“It is never too late to give up your prejudices”Henry David Thoreau
This is the second instalment of “In Donversation.” The first can be found here.
These conversations — like all conversations — are based around the idea of bringing multiple perspectives to a central theme or topic. The goal with these conversations, however, is to ensure that they are effective and useful. Not all conversations share this goal; though, it is lenient to call them conversations if they don’t. Regardless, what I mean by “effective and useful,” is that at least one — hopefully; both — of the parties leave the conversation with an expanded and/or more accurate conception of the topic discussed.
By documenting and sharing the conversation, I hope the same can be said about you, too, Dear Reader. It is a semi-modern miracle that our minds can be improved by things we were not present for. I truly do hope these conversations are useful because — as I mentioned previously — there are many to come. Some will be abstract in nature, while others will be more tangible. Either way, the content will be wide-ranging and, ideally, thought-provoking. It is my aspiration that you find these dialogues to be laced with unexpected amounts of wisdom.
Today’s discussion is on open-mindedness. I could say something like “open-mindedness is very relevant in this day and age” but that would be misleading. It is relevant now because it was relevant always. This is unlikely to change.
Unfortunately, though, there are still some contemporary forces that relate to this topic and worth mentioning. What is labelled open-mindedness currently is often nothing more than closed-minded thinking about a non-mainstream opinion. In this era of political polarisation, conspiracy theories and algorithm-induced echo-chambers, this is concerning. We must be wary of these traps; true open-mindedness, amongst all parties and tribes, is needed.
I hope today’s discourse brings some clarity to this mysterious concept for you. I know it did for me.
Jake is someone who I met through professional circles but our shared interests extend well beyond our professional lives. This has led to many interesting conversations between the two of us and I think the one that follows may be the pick of the bunch.
In regards to his academic background, Jake possesses a Bachelor’s of Science (with Honors) in Exercise Science with a minor in Chemistry and is currently completing postgraduate studies at Florida Atlantic University under the guidance of one of the sport-science Jedi Masters, Dr. Mike Zourdos.
He is also a coach at Data Driven Strength, holds the highly reputable CSCS accreditation and is a graduate of the Mentorship program I helped develop. Finally, Jake is a fantasy and anime fanatic, which adds a unique layer to all the scientific information he consumes.
Jake’s instagram is: @jake.datadrivenstrength
And here he is…
Hey Jake, thanks so much for agreeing to be a part of this. I’m really excited to begin this conversation with you.
I thought a good topic for our conversation today would be “open-mindedness.” Through a variety of discussions that you and I have had, I have learned that you think about this a lot, and that you have some valuable insights to share.
So, with that, I would like to start by asking you a few questions.
The first is, what would you consider as being open-minded? And then, seeing as being open-minded is often considered a virtue, do you think it can go too far?
Hey Lyndon – first off, thank you for letting me join in here.
I love these sorts of conversations and it’s pretty humbling to be able to bounce some ideas off someone like yourself who has (in my opinion, at least) really done a great job of training their mind to truly think. Open-mindedness is something that is very close to my heart and I’m really looking forward to where this conversation goes!
As its most basic level, I think that open-mindedness has two main facets, both of which require taking emotional attachment out of the equation. One is being willing to consider things even if — perhaps especially if — they conflict with your current understanding of the world. This is probably what most people think of when they consider this topic.
But I think of equal importance is the willingness to be sceptical of ideas that conform with your current understanding of the world; being open to the possibility that there are fatal flaws in those ideas and that you may need to revaluate everything you “know” about a certain thing. These are two sides of the same coin that ultimately enable you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all sides of a topic, think critically about them all, and come to your own objective conclusions.
Your second question brings to mind a classic quote often attributed to Carl Sagan, but actually has quite the mysterious origin (the most likely original source from what I can gather is Walter Kotschnig in 1939): “it pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.” Open-mindedness can be taken too far in either direction. If we consider open-mindedness to be a spectrum, where all the way on the left is blind acceptance and all the way on the right is stubborn scepticism, a mistake in either direction robs us of the true purpose of being open-minded.
