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Mental gymnastics and having faith

December 19, 2012

I’ve noticed two things that people tend to say when they want to critique someone’s position in a theological/narrative framework discussion. These have subtly different implications, but so I want to address each.

The first thing I hear people say is that x view requires so much more faith than y view.

The second thing I hear people say is that x position requires mental gymnastics.

The interesting thing about the first is that it usually comes from people who nominally take faith as a virtue (e.g., theists). However, when they lob this claim at atheists (“It takes so much more faith to be an atheist.”) this seems to betray that they don’t actually think highly of faith at all. (chanson has written concisely about this phenomenon at Letters from a broad.)

So, it seems like this position is basically saying, “A minimum of faith is desirable, but at some point, too much is too much.”

However, the second thing that people say is still pretty interesting.

For the most part, no one self-proclaims that their position requires mental gymnastics (although I do think that many people might instead prize “nuance,” “complexity,” or “paradox”. See: liberal Mormonism.) The idea seems to be that one’s position should be easy and comfortable — and if yours is not, if yours is wracked with twists and flex (or is even merely perceived to be as such), then your position is suspect.

Of course, the kicker to me is that since no one tends to self-proclaim that their own position requires mental gymnastics (notwithstanding those who value nuance…), this all amounts to a disagreement between interpretations by the holder of a position and by an observer of that view. The observer projects his own difficulty tracking with the worldview as saying it must be the holder’s mental gymnastics. But the holder doesn’t see it as gymnastics — the holder holds her views precisely because she thinks that they are the most obvious, most sensible, most processable.

But let’s get back to comparing the two statements. The statement about excess faith is different from the statement about mental gymnastics because at least some people think that faith is a good idea…at least some of the time. However, no one wants to own “mental gymnastics” — only at best nuance, complexity, paradox.

Of course, some folks would raise that maybe faith isn’t a virtue at all.

I think that has been hashed out by plenty of other folks, so instead I’ll ask the other question: what if “mental gymnastics” is a virtue?

Maybe I’m just getting too Lakoffian here, but it seems the conceptual metaphor of discourse as exercise is a lot more positive than the general conceptual metaphor of argument as struggle. I mean, inspite of the kinesiological research points on what kind of stretching is best, whether warm ups are good or dangerous, etc., gymnastics is pretty healthy.

I now realize that at least SOMEONE who reads this post will take it as carte blanche to claim that my views require mental gymnastics and thus may be dismissed.

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17 Comments
  1. I was a mental gymnast and quite proud of it. I love Mormonism for being such a thinking-man’s religion. Unfortunately, if you leave it all up to mental gymnastics, at some point, something might be thrown at you that even the most gold-medal-gymnast-brain can’t handle without a lot of faith. Then you become an evil apostate like me;)

  2. Tony permalink

    I think you are simply over complicating the idea of ‘mental gymnastics’.

    Mental Gymnastics is when you start with a conclusion and then have to twist and contort your interpretation of facts and evidence to force it to support those conclusions.

    The opposite of Mental Gymnastics is when you simply look at the facts and evidence and follow it to an apparent and inevitable conclusions.

    Of course there are always shades of gray that conclusions can fall into. But when you need to jump through so many hoops and twists and turns in order to try to get your “evidence” to support your a conclusion that wasn’t actually arrived at through reasoning and evidence then you have engaged in mental gymnastics, and that isn’t something anyone wants to own because it is sloppy thinking.

    To say someone engages in Mental Gymnastics is to say that someone is starting with a conclusion and then trying to twist the real world facts to support it incorrectly and artificially.

  3. But the holder doesn’t see it as gymnastics — the holder holds her views precisely because she thinks that they are the most obvious, most sensible, most processable.

    I don’t think that’s always true. When I was a believer, I thought the church was true despite that explanation being much being less obvious, sensible, and processable. I certainly had some idea that what I was doing could be called “mental gymnastics” (although it took Star Wars for me to really understand just how bad it was.)

  4. Jenn,

    It’s interesting to see that each person can have a different challenging thing, too.

    Tony,

    This is definitely an interesting way of looking at it…I hadn’t quite seen it that way.

    Interestingly, though, that leads me to think another thing: to the person looking at the data, he doesn’t think that he’s starting with a conclusion first and then twisting and contorting data to fit. The “apparent and inevitable” conclusions simply aren’t going to be the same for everyone.

    kuri,

    Thanks for linking those posts — I remember having seen the Star Wars one before, so it’s good to reread that as well as your other one in new light.

