Tag Archives: myths

The Myth of Neutrality, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I posed the question: is it really possible to be neutral on subjects like religion, politics & belief?  In that post, I briefly discussed the odd paradox that we endure daily as a result of the influence that relativism and logical positivism have had on our culture.  All belief is rendered equally true or equally meaningless by the ‘absolute’ of "’no absolutes” in relativism.  Yet, at the same time, claiming the backing of science is still one of the ultimate trump cards that can be played in any metaphysical, philosophical or political debate.

I think special attention needs to be paid to the desire we have to appear ‘objective by being neutral’ on contentious issues.  There is an underlying fear: if we admit to having any sort of bias or opinion, that somehow undermines our credibility and brings any contribution we make to the debate under suspicion.  The flipside is that we are expected to trust “neutral” voices without question.  Questioning those who claim to be neutral is more often met by name-calling (or some sort of political categorizing) as opposed to honest answers.  How did we arrive at a place where having an opinion and belief on a given topic disqualifies you from participating in a debate on that topic?  If neutrality were truly possible, how could two parties debate an issue on which neither of them held convictions?  There’s no real answer to either question – because neutrality in these contexts is a myth.

Today’s “notion” of neutrality is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment’s idea of the “state of nature” – the concept of what humanity was before (and would be like outside of) the existence of the state.  Many philosophers during that time period (like Jean-Jacques Rousseau) believed that man was neither good nor bad in this state, but that civilization causes humanity’s ills and vices.  The modernized version of this is that religion (or partisanship, or intolerance…{or insert belief system here}) has caused innumerable deaths through war and persecution, and that its influence should be marginalized continually until it’s altogether eliminated.  So, the postmodern ‘idyllic neutrality’ is a person devoid of religious conviction, since such convictions would make “objective” thought impossible.  This logic, however appealing to our post-modern minds, is flawed.

All action is driven by belief.  That belief may be in science, God, yourself or your political party leader.  You may believe something because someone told you, or because you examined the evidence firsthand.  You may believe that belief doesn’t matter – nonetheless it’s still a belief.  As my friend Steve Betz recently said, “There is a great line in the book (and film) "Contact" in which the religious counselor to the President asks Ellie the scientist "Did you father love you?" "Of course" she answers. "Prove it" — and she is left speechless.”

What about the arguments we hear around us today?  Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, for example.  The idea that the universe can be explained apart from the existence of some force or entity that exists outside of it is a philosophical stance (naturalism), not a scientific one.  Because of this, evolution finds itself as rooted in philosophical belief as many other worldviews.  This reality should be taken into account as we seek to understand the viability of either theory – since both make claims outside the realm of empirical measurability.  Take political “hot potatoes”, for example.  The shrill shouting match over issues like abortion and gay marriage are often tinged with phrases like “you ought not to push your morality on others”.  To which I have one question in response, “Why not?  You just did.”  If you feel that way, then your beliefs and your morality have compelled you to oppose anyone promoting a moral system that does not match your own.  How, then, are you any more objective, tolerant or neutral than the opposition? (And, no, I am not advocating the idea of me or anyone like me “forcing” my beliefs down anyone’s throat.)  Legislative action on either side of these kinds of debates is inherently biased by nature – because an action based on moral belief is being carried out.

I think part of why we esteem neutrality stems from our desire to keep the peace in culture where so many conflicting belief systems interact – we desire to be (and to encourage others to be) tolerant.  In my next post in this series, we’ll look at how the idea and meaning of ‘tolerance’ has changed significantly in the last few decades…


The Myth of Neutrality, Part 1

Is it really possible to be neutral?  When it comes to belief, science, religion, politics – does neutral ground really exist?  Our culture holds up the idea of neutrality as a paragon of virtue.  We indulge the idea so much, that we wish against hope that our politicians are telling us the truth when they proclaim that they are post-partisan.  Notice that it’s no longer enough to claim that we’re “non-partisan”; instead, in true Chomsky fashion, we tweak the language to say we’re post-partisan.

What’s at the root of our fascination with neutrality?  I believe that we want to be, and be seen as, reasonable.  Think about politics.  We’re bombarded with the 24/7-news-cycle-red-vs.-blue-shrill-argument-insanity daily.  The one who shouts the loudest, or coins the best slam – that neatly fits into a 15-second sound bite – “wins”.  Or so it seems.  More realistically, I think the “talking heads” are like actors who don’t realize the audience has long ago left them to applaud themselves.  The more polarized the argument becomes, the more most of us simply want to be the emotional baking soda to diffuse the acid of banal “gotcha politics”.  What about religion?  We see men fly planes into buildings, detonate themselves on buses, gun down abortion doctors, preach a ‘prosperity gospel’ that only enriches themselves – the litany could go on and on.  Our culture no longer remembers religion as the chief source of the values that led to our Republic’s unique version of freedom that had never been seen before in all of human history.  If we think of ‘devout believers’ today, a few ‘frightening’ stereotypes are bound to be in the top 10.  Who wants to trust systems of belief that seem to produce, at best, sycophants, and, at worst, murdering psychopaths?  Who wants to be dismissed from being taken seriously by association with such controversial ideas?  The one institution we’ve elevated to be the sole arbiter of truth – science – has proven to be as corrupted and driven by ideology as the others.  One only has to look at the continuing fallout from the “climate-gate” email scandal for a recent example.

It’s an odd paradox in the postmodern West that we simultaneously labor to be seen as “moderate” & “objective” while also adhering to an idea that truth has no absolutes.  Is it possible to be objective if there are no anchors in truth to pull against?  If there’s no standard to which we can compare our ideas?  In fact we often labor against giving truth any sort of finality, unless the ‘truth’ is claimed to be scientific.  Why this one caveat?

Logical Positivism.  A philosophy that found its roots in empiricism, Logical Positivism has had far greater influence on how the average person today views ‘truth’ than many people realize.  The central idea to Logical Positivism is that no proposition is meaningful unless it can be empirically verified.  That is at the heart of why, to this day, we elevate “scientific” truth above all else.  It doesn’t matter that subsequent philosophers have since debunked the central premise:  how can you empirically verify that the only meaningful propositions are ones that can be empirically verified?  Problem is, you can’t.  Regardless, the idea was incredibly popular in a modern-heading-into-postmodern society, and it took deep root.

The resulting cultural schizophrenia is an odd combination of relativism and logical positivism.  In ideological arguments, the person who can successfully portray themselves as “above the fray” and “open-minded” has won the moral high ground, and is, as a result, objective and neutral.  The ultimate trump card is to claim the backing of science.  “Belief” and “fact” are separated from each other, and this becomes the great non-sequitur of our day: that we can exist, first, in a ‘neutral space’, with only facts, and no beliefs.  I will show, in my next post, that the very notion that such a ‘neutral space’ exists, is loaded with belief.