Archive for August, 2008

Ever started up a conversation with a stranger with a question like that? Didn’t think so.

But if you’ve never asked this question, either silently or aloud, I’d argue that you may be on the wrong side of consciousness! From the greatest philosophers to the humblest of thinkers, this is one of the most profound and universal questions.

And one of the most difficult to answer. One reason being we often talk past each other on questions like this, by using the same words, but with varying meanings attached to them. This Babel-like exchange can be frustrating rather than productive. How many times have you heard people talk about “their truth,” in opposition to someone else’s “truth,” which vacates the term of all objective meaning and leaves us adrift in a sea of subjectivity?

Trying to answer this question will lead to profound philosophical and theological debates – which is welcome, actually, as long the terminology ground rules are spelled out and agreed upon.

So here, in an effort to enable intelligent discussion, is my humble attempt to define a few key terms that will at least get us to the threshold…

Fact – a reality known and established by objective observation. Birds fly by wing motions – this is an actual occurrence, observable, verifiable, indisputable. Something that is factual is (small “t”) true. You are delusional when you cannot recognize or acknowledge what is plainly factual.

Belief/Opinion – confidence in the reality or truthfulness of something that may not be susceptible to the rigorous proofs that establish something as objective fact. You may believe, for instance, that Joseph Smith found golden plates that directed him to found the Mormon religion. But the evidence is strictly testimonial in nature and remains disputable. You may believe that the iPhone is better than the Blackberry. Some of us may “know” it’s a fact, but…OK, well it’s an opinion!

Theory – A proposed explanation devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena. Theories are always tentative and subject to revision, as opposed to the facts themselves. Theories will be colored by first-principle perspectives. For instance, a God-denying naturalist may attempt to explain the intricacies of the human eye through a theory of evolution, while a God-affirming theist may explain the same reality via a theory of intelligent design. The eye and its workings are in the realm of objective facts; the theory of how it got there is not.

Truth (capital “t” Truth) – Universal, high-stakes, first-principle statements of reality that generally shape and color one’s beliefs and theories. The following are examples of Truth statements:

    The cosmos is all there is, was, and ever will be.
    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
    I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father, but by Me.
    There is no Truth.
    The is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.
    There are many pathways to God.
    All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
    I’m OK, you’re OK.

Major worldview collisions happen at the Truth level. Because these are first principles, upon which entire belief systems, cultures, and individual lives are built, and because competing Truth claims tend to be exclusive and incompatible (e.g., you cannot hold to the idea of a self-existent, creating, active and sovereign deity, while simultaneously holding to pure naturalism as a True explanation of existence), it is here that we find the great dividing lines which lead to the lesser disagreements about opinion and theory.

Why do I call this “high-stakes”? Because at this level, we aren’t dealing merely with right/wrong. We’re talking about Right/Wrong. Here, we touch on the meaning of life, truth and falsehood, good and evil, heaven and hell, life and death. Wars begin on these fields. This is not preference-level stuff (you like Bud Light, I prefer Sam Adams – of course, you’re entitled to your view, but even though you’re wrong, we can joke about it and move along without anything at stake).

As you can readily see, terms matter. A lot of inflammatory and unproductive discussion and argumentation occurs when people conflate opinion with fact, or belief with Truth. And much difficulty arises from a failure to recognize first-principle perspectives that shape all the particulars. Here’s an exercise for you: take a blank piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and put yourself in the center of a street, on each side of which is a demonstration/counter-demonstration regarding abortion. List out the first principles that inform what each side actually believes and says, and you’ll see why this debate can never be resolved. Hint: it’s not about gender selection or sociology or convenience or oppression or whatever. It’s about Truth. Incompatible first-principle perspectives.

So, descending from the hills of abstract thought to the trenches of here-and-now, how does all this play out in day-to-day life?

1. Facts are stubborn things. Best not to argue with them, lest you be locked up somewhere. Gravitational forces are real, they are factual, they are true; and they won’t respect your alternative opinions when you jump off a building to prove your point.

2. Theories are not facts. Scientific theories (such as naturalistic evolution or intelligent design) are attempts to explain observable phenomena through a systematic framework of possible mechanisms and explanations. Under the covers, however, they are infused with beliefs, and founded on (sometimes unacknowledged) Truth claims.