On one hand, being too accepting of new ideas leaves you too easily swayed, and you eventually wind up in a place where the words being shouted the loudest at that particular moment become your truth. On the other hand, you may find yourself too focused on finding the flaws in ideas that are generally accepted. Playing devil’s advocate is all well and good, but taken too far, you may find yourself stubbornly refusing to put any conviction into any certain thing as even something cautious like “the best understanding given the current evidence.”
I’m sure we can all think of someone who spends all their time criticizing the ideas of others without ever standing by anything themselves, which is often labelled as closed-minded, but I think sometimes it can come from leaning too hard into the scepticism side of the spectrum. The road to hell was paved with good intentions, after all.
Mate, that’s such a brilliant response. I love that! There are a few really valuable things you mentioned in there that I would like to highlight.
The first is that open-mindedness is multifaceted. Which is actually an application of open-minded thinking to the topic of open-mindedness! Any time we think something is just one thing, or even that is it limited to the number of things we currently know about it, we are acting in a (somewhat) closed-minded manner.
The second thing you mentioned that was really insightful, was the two domains that you consider comprising open-minded thinking. The “two sides of the same coin,” as you described it.
In my understanding, these were:
1) The willingness to entertain ideas when they conflict with your current understanding of the world.
2) The willingness to acknowledge that there may be errors WITHIN your understanding of the world.
Both those are great.
If I was to reframe those a little, what do you think about conceptualising the components of open-minded thinking as:
1) We must recognise that what we “know” isn’t all there is to know. There is much that sits just beyond the boundary of our awareness.
2) Even that which sits within our boundary of awareness may be more complex and less well understood than we currently think.
That is how I tend to think about it, at least. And what this suggests to me, is that we must undertake both habits of pushing the boundaries of our awareness (because we must first be aware of something before we can understand it) and routinely checking how well we understand what we think we already know (conducting some routine epistemological maintenance).
I also really liked how you incorporated that quote attributed to Kotchnig/Sagan. That quote was the exact reason I asked if you thought open-mindedness could go too far. I think the sentiment it conveys is very important, and it seems you agree.
I really liked your conception of how open-mindedness is — or should be, at least — a spectrum. In intellectual spaces, we tend to put open-mindedness on a pedestal, yet rarely discuss how it is only one facet of skilled thinking.
For example, the model I use in my own mind to represent (effective) thinking is plumbing in a house. Water flows from one pipe to the next, just as thoughts flow from one to the next, following a logical structure — though how logical they are can vary both within and between individuals.
When it comes to plumbing, however, the important thing is that you have both open and closed systems of pipes. I think you highlighted this really well with what you said about extreme scepticism vs extreme open-mindedness.
When it comes to getting a drink of water or running a bath, we need a system of open pipes, valves, taps etc. in order to let the water flow. Conversely, when we have finished with what we are doing, we need to be able to close things off again. This is the value of plumbing, and I would contend, so too, our minds.
When I think about it like this, it suggests to me that maybe we should actually be spending the majority of our time at the opposite ends of the spectrum — being nearly entirely open or closed-minded — and not actually just hang around the middle. Depending on what the situation calls for, of course.
I’m not suggesting we should ever be completely one or the other; we would probably be best served in our quest for truth to remain a mix of both at all times. However, certain cases might call for a rather extreme open-mindedness, whereas others might call for quite extreme closed-mindedness. Just as you should never throw down your shield or your sword at any time; but at certain times, one will be much more important than the other.
That’s how I tend to think about it, anyway, and I would be interested to hear how well you think that meshes with your own thoughts.
Finally, let me pose this to you.
If it is true that we need to be a mixture of open and closed-minded thinking at different times, do you think we focus on open-mindedness publicly to a much greater extent because we are inherently skewed towards more closed forms of thinking and external support of open-mindedness is an attempt to push us towards a better equilibrium?
I think that’s a great way to reframe those components of open-mindedness.
It makes me imagine a radar device; if we can increase the radius of the signal, we can search a wider area for the people, objects, dragonballs, etc. that we’re seeking. And as the radar operates, it’s constantly re-checking the area currently within the signal’s radius to ensure we haven’t overlooked anything.
I think that can be a good visual analogy here – working to push the boundaries of our awareness (larger radar radius) while often looking back to re-evaluate how well/deeply we understand what’s within the boundary (re-scanning within radar radius).
