“One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.”
-John Locke (at least according to here)
It may be that not everyone always considers the truth to be important. But even when it is considered important, and one is perhaps even passionate about it, this may take two main forms that are exact opposites of each other. I will give them names here: In the investigative approach, one aims to find out the real truth no matter what. In the preserving approach, one tries to protect the already established truth by any means necessary.
Modern science, or at least its ideal, is one of the purest examples of the investigative approach. All ideas are constantly tested against reality. Experience has taught us — though it took a very long time for us to catch on — that people can become convinced of virtually any belief, and imagine seeing proof of it when looking at the world through the lens of their expectations. That is why claims need to be proven very thoroughly before they may be believed. Experiments should be designed so that there specifically is a chance for them to disprove the idea tested, since it’s all too easy to convince oneself that one has proven something to be correct. In addition, no single study is sufficient proof for an idea in science; it takes several similar results to prove it. Scientists have also noticed how much factors other than the one being studied can affect the results of experiments. That’s why, for example, medical experiments should always use at least two groups of patients; both are treated the same way in other ways, but one group gets the actual treatment being studied and the other only a placebo. If there is some difference between these, it is thought to be because of the treatment itself.
So this is the investigative approach. One believes no idea before one has tested whether reality really matches it. On the other hand, one believes anything that reality gives clear evidence of. That’s why the scientific community has accepted such ideas as evolution, which once caused theological terror, or ones such as relativity and quantum mechanics that go against our normal ways of thinking. The central idea is this: be ready to question any idea that seemed to be true, no matter how obvious it appears to be; but also be ready to accept any idea that has been proven, no matter how absurd or otherwise unpleasant it may sound. What one happens to believe right now must have no effect on what one aims to believe. The sole aim is to reach the truth.
The preserving approach, on the other hand, appears in the real world perhaps most clearly in “dangerous cults” and (religious?) fundamentalism. Perhaps the best illustration about its nature is that American fundamentalist Christianity, which is supposed to be based on the Bible and original Christian ideas, was to my knowledge originally born as a backlash against the study and interpretation of the Bible, against efforts to find out what the authors of the Bible had in their time really meant. Admittedly, this apparently included the element of people wanting to be able to understand the contents of the Bible merely by reading it, and reacting against exotic-seeming interpretations. The thought is still absurd: the proponents of “tradition” and “original meaning”, who believed the Bible to be an important source for various matters of importance, were rebelling against someone finding out what it had really originally meant by what it said. In other words, they didn’t want to know that which according to their own beliefs was the most important thing to believe and know. On the other hand, the motive also looks clear. If one source is so important, and must be followed precisely, it would be extremely inconvenient and even terrifying if one could not be certain of what it says. The investigative approach offers no absolute certainly, because while applying it one can never claim that it’s no longer possible that they are mistaken. The need to believe in one’s own certainty leads naturally to the preserving approach.
Another motive for adopting the preserving approach is control and power. In descriptions of authoritarian communities that are often called cults, destructive cults or dangerous cults, this motive comes out clearly, though it need not be the only one in those cases either. It’s not so important what people believe as that no-one question the leaders of the community. Troublesome dissenting voices need to be silenced, and efforts to control members’ thinking are applied to this end.
There’s not really any doubt that the investigative approach leads us towards the truth by giving entirely new knowledge and by overturning old incorrect beliefs, whereas a predominantly preserving approach quickly leads to distorting and belittling the actual truth, and to outright lies. Both may can based on a desire to believe only that which is true, but the preserving approach is too enclosed and, well, cowardly to reach this goal. Ignorance also leads to intolerance when people are not willing to examine their own assumptions, which may condemn other people entirely without good reason. As such, evidence-based science has given us vast amounts of surprising, fascinating and useful knowledge about the world around us and ourselves, and, for example, many medicines and treatments (and weapons…) that really work, and at the same time proven wrong countless incorrect and even harmful beliefs. Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, produces endless amounts of intolerance, irrational “moral” demands, and, for example, a vast propaganda machine aimed at making people believe that the idea of evolution, which in truth is the basis of all modern biology and proven extremely well and in many different ways, is “only a theory” and “in crisis”. At the same time, fundamentalists are often unable to even tell relatively recent tradition from ancient, believing all they accept to be the latter.
Even though the “ideal versions” each of science and religious fundamentalism are good examples of these ways of thinking in their extreme forms, they appear in more or less milder forms everywhere in human thinking. People apparently on the same time in their beliefs may be may stand on different sides of this division, and those who disagree may be mirror images of each other. An atheist or (in that sense not a very good) scientist may defend their position with a fundamentalist closed-mindedness, whereas a given religious believer may see faith and following God’s will as a constant process of learning and growth. These approaches also appear elsewhere besides science and religion. Politics is one example where one can see examples of the enclosedness and distorting of truth that is associated with the preserving approach; indeed, the most definitive portrayal of the preserving approach is Orwell’s 1984, in which it is associated with political dictatorship.
