Saturday, 2 July 2011

Dogma and the socratic method.

When I was but a whelp in high school, I had a fantastic teacher in one of my history classes. He was the one who first brought to my attention the Socratic method. He asked for a volunteer to help him demonstrate how it was used, and I, brash and cocky, raised my hand. The questions he posed were about bravery, and stupidity, and the thin line between the two. Every question I answered, he'd turn right around into my face, making it look like my answer was silly, or nonsensical, or contradictory to something I'd said earlier.

Bring in my mid-teens at the time, of course, I was upset at being made to look foolish in front of my friends, but I've never had much of an ability to be embarrassed, so that wore off quickly. And as it did, I thought more and more about the things he'd said, and how he'd forced me to take a concept I thought I'd had totally in hand and really, deeply think about it, in a way I never had before. I worked on those bravery vs stupidity questions for months, working them over in my head, trying to come up with definitions that seemed to me to have the least number of logical flaws.

What I didn't realize at the time, of course, was that I had taken the method and begun applying it to myself, holding debates in my head, playing devil's advocate, working through the flaws in my thinking and learning to truly understand the things I was thinking about rather than just knowing them.

For that teacher, it was probably no more than perfectly normal day. He's probably used that demonstration dozens or hundreds of times, before and since. But if there was one teacher in time in school that I'd like to go back and thank, it'd be him, for that moment, for giving me the method I needed to learn to think critically instead of just parroting information.

All of this relates very deeply with the concept of dogma, to me. In my debates with theists, I use the Socratic method constantly, throwing question after question at them, hoping that as we go around and around they'll take a moment, stop, and think about it. That they'll learn see the contradictions they're espousing, the logical errors, the circular arguments, just as I did all those years ago.

But it never seems to happen.

Why? If you know me, you know the answer to that: dogma. That an idea is incontrovertible. Beyond question, beyond reproach. Once an idea becomes beyond question in someone's mind, it halts all progress. The idea can no longer evolve. It doesn't matter if it's a good idea or a bad idea; the concept of evolution shouldn't be dogmatic in someone's mind anymore than the idea of god should.

It feels like trying to hammer a wall down with a toothpick. An idea that's surrounded by a thick barricade of dogma is and idea that the Socratic method can't reach. It's an idea that, no matter the evidence, no matter the contradictions or the awful logic or anything else, cannot change.

I've seen believers who claim to have the 'truth', and call themselves critical thinkers. This is a contradiction. If you hold an idea - any idea, any at all - to be incontrovertible, unquestionable, then you cannot think critically about it. If you are unwilling to see the flaws in your idea, then you are incapable of reconsidering or abandoning the idea when those flaws are exposed, and you will wind up going in circles, ignoring valid points, and struggling to invent absurd arguments to show that your idea has no flaws, no matter how obvious these are.

In short: Dogmatic belief and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. Guess which one I think needs to go?

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