That plumbing model of yours makes a lot of sense! Your suggestion that much of our time should be spent avoiding the middle of the spectrum, closing or opening things like plumbing, initially sounded wrong to me. But after thinking about it, I would agree. Let me expand on that a little and I’d love to hear if this is what you’re thinking or if you have something else in mind.
I think life can be viewed as a constant state of decision making, and different phases of the decision-making process would be best served by hanging out at a different end of the open-mindedness spectrum.
First, we have to identify what decision needs to be made, of course. But after that, we enter the “information gathering” stage. During this time, I think it makes a lot of sense to bias yourself towards the open side of the spectrum, accepting any and all viewpoints.
As we gather more information, we slide along the spectrum a bit more toward the middle so that we can apply some scepticism and evaluate the strength and weaknesses of each point we’ve encountered, and choose the best option based on everything we’ve been able to come across.
Then, it comes time to take action, and being too open-minded can lead to second-guessing and paralysis by analysis. Here, we may want to slide even further toward the closed/sceptical end of the spectrum to be able to follow through with conviction (being careful not to go so far that you can’t recognize a mistake if/when it happens).
For that last point you put across, I absolutely think there is something to that. As you know from previous conversations, I am a huge fan of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. For any readers who aren’t aware, it explores the functions and interactions of the two “systems” of the brain – the fast and instinctive side, and the slow and analytical side.
Human beings are inherently prone to quick, instinctive, emotional decisions. This sounds like a negative thing, and these days we’ve certainly outgrown the need for that response, but our prehistoric ancestors wouldn’t have survived without it, so let’s not complain too much. Kahneman’s book describes how we might try to circumvent the “fast brain” to think more openly and objectively, but a clear and frankly, disappointing omission on his part was “posting on social media about how open-minded I am!”
Jokes aside, we as humans can harness our natural desire for social acceptance by doing exactly that. As you said, we are inherently skewed towards more closed thinking, often driven by emotional responses. But creating an external system which expects us to be open-minded and holds us accountable causes a conflict within that annoying “fast brain” of ours. We instinctively arrive at X conclusion, but we also know that if we immediately begin speaking with high confidence that X is the best way to go about something, our audience will be quick to call us out. That’s enough, at least most of the time, for people working hard to be rational to switch over to the “slow brain” and think more openly instead.
I’d love to get your perspective on all of that, and a related question I’d like to throw your way is this: assuming you agree with that last point about using external support, do you think this is a double-edged sword?
I say this because it’s not uncommon for people to make “educational content” or answer questions, not solely for the purpose of helping others, but sometimes just to show off how much they know (I’ve certainly fallen into this trap myself in the past, as I’m sure many people have). I’m not saying this is intentional, and most of the time I don’t think it is. But I wonder if a similar thing could happen with this — where publicly talking about open-mindedness could act as a facade to make people think you’re some great thinker, but you accept the pats on the back without actually using it to improve your thinking.
Again, I don’t think many would do this on purpose, but for people who might find themselves prone to falling victim to it, I’m curious about some other strategies to improve open-mindedness that are perhaps driven internally versus externally.
Yeah, I like that idea of travelling along the spectrum regarding decision making processes a lot. I will quickly address what I had in mind regarding spending more time at either end of the spectrum first — just to clarify where my head is at — then come back to your points.
I think information tends to cluster; it isn’t evenly distributed. At least when are speaking about quality. A simple example would be the quality of information that is shared at a convention for Mediums & Psychics compared to that of Cognitive Neuroscientists.
The frameworks people use for acquiring information — which we might just call a “worldview” — tends to segregate them relatively cleanly and in ways that allow us to predict other characteristics with high accuracy.
Two examples of this would be:
1) How those who believe in a conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in other — possibly even incompatible — ones. It is not as if we all tend to believe in 4 conspiracy theories each; it tends to be that some believe in something like 6-10, while others subscribe to a total of 0-2.
2) How knowing someone’s stance on gun-control is strongly predictive of their views on abortion and other political conundrums. While issues of governance may not have exact, objective Truths to find, this still highlights the point of how information — and as such, beliefs — cluster together.
