October 20th, 2009

qui-gon

witholding judgment

If there is one thing that science and "evolved" Christianity have in common, it's the notion that witholding judgment is a virtue.

Okay, now what do I mean by that?

In liberal Christian thought (forget the far-right, I'm-only-in-it-for-myself versions), one Bible verse that is often quoted is "Judgment is mine, saith the Lord." Another one that is on this theme is the story of Jesus and the "loose woman" who was going to be stoned. Jesus said to the townspeople, "He who is without sin cast the first stone." Both of these quotes are encouraging people to be forgiving, to show compassion to their fellow man, and to withold judgment against them (in this life).

Witholding judgment is not a skill that comes easily to most people. We are inclined to make snap decisions--which is great if we are being hunted by a sabertooth tiger--but also to refuse to change our opinions in the light of new information. In moral judgments, we often behave as though the mere claim of wrongdoing is as good as a conviction. And we often don't know, or can't know, all the circumstances surrounding an event. We are too willing to believe the worst things easily about others, and then act offended when we are treated the same in return. Our emotions of fear and anger overwhelm our rational judgment.'

It is not necessary to even argue for forgiveness to argue for delaying judgment. And that is all we mean here, not to withold judgment permanently, but to delay it long enough to gather facts as objectively as possible. Long enough to remind ourselves that we are dealing with people as flawed as ourselves and as prone to mistakes. If forgiveness comes, then so be it. But we may conclude after gaining more information that punishment is warranted. Witholding judgment can serve here too, in that it will better able us to find an appropriate punishment, and not one that is all out of proportion to the original crime.

In science, too, we practice witholding judgment on a claim until the evidence is sufficient to warrant a conclusion. We withold judgment so that we can judge all the evidence--pro and con--about a situation fairly and equally. We admit that we don't know when the evidence is not enough to give us a clear answer. We don't choose the easy way out because it's easier, instead of because we are fairly certain that it is right.

The idea is not to permanently withold judgment, to demand that all ideas are equal and none can ever really win the evidence wars, that all is merely opinion. Instead, we let the evidence lead us toward a conclusion, but always evaluate the totality of the evidence so that, indeed, we can change our minds and admit we were wrong when the evidence warrants.

Witholding judgment, in science or in life, is not an easy task, but it is one that should be taught as a part of critical thinking. Critical thinking skills are of little good in science or in seeking justice if we engage them for just brief moments and conclude overhastily for one side or another. Nor can we withold judgment forever. Indecisiveness and ignoring mountains of evidence is no virtue either. Being paralyzed may be just as dangerous as acting on too little information. Sometimes it is witholding judgment, not courage, that permits us to face our fears and dispell them.

And, of course, it makes for better journalism.