In milder forms, both the investigative and the preserving approach are crucial and unavoidable parts of our thinking. We apply the first whenever we alter our beliefs based on any kind of evidence, and the latter whenever we don’t immediately alter our beliefs based on apparently contradictory evidence. It’s not like every belief should always be altered immediately, and besides, any all such situations involve multiple possible beliefs among which one needs to find just the right one to alter. For example, if you remember putting your key in your pocket, but don’t immediately feel it when you put a hand in the pocket, it’s reasonable to grope around a bit more rather than immediately deciding there is no key in there after all. In such a case, applying the preserving approach is really just a part of applying the investigative approach; you would naturally be going too far in the case that you went through your pocket thoroughly and didn’t find anything but still believed the key to be in there. One must be ready to alter any one belief if the evidence so demands rather than defining a particular one as sacred.
One ironic thing about these approaches is that people notice them, but one rarely notices they themselves are applying the preserving approach — and the easiest way to keep from noticing that is to see others as having fallen victim to it. If someone just will not believe your point of view no matter what, it may be because the other person has an internal motivation not to alter their beliefs, or because your arguments could only convince someone who’s already motivated to believe as you do, or (not rarely, it seems) for both reasons at the same time. But in all cases it’s easy for you to get the impression that the other is refusing to accept your good reasons because that person is closing their eyes to everything that could force them to rethink their old beliefs. The same applies on group level: creationists claim that the defenders of evolution are motivated by things such as the culture of the scientific community spreading untrue beliefs and defending them contrary to the evidence; in other words, of exactly what applies to the creationists themselves. And since people are always producing “information” supporting their own side, there are bound to be people on each side of any such debate who are merely repeating what they have heard, not having reached their conclusions based on anything better than their counterparts on the opposite side did. In addition, as said above, there will automatically be on both sides of almost any debate people who apply the preserving approach too much, which means that the opposite side’s observations of such behaviour may be partly correct even when the belief held by the group being observed is in fact objectively supported by evidence.
In sum, the investigative approach is aimed entirely at adapting beliefs to reality, whereas the idea behind the preserving approach is essentially that reality must conform to certain beliefs. It follows from the very nature of beliefs that the first of these is right. The other is not really aiming for the truth, only an illusionary certainty, an end to all questioning and the need to think.
- Orwell, George: 1984. As I said above, the definitive description of the preserving approach.
- Pratchett, Terry: Small Gods. Also a very good depiction of (religious) fundamentalism. Even though this book is comedic fantasy, few others of a more prestigious-sounding genre classification are as deep or have as much to say about real life.
- Stewart, Ian and Cohen, Jack: Heaven. Another illuminating depiction of religious fundamentalism, this one in the form of science fiction.
- Ernst, Edzard and Singh, Simon: Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. While going through evidence regarding the true effectiveness of alternative medicine, this book simultaneously introduces the basis of and reasons for evidence-based medicine. This is analogical to the evidence-based approach of other sciences and a very good example of the investigative approach.
- Armstrong, Karen: The Battle for God. Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Should be self-explanatory. My source for the claim about the origin of Christian fundamentalism, though I did not have this book at hand to check it up.
- Kuhn, Thomas: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In terms of the distinction made here, Kuhn’s classic work can be seen as being largely about how the preserving approach to knowledge is unavoidable in science as well (paradigms and normal science), yet is still not dominant (anomalies and revolutions). I have the impression that the book’s message has also been interpreted as being that science is not in fact at all a matter of the investigative approach, but this doesn’t appear to be correct at all. The book is actually just pointing out that the process is less straightforward and unambiguous than previously assumed.
Information about “Dangerous Cults” on the Internet
- Cult Information Centre. (I am not guaranteeing that any particular group mentioned on such websites is really a “cult” in the sense given. This is a term that could easily be abused in certain cases.)
- Cult Awareness and Information Library.
- Operation Clambake — The Inner Secrets of Scientology. The Church of Scientology would appear to be a pretty clear example of a cult, especially if this site is to be believed at all.
- (Finnish.) Uskontojen uhrien tuki UUT ry.
- The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Many writings here have something to do with one or both of the ways of thinking and/or the difference between them. See for example: “Science”, “Control Group Study”, “Pseudoscience”, “Cult”.
- TalkOrigins. Endless amounts of information about the debates between the defenders and opponents of evolution (from the point of view of the proponents). A good place to compare scientific evidence and the opposition’s information cancer.
On This Blog
- Information Cancer
- Clingy Hypotheses
- Man as the Measure of All Things?
- Two Kinds of Morality… Actually, Just One (The topic here is different, but it involves a similar and closely related opposition between curling up on oneself and respecting reality.)
- Science is not based on faith in human reason