Sunday, September 06, 2015

Niceness and productivity

As many of you know, Bob Prokop and I go back a long ways, to our days as ASU undergraduates in the mid-seventies. We were members of a science fiction club called OSFFA, the Organized Science Fiction Fans of Arizona. Bob and our late friend Joe Sheffer were the resident Catholics, I was the token Methodist, and the President, as I recall, was an atheist and Heinlein fan named Bill Patterson. There were a lot of very passionate discussions. I don't think we ever were paragons of disputational civility. In fact, at one of the discussions was cartooned by an artistic member, showing Bill with a T-shirt that said "Heinlein is Power," Bob with one that said "I agree with nothing!" and Joe with one that said "I am wise." (I wasn't there that night).

Alas, Joe passed away in 1989, and Bill passed away a couple of years ago. He was known as the official biographer for Heinlein. And, to my knowledge, he remained an atheist throughout his life. But he ended up being heavily influence by St. Thomas Aquinas, and described himself at one point as a Thomistic atheist. He also was an opponent of abortion.

It isn't just niceness that makes productive discussion possible. But there is a state of mind that really tunes out people on the other side.


B. Prokop said...

Ha! I remember Bill's admiration for Aquinas. He once told Joe that he read Thomas, not because he agreed with him, but because he enjoyed observing a great mind at work. I had the same reaction to Pat Buchanan, who back in the early 80's was a commentator for NPR. I'd listen to his show on WETA during my morning commute, and my wife (who carpooled with me) would ask me why I was such a loyal fan despite my agreeing with practically nothing that he ever said. I answered by basically quoting Bill Patterson: "I love hearing a great mind at work!"

Yes, Bill was a staunch atheist, but he had no truck for scientism. He readily agreed that there were a number of equally valid paths to truth. Where we differed was Bill believed that truth was not one, but rather that there were several non-overlapping truths. He was fond of saying that science and religion were answering totally different questions, and could therefore never be in conflict as long as each stayed in its own lane. When we shared an apartment for a brief period in the mid-70's, he even attended Sunday Mass with me, saying he enjoyed the liturgy. (We'd frequently argue about the sermons afterward. I remember in particular that Bill regarded it as "cheating" if a priest would borrow from Plato or any other non-Catholic in his sermon.)

His admiration for Heinlein was in my opinion way over the top. Bill regarded him as not just an important science fiction writer, but as (and I'm not exaggerating) the greatest American writer ever!

His second favorite writer? Ayn Rand. That's what many of our most heated arguments were about. Bill thought the world of her, and I regarded her as a hack writer with an adolescent's philosophy. (Still do.)

But you're right, Victor. Bill and I spent mega-hours over a period of years arguing incessantly about practically everything, and yet parted as the best of friends when I moved out of Arizona in 1975. We kept up a regular correspondence (by letter - this was in the days before cell phones and the internet) for about 10 years afterward. Now that he's gone, I very much regret having lost touch with him in the late 80's.

IlĂ­on said...

What does 'productive' mean in the context of a conversation?

Unless it means something like "(as best you can,) getting at the truth of the matter", then what is the point of the discussion?

If the discussion might as well be "I think strawberry is the 'best' flavor of ice cream, and you think vanilla is the 'best' flavor of ice cream; and now we mutually understand where the other is coming from; yeah us!" then what is the point? Why waste your time?