With this in mind, I tend to think this lends credit to the idea of being more dichotomous in your open-mindedness (while still not ever being completely or not-at-all). For example, I don’t think one should attend the Mediums & Psychics convention with 50% open-mindedness and then also attend the Cognitive Neuroscientist one with the same mental stance.
I would suggest that the degree of open-mindedness should be proportional to the likelihood that a greater understanding of reality will follow. If you expose your beliefs to the possibility of change, one should be careful to ensure there is a high probability that the change will be an improvement. So, in saying that, I think that one should be, say, 25% open-minded when listening to the Mediums and 75% open-minded when listening to the Neuroscientists.
While we may end up being 50% open-minded on average after these two events, I don’t think being 50% in either situation would be the correct move. Again, because I am starting from the premise that information-quality clumps and clusters. Where there is some truth, there is likely to be more of it; and the same can be said for mistruth.
The very pivotal thing, however, is that no group (or individual) should be deemed to have all of the truth; just as no one should be considered to have none of it. Therefore, degrees of open and closed-mindedness should be evident at all times, though, again, I would suggest not equally. I do not subscribe to the idea that the truth lies exactly in the middle. I believe it sits between two — or more — extremes, but one may be standing 10 feet from it, while the other is 10 kilometres away. To say that both part parties have equal claim to the truth in this situation seems erroneous to me.
I would love to hear your thoughts on that though. I am curious to see if that brings us closer to an agreement or takes us further away.
Now, moving onto your point about travelling along the open-mindedness spectrum.
Possibly we could say that there is (or should be) a relationship between time-to-decision and open-mindedness. When time-to-decision is greater, more open-mindedness should be evident. Alternatively, if open-mindedness is low, this should be because a decision is imminent. If, however, there is a disconnect in either of these situations, then that could be considered evidence of inappropriate levels of open-mindedness — either too much or too little would be a concern. This is similar in nature to Simon’s theory of Bounded Rationality and the search for a conclusion that satisfices the situational constraints.
The final thing I would add to that, however, is that we also probably want to accrue significant (in relation to the time-available) amounts of area under the open-mindedness curve.
For example, say someone is essentially entirely closed-minded. Given the model of time-to-decision being a determinant of open-mindedness, they will display the “correct” level of open-minded thinking just prior to the decision being made. This should not be considered correct, however, if they maintained that level of closed-minded thinking across the entirety of the time available.
As I said, I think the goal should be to spend substantial amounts of the available time in an open-minded state, prior to closing things off in order to necessitate action. I think this aligns with your views on the matter, but please do feel free to correct me or comment on what I have said.
Considering what I have said so far, as well as your introduction of the Fast and Slow thinking systems (which I will denote with the capitalisation of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’), I think we run into a bit of a practical problem, due to our cognitive limitations. As you mentioned, life is a constant state of decision making and we have many problems that exist — and need solving — in-parallel. This is an issue, however, as the Slow, deliberative thinking style is not very apt at this style of concurrent processing.
As you are aware, the Slow thinking style tends to be very effective, but not efficient — arriving at typically great answers but taking its time to get there.
The Fast thinking style is the opposite. It tends to be very efficient, but not so effective — coming to a mixture of good and horrible decisions, though at a much faster rate.
So, while the idea of maintaining high levels of open-mindedness prior to a decision being made is the ideal, it is obviously a little more difficult in practice (and I am not suggesting you thought otherwise). This is because we tend to not only have to make decisions at basically all stages throughout the day — limiting our time to open-mindedly explore options and alternatives — but we also have multiple problems existing at any point in time, which again reduces the ability to focus extensively on any single problem, pushing us further towards a reliance on the Fast, intuitive and error-prone thinking.
Possibly a solution for this is directing more Slow, deliberative thinking towards novel situations and circumstances, and then have more of a reliance on Fast, intuitive heuristics when we sense greater degrees of familiarity. (I don’t recall if this was actually a suggestion in the book or not, so possibly I am drudging something up from long-term memory here.)
An example of this could be a new mother having her first child.
For any new mother/parent, a rather pivotal question is: Will they voluntarily vaccinate their child?
