Guardians vs Explorers: The Battle of Presuppositions

To discuss or debate ideas is a good thing, even the Bible says so: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Pr 27:17) It’s bad to believe everything you are told and probably even worse to believe everything you want to believe. It’s far better to engage others in meaningful conversation and think carefully and critically, and both you and the other person may become more “sharp.” This is what the proverb alludes to, if you take two dull or jagged swords and rub them against they will produce sparks, but they might just make each other sharp. Or something like that, I admit I am pretty terrible blacksmith.

Unfortunately real life is neither simple nor easy. Often engaging others in a meaningful discourse is seen as a hostile threat, or an unprofitable exodus from the safety of deeply rooted presuppositions. After a good decade of making sparks fly, I have come to realize that one of the problems is a vast difference in how we think about “evidence” or “proof,” but most importantly “truth.” Hopefully becoming aware of this issue will enable us to be slower to anger and quicker to empathize and understand.

To oversimplify everything (I’m sorry, trying to keep this short) there are two general types of attitudes or two predispositions. Most of us lean one way or the other, some lean far more than others, and a few attempt to meet somewhere in the middle, however challenging this is.

In the interest of being fun and less boring, lets name these with cartoony names:

1. The Guardians

“I know have all or most of the answers about life, now I must guard them”

Throughout history these people maintained public positions as clergymen, national leaders, royalty, and government officials. They attempt to conserve tradition and maintain what has been handed down.

They ask questions like “what will happen to society if we abandon X?”

2. The Explorers

“I think I have some answers about life, but I must always explore and seek”

Throughout history these people maintained public positions as revolutionaries, religious reformers, inventors, and scientists. They attempt to explore new ideas and build off of what has been handed down.

They ask questions like “what will happen to society if we discover Y?”

The Clash of Presuppositional Swords

A presupposition is an assumption that is claimed to be true, before and apart from looking at any data or thinking carefully about the topic. If I believe that all Irish people are less intelligent, without doing an IQ test of every living Irish person that is a presupposition. If I believe that Christianity was the same for 2000 years, but haven’t done any research, that is a presupposition. If I believe evolution if a baseless theory made up by people who hate God, that is most certainly a presupposition. If I were to test any of these “presuppositions” and after years of throughout analysis find them to be true, they would then be called “facts,” however, because they are not proven, or not even provable, yet strongly believed, we call them presuppositions.

And this is where a big difference between the guardians and the explorers becomes very apparent.

The Guardians often start with a presupposition that their exact view of X is completely true. Because of this very strong presupposition, the guardian does two things:

  • First, he is not willing to seriously weigh any evidence against his particular view of X, regardless of the veracity of the evidence itself.
  • Second, he is willing to use any and all evidence to defend X, regardless of the flimsiness of this evidence.

So whether this is a Muslim, Jewish, or Atheist version of the guardian, he or she starts off with a position that is not open to inquiry, question, or correction. He or she is not willing to be wrong, for to lose his particular view of X is to lose everything. He or she can get very upset or angry when someone questions their presuppositions, for all of meaningful existence rests on these being exactly right. It’s an all or nothing game.

The Explorers also start with presuppositions, for this is part of human nature. However the explorer is open to new data or evidence that will change his or her presuppositions:

  • First, he is eager to seriously entertain all the evidence against all views, including his own, hoping that the resulting conflict will help him understand.
  • Second, he is willing to give up sloppy and poor arguments if they are proven to be illogical, unscientific, or poor in quality.

So whether this is a Hindu, Christian, or Agnostic version of the explorer, he or she starts off by asking hard questions and attempting to find satisfying answers, he or she is willing to be wrong, so long as he can figure out what is right. Usually, they will not be upset as a result of being disproven, for they would rather embrace the truth that disproved their presuppositions than remain in the wrong.


Now let’s consider some more aspects in a second part of this discussion.

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