Changing People’s Minds

blaise pascal persuade

I came across this article about Blaise Pascal’s persuasion “trick” a few months ago and loved it. (The title is a bit click-baity, but the principle is sound.) Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian. (Check out his wiki here.) An impressive fellow, to say the least.

I won’t try to summarize the article, but if you enjoy engaging in lively discussions about important things with people who disagree with you (and actually hope to persuade), then this is worth a read! exists to help people learn how to communicate with each other about religion, politics, etc. without resorting to emotional outbursts, alienation and violence. This essay about Pascal exemplifies this spirit. You may also be interested in reading about Pascal’s famous argument for belief in God: Pascal’s Wager. For an easy primer, go here. For a more challenging and detailed discussion, go here.


Dealing with Dissonance

psycho dissonanceWho can forget the menacingly repetitive theme from the film “Psycho.” Sonic dissonance creating tension and setting our teeth on edge. Extreme dissonance is useful for horror films and car horns, but it’s not the sort of thing you can listen to for long. Ideas can be dissonant as well. Ideas or thoughts in the mind that contradict or conflict in some way can cause mental and psychological irritation. We want to press ‘mute’ on them, as we do with disturbing music.

fight even matchA frequent cause of this cognitive dissonance is disagreement with others—especially someone we consider to be an intellectual peer. A person is my ‘intellectual peer,’ roughly, when they are just as smart as me and have the same information I have. The other day, I read a story about a well-known atheist blogger who would be considered an intellectual peer by most atheists. The story explained how this blogger had recently converted from atheism to Christian theism.  I’ve encountered stories like hers before, including my own, and when I talk to my atheist friends about these stories, they typically insist that the conversion must be due to some failure of reason. Why insist this? Often, it is a way to “mute” the cognitive dissonance that arises when you are faced with the following two ideas:

  • There are no good reasons to believe in God.
  • Fiona is an intellectual peer who believes in God for good reasons.

Understand, though, that this problem plagues humans indiscriminately. Religious believers as well as atheists are susceptible. We can generalize it to apply to anyone:

(1*)  There are no good reasons to believe X.

(2*)  Tom is an intellectual peer who believes X for good reasons.

“X” can be Christian theism, or atheism, or flat-earth theory. The point being that these two incompatible thoughts grate against each other like nails on a chalkboard in our mind. We need to resolve the tension, so what do we do? We can revise (2*) and simply “downgrade” the other person, saying to ourselves, thinking hard“they just aren’t as smart or well-informed as I am.” This can alleviate the cognitive dissonance. But if we had trusted them as an intellectual peer in the past, it isn’t reasonable to downgrade them simply because they now disagree with you. After all, if you are peers (as you had every reason to believe), then you’re just as likely to get things wrong as they are. To downgrade due to disagreement is intellectual hubris.

Instead, consider withholding on or revising (1*). A more reasonable and stable position to hold would be

(1**) I have no good reasons to believe X.

Consider that there may be good reasons to believe X that you don’t know about. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your own worldview—it simply means you investigate further. You can justifiably maintain your theism or atheism (or agnosticism) and take some time to look into the reasons given for the person’s conversion. But one must be prepared to adjust one’s beliefs depending on the outcome of that investigation.

music composition

Cognitive dissonance is, ultimately, an inescapable part of being human. Instead of trying to instantly quash its unpleasantness, recognize it as a friend that pushes us toward the truth and keeps us from becoming intellectually stagnant. We should learn to appreciate it just as we appreciate musical dissonance (not necessarily the “Psycho” variety) and its capacity to create movement and beauty by elevating tension and releasing it into a (more) harmonious conclusion. When we respond patiently and thoughtfully to dissonance, we improve our ability to resolve it into something constructive and beautiful.

Cromwell’s Rule

CromwellI beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

~Oliver Cromwell, in a letter to the Synod of Scotland

I remember the day I first learned to ask a crucial question during a conversational argument. Locked in a fervent discussion about religion, my interlocutor and I had logged hours of circling around the same issues. I despaired of making any headway. Then it dawned on me—the question! It was this: “Do you think it is possible that you’re wrong?” He answered “no,” and I politely ended the conversation.

Of course, I’ve put the same question to myself: “Is it possible that I’m wrong on this issue?” And I have to say, “yes.” Doesn’t this seem reasonable? After all, the evidence of my fallibility grows daily. I think this assumption, that one could be wrong, is crucial to any productive argument. The only exception being an argument about the fact of my own current existence—if I’m wrong about that one, then all (my) bets are off. Literally.

Cromwell’s Rule

Dennis Lindley (1923-2013), a British statistician, coined the term “Cromwell’s Rule” regarding this crucial assumption. Lindley was concerned about formally calculating probabilities rather than persuasive argument, but his “rule” helps make a good point. You should never assume (unless something is true by definition, like “2+2=4” or “all unmarried men are bachelors”) that something is impossible (or necessarily true), because it renders you practically immune to new evidence to the contrary. Rather, you should leave a little epistemic space for even extremely unlikely scenarios

Doctor WhoHere’s an illustration. In an episode of the popular sci-fi TV show Doctor Who (“Midnight”), a group of tourists travel via ground shuttle to visit the famed emerald waterfalls of the planet Midnight. When the shuttle stalls and knocking sounds are heard on the hull, a scientist on board (Hobbes) tries to reassure them that no living thing could be knocking on the hull because no living thing could survive the lethal “galvanic radiation” that bathes the planet’s surface. As the evidence mounts that the shuttle is under attack by an intelligent being, the scientist simply cannot bring himself to even admit this possibility, despite its being obvious to everyone else aboard. Hobbes remains trapped in his fundamental assumption about life on Midnight, unable to assimilate even the evidence of his own eyes and ears.

Sandy Heads

Religious skeptics, believers and political pundits often fall prey to this same mistake. We could call it intellectual pride, hubris, or plain old stubbornness. Utterly convinced of our position, we blockade ourselves against new evidence like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the stand. Even if it turns out that our belief is true in this instance, the habit of ignoring Cromwell’s Rule makes us vulnerable to error in the future. Good thinking and arguing, for those who are genuine truth-seekers, must include some openness to our own fallibility.