The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

The Poetics of Prejudice

“If our predispositions, shaped by faith commitments, determine the questions we pose, the direction of our inquiry, then they can serve as the basis for fruitful discoveries and answers to genuine questions.”

Terryl L. Givens | July 8, 2016
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3 men stand in a field at sunset. They have neither bias nor prejudice, or do they?

Is it possible to enter the world of intellectual investigations without prior commitments and predispositions? Is a perspective shorn of subjectivity even desirable? The philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer makes the suggestive claim that “prejudice” (without the modern, pejorative connotations of the word) is at the heart of all genuine intellectual inquiry:

The historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word, constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are the basis of our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us.[i]

Is a perspective shorn of subjectivity even desirable?

What he means is that we can no more find and secure meaning in the absence of prejudice—or predisposition—than we could find the traction to run or the breath to sing in the vacuum of space. Gadamer’s “Prejudice” (or “Vorurteil”) I take to mean the hypothesis with which we launch ourselves into the project of life. Yet Mormon intellectuals frequently seem to buy into the notion that some kind of feigned objectivity, sprinkled with liberal doses of self-directed cynicism, is the price of admission to the academic club.

Other academics are increasingly frank about their faith commitments, their prejudices (or lack thereof)—even those in the hard sciences. Take the atheist cosmologist David Rees. In his engagement with the much discussed and debated anthropic principle (‘the Goldilocks Effect,’ or observation that a hundred cosmological and chemical coincidences converge to make life possible)—he reviews six cosmological parameters in particular that together constitute the necessary conditions for the formation of stars and planets, and the evolution and subsistence of life (N, Ω, D, Q, ε and λ).[ii] All six of these numeral values—from the mass of the universe to the ratio of gravity to nuclear forces, etc.—are defined with exquisite precision (some carried 120 places after a decimal point), and in each case, even the smallest deviation from the observed value would be catastrophic for potential life.

Desperate to account, in non-religious terms, for the fact that we are, obviously, palpable proof of such a virtually impossible convergence, he finds refuge in the hypothesis of the multiverse. If an infinite number of universes exist, he (and numerous scientific colleagues) reasons, then a virtual impossibility becomes a statistical inevitability (Ω, λ, etc. would have different values in each universe). So, we posit a literally infinite plurality of universes, and in the midst of this plethora we are delighted but not dumbfounded to find that we exist as an instance of winning an almost but not fully impossible cosmic lottery.

He has had to depart from the realm of science in order to preserve what is clearly...a prejudice    against God-theories.

The only problem—which he is honest enough to concede—is that a multiverse is a non-testable hypothesis. He has had to depart from the realm of science in order to preserve what is clearly an original predisposition—a prejudice—against God-theories. As he writes, as to whether the convergence of astronomically improbable fine tuning is “coincidence, or … the providence of a benign Creator,” he chooses “neither. An infinity of universes may well exist where the numbers are different.”[iii] Here, a renowned scientist finds no shame in making an original prejudice—the absolutely-no-God-in-the-universe thesis—the basis for resorting to an effectively religious explanation to avoid the alternative of a blatantly religious explanation.

A second example of a prejudice operating in a more fruitful way (fruitful in the sense of generating a testable and subsequently proven theory) is from the work of the theoretical physicists Hermann Weyl, Paul Dirac and Frank Wilczek. Their brilliant colleague Freeman Dyson relates their shared prejudice:

Wilczek believes that the basic laws of nature must be beautiful, and therefore a theory that is beautiful has a good chance of being true. . . . The best-known examples are the Dirac wave equation for the electron and the Einstein theory of general relativity for gravity. If the grand unified theory turns out to be true, it will be another example of beauty lighting the way to truth. . . .

Hermann Weyl, who was one of the main architects of the relativity and quantum revolutions, said to me once, “I always try to combine the true with the beautiful, but when I have to choose one or the other, I usually choose the beautiful…”

Dirac arranged what had seemed an unlikely marriage—between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity—in the form of an exquisitely beautiful equation to describe the electron. Soon afterwards, with no experimental clues to prompt him, he used his equation to predict the existence of antimatter…The success of this prediction is, by wide agreement, one of [the] most outstanding triumphs of theoretical physics.”[iv]

Such faith is not a handicap.

Mormons enter the many worlds of discourse with a fairly large set of their own theological positions—or prejudices—that pertain not just to human teleology, but human origins, divine ontology, and everything in between. Such faith is not a handicap. If our predispositions, shaped by faith commitments, determine the questions we pose, the direction of our inquiry, then they can serve, as Gadamer argued, as the basis for fruitful discoveries and answers to genuine questions.

[i] Hans Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977), 9.

[ii] Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers (New York: Basic Books, 2000). See 2-4 for a summary of the six numbers.

[iii] Rees, Six Numbers, 4.

[iv] Freeman Dyson, Dreams of Earth and Sky (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015), 116-17, 192, 158-59.