (How many times have we seen “possibilities” offered as a response to contradictions?)

And, likewise, Christian apologists believe their own press. They begin to think these “possibilities” are substantial enough to overcome the probabilities.

We completed a discussion regarding the old chestnut of Jesus predicting the parousia within the lifetime of the listeners, and how it did not occur. Anete Acker did an admirable job, playing the part of the Defense Attorney/Christian apologist, giving about the best answer she could.

But in the end, it is just like the Defense. All those “possibilities” do not sustain over the more obvious probabilities; whether Jesus actually said it or someone put those words in his mouth—they were incorrect.

Apologetics do not convince, because we non-believers look to probabilities, not possibilities. We understand the Christian apologist (just like Defense counsel) will bob and weave and twist the scraps of facts we have to conform to their necessary interpretation. We are not bound by such doctrinal or theological limitations.

We don’t care whether it was recorded Jesus predicted something and it was correct or not. We have no purchase in this game.

Thus we are not convinced, any more than jurors are.