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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, September 09, 2011

Conversion narratives, rational argument, and the life of the mind

One issue raised in the current debate about Joel Marks's shift ... conversion ... whatever you want to call it ... to moral error theory is the role played in argument and viewpoint-forming by autobiographical narrative. In this post, I'm not so much concerned about Marks's new metaethical position, although that substantive issue remains interesting, as in the kind of weight or trust we should accord this sort of narrative. In her post on the Marks piece over at In Living Color, Jean Kazez expresses scepticism:
...I think the genre is compelling but deceptive. The convert presents himself (or herself) as traveling from darkness into light, and the sheer drama makes us think--yes, yes, yes, that's the light! The story line of revelation is no substitute for good arguments.
In fact, this is one of many interesting observations made in the post and the resulting thread, and I may turn to others on another occasion - not so much in a spirit of disputing them (though I do in fact have difficulties with some) as in thinking that this debate created by Marks has been a rich one. In particular it has opened up questions about what some of our underlying commitments may be when we engage in philosophical analysis and argument.

For the moment, let's stick to the role of autobiographical narratives. Jean's comment expresses a rather austere scepticism about them ... which is a bit of a concern for someone like me who recently co-edited a book of essays that includes quite a large number of such narratives. Some of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief are fairly straightforward arguments or position statements, but most are, indeed, autobiographical. My own essay, "Unbelievable!", falls partly into this genre, even though it does contain some philosophical argument. Needless to say, I have operated here on the basis that such narratives are valuable, and that they do something legitimate that is enabled by their literary form.

It's true, no doubt, that they obtain a certain rhetorical power from their narrative structure and direction: the sense of conflict, as opposing ideas clash through the story; and the imaginative engagement in a journey that is partly, of course, an inward one, but is still, metaphorically, one of movement outwards into the light.

It's also true that an argument is only as good as its premises and the sort of deductive or inductive logic it displays. So how can any arguments that are embedded in these autobiographical conversion narratives thereby gain in power? If they do, surely that power is merely rhetorical - doesn't the literary form give an extra psychological force to an argument, without increasing the cogency of the argument itself? And isn't this somehow intellectually illegitimate?

Good questions. But there's a worry here. If we answer these questions affirmatively, are we thereby requesting that these narratives no longer be written and published? Perhaps we wouldn't want to ban them, since they are a natural way for people to express themselves, but we might think that they lack value for readers, who are, after all, being lured into taking arguments to be more cogent than they really are. Perhaps those of us who actually understand this issue should make a free choice to stop writing conversion narratives, editing them, trying to get them published, and so on? Or if not, why not, if they are deceptive in the way described? At the very least, perhaps we should stop reading them and letting ourselves come under the sway of their rhetorical power. Again ... if not, why not?

The concern goes further. Surely the same issues apply (even more?) to fictional conversion narratives. Once again, if we are shown a character as moving on an inward journey that is, metaphorically, one from darkness to light, this has a certain rhetorical power. The psychological force of the narrative structure may make the arguments for the character's ultimate position appear to be more cogent than they really are. Thus, readers are misled (are they not?). Once again, we might not ban such narratives, but shouldn't we stop writing/editing/publishing them if they are so misleading? At the very least, should we not stop reading them and letting ourselves come under the sway of their rhetorical power. If not, why not?

All of this might lead us to discount a great deal in the way of journalistic and philosophical writing, literary fiction, and more popular forms of fictional narrative (and note that the argument surely applies at least as strongly to plays, movies, TV programs, and so on, as to straightforward autobiographical journalism, novels, etc.). But if we do that, are we thereby giving up something of value? If so, what? After all, these narratives appear to be lending a spurious cogency to arguments that would not, otherwise, convince us.

At this point, I want to offer a suggestion. Before I do so, let me invite you to think seriously about these questions and contribute your own reactions to them. Might Jean Kazez be simply right? If so, what are the implications for the sorts of texts that we should write, edit, publish, read, take seriously, and so on? Or are there aspects that she hasn't considered and which I haven't picked up, either? Is there more to be said than what I'm going to say below?

My suggestion is that these narratives are, in fact, of great value (please don't tell me that nothing is really of great value; plenty of things are of great value to us, as long as we recognise that the "us" - and the "we" in this sentence - are, to some extent, a fiction; we can adjust to that easily enough).

