Personal stories and the art of intellectual inquiry

Our personal stories are far more shaping of our views on things than most of us care to admit. In most academic settings we love to discuss and debate matters and show our intellectual prowess. In these settings, to think emotionally, or to be biased by past experiences usually kills our chances of winning a point. No, we must stay logical and stick to the facts. Consider what happens if a person arguing for abortion rights reveals that they had an abortion. Consider what happens if the person arguing that the Scriptures do not teach that homosexuality is wrong reveals their own failed efforts to change their sexual orientation. Put yourself on the other side of each debate. What do you think? Well, their bias is obvious. But if you haven’t had an abortion or if you haven’t experienced homosexual desire, then your bias is obvious as well. So, to avoid these point-killing experiences, one sticks to their intellectual defense of a particular belief.  

By the way, personal anecdotes are not the only non-factual influencers of our beliefs. Personality styles also weigh heavily. I have a friend who loves a good debate. They energize him. To make a point, he willingly uses hyperbole. He takes risks and tries on ideas he hasn’t fully considered. I have another friend who weighs every issue ever so carefully. He tediously considers each and every point and methodically explains his position. He rarely speaks out of impulse and so hardly ever moves from a previously decided position. In both cases personality influences my friends and influences their conversation partners. 

I have noticed that in quasi-intellectual settings (e.g., blogs, class discussions, etc.) personal stories are very common, even encouraged. The story enriches the reader/listener’s feel for the subject. And once a story has been told, it seems to kill any chance that another might present opposing thoughts and ideas critical of that experience. To critically evaluate the story-teller’s position is to disrespect that person’s life and value—so it would seem. A friend of mine recently bemoaned that it seems impossible in the public domain to call a dumb idea by its rightful name (unless the person is taking a conservative view of things).

So, what do we do with personal stories? Though they shape our ways of seeing the world and deciding what is right, it does not mean that we are incapable of intellectual inquiry and arriving at beliefs that counter our own experience. But it does beg the question as to how we should weigh personal stories in our dialogs about truth claims.

What if we dispense with personal stories? What would be lost? Gained?

“Just the facts, ma’am” isn’t really possible. Everything we believe is attached to experience and personal bias. But what if we could curtail the use of personal stories and anecdotes—would it help? Consider the debate on homosexuality. If we eliminated “I had a friend who…” stories, what would happen to the discussion? We might also eliminate conversations that start and end on fringe matters. This would be helpful since conversations starting with extreme situations rarely return to core issues. We might be able to look, in depth, at the key issues: (i.e., interpretation of key biblical texts, pastoral responses to those with same-sex attraction, exploration of sexual identity development and whether identity is immutable or not, etc.) without distraction by stories of abuse and misuse by the various parties.

But what would be lost? Compassion. Understanding. Practical responses. It seems that narratives humanize issues. We see the facts as connected to real people. Stories give context that help us to understand the experience of another. Anecdotes spawn creative responses that have real-world impact and avoid one dimensional “easy” answers. When I was in seminary, one of my professors had a sign that said, “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, easy, elegant, and wrong.”

Wedding Intellectual Inquiry and Experience 

So, how do we thoughtfully, compassionately, critically explore a controversial topic in a manner that leaves us more loving than when we started, more understanding of its complexities, more aware of (and willing to challenge) our own biases, more aware of our chosen bases for our belief systems, more capable of differentiating dogma from opinion, and more clear (and willing to state so) on what we do and don’t believe?


Monday I will present some possible ways to wed both our stories and the pursuit of the truth. 


Filed under Cognitive biases, Communication

2 responses to “Personal stories and the art of intellectual inquiry

  1. FYI: Some of my personal stories are found at my blog site. Enjoy! JJB

  2. Barb

    I am eager to read the next post regarding the wedding of stories and truth. As one whose bias leans toward storytelling (and hyperbole), I wonder whether we a) CAN dispense with personal stories and b) SHOULD dispense with them. When Mary Magdalene exclaimed, “I have seen the Lord,” (John 20:18) there was an unscientific yet undeniable power to her testimony. In fact, Scripture is really just one big personal story told by many voices.

    After watching ‘Hotel Rwanda’ this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the atrocities that were committed there. And while we could study the buildup to that 100 days, watch video footage of the fighting, and weigh in on the subject with some insight, it would never match just one story from Paul Rusesabagina’s lips.

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