Conversations that Change Minds
Every year during the winter term at MIT, there is a discussion series called “Reason for God” where Christian speakers give arguments supporting their faith. The events are relatively popular, particularly attracting many Christians, agnostics, and atheists. What makes it so special are the discussions between people with different beliefs about God.
However, even after discussing different beliefs with other people, there is a tendency towards confirming one’s own beliefs. Often, people come to the event with the goal of changing the minds of others. Many people leave the discussions without their deep beliefs having been seriously challenged or changed. I too have been guilty of this — coming to the event solely to intellectually convince others of my beliefs and to analytically tear down opposing worldviews. Yet if every party in a discussion just pushes for their own beliefs, would there be any significant change in anyone?
How can we facilitate meaningful dialogue between people with differing ideological beliefs? Hopefully by the end of this article we will have a better idea of how to approach this. To begin answering this question, I will argue that one cannot hold any ideological belief with complete certainty. Building off this point will establish that everyone must have faith in something, encouraging everyone to enter conversations with intellectual humility.
Next, I will explore the major factors that determine what people choose to believe. Exploring these factors has a twofold effect. First, having a self-awareness of what determines your beliefs will allow you to critically analyze yourself and better control and understand what you believe. Knowing yourself better will allow you to focus and listen for arguments that deeply appeal to you. Second, it will help you strategically appeal to other people and help them critically analyze their beliefs.
Note that, even though the context of this article is religious discussion, this article can apply to discussions of any kind. This analysis applies whenever there is ideological disagreement in general.
A Lack of Certainty
Given a bit of philosophical skepticism, one cannot be completely sure of one’s beliefs. There are a variety of reasons one may be skeptical. For instance, there might be a scientific or philosophical development in the future that provides evidence against a belief or a premise of a belief. Or it could be that the belief or premises themselves are difficult to prove or disprove. Whatever the case may be, one cannot be sure with absolute certainty that one’s beliefs are true.
This skepticism allows for a wide range of systems of ideological beliefs, or worldviews, to be potentially true. The most important concept to take from this discussion of skepticism is this: every worldview can be made to be consistent and explanatory of reality. That is, regardless of one’s worldview, one can always logically explain away everything. (If one cannot, then one’s imagination is simply not big enough.) Even if one holds a worldview that blatantly defies empirical observations, a proponent of such a worldview may simply ask, “Is what you observe true? Are your memories true?” And such skepticism cannot be proved or disproved. Thus, beliefs that we are in a simulation, or that aliens put humans on Earth, that God exists or does not exist, are all possibly true. No matter what one’s worldview is, one can continue to explain away everything in terms of one’s beliefs. Therefore, no question or argument can ever trump atheism, agnosticism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any similar system of beliefs because proponents of their beliefs will always find a way to rationalize their worldview. The same goes for ideological beliefs outside of religion as well.
For example, say that we consistently observe an apple falling to the ground. How do we explain what is happening? One explanation is that the gravity of the Earth pulls all objects towards its center, and thus the apple is simply moving towards the center. Another explanation is that the Earth (and you) are moving upwards towards the apple, until the ground hits the apple. Or perhaps there is an invisible interdimensional rubber band connecting the apple to the center of the earth, and the rubber band is stretched so that the apple becomes closer to the center of the Earth when possible. On the other hand, it could also just be aliens toying with us.
In each case, a proponent of these claims can indefinitely add explanations and clarifications to address challenges to their belief. For instance, one may reject the last explanation because one does not observe any aliens, but a proponent may respond by saying the aliens may be interdimensional and thus unobservable. The argument can continue like this indefinitely. Thus, not only is it impossible to prove any of the explanations with certainty, but it is also possible to create a framework of reason that advocates any of them.
But one may say: “obviously there is less intellectual merit in believing anything contrary to science, or any conspiracy theory that is clearly too elaborate and complicated.” I would respond by explaining that the amount of intellectual merit is beside the point in this context. The main point is to show that since no belief can be verified as true with certainty, every belief is therefore potentially true. The fact that any framework of reason can be indefinitely explained away should compel one to have intellectual humility — one that comes from asking this question: How do you know that you are not simply explaining away your beliefs to make them consistent? Another important warning is this: one should not enter a conversation attempting to disprove or convince someone else by simply bringing up counterpoints or arguments, especially concerning ideologies. In a conversation between people with mutually exclusive beliefs, not only is it possible that either belief is true, but each side can always add or clarify arguments that will nullify challenges to their beliefs.
The Four Appeals to Belief
When literally every worldview is potentially correct, how do we choose what to believe? Do we stick to believing that what we empirically observe is true? Do we adopt some institutionalized religion? Or should we believe some whacky and elaborate conspiracy theories?
