Pope Francis and the Dogmatism of Youth

Douglas P. McManaman
December 8, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

For a while now I've been intrigued by the strange blend of dogmatism and ignorance that is typically found in young people. This interest is likely an offshoot of my interest in the logic of inductive argumentation. Our day to day reasoning is, for the most part, a matter of induction, and what makes inductive reasoning distinctive--not to mention interesting--is that its conclusions are "information transcending", that is, the conclusion goes beyond the information at hand. In short, such reasoning is a matter of jumping to the most fitting estimate. What this means is that such conclusions have only a degree of probability, and it is not always easy to determine what that degree is.

Although most of our reasoning goes from the evidence to a possible explanation of that evidence, and although such inferences lack the necessity and certitude we long to possess, most of us speak with a high level of confidence notwithstanding. Most people are unaware they are subject to an availability heuristic (we are inclined to believe that our data and background knowledge is sufficient), we have a tendency not to attempt to falsify our own hypotheses in order to test them (congruence bias), we allow confirmatory evidence to strengthen an existing hypothesis (confirmation bias), etc., and the result is we are wrong more than we are right. We don't even suspect that most of what is in our heads is not knowledge at all, but belief - some warranted, but a significant portion unwarranted.

Pope Francis recently said: "...I always try to understand what is behind those individuals who are too young to have lived the pre-Conciliar liturgy, and who want it nonetheless. I have at times found myself in front of people who are too rigid, an attitude of rigidity. And I ask myself: how come so much rigidity? You dig, you dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, at times, perhaps something else. . . .The rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid."

What explains such rigidity among the young is interesting to investigate, and there are a number of angles one may take to do so. After spending the past four months helping my daughter study the brain in the context of a psychology course she had to take, I have begun to ponder this phenomenon from a neurological point of view. Some interesting work has been done on the "teenage brain", specifically on the lack of complete integration between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. This lack of complete "wiring" (myelination) explains, to some extent, much of what we find frustrating about young people, such as their recklessness and lack of foresight. I am always astounded whenever I tell students the story of my hitchhiking days, especially the time when I, as a 17 year old, thumbed to Nashville, Tennessee with only $150 and a backpack, hitchhiking through Detroit of all places. All I can say is I was missing a prefrontal cortex - or at least a fully myelinated one. Neurologist Dr. Frances Jensen writes:

The connectivity of the brain slowly moves from the back of the brain to the front. The very last places to "connect" are the frontal lobes. In fact, the teen brain is only about 80 per cent of the way to maturity. That 20 per cent gap, where the wiring is thinnest, is crucial and goes a long way toward explaining why teenagers behave in such puzzling ways - their mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness and explosiveness; their inability to focus, to follow through, and to connect with adults; and their temptations to use drugs and alcohol and to engage in other risky behaviour…. (The Globe and Mail, Jan 8th, 2015:

The development of the brain continues into the 20s and is complete at about the age of 25. This risk taking behaviour fueled by a need for excitement and coupled with a lack of awareness of possible consequences readily translates into "What You See Is All There Is", that is, a classic availability heuristic that spawns overconfidence. As a young man, if I couldn't see the danger, it simply didn't exist. In other words, the world was as large and complex as my conceptual framework through which I interpret it. What the young person is unaware of is that his conceptual framework is not very large at all, much less is it complex. Hence, the solutions to the world's problems are really quite simple, and almost every young person has them, precisely because the world is no larger than his epistemic frame of mind. Hence, the dogmatism of youth.

But this dogmatism does not suddenly come to an end at the age of 25. On the contrary, twenty five years of being subject to an availability heuristic has created a deeply rooted habit of mind, and it is going to take another twenty-five years or so to begin to uproot it, which is why rigidity and dogmatism are typically found more among younger priests than older ones, especially older ones who have lived in the world. As a young teacher, I knew exactly how administration should be running the school; I could see it all at a glance. Their decisions were unreasonable, and obviously so. The day eventually came when I had an extra period to use for non-teaching purposes and thus spent more time in the office that year than in years previous. I was exposed to much that I would not have been exposed to had I been in the classroom, and because a good friend was a Vice-Principal, he could tell me in no uncertain terms that my neat and tidy solutions were not solutions at all, but imprudence rooted in a lack of data that would only result in a heap of difficulties.

Rare is the young adult, including the young priest, who does not believe his apprehension of reality is all encompassing and adequately comprehensive. Coming to a proper appreciation of the profound limitations that sense perception, place (circumstances) and time impose on human intelligence and of the vast gulf that exists between the complexity of reality and the epistemic model through which we interpret it will take another twenty five years or so to develop - if a person is open.

The history of science is a veritable graveyard of oversimplified hypotheses and models that were discarded as a result of the gradual increase in data that exposed their inadequacies. There are always oversimplifications in science which can only be appreciated in retrospect, and this is true whether we are talking about physics, biology, biblical science, or theology. These oversimplifications are omissions, either confusions or conflations, both of which can have serious ramifications.

With respect to the controversial footnote 351 (Amoris Laetitia), among other things, it seems to me that Pope Francis is challenging us to move the magnifying glass a bit closer so as to appreciate the details and contingencies that are missed when it is held too far away, just as a general rule cannot explicitly call attention to unforeseen contingencies - for they are unforeseen. Indeed, one must stop at a red light, otherwise one loses points on one's license and must pay a hefty fine. The general rule, however, does not include a host of unforeseeable contingencies, such as the ambulance that was forced to run the light or the husband who did so get his wife to the hospital who suddenly went into labor, etc. To move the magnifying glass closer to the object is to make matters less simple and the contingencies more evident than the general level would suggest (only a careful investigator can discern with precision the unique wear of the treads on the perpetrator's shoe whose print was left in the dirt). Hence, the demand for universal clarity in a region of contingencies where theoretical certainty cannot be had manifests an unrealistic desire for simplicity. Estimate the height of the tree across the street to be somewhere between one inch and one hundred yards and one is certain to be correct, but the estimate lacks precision and is useless. Try for a more precise and useful estimate and one runs the risk of error, say 25 feet, give or take 3 feet - the tree could be 29 feet. In other words, we can have certainty at the expense of precision, distinction, and the need for careful discernment. It seems to me that settling for the comfort of simplicity and the clarity provided by a general level of abstraction over the discomfort of complexity and the opacity of the particular might be little more than a decision to remain in a state of intellectual adolescence. I believe Pope Francis is right to call us forward.