Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks this, but we give too much weight to facts. In many conversations — politics, science, religion, you name it — one often suggests that if we could only get down to hashing out the facts, they would speak for themselves and only one interpretation would be possible. I’m not so sure.
When one speaks of these facts, one actually means quantifiable and verifiable observations (how scientific!). While I readily accept that, such sentiment often misses the more important part of the equation: one still reads and interprets those facts, removing them from their original contexts and placing them in a ready-made context which often reinforces one’s own viewpoint. This is why, for example, those who claim that Obama was not a ‘natural-born’ citizen of the United States (and therefore disqualified from being President) continue to insist the truth of their claims despite the evidence provided precisely because they consider that evidence (birth certificate forms) to be fabrications on the basis of his not being born on U.S. soil. While the people who either don’t care or don’t agree with these ‘birthers’ accept the evidence as factual proof that Obama was a ‘natural-born’ citizen, the ‘birthers’ take that evidence as factual proof that he wasn’t.
This kind of logic has developed from two different psychological effects which are based in the Common Sense Realism of the eighteenth century. The first effect is the belief that one will change one’s beliefs when sufficient evidence is presented. The second is the belief that one welcomes divergent views. Both are illusions. Together, these two create the understanding that one has more knowledge of the subject at hand than other dialogue partners and, if only those partners were rational, they would change their minds by the sheer force of evidence presented. The harsher reality is that all the participants in the dialogue are enmeshed in their own reality and refuse to accept evidence contrary to their beliefs as facts. Either the science is biased, the presenter misinterpreted, or the context from which those facts were ripped is inaccurate (or unrealistic!). Whatever the case may be, people (including myself!) do not take new, contrary facts easily (if it is even possible).
The real result of these effects and the presentation of facts is that the very definition of facts is up to interpretation. Take, for example, the general scientific consensus that there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that modern human activity has contributed significantly to global warming. As far as scientific evidence goes, this is confirmed observation, but yet those who disagree speak about believing in climate change. The same also goes with the general scientific consensus on evolution. In other words, even evidence facts must be believed for them to have any degree of truth.
Where this leaves human dialogue, then, is in the realm of debate between orthodoxies. In many (if not all) cases, we have two or more dialogue partners who have their own ready-made realities and every discussion of substance without agreement is a clash of these realities that can never be harmonised. Instead, what normally happens is that the partners end their dialogue (at best, by ‘agreeing to disagree’) with further confirmation of their own set of beliefs as truth and their partners’ set of beliefs as heterodoxy (which is also often equated with heresy).
If this can be overcome, it is through the embrace of pluralism which doesn’t just welcome divergent views but expects them. Such polydoxy can be found in some ecumenical dialogues which find an important point around which agreement can be centered and friendly relationships established. It can also be found in religiously plural environments where people practise multiple faith traditions simultaneously (e.g. Buddhist Christians) as well as in religious groups like the Marranos and Messianic Judaism which also hold two different faiths in tension. In other words, the way out of entrenched orthodoxies is to become, in essence, a Marrano and find a new harmony in the discordance of beliefs.