There seem to be four major appeals that determine whether someone believes a claim. I derived these appeals from personal experience and numerous discussions, and they seem to be sufficient in explaining what personally attracts people to beliefs. Imagine that you are presented with a claim. These are the primary questions that you will, either consciously or subconsciously, ask to determine whether you want to accept that claim:
(1) Does it feel true to me?
(2) Does it intellectually seem true to me?
(3) Is it relevant to me?
(4) Is it simple enough to be believable?
Given this development, how could one come to a worldview that is true with certainty? Unfortunately, I do not believe it is possible. Yet despite this uncertainty, people still live their lives and confidently hold to their morals and worldview. What does this imply about people? This is the source of the common saying that everybody has faith in something. Your faith can be in science, God, your reasoning, others’ reasoning, your feelings etc. And what is faith? In this context, faith is simply taking a jump into the unknown, believing and acting upon something on which your worldview depends.
Note that faith is not just an intellectual belief, but is also manifested in our actions. We tend to only put ourselves in situations where we must depend on our object of faith. For example, if you have faith in your reason, then you will likely not believe in God until you feel that your reason to believe in God is sufficient. Or if your faith is in your abilities, then you will tend to put yourself into situations where you are confident your skills and abilities will allow you to succeed. On the contrary, if you have faith in God, you may be inclined to attempt something that you do not believe you can physically achieve, trusting that God will providentially help you. Our actions are inseparably tied to what we have faith in, and thus actions are a good indicator of our object of faith.
Everybody has their own faith — through intellectual beliefs and actions — based on what appeals to them. Analyzing what experiences and observations appeal to you and others within each of these four categories will allow you to better accept and argue meaningful points.
Examples of the Four Appeals
Let’s go through an example of these four appeals to get a better grasp of how they practically affect people. I’ll go through the typical appeals for a secular (atheist/ agnostic) viewpoint and for a Christian viewpoint.
Starting with the secular perspective, one extremely common, yet powerful appeal in the category of (1) is the empirical observation of suffering and death in the world. This observation initiates emotional reactions in people, and naturally people question “why?” To say that there is a God who is both benevolent and all-powerful can be hurtful or insulting during this emotional turmoil. Another factor under (1) is when people have their own sense of morality that they feel is correct. Christianity has moral principles with which people disagree, and more importantly people may morally object to God allowing suffering to exist. Thus, there is an appeal to reject, or at least not believe in God because of these emotional conflicts. In addition, one can also be put off if one does not trust Christians or was hurt by the Church. In short, it does not feel good to believe in God. The fact that the world seems explainable without God is a major appeal for (2). The progress of science has made believing in God look more like a crutch, and thus less appealing.
The fact that one’s practical life seems to not require God therefore makes belief in God seem unnecessary. The appeal for (3) is on a similar note. If God does not really affect one’s life, then God seems irrelevant and thus unworthy of time and effort. (3) is also the reason that skeptics are still concerned with the empirical reality. Even if there is some hidden truth that one will never experience, that truth would not be relevant. In this case, one will naturally put one’s faith in and act upon the empirical reality.
The appeals for (4) are also related to the previous categories. If everything that is relevant is explainable without God, then believing in God seems to add unnecessary complications to an already sufficient system of beliefs. (4) also plays out in practical life; whenever someone tries to explain something, many people rule out complex or conspiracy-like explanations as they are seen as having less intellectual merit.
Now for some typical appeals for Christianity. For (1), it is comforting to know that there is a benevolent and sovereign God, and that life is not meaningless and futile. It feels good to believe that God Himself sacrificed everything to save people and to have a relationship with them. Christianity also presents sin, the problem, which acknowledges one’s feelings of guilt. And then Christianity presents forgiveness, the solution, which makes one feel justified.
To many, the doctrine that God created everything out of nothing makes the most sense in explaining the existence of reality. This appeal falls under (2). When witnessing the complexity of reality through physics, biology, or simply by enjoying nature, some people can’t help but attribute that to the design of an all-knowing, all-powerful God. The doctrine and corollaries of Christianity also offer explanations and solutions to common human problems, such as selfishness, hate, relationships, humility, and so forth. This can also appeal to (2) if one sees the problems and solutions as accurate.
For point (3), perhaps one has feelings of guilt for previous actions. Perhaps the guilt comes from harming or wronging people, stealing big or little things, lying for personal benefit, or being selfish to the core. Then the existence of a moral law and ultimate judgement are suddenly concerning to that person, and then God’s saving grace becomes extremely relevant to their fate. Or perhaps one is hurting or lonely, then the promises that God offers of being with his children and giving them hope for a better future are indeed relevant to one’s wellbeing. Finally, the appeals for (4) are like that of the secularist. If one needs an explanation for the origin or existence of morality, the belief that God exists is perhaps the simplest explanation. Some people do not have the faith to not believe in God.