As you highlighted, I think there should be serious amounts of (hopefully well-guided) open-minded thinking during this time. That is how you learn and update your beliefs.
However, irrespective of what conclusion the mother arrives at, when it is time for her to decide whether to vaccinate her second or third child, she can likely base more of her decision on previous experience, rather than re-explore all the information-terrain again. The mother, in my conception, is justified in being more closed-minded on subsequent occasions.
She likely should still do some research and maintain some possibility of updating her beliefs — there’s a chance new data has come out since her last child or that she missed something initially — but her research efforts need not be as extensive as previously.
Say she spent 20 hours researching for her first child, she may then spend 10 for her second and 5 for her third. This does not mean that she loves her third less, only that the evidence should be cumulative — her model of the world isn’t a blank slate each time. In this regard, she didn’t spend 5 hours researching for her third; she had spent 35 by the time it was all done.
In order to best make use of our limited cognitive resources and time, I think that as we make decisions that are more similar to others we have made, we can potentially rely on previous models to a greater extent — provided minimal conditional changes are apparent.
For example, say you have chest pain. If last time you had chest pain and went to the Doctor and he said you are perfectly healthy, it’s just some minor heart-burn, then it might be ok to presume you just have some heart-burn again. If, however, you have recently gained 20kgs due to changing to a much higher stress job, and that same pain appears, I think you would need to more seriously reconsider the conclusion you arrive at (being more open-minded).
And, now that my response is getting rather lengthy, I will try to quickly address the question you asked at the end, which was basically: Could the public promotion of open-mindedness be a double-edge sword?
Short answer: Yes.
Slightly longer one: Yes, because I think everything, in one way or another, is. The trick, however, is working out which swords provide us with the greatest net-advantage. I think the public promotion of open-minded thinking is overwhelmingly positive.
We could draw parallels here to the idea of free speech. Does free speech offer some downsides? Yes, of course. Do those downsides adequately justify its eradication? I do not currently think so.
All virtues have their costs — and here I am considering open-mindedness a virtue. While virtues are almost by definition desirable, they are not without their own issues. One of those issues is how people can “virtue signal,” which I would consider as putting more effort into showing or demonstrating you’re upholding the virtue than you are putting into actually upholding the virtue.
I definitely think cases of this occur in relation to open-mindedness.
However, I think reality wins out in the end. Virtue-signalling, eventually, tends to be seen for what it is. Even if it isn’t, however, a closed-minded individual who pretends to be open-minded will still pay for it. Not because they pretended to be open-minded, that is mostly superfluous. The issue is with their actual mental stance — their closed-mindedness.
If we wish to align our beliefs with the world, we must understand that reality doesn’t bend to appease our minds; our minds must go to it.
For your thoughts concerning the Fast and Slow thinking systems and the constant interwoven decision-making process — I totally agree with what you’ve said here. By relying more on the Fast system for decisions that are both familiar and low risk, that frees up the Slow brain to devote the needed time to accumulate lots of area under the open-mindedness curve for the bigger issues.
Same for your point on virtue signalling.
Now that I think about it more, unlike some other examples of virtue-signalling, when done with open-mindedness I can’t really think of a situation where it would harm anyone other than themselves. It would stunt their own intellectual growth and ability to make sound decisions, and while that would certainly be an issue for someone whose decisions strongly affect others — like political or business leaders — those sorts of people are probably unlikely to virtue signal open-mindedness. Either they have some sort of checks-and-balances system in place to ensure open-mindedness happens collectively, or they are simply a dictator and have no need to put a front and pretend to be anything else.
Your thoughts about the time-to-decision aspect is exactly what I was getting at, just much more eloquently put. Very well said! And what you mentioned about information clustering definitely fits what I’ve seen as well. I’m having some conflicting thoughts however about modifying our degree of open-mindedness depending on what cluster we’re paying attention to at the moment. Not that I disagree, I think “the degree of open-mindedness should be proportional to the likelihood that a greater understanding of actual reality will follow” is a great rule of thumb. But is that simply due to our trust in the scientific method? How does the layperson determine which choice is more likely to lead to a better truth?