3. There is a tendency to equate “little t” truth with opinion. This is language abuse – reject it! A belief is a belief, an opinion is an opinion – don’t call it “my truth.” Truth is neither subjective, nor does it rest comfortably with a violation of the first principle of logic (a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite at the same time).

4. We can heartily debate opinions and beliefs, and do so with mutual respect and a spirit of humility. However, it is always most productive to drill down as soon as possible to first principles. For instance, if someone embraces the notion that there is no Truth (a bit of stretch, actually, since that is itself a Truth statement…), then to try to persuade him/her to embrace specific statements from, say, the Bible, will be fruitless without first coming to grips with the subjectivistic worldview that will always reject statements of truth/Truth.

5. There will never be peace in this world. Mutually exclusive, high-stakes Truth perspectives ensure this. The answer is not to reject the notion of Truth, nor is it to embrace the frightful tyranny of anarchy that will inevitably result from pure subjectivism joined to acquired power. Truth claims need to be openly aired and debated in a civil manner, without a cowardly retreat into illogic. The collision of worldviews won’t go away, and naivete and wishful thinking won’t change it.

6. The idea of Truth, and the pursuit of it, should profoundly humble us. What an honor to even be able to wrestle with such things! And to have the opportunity to learn from one another! Maybe, if we can just agree on the ground rules of discussion and the meaning of terms, we can exchange ideas more productively. Feel free to join the conversation…

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It has been amusing and enlightening to see the reaction of political liberals to the announcement of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s VP running mate.

The knee-jerk vitriol, the instant sloganeering, and the character attacks have been a marvel to see. Not that conservatives don’t do that with liberal candidates…ahem. I guess it’s all about fair balance!

What strikes me, however, is that I truly believe that many who would self-identify as “liberals,” “Democrats,” or “independent-but-hate-Republicans” really don’t understand how a conservative thinks. Why don’t those stupid conservatives see the light and grasp onto the need for “change”? How can they be so naive as to think that a hayseed like Sarah Palin is worthy of a moment’s consideration? Why don’t these people from flyover country see what is so obvious to us smart folks – that people like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, and Sarah Palin are out-of-touch fools without credentials to hold office?

In other words – what the heck is going on in the minds of these conservatives?

Well, as a public service, I’ll attempt to tell you. Warning: this post will actually be long, have a flow of logical thought, and demand intellectual rigor. So, if you’re after mere slogans and snark in order to reinforce your pre-conceived notions, feel free to hit the exit door now – there are plenty of sites out there for you. I’m going to assume that anyone who reads past this paragraph has at least a modicum of curiosity to see what the “other side” thinks, and has the capacity to engage in critical and even (egads!) philosophical thought.

First, I will give you the main thesis. The entire foundation in one sentence. Then, we’ll unwrap it so that you’ll (hopefully) better understand the thought process of a conservative mind.

By and large…

Conservatives believe in Truth.

That’s it in a nutshell. Please note that Truth is capitalized. Those with a relativistic worldview will use the language of truth, will say the words right and wrong, but when you peel away the layers, you always find that at the base, we’re talking opinion. And that, my friend, is the THE chief dividing line between those with a Truth-centered worldview (shorthand: conservatives), and those with a relativistic worldview (shorthand: liberals). (Here is a separate post with a deeper dive into the Question: What is Truth? – same warning applies!)

Let’s unpack this a bit on the philosophical level.

Every person has their set of First Principles. These are their core beliefs, chosen and developed through upbringing, culture, thought, and experience. Clearly articulated or not, admitted or denied, they are still there at the foundation, and they shape everything else.

The conservative mind tends toward first principles of objective Truth. That is, truth, reality, purpose, right and wrong, are defined outside of oneself, exist intact outside of one’s own acknowledgment of them, and that Truth/those Truths can be apprehended. And, Truth actually matters. Often, but not always, this is tied into a belief in an objective, real, and moral God who actually cares about people, the world, Truth, and Right and Wrong. In other words, there is order in the universe on every level. The deluded soul may leap off the roof of a building after deciding that the law of gravity does not apply to him, but the Truth-centered mind will not only refuse to take flight, but will try to persuade the budding flyer that a rough landing is not only possible, but inevitable.