    Not to say you’re a boring person, or that I’m meaning to try to shuffle your perspective aside because it’s cramping the narrative I’m trying to set, but the thing I find interesting is Seth’s POV as contrasted to yours. I don’t know if he would agree with precisely how you have characterized him, but something that I do get a sense from many LDS folks is that yes, they do find the apologetic cases (or at least some of them) to be plausible and good. So, that definitely seems to be a case of the holder of these views finding them to be sensible.

    But I guess people are just too diverse to all follow a general pattern…

  5. I also find it fascinating that people can buy into the apologetic arguments so fully. I mean, until March 2010 it had been literally inconceivable to me that there were people who were well versed in them yet still thought them not just possible, but good (or better, even, than the alternatives). Yet some obviously do (and it was naive of me to have thought otherwise).

  6. Tony permalink

    “The “apparent and inevitable” conclusions simply aren’t going to be the same for everyone.”

    Yes and no. It is true that people may come to different conclusions based on the same evidence. However that isn’t what I am talking about. While some people who do mental gymnastics may totally convince themselves they aren’t, the fact is they SHOULD realize it because they are the ones starting with the conclusion.

    It’s really simple. Did you have your conclusion BEFORE you started your reasoning process?

    From the outside we may conclude that a person has done this simply by the convoluted nature of the reasoning they present. However the person who should really know is the person themselves. All they need to do is step back and look at their reasoning process.

    Did they look at facts and then follow them to a conclusion, or did they already have their minds made up and then go out to find a way to make the evidence fit their conclusion? People may not be initially aware they are doing that, but if they step back for a moment and try to see they should be able to.

  7. Tony,

    While some people who do mental gymnastics may totally convince themselves they aren’t, the fact is they SHOULD realize it because they are the ones starting with the conclusion.

    And I’m saying this is doubtful because at no point is this a conscious process. So, it’s not “people who do mental gymnastics may totally convince themselves” (as if convincing were a conscious action that one might choose to do)…but “people who do mental gymnastics may be totally convinced“, which leads to a lot different implications.

    I’ll throw something else into this, since I think this is going to put up complications sooner or later — so you mention people starting with a conclusion first…but what about starting with premises? I don’t think you’re going to get someone who has a blank slate from the outset, premise-wise. And I also think that the premises one has are going to affect the conclusion one ends up with — so someone who accepts certain premises is probably going to look like someone who has a set conclusion before things began — but he won’t see things as that way and will not be able to “step back for a moment” and see that.

    In this case, it wouldn’t be because his conclusion was set from the outset, but because his premises were set from the outset.

  8. Tony permalink

    But science proves that wrong every day. Scientific experiments typically begin with a premise, then test it to come to a conclusion. In the process there are checks and balances to make sure that the conclusion comes at the end and that the premise isn’t confused with the conclusion.

    On an individual basis all it takes is a quick mental check of what your process is. Scientists do it all the time. Mathematicians do it all the time. Doctors do it all the time. Engineers do it all the time.

    The only thing required is not assuming you are always right. At some point you just stop for a moment and do a self check, “what was my reasoning process here?”.

    It’s not hard or impossible. It just takes being willing to admit you are wrong once in a while and making it a conscious process. It can be a conscious process.

    In the end it doesn’t make a difference. Either a person is contorting their reasoning to fit their conclusions or not. If they are then they are engaging in mental gymnastics. Either they are willing to step back and check their reasoning or they are not, but the responsibility to do so is on them.

  9. Tony,

    To say that “science proves” anything reifies a particular view of science that already is laden with a lot of assumptions. Needless to say, but you bring certain premises about what science can do and what science is to the conversation.

    To throw one thing out here, if one premise is, “Things that are empirically testable and retestable [especially with the kinds of tools that we currently have] are valid evidence,” then naturally, that’s going to limit the kinds of conclusions that you will get. And you might say, “Well, another premise is, “We will eventually develop better tools and processes for testing and retesting phenomenon,”” then that changes the conclusions possible in the long term, but still has its limitations.

    I mean, you bring mathematicians and doctors into the mix as well, but mathematicians (well, actually, going back, physicists are scientists who should definitely understand too) should ESPECIALLY know that the premises you begin with determine your conclusion — that’s why we have Euclidean geometry AND non-Euclidean geometries, because we recognize that the axioms that underpinned Euclidean geometry can be negated one by one to produce different results,

    For medicine, we KNOW that the practice of medicine is culturally bound and culturally frustrated. our western sense of “objectivity” is itself something that underserves MANY patients (because “objective” tends to wrap up a lot of classist, racist, heterosexist and sexist ideals up with it). It’s not the *doctors* who end up self-evaluating and then “correcting” — it has to be all of these other people who, by virtue of their *different experiences* and *different premises* — who bring different ideas to the field of medicine.

