Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Working Through Criticism

Sometimes you meet someone who just absolutely humbles you.

Often, that's not a good feeling.

There's no one, right way to deal with criticism. We each absorb and react to it differently, and there's little we can do about it. Criticism is an attack (though not necessarily a malicious one), and our reaction to that is reflexive, often faster than we can think about it. It's natural.

In my case, I can be pretty defensive: I have a line of reasoning for most of my actions, and each reason is a wall with which I defend myself from a critical attack (heh). Although these walls allow me to be annoyingly stubborn sometimes, they're also useful since they protect me from constant self-doubt.

However, they have one great weakness: undeniable truth.

Truth shines a light on the faults in my logic, which is a good thing. However, although I know I can use that truth to help build up those metaphorical walls better and stronger than they were before, there is a span of time in which those walls have crumbled and become useless, and self-doubt creeps over the rubble in truth's wake.

Those times of self-doubt suck, but I'm always struggling to remember to not be afraid of them. They're key to self-improvement. As I said to someone today, I'd rather have someone tell my my fly is down rather than having everyone "spare" me by not letting me know.

Not all criticisms completely break down my defenses. When they do, though, rather than getting verbally defensive, I'll tend to get quiet and contemplative, which is close enough to my neutral state that people will almost never notice.

Which is kinda funny, since I often get people asking me, "Are you okay?" when I'm just in my neutral state. Is there something wrong with being quiet and contemplative? I don't think so. It's a state I'm generally comfortable in.

Anyway, criticism. Keep knocking down my walls, guys. In return, I promise to keep rebuilding them, hopefully making myself a better person.


  1. Still think your reasoning about faith rests on equivocation between different meanings that word has. So does its role in how you think knowledge is possible. That's probably something we should revisit at some point.

    Epistemology is a big interest of mine, and yours, to me, seems a mess.

    1. Is that a deduction based on this rather rambling blog post, or just your experience with me in general?

      Regardless, two notes:

      First, yeah, we definitely still disagree about the meaning of faith. I still argue that faith, in the biblical sense, is more akin to trust in something that has presented evidence of its reliability rather than trust in something completely baseless. I'm not terribly attached to the Bible, but often tests of "faith" come after witnessing a miracle of some kind. This is moreso true of the stories of Jesus and his doubting disciples than the Old Testament, with its Sodom and Gomorrah and such. Regardless, if biblical faith is supposed to be belief without evidence, then the story of Jesus is a weird way of teaching that concept.

      But if that's not faith, then that's fine. I'm faithless, then. I'm not terribly hung up on the semantics, and I'll trust your judgment in that regard.

      I'm not sure what you mean about how it affects how I think knowledge is possible, though. My belief in a deity doesn't really come up in my daily life, much less in my pursuit of knowledge.

      However, I'm willing to listen if you'd like to elaborate.

    2. Nah, this was pretty much directly in reference to the previous conversations I've had with you. I only brought it up here because you seemed to be inviting criticism and praising how it can build you up stronger. Which is a noble goal that I would recommend to everybody, though I know how hard it is. And I'd really love to raise the sanity waterline for everybody, so a little epistemology could be good for people, too.

      The point about faith was just that there WERE different definitions, and you were switching between them as if they were all the same thing. Just like that Extra Credits episode that equated science or logic with religious faith. I think this is the first time you've actually defined it for me. I may have to think about this definition, now that you've actually defined it, but from the face of it I see why you were trying to apply it in non-religious contexts. Certainly I have trust in things that have presented evidence of their reliability, though that's not something I'd call faith in the traditional sense. Add in Bayes Theorem and you have something pretty close to how I think about things.

      The reason I suggested it might be negatively affecting your epistemology was your example of the guy who needs faith so he knows he won't get struck by lightning, which seemed really silly at the time, because what seemed relevant was his knowledge of how lightning worked and things he could do to make himself safe. Even then, he wouldn't be certain he won't be struck - but he doesn't need to be. 99.99% should get him out the door, unless he has a disorder. Note how this would change if he were on a planet constantly racked by lightning storms, such that the probability of getting struck was ~50%. His faith would be unjustified. I may have to reconsider this argument in light of your new definition.

      I'm not really qualified to say what the correct biblical conception of faith should be (or why that matters), I've only been going by common uses, of which there are many distinct. But from my small knowledge of the Bible, it seemed like Thomas was denigrated for requiring actual proof of the resurrection. Jesus seems to chide him - "Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." This seems to suggest "belief without proof" is a kind of virtue, something to be commended.

      But this means that for you, faith is an attitude you get AFTER evidence. For you, faith only happens once you already have an established line of evidence. You have to admit that's a strange use, and not what people normally mean when they say it. If you've ever heard a religious person say that faith is separate from reason, or that you can't reason about God you just have to have faith, then you might be sympathetic. The phrase "leap of faith" can never mean the same thing to you as it might for someone else, if that's what the word means for you. There's no leap involved in deciding to trust something after it has demonstrated its reliability. You'd need a different word for the times you decide to trust in something without this established line of evidence - because that's what people use "faith" for normally. This at least addresses some confusion.