Although these examples may apply to some people, there are obviously more personal details and factors that I did not mention. Analyzing yourself in terms of these appeals is essential to facilitating a self-awareness that allows you to better control and know your beliefs. And in conversation, you can probe your interlocutors to see what appeals to them and directly address those appeals.
In an ideal discussion, everyone would clearly know and explain what appeals to them, and then others would directly address those appeals. Unfortunately, most discussions are not ideal. Sometimes people are not self-aware about what appeals to them and why. And even if they are, they probably do not want to tell you about their deepest, most personal influences. It can also be the case that people simply do not want to change their belief regardless of the evidence presented, for various reasons.
There is little we can do to fully rectify these non-ideal aspects. However, we can start by applying this analysis of appeals to ourselves to learn what appeals to us. Then we can communicate to our interlocutors how to best appeal to us. And in discussions we can use deductive reasoning to determine what appeals to other people. Once you determine what appeals they have in each category, and which categories they weigh more heavily, you can start addressing their appeals. Without complete knowledge, you will have to take educated shots in the dark, hoping some of your arguments will have meaningful effects. Also, be careful to not quickly assume that a particular category is important to your interlocutor just because they talk about it; perhaps another appeal means much more to them whether they know it or not. People can talk about things that do not necessarily appeal to them to avoid certain topics or appeals. In addition, one subtle yet common fallacy is to present arguments that appeal to you, but not necessarily the other parties. When developing an argument, you should determine what appeals to your interlocutor, which may be different from what appeals to you. An argument that might not be particularly meaningful to you may hit home for someone else depending on what appeals to them.
Now for a few practical tips on how to appeal in each of the categories, beginning with (1), how a belief appeals to one’s feelings. My first tip is a common saying in Christian apologetics, but is nonetheless applicable to other contexts. To appeal to (1), one should “meet emotion with emotion.” If your interlocutor expresses that certain emotions compel them to believe something, then responding with intellectual arguments may not help, or may make matters worse. For example, if a secularist was hurt by the Church, then the appropriate response would be to live out the principles of the Gospel and be a living example of what the Church represents. This seems better than simply telling the secularist that the religion of the Church is true despite the Church hurting people.
For appealing to intellect (2), nothing can replace having conversations with people. In my experience, when I present my arguments to others, I often find that I placed my interlocutor into a false logical box, making untrue assumptions about the way they think or feel. And when the interlocutor points out my false assumptions about them, I must critically re-evaluate every argument that hinged on those assumptions. But this is good; because not only does it strengthen my future arguments, but I gain a more accurate understanding of the person with whom I’m talking. People also tend to bring up interesting counterarguments and edge cases that make me reconsider my position on issues. Having discussions with people is one of the best ways to reveal where your arguments fall short, as well as learning what type of reasoning is most meaningful.
Another tip is that history is especially useful in many situations — especially in religious conversations. Knowing the relevant history of a topic is a powerful tool used to confirm or debunk arguments. Sometimes a quick history reference can expose flawed reasoning, showing that the consequences of a given cause are different than was expected. In addition, realized events in the past portray how situations play out within a given context. This information can offer insight into analyzing hypothetical situations that are used to support arguments. Try it out; history might turn out to be surprisingly useful.
Next is how to approach making a belief personally relevant (3) to your interlocutor. Clearly, we make arguments based on our own assumptions. That is, our arguments are self-convincing because they are made in our own framework of thinking. However, that same argument may not be convincing to someone else with a different framework of thinking. During a discussion, take note of the basic assumptions and mindset of your interlocutor. Then try to “translate” the argument from your framework to that of your interlocutor. In other words, put the argument completely in their terms. For example, if a Christian wants to argue for the case of morality to a secularist, then rather than appealing to “God’s Law,” they should appeal to why “moral” behavior is important to the secularist. Learning how to translate your arguments into different frameworks to make it more relevant to others is essential to successful communication.
There is also a principle that one should keep in mind when making arguments appealing to (3). The principle is this: humans are selfish. If you can argue that there is an alternative that better benefits your interlocutor, then they may be more open to changing their mind. For example, consider that a science advocate is trying to convince a US Senator to increase spending on research. Although the science advocate may believe that there is intrinsic value in research, the Senator may not necessarily think the same. And if that is the case, then a more effective way to convince the Senator would be to show how increasing spending on research practically benefits the Senator and the country. Perhaps showing evidence that China and other countries are becoming more technologically advanced than the US would be more convincing to the Senator.