  10. Tony permalink

    I think you are arguing a bit of a straw man. I am not talking about the validity of the conclusions. I am talking about the process of getting to the conclusions.

    As I already stated, different people can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions, so that is not what I am talking about when I refer to Doctors and scientists.

    I am talking about the process. That along the way the doctor, scientists, mathematician etc… all need to keep the concept of their premise separate and in it’s proper place from the conclusion, and that they have methods to ensure that.

    When they fail to do that it is because they failed to follow the method.

    That doesn’t mean that different scientists or doctors won’t come to different conclusions with the same evidence. All I am referring to is the be conscious of keeping the conclusions coming until the end of the process, and a method for doing so.

  11. Tony,

    And I’m saying that scientists, doctors, etc., don’t keep the concept of their premise separate from the conclusion. Their work is imbued with certain premises that are often lumped as being “part of the field.”

    In other words, the “scientific method,” when “properly followed,” includes its own set of premises that limit the kinds of conclusions that will be drawn.

  12. Tony permalink

    Then name a system for finding objective truth of the material world that works better. You are treading on a philosophical pinhead of “there is no objective truth”.

    The scientific method does not find it’s origin in one single premise proposed at one time. It is a method that has evolved over thousands of years, incorporating ideas from many cultures, and has been shown time and again to be the best method for arriving at objective truth, so much so that it has been adopted by pretty much every scientist in every culture in the world that has access to know about it.

    The premise of the scientific method is to eliminate bias from the investigative process. That limits it’s conclusions to “unbiased” and little else. When it fails it pretty much always can be shown to be a failure of the investigator to follow the method.

    But all this is a tangent. Are you really saying that there is no way to keep your premise separate from your conclusions, and that presupposing your conclusions is unavoidable? Because that is no different than saying we can never really know anything as true, in which case none of us really know anything.

  13. Tony,

    If you can use the term “objective truth of the material world” unironically, then I don’t really…know…how to address that.

    I would point out that there is a difference between treading on the philosophical pinhead of “there is no objective truth” (which has been similarly philosophically dismantled by: “wouldn’t that be an objective truth claim?”) and noting: 1) even given objective truth *somewhere*, we don’t know if we’ve approached it, and 2) we have a track record of being wrong about times when we thought we had objective truth.

    Even more, we have a track record of being wrong and not knowing about it until years and years and years after, something radically shakes everything we once thought we knew out of orbit.

    But let’s just go with this:

    The premise of the scientific method is to eliminate bias from the investigative process. That limits it’s conclusions to “unbiased” and little else. When it fails it pretty much always can be shown to be a failure of the investigator to follow the method.

    You have to define “bias.” Of course, those who advocate for the scientific method are going to have certain definitions of “bias.” In the same way that you have built into your discussion of the scientific method particular definitions of what “objectivity” entails, what “material” entails, etc., Later on, you presume certain things about what “knowledge” and “truth” entail, but I’ll get to that later.

    Are you really saying that there is no way to keep your premise separate from your conclusions, and that presupposing your conclusions is unavoidable? Because that is no different than saying we can never really know anything as true, in which case none of us really know anything.

    I’m saying that even if there is a way to do this, we should be pretty skeptical of the idea of being able to keep our premises separate from our conclusions.

    But I would just point out here that you’re also taking for granted certain ideas of what “knowledge” or “truth” entails. But your last sentence really doesn’t work under, say, a coherentist epistemology. To the contrary, they would say, “Saying that there is no way to keep your premise separate from your conclusion is certainly not the same as saying we can never really know anything as true. To the contrary, everything we know as true comes because of the relationship from premises to conclusions.”

  14. Tony permalink

    “If you can use the term “objective truth of the material world” unironically, then I don’t really…know…how to address that.”

    Really. If I push someone out a 50 story window on earth they are going to fall to the ground. That is an objective truth of the material world, and I have no problem terming it so unironically.

    “1) even given objective truth *somewhere*, we don’t know if we’ve approached it, and 2) we have a track record of being wrong about times when we thought we had objective truth.”

    How do we know that we have been wrong about it? Because the scientific method is self correcting. The method is meant to work to catch it’s mistakes eventually as our collective body of knowledge advances. What is more, it is one of the few world views that actively tries to catch itself at mistakes.

