10/28/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Trying Too Hard

I have grown increasingly wary of philosophers, theologians and scientists who make statements that exceed the evidence. I've heard philosophers claim that they can infer not only a Yahweh-like deity but the incarnation itself from the mere fact that the universe exists. I've heard audiences cheer at such audacious "logic." Rules of inference and evidence seem to have been set aside. And I've heard theologians claim that no one in the history of Christian thought dared reject, on biblical grounds, a young earth creation in six, literal days (what about, Augustine, perhaps the greatest theologian of them all?). Finally, I've heard scientists claim that natural selection proves that evolution is unguided (how could they know that?). No one seems immune from exaggerating the support for one's favored conclusion.

I am likewise dismayed by those who are so convinced of the "truth," they adopt an anything goes policy towards the evidence. By that, I mean that they accept any sort of evidence, however flimsy and irrelevant, as supportive of their most cherished beliefs. According to evangelist Ray Comfort, the lowly banana, "the atheist's nightmare," offers a compelling argument for the existence of God. Chuck Misler offers an equally astounding peanut butter argument against evolution by natural selection (and in favor of direct divine creation). I put all of these on a par with the alleged appearance of the face of Jesus on a flour tortilla.

Religious believers aren't especially susceptible to taco arguments. Many U.S. citizens believe that Barack Obama is a non-citizen based on the lack of an original birth certificate. Eighteen percent of Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim; some hold that he attended a radical Islamic school (based on unsubstantiated emails). Evidence to the contrary, that he has been a lifelong member of Christian churches, is dismissed out of hand with the thought, "Obama says he's a Christian (but we know better)."

Around the anniversary of 9-11, I was speaking in eastern Kentucky on religious liberty and tolerance. I listened to a local Christian talk radio shows to get a sense of what some might be thinking about 9-11, Muslims, terrorists, ISIS, etc. I was shocked to hear both callers and hosts claim that Obama was not only a Muslim but that his policies were intended to weaken the U.S. so that his Muslim brothers could gain easy entrance and make the U.S. part of the Islamic caliphate. Frankly, I didn't hear any evidence presented in support of any of those views.

We can, sad to say, marshal just about any "evidence" whatsoever in favor of our own most cherished views. And, again sad to say, we are nearly immune to evidence and arguments that would count against our most cherished views.

This is especially true of people on the extreme ends of cherished views; this is not limited to those on the (religious or political) right. The extreme liberal is no less liable to evidence insensitivity than the extreme conservative. The fundamentalist and the New Atheist alike garner favorable evidence all the while ignoring legitimate challenges. The extreme climate change affirmer is no different in this respect from the extreme climate change denier.

We all have a tendency to glom onto just about anything that supports and to resist just about anything that is critical of our deepest commitments.

In short, we try too hard to preserve our own fundamental commitments.

In my last post, I tried too hard.

Let me go back a bit. I'm a philosopher, trained in Western philosophy. Over a decade ago I started teaching Chinese philosophy, a field in which I had no formal training and little prior knowledge. Three scholars in Chinese studies, including Edward Slingerland, kindly answered every email, pointed me toward relevant literature, invited me to workshops (and hung out with me), and patiently ignored my ignorance. I have read most of Slingerland's books and articles and he has had a tremendous influence on the direction of my scholarship.

In my last post, though, what I said about Slingerland wasn't true. I had just read it in another article and it perfectly illustrated my argument. But it's not true. Given our relationship, I should have checked sources. I owed him better. But I didn't. I was too intent on making a point. I was trying too hard to defend my own views. Now I owe him an apology.

Edward Slingerland, if you should stumble onto this blog, please accept my deepest apologies for misrepresenting your views.

From now on I will do my best not to try so hard to preserve my own precious views.