Transcendental Education

…still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.

One reason I posted the Butterfield speech was her emphasis on the quest for knowledge. “If truth-claims, the scholarly evidence that supports them, and the opportunity to engage in meaningful and testy debate with those who think differently than you do are burning in your heart and mind,” she says to incoming grad students, “then you are in the right place and I have only one thing to say to you: welcome home.” I love this idea, partly because I owe many of my friendships to a mutual enjoyment of “meaningful and testy debate.”

However, the debate often stalls as worldviews clash. Not that we can’t keep talking, but that we start to run up against what Butterfield calls the categories that raise our Big Questions. I can see the same information as you, but interpret it differently and come up with different answers and different ‘truth.’ We’re like the boxer in the Simon & Garfunkel song, hearing only what we want to hear and disregarding the rest. In every worldview, there’s this confirmation bias. It’s why a kid on drugs who doesn’t think he can trust authority figures feels like his only allies are his drug dealer friends, when his parents, teachers and the police might all be trying to look out for his long-term interests. His ideas about authority are greatly mistaken, but he could point to restrictions, punishments and fines to prove that the authorities in his life just can’t be trusted.

So it’s problems everywhere we turn. How do we get out of the loop of thinking as we’ve always thought? How can we know if we’re thinking true thoughts? How do we evaluate our own experiences and those of the people we interact with?

Hopefully we’ll spend more time on these questions later, but what’s clear already, I hope, is that information-based education cannot be the key to examining truth-claims because ‘Ignorance’ is not the banner over the door to be unlocked. We hear what we want to hear, which is to say that the kid in the above example need not disbelieve that the authorities have his best interests at heart, but that they’re mistaken; the drug really is better. What he wants, in this case the high, taints all the information coming his way. So it goes with incorrect and sinful views of God, people, art, politics, the economy, and everything else. Unless we can see past our own categories, we’re as misguided as the addict–perhaps with lesser repercussions, but perhaps not.

The gospel is good news about Jesus’ work and his plans, so there is a sense in which hearing, learning and applying (thus, education) is quintessentially important. But this is no ordinary education, it’s an education that transcends:

…what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed, and one taste may be made to give way to another and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind…But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. The heart’s desire for an ultimate object may be conquered, but its desire to have SOME object is unconquerable. The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is through the expulsive power of a new one. It is therefore only when admitted into the number of God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ that the spirit of adoption is poured out on us — it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great, predominate, and supreme affection is delivered from the tyranny of all its former desires and the only way that deliverance is possible. Therefore, it is not enough to hold out to your people the mirror of their own imperfections. It is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of the effanecent character of their enjoyments, or to speak to their consciences of their follies. Rather, make every legitimate method of finding access to their hearts for the love of him who is greater than the world. (Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection).


4 thoughts on “Transcendental Education

  1. You wrote:

    “What he wants, in this case the high, taints all the information coming his way. So it goes with incorrect and sinful views of God, people, art, politics, the economy, and everything else. Unless we can see past our own categories, we’re as misguided as the addict–perhaps with lesser repercussions, but perhaps not.”

    I’m sure you’ve addressed this somewhere on this blog, but if you are a religious person, would your ‘truth seeking’ be just as tainted as the druggie kid? If you are religious, your confirmation bias will lead you to seek and fall back on answers that agree with your own viewpoint already? Would going to seminary really be the best place to test your assumptions? Wouldn’t going to a grad school by that atheist professor that you mention elsewhere in your blog be a true test of Truth seeking?

  2. Howdy, dictionopolis, thanks for the comment.

    Greek and Hebrew finals are monopolizing my time until Monday, but I’ll fly home on Tuesday and should have time to get to writing you a proper response then. Your questions are the ones I was hoping to raise, but I ran out of blogging steam before I finished the ‘Transcendental Education’ post series.

    In the meantime, let me restate your questions to makes sure I understand what you’re getting at. Correct me if I’ve missed something. You seem to be asking two things: 1) can we truly evaluate our experiences/beliefs as human beings (that is, can we escape our own confirmation bias)? and 2) if we can, is not the best way to evaluate those experiences/beliefs by scrutinizing them against the backdrop of opposition?

    I think we can’t get to the second question until we’ve answered the first. For example, were I to have studied under Dawkins at Oxford before he retired and found my beliefs inadequate and become an atheist, what would that tell us? Would that mean that atheism was true? The new me would certainly think so, but we could sit here all day thinking of bad reasons for converting to any new belief system (nice people, attractive traditions, coolness factor, sense of belonging, and on and on). So to avoid all those possible errors (errors, at least, if you’re concerned for arriving at the truth. There is, no doubt, a certain comfort in everything I’ve just listed), we’ve got to first answer question one: is it possible to see clearly? That’s what I’ll try to get to sometime post-Tuesday next week.

    In case you’re not interested in waiting that long, this article is a great example of where I’ll be going in my argument and how I’ll try to get there:

    Feel free to interact with any of this in the meantime. Till then.

  3. Also, because it’s a question we’ve all got to deal with, I’d be interested in your take on what I’ve called ‘question one’ above: how do you avoid confirmation bias? or put differently, how do you know your beliefs are true beliefs? No reason for me to be blogger and you to be blogee. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Response to dictionopolis | Of Mirrors and Metaphors

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