    Think of all the times we know we got it wrong with the scientific method and ask yourself how we found that out. The vast majority of the times it is due to someone else employing the scientific method. But I have never asserted that using the scientific method always leads to finding an objective truth. I have stated that it is the best method of it, not that it is fool proof.

    “You have to define “bias.” ”

    Letting our desire for a particular outcome influence out conclusions about that outcome.

    “what “objectivity” entails”

    External reality, intentness on objects external to the mind.

    “what “material” entails”

    Pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual or intellectual aspect of things. Formed or consisting of matter.

    “Later on, you presume certain things about what “knowledge” and “truth” entail, but I’ll get to that later”

    I’m just speaking English. I am not using some idiosyncratic definitions. These are common concepts of the English language.

    Knowledge – Acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation.

    Truth – Conformity with fact or reality

    “I’m saying that even if there is a way to do this, we should be pretty skeptical of the idea of being able to keep our premises separate from our conclusions.”

    Good, be skeptical. I am skeptical of the idea that this can’t be done.

    ““Saying that there is no way to keep your premise separate from your conclusion is certainly not the same as saying we can never really know anything as true. To the contrary, everything we know as true comes because of the relationship from premises to conclusions.””

    All well and good, but in order for that to work you need awareness of the relationship from premises to conclusions, which is exactly what I am saying. You can’t get to any semblance of truth if you can’t keep the relationship from premises to conclusions fairly clear. When you muddle them up you lose the ability to discern truth and start seeing only what you want your premise to advance.

  15. Tony,

    Really. If I push someone out a 50 story window on earth they are going to fall to the ground. That is an objective truth of the material world, and I have no problem terming it so unironically.

    I’m just going to point out that not everything in reality is going to be a categorically similar fact as “pushing someone out of a 50 story window.” So you’re going to miss a lot of stuff if you’re only looking at the sorts of things that are comparable to pushing someone out of a 50 story window.

    How do we know that we have been wrong about it? Because the scientific method is self correcting. The method is meant to work to catch it’s mistakes eventually as our collective body of knowledge advances. What is more, it is one of the few world views that actively tries to catch itself at mistakes.

    Think of all the times we know we got it wrong with the scientific method and ask yourself how we found that out. The vast majority of the times it is due to someone else employing the scientific method. But I have never asserted that using the scientific method always leads to finding an objective truth. I have stated that it is the best method of it, not that it is fool proof.

    Actually, a lot of the times we have figured out we were wrong about it was because of a criticism that came from *out* of the sciences proper. e.g., this is why we have philosophy of science and the philosophers of science are often in conflict with practitioners within the community.

    I mean, you talk about the scientific method. But that is not a static thing. That is something that we have to critique and challenge as well. But that is not “the scientific method correcting itself.”

    I’m just speaking English. I am not using some idiosyncratic definitions. These are common concepts of the English language.

    Truth – Conformity with fact or reality

    Please note that English is not a language given pure from a spring. English has a cultural situatedness. The cultures of English-speaking communities has ideological bents (especially when you start adding socioeconomic statuses, etc., etc.,) To say “I am not using some idiosyncratic definitions” is an extremely culturally blinded statement to make — what’s behind your statement is, “I am using the language of my community, and of course, my community is dominant, therefore it is credible.” But you don’t unpack any of this. Out comes, “This is just how people commonly talk.”

    And I’m saying: yes, that’s just how people in your POV talk. And you don’t see that the assumptions you make influence EVERYTHING else.

    Note that the scientific method alone cannot self-correct from this. At the best, we need social scientific tools to try to correct from this, but really, we need the humanities, history, a cultural awareness that is outside of the scientific method.

    That’s why I also quote your definition of truth. I would think that we would need to unpack something — your definition of a “fact” — but I’d be willing to guess that in some way it in some way references your idea of “reality.”

    if these are the case, then that just makes your definition of truth a classically correspondence theoretical form of it. And you know what — I wouldn’t blame you if that were the case — because I think that the scientific method “presupposes” correspondence theory of truth.

    But that’s the thing — if you accept correspondence theory of truth as an axiom — that’s going to change the things you’re looking for, the inferences you make, and the conclusions you end up with.

    All well and good, but in order for that to work you need awareness of the relationship from premises to conclusions, which is exactly what I am saying. You can’t get to any semblance of truth if you can’t keep the relationship from premises to conclusions fairly clear. When you muddle them up you lose the ability to discern truth and start seeing only what you want your premise to advance.