It's true, of course, that an invalid argument cannot become valid simply because it is embedded in a conversion narrative. Nor can the false premises of an argument become true simply because they are embedded in such a narrative. So far, Jean is quite correct. But that does not make the use of narratives for persuasive purposes illegitimate. We are entitled to extract the embedded arguments and scrutinise them, but these narratives do more, and I think it is completely legitimate.

Often, resistance to an argument is not based on the fact that the premises are independently known to be false. Rather, it is that the premises are held to be false based on an intuitive, largely unconscious, reaction to them ... ultimately grounded in the hearer's socialisation and life experience.

Or it may be that the conclusion is held to be false on such a basis, with the result that the hearer will treat the argument as a reductio ad absurdum of its premises (even if she cannot identify which premise is false).

Again, if the argument is not deductive, there may be a resistance to it, based on an intuitive sense that it cannot be inductively cogent: e.g. it may be that its conclusion will not be accepted as the best explanation, or even as a good explanation, for facts contained in the premises ... even if the hearer can't explain why the conclusion is not a perfectly good and intellectually attractive explanation.

In short, we can and do reject arguments that may actually be quite strong - deductively or inductively - because of an ingrained prejudice against certain premises that (again) might actually be true, or else more directly against certain conclusions. These prejudices may make it futile for others to argue with us, even if their arguments are actually good ones. We may find that such prejudices prevent us from making intellectual progress.

Of course, they may be justifiable in some cases. Years of experience in certain aspects of life may have honed my intuitions in a way that makes them very reliable, even if I can't offer an analysis of how I formed them. Thus, a competent speaker of a language may have sound intuitions about its grammar, even if she cannot give good answers as to why she judges some sentences or other linguistic items to be grammatical and some not. An experienced lawyer working in a certain area of practice may be able to make intuitive judgments about the strength of a case far more quickly than she could justify them to anybody. Her intuitions may be highly reliable.

An experienced firefighter might sense that a building is about to collapse, though she has not thought it through consciously and could not, perhaps, explain exactly what factors her judgment is based on. Her experiences may have honed her intuitions to the point where they are very reliable - she is an accurate building-about-to-collapse detecting instrument.

I'm not denying that intuition can sometimes be useful and correct. If I'm ever caught in a burning building, I'll trust the intuitions of experienced firefighters, rather than demanding justification for them before I move to get out of there.

Nonetheless, intuitions can mislead. Often, things that seem obviously true to one person - God exists, there are objective moral properties, or whatever it might be - may not be obvious to others who are just as well situated, and may true at all. These intuitions have not been shaped by life experiences that make them reliable in the way that the firefighter's intuitions are reliable. Yet, I may find it very difficult to question my intuitions on these subjects - they just seem so "obviously" right. I may be resistant to what are actually deductively or inductively strong arguments.

This, I think, is where literary devices can be very useful. They can be enabling devices ... enabling us, or at least assisting us, to understand something of how the world looks to others. We can see the world, to an extent, through the eyes of someone with different intuitions; we can even gain some sense of how different intuitions from our own may be shaped, perhaps by experiences of life no less compelling than our own. If we can enter into something of the life experience of a person who is writing autobiographically, or even that of a fictional character, this can offer a check on our commitment to our own intuitions, which might be revealed as largely-unsupported prejudices.

We can, in short, get some distance from ourselves and our assumptions. We can't step out of all of them at once, but we can certainly gain some critical distance from certain of our assumptions that may be holding us back.

Indeed, we do philosophy best when we can gain some distance from our own intuitions and assumptions, even alienating ourselves from them to an extent. This is something that autobiographical and fictional narratives, with their powerful rhetorical structures, can help us do. The arguments won't actually be stronger - logically speaking - because of the way they are embedded in narratives, but the narratives can expand our imaginations and make us legitimately more open to persuasion. Thus, doubtful intutions that might be standing in the way of my acceptance of a position can be bracketed off - at least to an extent - enabling me to look at someone else's position and its supporting arguments in a new way.

For that reason, I think it's crucially important that we write such narratives, if we have the talent to do so, because we can help other people engage with the world in more imaginative, receptive ways, getting some valuable distance from their own intuitions, assumptions, and prejudices. It's also important that we read these sorts of narratives, created by others, as a way of getting some distance from our own starting points.

It's a dialectical process - to some extent we will inevitably measure these narratives against intuitions formed from our own experience (including the experience of other narratives that we've already encountered and which have helped shape us), as well against the facts obtained from ordinary observation or from science. There's no question of that, and there's always scope to approach narratives with a critical eye. But the narratives also stand as a measure of us.