Those of a relativistic mindset have a different set of First Principles. Those core beliefs often include such notions as human autonomy (no accountability to a knowable, self-disclosing God); a strictly naturalistic view of origins (we are here by accident, with no Creator-God personally involved); a code of right-wrong behavior through social consensus AND personal choice – all of which means an endlessly flexible and negotiable view of life, purpose, and ethics. In other words, we are self-defining, and anyone imposing a definition of Life, Truth, Purpose, and Right/Wrong is both deluded and dangerous (and generally inconvenient and even boorish!).

Start with these First Principles (acknowledged and articulated or not), and when you move up to the next level, you encounter the person’s worldview. Standing on the foundation stones of one’s view of Truth, inevitably, a certain set of lenses colors how any person now sees the world, its people, and events. That’s your worldview.

Let’s take an example – a hot one. Abortion. Those with a Truth-centered worldview may well say, “every life is created in the image of God. Every life is inherently valuable. Taking the life of an innocent child is Wrong. Compromising on this Moral issue means further compromise on other Moral issues.” In other words, the touchstone for a conservative mind is objective Truths that matter, and that don’t lose their weight due to circumstances or preferences.

Now, those with a relativistic view see it differently, because they have a different set of foundation stones of belief, and different lenses through which to view the world. “It’s a woman’s right to make her own choice. We have to look at the nuances of the circumstances. No-one can force a woman to have this child. There’s a cost-benefit analysis here, and maybe it’s best for this child not to enter the world because this life would be inconvenient or (in our opinion) sub-optimal.”

The thought-narrative is completely in opposition because the starting points are 180 degrees apart. These two sides will do endless battle because of this one word: Truth. The existence and acknowledgment (or not) of objective reality is the dividing line, and no amount of compromise, negotiation or reasoning can change it. These are two different worldviews and they cannot be reconciled.

If I had a calculator with programming that said that 2+2=4, and you had one that said 2+2=6, they’d never agree. The end result is based on the programming.

Abortion is only one of many such divisive issues. But let’s get to the core of why they are divisive. Conservatives and liberals come from very different starting points, and have radically different worldviews. If you believe that people are inherently good and evolving upward, you’ll tend to view wars in one way. If you believe that people are noble but deeply impacted by evil tendencies, you’ll see war in a very different light. Extend that to justice (including the death penalty), homosexuality, government confiscation and redistribution via taxes – all of these hot issues boil down to a worldview of objective truth vs. subjective pragmatism. You answer this question: Is there an involved God to whom we are accountable, and/or a fixed reality and set of right/wrong principles? – and all the rest will naturally follow.

So, when liberals hop up and down and denigrate a McCain/Palin ticket (and, let’s be fair – when conservatives display their revulsion at an Obama/Biden ticket), it’s really all due to the programming of our worldviews. A relativistic person sees someone like Sarah Palin, who clearly leans in the direction of a Truth-centered worldview, and she immediately becomes the enemy. On the other hand, a Truth-centered person encounters a radical-liberal-extremist-relativist like Obama, and there’s simply no way he or she will be convinced to vote for him.

When Barack Obama cops out on the abortion question by talking about how deciding on issues of when life begins is “above his pay grade” – yet then has the most extremist track record on votes encouraging abortion and even infanticide – the “relativist detector” goes off long and loud in the conservative mind. When he associates over the long haul with radicals, then repudiates them once it is costly politically, that fails the smell test. This is someone with a worldview that isn’t in accord with a Truth-centric reality. He may be a fine fellow, a powerful speaker, a family man, a credit to his people, and all that…but in the conservative mind, he’s not fit to lead. He’s heading toward, not away from, the cliff.

But a conservative looks at a Sarah Palin, or a Bobby Jindal, and sees that, despite their relative youth, these are people who are actually leading in a direction that accords with (to our minds) objective standards of right and wrong, good government, and citizen empowerment. Sure, they might not have the years of experience brokering legislative muck like a Ted Kennedy or a Joe Biden – but that’s a good thing. We want visionaries who lead, not visionaries who merely talk, or professional politicians who are bought and paid for by special interest groups.

I should, at this point, make a distinction between highly principled conservatives, as described above, and what I will call “instinctive” conservatives. Instinctive conservatives will align with much of the worldview and many of the perspectives of highly principled conservatives, but may not self-identify as seekers of capital T Truth. Nonetheless, for reasons both pragmatic and contextual, they believe that certain things are right, true, and work better, and they find their practical/philosophical comfort zone in a “conservative” grouping.