    I would point out that most, if not all people, can’t keep the relationships from premises to conclusions fairly clear. Even (and especially) the people who think they can.

  16. Tony permalink

    “I’m just going to point out that not everything in reality is going to be a categorically similar fact as “pushing someone out of a 50 story window.”

    It was an extreme example to make a point. I thought that was clear.

    “Actually, a lot of the times we have figured out we were wrong about it was because of a criticism that came from *out* of the sciences proper. e.g., this is why we have philosophy of science and the philosophers of science are often in conflict with practitioners within the community.”

    Often we figure out there is an issue that way, but identifying that issue and determining the details is almost always achieved through further use of the scientific method.

    “I mean, you talk about the scientific method. But that is not a static thing. That is something that we have to critique and challenge as well. But that is not “the scientific method correcting itself.” ”

    As I said, the scientific method evolved and continues to. The basic ideas of it, however, are fairly set for a long time now. If you don’t like the concept of self correction then think of it as being constantly refined through use.

    “To say “I am not using some idiosyncratic definitions” is an extremely culturally blinded statement to make — what’s behind your statement is, “I am using the language of my community, and of course, my community is dominant, therefore it is credible.””

    You miss the intent of my statement. What I was saying is that, since we are both using English my definitions should not be a mystery to you. They are the common definitions used by English speakers, and since we are using English it should not be hard for you to figure out what I mean when I use them. In other words, I’m not using jargon but the common definitions.

    I also would point out that the scientific method is not an English only concept. It is used in virtually every culture in numerous languages, so it can’t be said to be constrained by the English language or the cultures that developed that language.

    “But that’s the thing — if you accept correspondence theory of truth as an axiom — that’s going to change the things you’re looking for, the inferences you make, and the conclusions you end up with”

    But that isn’t haphazard. The Scientific method only looks for certain things intentionally. All systems have limitations and scientists understand this as well as anyone. Within the realm that the scientific method is used to investigate it has shown itself to be the most effective method.

    “I would point out that most, if not all people, can’t keep the relationships from premises to conclusions fairly clear. Even (and especially) the people who think they can.”

    That is your assertion. I don’t feel that you have supported it convincingly. You are, in effect, doing what you are criticizing. You are presenting your premise as fact, but you haven’t shown a rational journey from that premise to your conclusion.

  17. You miss the intent of my statement. What I was saying is that, since we are both using English my definitions should not be a mystery to you. They are the common definitions used by English speakers, and since we are using English it should not be hard for you to figure out what I mean when I use them. In other words, I’m not using jargon but the common definitions.

    My point — which still stands — is that there is not one English. Even in one conversation, we can be using different forms of English. Given we are in a conversation where we are discussing epistemology, it would be irresponsible of me to assume what definition of terms you are using.

    Another point I would make is that “common definitions” (however problematic this statement already is) tend not to be rigorous by virtue of not being jargon. So if you admit to using common definitions, then not only are you accepting a lot of axioms, but you’re also conceding that you haven’t really thought much about these axioms (because the jargon arises in an attempt to address the unrigorous, problematic common discourse usages.)

    I also would point out that the scientific method is not an English only concept. It is used in virtually every culture in numerous languages, so it can’t be said to be constrained by the English language or the cultures that developed that language.

    I would point out that there is plenty of discussion on whether the scientific method is culturally bound, which has implications for research performed in different cultures, the nature of peer review across cultures, etc., etc., To assume that is the same everywhere (ideally or in practice) is naive. And yet this is often something taken for granted anyway.

    But that isn’t haphazard. The Scientific method only looks for certain things intentionally. All systems have limitations and scientists understand this as well as anyone. Within the realm that the scientific method is used to investigate it has shown itself to be the most effective method.

    but do you see how this explanation is tying conclusions to premises. “Within the realm that the scientific method is used to investigate, it has shown itself to be the most effective method.” Well, when you define the realm you’re addressing, what “effective” looks like, etc., then no duh.

    That is your assertion. I don’t feel that you have supported it convincingly. You are, in effect, doing what you are criticizing. You are presenting your premise as fact, but you haven’t shown a rational journey from that premise to your conclusion.

    To the contrary: I’m not the one trying to say we can be objective (and know when we are) or that we cleanly separate premises from conclusions (and know when we are), etc., So I don’t see how I am doing what I’m criticizing.

    To the contrary, I accept that since our premises are tied with our conclusions, and we are coming at things from different premises, then naturally, we are not going to see eye to eye on conclusions either.

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