Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Persuasion without communication?

Dale McGowan has an excellent series of posts underway at his Meming of Life blog. In particular, these two on "siloing" have caught my attention: "Silos" and "Unsilos". In them, he discusses our tendency as humans to build communities of like-thinking people around ourselves so much that we cut ourselves off from people who disagree, becoming unable to communicate and empathise with them.

I do it as much as anyone else, and I'm quite conscious of it.

Which is why (among other things) I read several blogs written from well outside my own particular silo.

Which is why I came across this very interesting idea - almost a blog-meme - from Jim at Quodlibeta:
What three books would you recommend to people who disagree with your religious beliefs, whatever they are, and why?
(Note that Jim got the idea from a political blog - clearly the concept applies to any kind of silo.)

Now, my recent experience of trying out a book recommended by a thoughtful religious friend was somewhat disappointing. (I discuss it in a series of posts starting here.) But the idea of trying to reach across communities of thought appeals to me, so I clicked through from my reader to check out the comments.

The first comment jumped out at me for two reasons.

One, it recommends "John Earman's Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles - To finally blast Hume's argument to oblivion." Hume's thoughts on miracles have seemed like pretty basic common sense to me, ever since I first read them (here):
"... no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish ... When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened."
I think this is a common element in many skeptics' rejection of religious claims. So it's probably worth my time to check out Earman's book - just in case Hume's argument does have a fatal hole that only an 'outsider' might notice.

And the other thing that jumped out at me from this comment was the following recommendation:
Anything from Nietzsche - To show the only viable alternative.
In the context of the post, this probably means either the only viable alternative to Christianity or to belief in some god more generally. My immediate reaction was to turn off. Nietzsche as the only alternative to theism? Obviously, this person isn't interested in understanding me, so why should I try to understand him.

But, remembering Dale's thoughts about siloing, I realized that someone else's insensitivity is not an excuse for me to shut down discussion. So I think I will have a look at Nietzsche. I also (gently, I hope) pointed out how that comment sounded from my perspective.

Also, with care (given my rebuke of the Nietzsche idea), I offered my choices of books. I reproduce my comments here for your consideration:


A fascinating challenge. I don't tend to try to persuade people, but I am very interested in helping people to understand my position.

To that end, I would include a good book on humanism, such as Richard Norman's On Humanism.

If my interlocutor didn't accept evolution, I would be tempted to include Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. (I recommend it even to people who accept evolution, because it's an awesome pilgrimage through the details of our biological history.) However, I suspect that just the author's name would be a roadblock to persuasion. So I'd probably try something by Carl Sagan (Demon-Haunted World) instead.

And I'd recommend a practical book on skeptical thinking, which is more important to me in terms of persuading others than religious belief or non-belief, though the two are of course related. Probably Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.


Okay, now you give it a try. What three books would you recommend to someone in a different silo, and why? Have you read the books I mention? Did they persuade you of anything? Why or why not?

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