For example, the current pandemic we’re facing. I can’t speak for other parts of the world, but here in the US there is a large portion of the population that simply distrusts science and health experts. “The so-called experts keep going back and forth, they can’t even make up their own minds! Why should I trust that?” If they were to attend conventions held by infectious disease scientists, or by political conspiracy theorists, the way they adjust their open-mindedness according to which people will provide them with better knowledge may be quite the opposite to how you and I would.
This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with your argument, nor with open-mindedness — rather, I think it’s just another layer we need to consider when applying our ideas in a practical sense. Maybe this comes down to an education issue, where people are typically not adequately taught how to consume information. This likely leaves them with either appeals to (at times, perceived) authority, relying on prior experience, and emotional responses that drive them toward whatever information seems like the cleanest solution.
People may be much less likely to react badly to the winding path of science if they were taught how the process actually works. At least in my experience in school, we were taught about the step-by-step scientific method, but that was about it — it is much more complex than that, however, as we both know. Many studies over the years with constantly changing/improving methodology, testing different hypotheses in different samples or conditions, random errors — of course, science goes back and forth in the beginning stages, hence why we wait for a large collection of data before making strong claims. Knowing that helps in open-minded thinking, but without knowing that, I can see how people would quickly become frustrated and distrustful.
Perhaps open-mindedness can be viewed as “higher level” truth-seeking, for which science/information literacy is a prerequisite? Not that people should be taught that science is THE path to the truth, but they should be taught about different sources of information, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to evaluate them. Paradoxically, people must be open-minded enough to learn these things.
My understanding of childhood development and education theory is far from complete, and someone much more well-versed than myself can please correct me on this if I’m wrong. But it seems to me that children are a sort of blank slate, or naturally open-minded, if you will, because they simply don’t have decades of life experiences to inform their views and decisions. But, there is surely a point where a child is not yet cognitively developed enough to learn information literacy. So there must be some sort of sweet spot there for when this is best done, however I think it makes sense that it happens before reaching adulthood, when people will have already built up a lot of opinions (whether those opinions are educated or not is a whole different rant!) or “bad thinking habits”. Going into this information literacy process would likely be much more difficult for someone who has grown up distrusting science and putting their faith into less reliable sources, so tackling this before those experiences are formed would make the whole thing go much more smoothly.
What say you?
Lots of great points again.
You highlight the difficulty in trying to isolate these metacognitive processes and speak about them as if they were in a petri-dish. Just as you pointed out, by suggesting which information one should be open-minded towards, there is an inherent bias placed upon the idea of open-mindedness. My statement about being more open-minded towards neuroscientists versus psychics is undoubtedly infused with my trust in the scientific process. Something you no doubt share as well! You raise the key point, though; how does one determine what one is open-minded towards?
At this point, for the purpose of moving forward, I think it might be best to first move back. So, with that said, I will try to outline what I conceive of as the first principles of open-minded thinking. As such, anyone should be able to make up their own mind in regard to how they then apply them.
For starters, the foundational premise of why being open-minded is essential for “good thinking” is because it allows an agent’s beliefs to come into contact with evidence. Evidence is an acute glimpse at the underlying reality. Therefore, the more an agent’s beliefs are bumped into by evidence, the more beaten into shape they will become. Though, as we know, as humans, we tend to be very selective about what evidence we are willing to consider.
When it comes to what information we should be open-minded towards, I don’t think this should necessarily be dictated by whether it is scientific or not — at least initially. Instead, the information we should be open-minded towards is, generally speaking, anything that goes against your current belief system in one way or another. For me, the essence of this idea is captured by Eliezer Yudkowsky who said, “Not every change is an improvement but every improvement is a change; you can’t do anything better unless you can manage to do it differently.”
While this may seem an obvious point, I still think it is useful for determining what we should be open-minded towards. If we wish to understand the world to a greater extent, then we must understand it differently to how we do now. It then follows that we should be open-minded towards basically anything that flies in the face of what we already believe.
This is only the first step in coming to understand the world better, however. To be open-minded towards something might be defined as “appraising the phenomenon fairly; without under or overweighting its value.” If we can achieve this, and the phenomenon we are considering is determined to be of greater (truth) value than what we currently believe, then we should begin to believe it represents reality. If not, it should be discarded — possibly temporarily, though time will tell.
