Thursday, January 1, 2009

On open-mindedness

I once knew a guy who repeatedly told me I need to be more open-minded. He seemed to view it as if we were in a cheesy movie, where I was the stereotypical nerd, and he was the "fun" counterpart. It was his job to eventually reform me into a less nerdy guy. You know, one who would do alcohol and pot. I have deep reserves of unspoken contempt for drugs, but I was open-minded enough that I was polite in my refusal.

As a skeptic, I am perfectly aware of one of the most common criticisms of skepticism: that it is close-minded. Skeptics are unwilling to accept new ideas; they are too quick to dismiss. They seem so sure of themselves in their scientific worldview.

In the interest of being open-minded to all possibilities, let us first consider this one: perhaps open-mindedness should not be a virtue at all. I, for one, am leery of all so-called "virtues", especially ones that are understood differently by different people. How can we unambiguously declare "open-mindedness" to be "good" without reference to any particular definition of "open-minded"? For example, if by "open-mindedness", we mean becoming the stereotypical reformed nerd in a stoner film, then it is a virtue I want no part of. However, if by "open-mindedness" we mean tolerance of other people's lifestyles, then I'm generally in favor of it.

When people criticize skepticism for not being "open-minded" enough, they can mean lots of different things. Sometimes it comes from woos who are bitter that we weren't persuaded by their favorite form of woo, not even a little. Sometimes it comes from people who simply think we're not close enough to being on the fence, that we are "dogmatic". Sometimes it comes from people who just think we are so darned disrespectful. There are a lot of disjoint ideas here, only really unified by the all-purpose epithet of "close-minded". A few brief and disjoint responses...
  • Can't convince a skeptic? Try evidence.
  • We're too quick to dismiss woo? Probably because the same pattern of mistakes is easily recognizable every time.
  • Skeptics are dogmatic? Well sorry for having an opinion. Next time, I will close my mind to anything but the center of debate.
  • Skeptics are disrespectful? Sometimes true, but it's nothing a few "yoursocloseminded!!!"s won't cure.
  • Skeptics think only science can explain things? I have many reasons for thinking so, but maybe I will forget about them if I am open-minded enough.
  • Skeptics will never convince anyone, so why do they even try? Perhaps it's because we don't project our own close-mindedness onto everyone around us.
  • Skeptics never change their mind? Probably we only do it when you aren't looking.
In the interest of coherence, from this point on I will take "open-mindedness" to mean the willingness to change one's mind. I agree that this is a virtue. But when it comes to changing one's mind, I take it very seriously. After all, the virtue in changing mind is that we get closer to truth or wisdom. If we just change our minds at the drop of a hat, we're just as likely to get further as we are to get closer.

My view is this: For every good idea out there, there are several bad ideas. To find a good idea is not a matter of picking up a large pile, but a matter of carefully sorting it all out and discarding the bad ideas. This process is highly nontrivial, error-prone, and almost hopelessly swamped by the shear number of ideas out there. We need to be able to tell the difference quickly and efficiently, even if that means being slightly on the dismissive side. To use a cliche, when we have solved all the mysteries of real phenomena, then we will worry about longshot paranormal theories. This way, I have a much greater chance of ever changing my mind.

And I have changed my mind many times, mostly in the lateral directions. Michael Shermer convinced me to care more about why people believe weird things. Bob Altemeyer convinced me of the importance of the authoritarian personality in today's politics. Plantinga convinced me that "sophisticated" apologetics really is junk after all. Sciam convinced me that the Many Worlds Interpretation is legitimate. BASS convinced me that organizations are worthwhile after all. My history professor convinced me that there is much more to religion than just belief. Greta Christina--well she convinced me of a whole lot of things. This is just to name a few examples that occurred in the last year (and a few of which I blogged about).

What more can I say? If this is close-mindedness, it has worked out quite well for me, hasn't it?


Linda said...

To me, open-mindedness means being open to the possibilities of what we do not already know. I believe there is always more that is yet to be explored than where we have already been.

Good post, Miller! I'd say you're pretty open-minded. Happy New Year! :-)

miller said...

Happy new year to you too!

Now, to do all that work I was supposed to do during winter break...