Shaffer: Challenge yourself to learn

It is the peculiar nature of humans that, of all the animals, we are simultaneously the most insistent upon proclaiming our commitment to truth and the most devoted to preserving our cherished illusions.

All of us are universally raised and inculcated — by our parents, our teachers, our journalists and our society at large — into certain moral certainties. Self-proclaimed “free thinkers” love to ridicule religious believers for passively accepting beliefs and values without subjecting them to sufficient scrutiny.

This criticism is not unfounded. But “free thinkers” have also passively accepted ideas that are not their own, and have done so with insufficient examination. Every living person has unexamined ideas. To proclaim oneself a “free thinker” too hastily is to show lack of perspective and want of humility. What is true of religious politics is true of almost everything. The necessity of getting on with daily life, the pressure to fit in or be cool, the fear of crossing whomever we consider an authority, and the need to eliminate cognitive dissonance all result in our passive acceptance of ideas that lack intellectual rigor.

We each hold unexamined moral certainties. Eventually our moral certainties form a core of our identity, and our sense of self is wounded when they are questioned. Then, nothing gives us so much pleasure as the voice of someone who agrees with us, someone who reinforces our preconceived ideas and thereby strengthens our sense of self. Thus many leftists would prefer to hear Michael Moore’s thoughts on capitalism over those of an academically acclaimed but libertarian-minded economist. Thus many neo-cons enjoy Rush Limbaugh’s thoughts on foreign policy more than those of somebody who, well, actually knows something about foreign policy. You can fairly well guess people’s political leanings from their subscriptions, blogrolls or favorite newscasters. Those who like John Rawls also generally like John Keynes; fans of Robert Nozick tend to like Milton Friedman. The metaphysics of morality and the social science of economics should be distinct, but we like whoever is on our “side,” whatever the reason.

If people actually loved truth as much as they claim, this wouldn’t be the case; instead, we would listen with particular attention and respect to the smartest and most well-informed people who disagree with us. But we don’t. Love of self trumps love of truth. If we could watch ourselves broadcast the news, we would.

This is an unfortunate but universal fact of human nature. But even if the tribal tendency to fight for one’s “side” rather than to objectively pursue truth is natural, one would hope it could be overcome to some extent within Yale’s gates. One would hope that, at least for four years at a place like Yale, we could resist the temptation to sloganeer for what we already believe and, instead, find objective truths, particularly the ones that make us uncomfortable.

And we do, partially, but not nearly enough. Courses like “Four Atheist Critiques of Christian Theism” attract a disproportionate number of people who are already atheists — when, if everyone were intellectually honest, it would attract a disproportionate number of Christians. Libertarian students are more likely to flock to economics classes in which they can hear the triumph of markets proclaimed once again. Leftist students are inclined to take classes on labor movements so they can be reminded, once again, of just how bad capitalists are. When “What is Conservatism” was offered two years ago, conservative students — and few others — rapaciously descended en masse.

News columnists leap with joy when told they are right on. Languid hipsters seek classes in post-modern philosophy and literary theory that will remind them once more of just how meaningless and inauthentic it all is. We all love to be told what we already believe. We proclaim the value of open-mindedness, but it conveniently turns out that those who agree with us are the most open-minded — and they have the most sense. It’s clear that, for however much we may like to ridicule old-fashioned or Midwestern parochialism, we too are parochial, devoted to affirming our favorite illusions, afraid of a challenge to our moral certainties and the cores of our identities. Many Elis try their best not to be so, no doubt. But we as a whole are not trying hard enough.

Socrates famously proclaimed that he was just as happy to be refuted as to refute; his only interest was truth, and he would get just as much truth, if not more, from being beaten by an opponent as by beating one. None of us are quite Socrates — I certainly am not — but we should do our best to come as close as we can.

Smash your idols. Seek out the departments and professors who are most likely to disagree with your strongest moral certainties. Read the books of scholarly rigor that are the most offensive to your deepest sensibilities. Inhabit the ideas of those with whom you most vehemently disagree. Forget about winning, get refuted — it’s the only way to learn.

Socrates would be proud.

Matt Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.