Friday, June 10, 2011

An Opinion on Opinions

Three summers ago while I was working at Camp Grow one of my fellow camp counselors asked me to listen to a song he had written and recorded. I lay on the cold carpeted floor of the meeting room in the basement of the lodge and closed my eyes and listened to the recording, and worshipped.

When the song was over, he asked a simple question: “What do you think?”

I was paralyzed. How was I to know that? What did I think? I didn’t know enough about music to be able to critique it musically. I liked the words, but I wasn’t really sure how to explain why. It was a “good” song, I guessed. But he wanted more than to be told that. So I mustered an indecisive response, and tried to defer to someone else to answer him.

Shortly thereafter, I concluded that his question—“What do you think?”—was the most difficult question that anyone could ever ask me. Even reaching that conclusion was a significant step, because it included a superlative. I shy away from superlatives for the same reason that I loathe articulating what I think: their finality intimidates me.

I identified with Julia Roberts’ character in The Runaway Bride when she sits down to a table covered with plates of eggs prepared in different ways. Roberts’ character has allowed others to define her tastes for her whole life, and realizes that she must determine for herself what she likes. She then triumphantly declares that she likes her eggs poached (or whatever it was), and hates all other kinds of eggs. I have reflected long on whether I should force myself to do a similar egg-tasting. I don’t know what kind of eggs are my favorite, for the same reason that I don’t know what kind of music I like or what is my favorite food, sport, book, author, activity, season, or movie.

Another reason I hate articulating opinions is my acute awareness of my inadequacy. “Who am I to think that I have anything to offer?” dominated my thoughts during that summer until it was a well-worn—and paralyzing—mantra. I recognized that my fixation with my perceived inadequacy was a consequence of basing my worth on my accomplishments. By the end of my first year at Taylor I had lost the ability to define myself as unique by my accomplishments. Since there were so many others who were so much better than me in everything that I did and was, I determined that “the idea that I have anything to offer is preposterous.”

My response should have been humility. Instead, I felt paralyzed by unwillingness to do anything at which I wasn’t the best. As a perfectionist who was only content as the best, I would rather not enter the fray at all when it wasn’t likely that I would end up on top. If I didn’t even try, I could content myself with the thought that I could have been the best if I had tried. But since I didn’t try, there was no way to test my self-delusional theory.

First, I based my identity on my accomplishments. When I realized that they weren’t adequate to make me unique, I became insecure. My insecurity made me I was loath to do something unless I was likely to be best at it, for fear that others would thus “find out” that I wasn’t who I wanted them to believe.

My indecisiveness was also a carry-over from my high school conclusion that the ultimate epistemic duty was not to form false beliefs. The gravity of the very real possibility of being deceived made me declare to my mom that I was unable to form any conclusion so long as there was unresolved disagreement on an issue. It took until last fall in Epistemology for me to learn that Descartes and William Clifford agreed. It is often encouraging when I find that my thoughts have been thought before me by people far more insightful and articulate. But in this case I wish they could have been better thoughts.

The problem with hyper-Cartesian epistemology is that it tries to force our experience into a theory which is unable to fully account for it. It should be the other way around: theories should be formed based on our experience. William James is right: sometimes decisions are momentous and unavoidable, so that the act of not making a decision is to make a decision.

I stood on many curbs today as I walked around Washington, DC, waiting for the crosswalk signal light to tell me it was safe to cross. I often got tired of waiting and, when there were large gaps in the traffic, considered crossing before the light changed. I had two options: to cross or not to cross. As I stood in indecision, I was deciding in favor of the latter. Several times I decided the road was clear enough to go for it, and crossed. In either case, I was making a decision, even though I did not explicitly recognize it as such.

In some ways it’s discouraging to me that I am once again reflecting on these epistemological lessons which I thought I learned through my experience three years ago, and studied formally in Epistemology last fall. I should know this by now. But I hope my repeated reflection is a good thing. The difference is that this time around I am being challenged to put these ideas into practice.

I will never know everything, and disputes on most of the things about which I care deeply will not be resolved in the course of my lifetime. Thus, my inability to counter every argument which could be made against an opinion I form is not a good reason not to form the opinion. The fact that there are intelligent people who disagree with me does not mean that I am not justified in holding that belief. My identity is based in Christ, not in my feigned superior ability to articulate arguments in defense of what I believe. My excuses have been revealed as the facades they are.

When they are blown over, a cowering me is revealed. This is the me that is loath to form a political or denominational identity. The real reason that I am loath to form and articulate explicit political or doctrinal opinions is that I am afraid. I cower because I expect that as soon as I determine whom I support, someone from the “other side” will pounce on me with arguments that threaten to pull me back into indecision.

That’s why I say that I’d much rather live in the tension on these issues. But I have become too comfortable in the tension. I’ve used it as an excuse for indecisiveness, which is an expression of immaturity. The tension into which I now need to grow is the tension of forming explicit opinions, knowing why I hold them, and being able to articulate those reasons to those who disagree. It’s a terrifying challenge, one which I still hope will simply disappear if I ignore it long enough.

But the challenge won’t go away. There is still value, of course, in my ability to see various sides to an issue. There are still secondary issues about which forming a firmly held opinion may not be a worthy pursuit. Fallibilism must still remain central to my epistemology. There is still room for a healthy distaste of labeling myself as anything but one redeemed by Christ. But none of that addresses the heart of the issue. I need to have opinions. I need to know how to answer, “What do you think?”