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The Power of the Implicit

November 4, 2013

As long time readers of this blog are aware I am very interested in implicit ideas (three examples here). There are several reasons for this. First, everyone recognizes and discusses explicit claims and so those get rather boring after a while. Second, the power of implicit claims is different than that of explicit claims but perhaps stronger in some critical ways. Thirdly, if one were ever to write an autopsy of Western Christianity I’m pretty sure the cause of death would be the almost wholesale adoption of non-Christian implicit stances and a failure of the Church in the West to articulate a counter-narrative of human value and existence. Indeed, this is so important to me that it is the largest reason for my gradual swing towards more philosophical (as opposed to exegetical) articles: while many people write good exegetical articles I fear that what may doom Christians most surely is the philosophical boxes that we live in which have been carefully constructed by a post-Enlightenment society to prevent the infinite from ever opening upon us. Without a strongly Christian sense how the landscape of evidence and logic is composed Christians are running in a race against a secular world with their feet tied together with a short rope. All of this adds up to a strong interest in implicit claims.

The problem with implicit claims is that they seem weak. The power of implicit claims is that they seem weak and so are ignored while actually being strong. However, the power of implicit claims is not like the power of explicit claims. Explicit claims have one strong advantage over implicit claims: because they are explicit one is able (and often expected) to lay all one’s evidence on the table when one makes the claim. If someone says, “Life is a zero-sum game – if we do good to one person it inevitably involves harming another person,” you expect them to follow up with some evidence of this. When one makes the same claim implicitly (e.g., responding to a suggestion to help one group of people by saying, “But who is that going to short-change?”) it is much harder to present the evidence. Indeed, doing so would tend to make the claim explicit.

However, the weakness of explicit claims is that they are almost always accepted or rejected on the spot. A speaker says, “Life is a zero-sum game – if we do good to one person it inevitably involves harming another person,” and by the time the conversation is over most of the audience has either agreed with the speaker or has a long list of reasons why the speaker is wrong. Only a small minority will be undecided and will continue to let the idea exist as a possibility that they occasionally turn to. Implicit ideas in contrast almost always exist within someone’s consciousness for extended periods of time. Because they are not explicit ideas they are rarely clearly accepted or rejected. Instead, they ride in to someone’s mental working space as part of a larger package and then exist in that space as unknown visitors for an extended time, slowly reshaping the way the person thinks.

Take the example idea that all life is zero-sum. If this idea is put forward explicitly it may sound too harsh – does the speaker mean to say that all choices are only who to harm with no option to simply do good? This might cause the idea to be rejected and since it has been identified and rejected the person who rejects the idea will begin to form mental defenses against that idea. Indeed, one consistent problem with explicit ideas is that many people already know what they think about most of the ideas that are explicitly offered in their culture and engage in no thought whatsoever when asked to accept or reject a particular idea. However, if the same person who would reject the explicit idea that life is zero-sum is constantly asked who will be harmed by plans to help others and is presented evidence (however flimsy) that someone is harmed by every one of these decisions they will eventually connect the dots themselves and teach themselves that life is zero-sum. Now, if the evidence is truly atrocious this may not happen because being constantly presented with ridiculously bad evidence can cause someone to label a particular idea as the province of crazy people but in a lot of cases some sort of evidence can be found for most ideas if one looks for it and forgets to look for counterbalancing evidence on the other side.

C.S. Lewis said (I can’t remember exactly where) that if someone wanted to convince a Christian to stop being Christian they would be better off placing that Christian in an environment where everyone regarded Christianity as rather silly rather than engaging that Christian in a direct confrontation about their beliefs. This is the power of implicit ideas. If you live in a society where “everyone knows” that Christianity is silly you are constantly being presented with that idea without being asked to make a defense against it. Over time this can wear you down – you keep hearing the idea, you never reject it, and eventually it becomes very easy to accept.

There are several places where the power of implicit ideas seems to be most obvious. One of these is college campuses. Most Christians are aware that large numbers of Christians in high school will not be Christians by the time they leave college. This is often assumed to be the product of direct (explicit) challenges to their faith. My own continued close contact with college culture suggests that there are actually two things happening (neither one of which involves much direct challenge). The first is simply that young adults tend to become rather self-absorbed and there is always a general trend for people to drift away from church and then maybe drift back when they have their own families. The second is that we send people off to college with a high school faith and no guarantee that it will grow with the rest of them. For many students a time simply comes when all the rest of their ideas have matured through college discourse and their faith hasn’t. No one ever needs to explicitly challenge a student’s faith, the student merely needs to reach a point where their faith consists of “I believe this just because” and every other stance they hold can be articulated much better. The implicit claim is already there: we don’t talk about faith because it is silly. Suddenly reality and the claim appear to match.

Every explicit claim comes with a tractor-trailer full of implicit claims attached. “Dogs are better pets than cats,” is an explicit claim that rests on the implicit claims that pets should want to interact with you constantly and that the time and space required for pet care are unimportant costs (since dogs take more time and often more space than cats). “No one in the twenty-first century should starve to death,” is the sort of explicit claim that almost everyone would agree with. However, like all claims, it comes with implicit claims attached, in this case the myth of progress. Is starvation really the sort of problem that is more solvable now than a century ago? Probably – we can get food everywhere in the world relatively quickly if we really want to – but the major barrier to feeding people is often political issues that are no more tractable in 2013 than they were in 2,013 BC. This is ultimately the problem with implicit claims: it is quite easy to ingest them without realizing it. Our world is constantly handing out ideas and they all come with implicit claims attached. What are these ideas and what effect do they have on us?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2013 10:43 am

    I totally agree with this. The first step to really changing your situation is understanding your implicit assumptions. Otherwise, you just go in circles because you’re boxed in to a particular way of thinking.

    This concept gets hijacked a lot, especially in confrontational political and religious rhetoric. People discover Implicit Assumption A and realize it might be wrong, so they replace it with Implicit Assumption B (often just the extreme opposite of A) that they take for granted. Ironically, it’s often the “wake up, sheeple!” types who have the most obvious blinders.

    Then again, I tend to be so aware of my own potential for implicit assumptions that I’m often a walking existential crisis completely unable to trust or know anything. And that’s why those types bug me so much.

    • Eric permalink
      November 4, 2013 5:35 pm

      I agree that recognizing one’s implicit assumptions does tend to steer one towards epistemological uncertainty. But hey, better that than false certainty.


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