Whatever they were, the Founding Fathers were not relativists. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” When politicians give lip service to the foundational documents of the United States but do not share in the First Principles upon which it was established, the conservative mind does not view that as a healthy evolution. In and of itself, a relativistic approach to governing is to be rejected no matter what the political stripe of the candidate (including professed Republicans!). That also includes activist judges who create laws out of thin air, but that’s a separate topic (same foundational issue, however).

Here’s what you need to understand about the conservative mind: we’re looking for Truth and truth. We want proven, consistent character. We want documented performance. We want adherence to first principles and worldviews that are in accord with reality. We are not impressed with oratory, theater, and emotional pleas if the question remains unanswered: “Where’s the beef?” We don’t want mere talk about change, we want to see a track record of change in the direction of human responsibility, clear standards of right and wrong, and a lifestyle and governing approach that is consistent with the words proclaimed. Of course, many who claim to be conservative do not behave consistently. Flip-floppers whose stances change for political gain are not applauded for their savvy – they are seen as hypocrites without adherence to truth. No matter what their party affiliation.

When a conservative smells a  relativistic agenda under the surface, there is no basis for trust – that is why Democratic attempts to woo the evangelical vote by using faith-talk are doomed to fail to a large extent. It’s fake. It’s not true. Some gullible souls will bite, but the rest see the hook. No thanks, says the conservative – keep the change.

So that is my attempt to outline how a conservative mind thinks. Obviously, there are many shades and gradations, but I think I’ve touched on the core issues. Maybe you think otherwise. Feel free to add comments, or write your own blog post on the mind of a conservative (or a liberal, or a libertarian)! Because, you see, we really won’t be able to change each other’s minds on the particulars. The real action is at the foundation level – having a robust discussion of first principles. By honestly looking there and at the worldview that grows from them, then we’ll really understand each others’ minds!

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I knew I’d never win. So I did the next best thing. Lose better than everyone, and walk away with the anti-gold-medal.

Like many kids, I grew up feeling pretty inferior when it came to athletic events, and with good cause. The closing ceremonies for any Olympic career of mine occurred in the birthing room. The last kid picked for kickball on the school playground? That would be me. Scrawny. Timid. Loaded with all the confidence that comes from repeated athletic failure.

But at one event, perhaps a vicarious victory could be achieved. You see, in my hometown, we had an annual fair in October. This was a big deal. And each year, there was a frog-jumping contest. My brothers and I had a lot of room to roam in the neighborhood, with a brook and some ponds, so catching frogs was not much a challenge. But catching winners? Not so easy.

Somewhere, somehow, other kids in town would find genetically engineered amphibians that looked like they ingested as many steroids as Russian weightlifters from the 80’s. When they’d finish wiping out all competition with jumps of approximately 39 furlongs, they wouldn’t merely “ribbit,” they’d croak out, “I’ll be back…” – as in, next year, to clean your clocks again.

But some town father had the prescient notion that self-esteem might be important to preserve for the young competitors who had underperforming Kermits, so while the big cash prices went to the win-place-show beasties, the poor loser whose frog jumped the smallest distance in three hops was awarded a $5.00 Booby Prize. Ha, ha, loser. But hey…5 bucks is 5 bucks.

Searching in vain one fateful October for a gold-medal leaper, I came across only the standard garden variety frogs – those who would comfortably finish toward the back of the pack, those who were probably always picked last on the lily pads at Square Pond. Then my eyes lighted on the smallest of them all – a veritable 12-year-old Chinese gymnast of a frog, who could barely cover the width of a finger with each jump. The light went on in my young, shameless, opportunistic mind. Why try in vain to wrestle with the Sumos? Let’s lose BIG and at least have 5 smackers to waste on cotton candy and rides!

Feeling slightly nervous yet smug at the contest, my turn came to unveil this prime athlete, this once-a-year choice for townwide competition. As I placed Junior on the pad for his turn, chuckles began to ripple through the crowd. What’s with that barely visible thimble-sized amphibian, after watching the muscular leopard frogs go at it hammer and tong? But he performed true to form. His nearly undiscernable leaps undercut all others by a wide margin, and I was happily awarded the first Booby Prize fairly sought and won by a boy who knew what his chances really were. Five bucks and a fool’s gold medal were better, after all, than hopeless elimination at the hands of athletic professionals. And I’ll bet I knew which frog everybody talked about that day when they went home…

(thanks to Ann Handley for sparking this recollection)

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