      Though this definition does imply that you think there's evidence for Christianity you can access without committing to its truth beforehand. I'd like to talk about that at some point, though you seemed skeptical awhile back that I'd see the evidence as genuine. I don't generally see evidence as something all that subjective - you can know things with varying degrees of certainty, and proportion your belief to your relative certainty. So I'm puzzled why you think this is both good evidence and yet not accessible to, for example, non-Christians.

    3. I don't think my definition of faith it's that odd, actually. If the common definition is, in fact, belief without or despite evidence, then why does the concept of "blind faith" exist as a distinction?

      The phrase "leap of faith" is an apt one. For me, faith goes just a little beyond what the evidence confirms--evidence is simply the rock from which you jump.

      Thomas, for instance, was a disciple who had seen Jesus work miracles and was told by his trusted friends that they had seen Him walking around after His death. I believe Thomas's words were, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and but my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

      That's certainly not faith, neither by my definition nor yours. Thomas refused to take a leap of faith at all: he wanted a solid bridge of evidence to cross the metaphorical chasm. And, although Jesus chides him a bit for it, that's exactly what Thomas receives.

      I'm not sure if this is what that was intended to convey, but I took that to mean that, even though it's a bit silly to require all the proof to just land in your lap like that, it's actually not a sin to be a skeptic.

      In any case, remind me next time I see you in person to tell you the story of why I believe in God. My "evidence" is anecdotal, though, and while it meant a lot to me, I don't think it would hold much weight for anyone else, Christian or not. I believe I've come close to telling you the story a few time, in fact, but it always got diverted in the flow of conversation.

      Though, to be clear, it's my reason for believing in a benevolent, conscious deity, not Christianity in particular. For me, once I decided that I believed in God, Christianity seemed like a pretty good starting point, since I'm fairly familiar with the mythology. Christianity's story is one of redemption, a concept I value highly. I'd like to think that, even if I was atheist, it would be a concept I would regard highly.

    4. I think "blind faith" is really just an intensifier, not a different category. Trust or confidence is one common use, and a conscious decision to believe something in the absence of evidence is another. Your definition combines them a bit, but also adds in this reliabilism clause. Your leap of faith is really more of a hop.

      Still, I remain confused about why you think the extra step is needed from the chain of evidence to the conclusion - the leap from "pretty sure" to "certain" doesn't seem necessary. You can just stay "pretty sure" and maintain an appropriate level of confidence. You aren't certain you won't be struck by lightning, but you know the probability is very low and you can take further precautions if the circumstances call for it. What I'd want in a good epistemology is not a device that turns uncertainty into certainty, but a principle that lets you hold beliefs in proportion to the available evidence.

      So you don't necessarily think Christianity is, strictly speaking, true? As in, there was a guy named Jesus, who was the son of God and came to Earth and performed all kinds of miracles and was then killed and rose from the dead? Is that account rougnly true, or do you just find the moral teachings satisfying? See, it would be strange to me to just adopt belief in all of this stuff without evidence, solely because of cultural acquaintance. Many people don't try to intellectually defend it at all, or reject the idea as possible. They're the ones who make the distinction between faith and reason I'm used to. If you don't mind elaborating at some point, I'd like to know how you treat your Christianity beliefs and how they relate to your notion of faith. Because, in my opinion, the prerequisite evidence chain for those beliefs that your definition of faith requires, isn't there.

      I agree that redemption is a valuable concept, but I think Christianity's version of it is so strange. We're meant to be redeemed for sins we never committed. And for some reason one guy's self-sacrifice was enough to forgive all the acts of mankind, as long as we psychically acknowledge it. If there was a God capable of this, why could he not just do it without temporarily killing his son? Asking rhetorically here, of course, just trying to illustrate that it looks highly weird from the outside. Catholics at least hang on to the idea of penance, though they turn it into largely meaningless gestures. Other denominations don't really bother, since a big part of the Catholic/Protestant split was whether belief in Jesus was enough to be redeemed, or if you also needed to live a good life.

      I am very interested to hear your story, but I hope you understand why I'm preemptively skeptical about anecdotes. They are essentially the sole reason accounts of ghosts and UFOs and, along with the placebo effect, alternative medicine continue to thrive. Every non-skeptic has a ghost story or UFO sighting or, more common around here, a prayer story.

      And then I also know a LOT of cognitive psychology, and one thing you learn quickly is how good our brains are at fooling us - finding patterns where they aren't any, detecting agency where there isn't any, filtering interpretation to what we're already inclined to believe. That's the reason science works - because it can remove us from the influence of our biases, when applied properly. And the thing is, knowing about them doesn't make you immune to them.

      One of the most important things for a skeptic to learn is that his experiences are not an infallible guide to reality.