I’ve been sitting with this quote for over a year now – trying to figure out the best time to blog about it. I first heard Bob Dykstra, professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (and the best professor at Princeton Seminary, in my opinion) mention this in one of his lectures. I think it’s a very interesting take on the process by which we change our mind on certain issues – and what happens to us and to our worldview when thoughts and beliefs change. Of course, I have issues related to this post in mind with this quote, but I think it’s something that could be applied to many different situations in which it becomes necessary for some to change their minds:
“The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter….
“[Even] the most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one’s own biography remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity…. A new opinion counts as ‘true’ just in proportion as it gratifies the individual’s desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock…. [Even the most ancient truths were themselves once plastic.] They also were called true from human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found.”
From William James’s Pragmatism (1907), excerpts
What would it mean for us to view our beliefs and truths as more “plastic”?