Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I like to think of myself as an open-minded person (I think most people assume they are). Where do I come up with such a judgment? Well, I notice that sometimes I change my mind. But really how is it that I change my mind? How do I form new opinions?

In the first place, from experience, when introduced to new topics about which I have little or no previous experience, I'm pretty credulous. I usually take the first opinion made available, or, if multiple opinions are made available, I'll throw myself on top of whichever seems most reasonable. For example, if someone tells me that civet coffee is the world's best coffee, since I seldom drink coffee and don't spend too much time thinking about or comparing coffee, I'll take this as authoritative and assume this person knows things I don't.

Such an early opinion is not unshakable. As I begin to learn more about the topic, my opinion might evolve. But as I get more knowledgeable my opinion becomes more intractable. And by the time I progress to the point of expert coffee gourmand, I might be completely unpersuadable.

The reason for this may simply be because I've learned so much, that it's really hard for someone to muster enough evidence to knock down the large bulwark behind my position. For example, if I was a late eighteenth century physicist who'd invested himself for years studying the caloric theory of heat, with numerous experiments and experiences and arguments that seemed to back it up, I wouldn't be persuaded by Count Rumford's one single cannon boring experiment and its proposal that heat is motion. I'd need more evidence. Even great scientific experiments that in retrospect can be seen to clearly refute the theory that preceded them, meet great resistance in their own day, and are met with strong resistance by defenders of the old way.

A second reason for becoming unpersuadable might also be some sort of endowment effect: namely that we sometimes value more what we possess than what we don't possess. In other words, I think of an opinion of mine as MY opinion, and don't want to let go of it.

A third somewhat related reason, might be that this opinion has become part of my self-identity. I might for example, identify myself as a defender of the caloric theory, or as a civet-coffee-lover, which would mean, I'd have to change who I was to change this opinion. And how shocked others would be who knew me as this caloric defender or civet-coffee-lover to discover I've changed so radically! Better be cautious about changing my mind lest I distress all my friends upon discovering that now I'm a totally different person.

For these reasons, it's generally pretty hard to persuade me in conversation on issues about which I've formed an opinion. In reality, I don't think I really can be persuaded, on many issues, just by taking. This is relevant, since so much philosophical debate is precisely built around discussing issues, either at conferences in person or via journals. If people, especially experts discussing issues about which they've invested serious time thinking about and researching are completely intractable, what's the point in these conferences and journal articles? Is it just for the factions in agreement to announce their allegiance and trade good arguments? Is it just to ensnare in discipleship the naive and still malleable young grad students who mosey through these conferences and journals?


I should note, though, that my mind does change sometimes. It takes a lot to convince me, which is usually more patience or time than I have for a conversation. But if someone's arguments stick with me, I may be willing to think about it. Upon considerable reflection even some of my most cherished beliefs can be knocked down. But it's never someone else who changes my mind. They might provide the initial spark, but I ultimately have to persuade myself. Why this is so, might again come back to a sense of identity. I like to think of myself as someone who forms his own opinions, and not as the gullible parrot of some persuasive authority (though there are definitely many opinions I harbor which I'm just parroting from someone else).

I'm writing about these things not to talk about how open-minded I am, but to try to understand open-mindedness through understanding the only person I've had a chance of closely observing (myself). I believe that my experiences are fairly typical.

The only thing I think is unusual is that I am more reflective and spend a lot more time contemplating things than the average person (though this is the norm in academia), but otherwise, I think I'm fairly typical on these points.

Admittedly, that I am so reflective, does mean that I've thought a lot more about a lot more issues and probably means that I've got a lot more strong opinions than most people. This may mean that I like most other seriously reflective people, am perhaps more close-minded than most people.

As an after thought, I'll note that people who like to play devil's advocate are generally the most fun to debate with. I think this is because they don't as strongly identify with their beliefs and thus don't feel like a disagreement with them is a personal attack. This might mean they're somewhat more open-minded.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you for this article , i really liked it and gave me alot of perspective :)