In some cases, they may cast doubt on our intuitive certainties and on the processes by which they were formed. The richer and more convincing the narrative, the more it can challenge (and augment) our own experience.

And so, painfully, we make progress. Writers of conversion narratives can't be entirely trusted, but neither can anyone else, most especially our parents, our teachers, our peer groups, and ourselves. We desperately need these narratives to see the world from new angles, and we can't get by without them if we're intellectually serious. Whatever their limits as sources of knowledge, narratives, and specifically narratives of conversion to new ideas, have a legitimate role - an important, even essential role - in sustaining the life of the mind.


James Sweet said...

Before reading the second half of your post, I was going to say simply that there seems to be less here than either your or Jean seem to think they are. Certainly it is true that many specious factors in the presentation of an argument influence how receptive an audience may be to that argument. In a live debate, for instance, the better dressed participant may hold an advantage -- but we don't discourage people from dressing nicely or cast doubt on their arguments simply because they happened to be well-dressed while presenting them.

The conversion narrative may hold an unjust amount of rhetorical power, but so what? Are we supposed instead to lie about how we came to hold our beliefs, or at the very least keep that concealed if trying to make a point? That seems silly.

It seems (while, seemed) to me that there's in nothing wrong with presenting a conversion narrative, though we would be well-served to heed Jean's advice to not be swayed only because an argument is couched this way.

But you raised some interesting and provocative points in the second half of your post which I will have to think on.

Some of my reactions are colored by the fact that my journey to the political left, as well as my recognition of how institutional bias, privilege, etc. actually function in the real world, very much fit into the conversion narrative model.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, It's a wonderfully interesting question whether these narratives have a legitimate role in persuading, or just deceive. Will think more...

But I want to clarify-I didn't say these narratives are illegitimate. Tolstoy's Confession (which Marks's narrative really does call to mind) is a truly beautiful piece of literature. It is the "hook" at the beginning of my book on the good life, and I've used it in a course for many, many years. At the very least, it tells us about Tolstoy, the man, and it's worthwhile to understand people. But does the narrative provide some sort of argumentation as well, as opposed to just seducing us? Well, it could be both--some argumentation, some seduction. So watch out for the seduction!

Will have to think more about it.

Lyndon Page said...

As James points out, (almost?) no argument is devoid of the rhetorical persuasion that it is encapsulated in. We would like to think we hook up to the purely rational or deductive or even inductive part of an argument, but that is probably never the case. Understanding some of the more obvious biases that affect us does help for better discourse.

As you say, the self-narrative strategy can help us hook up to the intuitions of other people and can help us measure our own intuitions. It is also useful just from an intersubjective and friendly point of view. If we are being pulled by some strong empathetic emotions to believing in the other's argument just because of that structure alone, that could be bad. Though, essentially many of our core beliefs, and even subsequent beliefs, probably came from some kind of equally dubious method of socialization or education.

Lastly, I struggle with how much literature helps me, though I liked your analysis of it and think I hold a fairly similar view. I, after neglecting it previously, have been reading literature pretty heavily over the last two years. I question how much I am gaining of the other perspective, and likewise how much such perspectives help me see the world. I feel like philosophy (broadly construed) and science and psychology still is more useful in helping me understand both my own and other's intuitions and worldviews. That does not mean I am going to stop reading literature, but I may back off to a certain extent to concentrate on other areas- after I get done with Proust, which will admittedly take a while.

Lyndon Page said...


This is Rorty's take on searching for a "redemptive" and critical analysis of ones self, and how literature and philosophy can help us achieve a better understanding about what to do with our lives. I think it is a good take, even if there are some things that make me scratch my head.


. . . "As Heidegger emphasized, to achieve authenticity in this sense is not necessarily to reject one’s past. It may instead be a matter of reinterpreting that past so as to make it more suitable for one’s own purposes. What matters is to have seen one or more alternatives to the purposes that most people take for granted, and to have chosen among these alternatives—thereby, in some measure, creating yourself. As Harold Bloom has recently reminded us, the point of reading a great many books is to become aware of a great number of alternative purposes, and the point of that is to become an autonomous self. Autonomy, in this un-Kantian and distinctively Bloomian sense, is pretty much the same thing as Heideggerian authenticity.

I shall define an intellectual as someone who yearns for Bloomian autonomy, and is lucky enough to have the money and leisure to do something about it: to visit different churches or gurus, go to different theatres or museums, and, above all, to read a lot of different books. Most human beings, even those who have the requisite money and leisure, are not intellectuals. If they read books it is not because they seek redemption but either because they wish to be entertained or distracted, or because they want to become better able to carry out some antecedent purpose. They do not read books to find out what purposes to have. The intellectuals do." . . .