This brings us to the core of the problem. How does one effectively determine if something represents reality?
First, I will say this: Everything represents reality; we cannot entirely discard anything.
What I mean by this is that our beliefs about the world should be consistently updating — we are never not encountering evidence of something. That is an important point. Irrespective of whether the evidence is confirmatory or contradictory, is actual evidence or an absence of, our beliefs should be consistently in flux. This is one of the issues with the idea that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but I will not get into that here. Fundamentally, if our beliefs are not being informed by what we do or do not find, we are in trouble.
I think the point about everything is evidence is one of the keys to solving this problem. We can allow ourselves to believe certain untrue things when we only look at select parts of the data. If we look at it all, we can only move closer to understanding. The next question we must then answer is: How does one reconcile new evidence with what one already believes?
Once we accept everything is evidence, we then need to determine how strong that evidence is and what it is evidence of. That is a massive topic in itself, and in essence, that is what the fields of probability and statistics try to help us answer in a formal sense. What we are focusing on here, however, is how to answer those questions from within a human mind.
As we have discussed already, the human mind is limited, so we need powerful tools and cognitive software at our disposal in order to come to well-reasoned conclusions. I will propose two axioms that I think are simple enough for basically anyone to remember, yet when applied consistently, shed tremendous light upon the world. They help us determine better theories of reality and its inhabitants over time.
The first is that the world is not always, entirely, as it appears. Perception cannot be taken for granted as reality — though it still could be. This is what is required to keep our minds open, and willing to consider alternative, hopefully better, explanations. We should always keep in mind that the currently held truths are unlikely to be the final or most absolute ones.
The second is Occam’s Razor, which posits that amongst competing hypotheses, the most parsimonious should be favoured. Or, in layman’s terms: the simplest explanation is most likely to be true. This should work in conjunction with the first. Occam’s razor is what helps us control our understanding of the theories we formulate. While the idea that the world isn’t always as it seems encourages us to reach for new conceptions, Occam’s Razor helps to ensure we don’t overextend ourselves.
It is most specifically at this second step where the majority of conspiracy theories breakdown. While many may propose that a certain conspiracy theory is a simpler explanation than the scientific one, that is a misunderstanding of what simple denotes in this context. Simple should not be thought of as how easily it understood, but how easily it explains everything else. It asks, “What else would need to be true in order for this to be true?” Simplicity refers to the number of factors or models of the world that would need to be adjusted, not how easily you can imagine it being true.
Take the moon landing for example. Some would propose that the simplest explanation is that it was a hoax. However, this is not following the premise to its logical end. Once you do, the simplicity rapidly turns into complexity once you need to explain how it has been successfully covered up for years, when humans are profoundly horrible at keeping secrets; where immense amounts of data and images have come from; the success of NASA engineering in other realms, and many other factors. In the end, the “simplest” explanation is the one that may be the most difficult to believe initially. But hey, reality is under no obligation to be easily understood.
That would be my thoughts on the first principles of open-mindedness, and how we can work forward from there using a minimalistic framework that hopefully isn’t too tainted with my own biases.
That was very well laid out, and to be honest, I don’t have much at all to add. Just to summarise:
We must accept that we can always update our current understanding. We then must be exposed to evidence that goes against our current understanding and is objectively appraised to be of truth value. This multi-directional contrary or complimentary evidence, over time, shapes our understanding.
To decide what has objective truth value:
1) Realize that reality is not necessarily always as it seems. It may be, but it may not be.
2) Apply Occam’s Razor, putting stock into ideas that most simply explain the state of things accurately, which may or may not be the simplest thing to understand at face value.
An analogy that comes to mind might be blacksmithing. A hot lump of iron is raw and crude, but eventually becomes a refined sword. No single swing of the hammer can change rough metal into a polished weapon – it takes many exposures to that hammer to slowly be shaped, corrected, and re-shaped into the final product. Our minds also begin rough and crude, but if we open ourselves up to the possibility that we can eventually become refined, and welcome many exposures to valuable evidence, they too can be honed over time.
One other slightly different angle of this that I find interesting is open-mindedness toward what I think of as “perceptual truths.” In my mind, this is an extension of emotional intelligence and is more-so applied to interpersonal dynamics rather than things like explaining the moon landing or UFOs.