Finally, for the simplicity of beliefs (4), if you are arguing that reality is more complex than your interlocutor believes, then you should show that complications are needed to better appeal to your interlocutor. Sometimes there are situations that have a hidden nuanced simplicity, where things are not as simple as they may seem. And vice versa, if you want to argue that reality is simpler, then show that their complications are unnecessary to fulfill their appeals. The key is to focus on what appeals to your interlocutor, and whether the situation is simpler or more nuanced than they perceive.
Here is an interesting historical example about how the simplicity of a claim appeals to people. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity faced decades of being ignored or disregarded by prominent scientists from the early 1920’s to the late 1950’s. Why? At the time, many scientists believed that “general relativity [was] too sophisticated a theory, exceedingly isolated from other theories, and that it [led] to too small a number of empirical predictions in comparison with the effort involved in working on it.” Several scientists even openly admitted the theoretical evidence backing the theory was strong, but they still did not find the theory worth pursuing because it was too complex for not enough reward. For example, mathematician Tullio Levi- Civita stated that:
Mechanical laws, according to Einstein’s theory, are much more complicated in conception than under the assumption of Newton. However, the motion of celestial bodies under ordinary circumstances differs so little from their Newtonian representation that, for astronomical purposes, relativistic effects may be conveniently treated as first-order perturbations.
As shown historically, even scientists and mathematicians appeal to simplicity. In this case, Einstein was proposing a new revolutionary way to think about space and time. Yet, many scientists disregarded it because they thought it was too complex for pragmatic use, and that Newtonian mechanics were simple and good enough. How did scientists eventually become convinced of the theory? Significant factors were the discoveries of phenomena like cosmic background radiation, quasars, and pulsars in the 1960s.
There are two lessons to learn from this example. First, everyone should be careful to not oversimplify reality or overlook beliefs. It is easy to say things are simple when taking facts for granted. But sometimes profound conclusions — such as in the case of general relativity — can come from contemplating certain beliefs. Secondly, note that the scientific community was convinced that relativity was worth their time only after experiments and discoveries strongly confirmed the theory. In general, using clear, practical examples showing the necessity of complications is an effective way to convince others that those complications are necessary.
And this concludes the practical tips I have to apply to conversations. Too often do conversations between people with different ideological beliefs turn out to be unfruitful. This can happen when each person comes in confidently believing that they are correct and that they can intellectually dismantle any opposing framework of thought. However, this mindset only leads to meaningless arguments and unchanged minds. I addressed this issue using skepticism to encourage intellectual humility. I then introduced the four appeals that determine how people choose what to believe. Awareness of these appeals is key to pinpointing arguments that may be meaningful to one’s interlocutor. In summary, the two primary takeaways are: to enter conversations with intellectual humility, and to keep in mind what appeals to others and yourself during discussions. I hope and pray that this article helps facilitate more meaningful conversations between people with differing beliefs.
1 I could address this point by making a stronger case for skepticism, but the complex justification and believability of the stronger case are not worth the value it adds to the rest of the article. The stronger case would basically assert that every claim has the same probability of being true, and thus every claim takes the same amount of faith to believe. The weaker case, which I assume in this article, is that no claim can be known with certainty, although it is possible that some claims are closer to the truth than others. Thus, under the weaker case, every claim takes some amount of faith to believe, but not necessarily the same amount of faith. (Hence, it takes more faith to believe a claim that has a smaller probability of being true.)
2 This means that these four appeals are not some fundamental equation, but instead are an explanation to my repeated observations, much like the scientific method.
3 I choose these examples because they clearly portray a difference in fundamental beliefs and because I am relatively familiar with these viewpoints. Also, I clump together the atheist and agnostic both for simplicity and because, as I discussed before, they both live secular lives, and that is an indicator of their objects of faith.
4 Jean Eisenstaedt, “The Low-Water Mark of General Relativity (1925-1955)”, in Einstein and the History of General Relativity, ed.Don Howard and John Stachel (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1989), 277-292.
5 Quoted in Eisenstaedt, Mark of General Relativity, 278.
6 Quoted in Eisenstaedt, Mark of General Relativity, 284.
7 David Kaiser, “Roger Babson and The Rediscovery of General Relativity”, in Kaiser, Making Theory: Producing Physics and Physicists in Postwar America (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2000), 567-595.
Ronald is a senior studying Electrical Engineering and Physics. He is from New Mexico and enjoys philosophy, theology, tennis, and video games.Tags: agnostic, Albert Einstein, apologetics, atheism, faith, guilt, history, humility, interfaith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, religion, rhetoric, suffering, theodicy, Tullio Levi- Civita