Sean (quantheory) said...

I sometimes think of competing worldviews as engaged in a Red Queen race. Each one develops new arguments to try to infect the other, and new defenses to act as an immune system against criticism. While on an individual level we can try to avoid making flawed arguments, in order to be effective you have to be aware of what is out there, and what irrational arguments have been incorporated into each side's arsenal.

I think that it is a legitimate tactic to use a narrative that antagonizes some other, irrational or inaccurate narrative.

For example, a positive conversion experience would not be a good argument for an idea by itself. But if the other person already rejects the idea, and that rejection is due to fear of a devastatingly negative conversion experience, than seeing the idea through the eyes of someone who didn't have a bad experience might block out that knee-jerk fearful reaction.

The irrational argument from conversion, that an idea is true because people who believe it are happy, is not being made. Very few people are likely to be immediately persuaded that error theory is correct. But the presence of the narrative inhibits the opposing irrational argument, that error theory is wrong because it generates nihilist despair.

I do think that conversion stories cross a line, however, when implausible or false stories are presented as being plausible or true. Some popular Christian apologists have two "versions" of their conversion stories (Lee Strobel comes to mind). Around atheists, they claim to have been skeptics who calmly examined the evidence for Christianity and were convinced through primarily intellectual realizations. Around Christians, they claim to have been morally adrift and emotionally unstable individuals who, at a particularly difficult time in their lives, called out to God, and were rewarded with a sense of purpose, moral clarity, and/or stability. At least one of these stories must be false or misleading in important ways, and so the honesty of the speaker comes into question.

I abhor this almost as much in fiction, although it's more a matter of poor writing in that case than dishonesty. A character in a pre-industrial society who independently re-invents modern quasi-Randian libertarianism, purely in order to become the author's mouthpiece for a long rant about the evils of the (not yet invented) welfare state, is simply not believable. It's a sign of incompetence in both storytelling and critical thinking.

Russell Blackford said...

Jean - yes, quite right. I didn't mean to say you described these narratives as illegitimate. Still, your comment does seem to me to raise that issue, or at least the issue of just what legitimacy they have.

And that in turn opens up large and complex questions about the relationship between our life experiences and what we get from literature and art, the relationship, in turn, between art and criticism, and so on. And as some are saying on this thread, when we should be open to the power of narrative and when there is good reason to be suspicious of it and resistant to it.

I'm all for the idea that we should immerse ourselves as far as we can in the canons of great literature, but what about popular narrative forms where the seriousness of the work - its ambition and quality as it engages with life - can vary enormously? What about the pornography debate: what about commercial pornography (which, I suppose, has its own varied levels) as opposed to the varied treatment of sex in ordinary forms of literary or popular narrative, as opposed, perhaps, to great works of erotica? And so on...

How do we know when it is appropriate to take a critical, even sceptical or hostile, stance, and when to be open to the experiences offered by literature and art? Presumably we want the best narratives to be true to human experience in some sense, while also challenging our prejudices in some sense. Does that sound right?

Generally, I think we do develop a capacity to navigate all this flexibly and effectively, and we are capable of having rich conversations about texts, narratives, and art works. But it's still fascinating to try to sort it all out at a theoretical level. And as always the "we" in this paragraph may be a fiction. Most educated adults in Western societies develop that capacity to some considerable extent, I hope, but a lot of other people may not. After all, many people will tell you, with no great expression of shame, that they have never read a novel.

Richard Wein said...

Very interesting, Russell.

I think that making a good inference to the best explanation involves putting ourselves in the shoes of someone who holds each position, as far as possible. If we've already shifted from one position to the other we've had experience of holding both points of view. If we've never held the opposing position then it might be difficult to see the question from that viewpoint, especially with the kind of conceptually difficult questions that philosophers tend to deal in. Reading about someone else's conversion experience may help a little with this process. At the least it may motivate us to take the position seriously and not to dismiss it out of hand.

If a conversion narrative (or fiction) can be seen as supplying a non-rational bias in favour of the position, perhaps that can help to balance out a reader's current bias in the opposite direction.

In Marks's case there was at least one other purpose, namely to reassure the reader that adopting his position need not have much effect on one's life. His narrative can be seen as anecdotal evidence in support of this case. One person's experience is at least _some_ evidence, even if it's not much.