Emotional intelligence is an entirely different can of worms to open, but as far as open-mindedness is concerned, I think it’s worth touching on briefly here.
I think we can apply the same framework that’s been outlined here, but with an additional criterion for which to decide what has truth value.
1) Reality isn’t always what it seems.
2) Apply Occam’s Razor.
3) Imagine the phenomenon from the emotional and experiential backdrop of the person whom you’re attempting to understand.
No matter what the nature of the relationship is, people can perceive the same event differently, and that doesn’t necessarily make one person right and the other wrong. But nonetheless, these differences can cause conflicts that require open-mindedness to understand one another and arrive at a resolution.
We all have biases that cause us to feel or react differently to how others might. A big part of emotional intelligence is understanding that all parties can be correct; coming from different perspectives can lead to different perceptions and evaluations of the same thing.
Attempting to understand interpersonal dynamics through pure objectivity tends to not end well in situations where emotions are (rightfully) the driving force. Put more simply, I think we need to be open-minded to slightly different evidence depending on whether we’re seeking objective truth or perceptual truth.
I very much enjoy your sword making analogy. I think we could even add some additional elements. For starters, we could say that being open-minded is akin to keeping the iron hot. When iron is hot it is pliable and has the ability to take on a better shape. If we consider the blows of the hammer as contact with evidence, then a cold lump of iron (a closed mind) isn’t going to change and improve very much at all.
Additionally, a blacksmith becomes more skilled over time. As you said, no single blow will turn a crude piece of iron into a sword so sharp that it could slice a strand of hair lengthways, but as one gathers experience and knowledge, one wastes fewer swings of the hammer. I believe this is analogous to becoming a master of the mental martial arts. As a rationalist, no doubt you will be led down the garden path by evidence at times, this is a certainty in a complex world. Importantly, though, the wizened practitioner makes less false moves than the greenhorn.
Relating to your point about perceptual truths, I think this is a fantastic addition and support everything you laid out. The only thing I would do is potentially formalising what you have said. I believe, if I have understood you correctly, you have outlined the simulation theory of empathy — possibly without even realising, which speaks to your first-principle reasoning skills.
In essence, the simulation theory of empathy suggests that we understand (or predict) the behaviour and emotional states of others by triggering the relevant circuitry in our own minds. When someone is angry, or sad, we cannot replicate the entirety of their mind, mapping every neuron and synapse, but we induce anger or sadness in our mind and simulate a similar experience happening to us. Or, as we commonly call it, “putting our self in their shoes.”
It is possibly not surprising that you mention this, however, as I know you are an avid fantasy reader, and, to my knowledge, the reading of complex fiction has a positive relationship with more effectively simulating the mind-state of others. Which speaks to the point that we do not only learn about the world and others by reading content of an “objective” or “scientific” nature. This topic truly fascinates me, but I shall refrain from saying any more for the sake of keeping my response, and this conversation, a consumable length.
So with all that said, I just wanted to thank you Jake. I have tremendously enjoyed this conversation. It has been highly valuable for myself and I have no doubt your insights will be appreciated by readers. Thank you again and I look forward to many more mind-expanding discourses in the future.
I really like (and am not surprised in the least that you knew the formal name of the theory) how you brought my little EQ tangent together like that. That’s one of my favorite things about these sorts of conversations, I’m able to get another perspective to strengthen my own understanding of something. Even if it’s as simple as a formal name, the words we use are very important and common terminology allows us all to get on the same page from which to move forward. And selfishly, I now have some keywords I can search to dive deeper into that topic.
Also – fantastic addition to the sword-making analogy, it’s almost scary how well that all fits. And speaking of swords, I’m glad to hear that there has probably been a direct positive effect of my love for entering other worlds and living vicariously through warriors and wizards; always a happy accident when something fun also makes you better!
At the risk of a second segue in as many sentences, that’s exactly how this conversation has gone for me: tons of fun which has led me to a better understanding. I really appreciate you for facilitating this and for sharing your thoughts with me (and readers of course) in such depth, and I hope to continue these discussions as we all help each other figure out this whole “life” thing.
Take care, my friend!