Sunday, April 30, 2006

Open-Mindedness

It's generally acknowledged that open-mindedness is a virtue. But there is some confusion as to what it actually involves. Too often, people confuse open-mindedness with indecisiveness. They think that open-mindedness requires that one abstains from drawing conclusions; hence the absurd tendency to claim that agnosticism is the most reasonable religious stance, solely on the basis that God's existence can be neither proved nor disproved with absolute certainty. I've previously explained why such a stance is misguided. We have ample reason to disbelieve in gods and faeries, and the virtue of "open-mindedness", properly understood, shouldn't ask us to pretend otherwise.

The trait of open-mindedness is best understood as a disposition, rather than an occurrent state of mind. It's not about what beliefs you actually have, but how open you are to revising them in appropriate circumstances. It requires the true humility of self-acknowledged fallibility. It requires that our minds be open to new evidence. But this is something very different from suggesting that we should be equally accepting of nonsense as we are of sense. That's not open-mindedness; it's gullibility, or perhaps stupidity.

The virtuously open mind is not wide open, indiscriminately accepting of any and all viewpoints. Rationality must remain as a filter. We should be open to accepting good reasons of which we are currently unaware. But this doesn't require us to take recognizably bad reasons seriously. If we judge that the weight of reasons favours P over not-P, then we should (tentatively) believe that P. Open-mindedness means that we will acknowledge the possibility that new evidence could in future lead us to change our mind. But it doesn't preclude our drawing reasonable conclusions in the present.

8 comments:

  1. Chesterton has a great passage criticizing H.G. Wells in which he says, "He thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." I think he might also have been the one who came up with the perfect label for the sort of vice you are criticizing here: open mindlessness.

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  2. Wells is certainly an easy target – he was notoriously gullible, having been taken in by transparent hoaxes about fairies and whatnot – but I find Chesterton's perversity tiresome. It's always the same: Modern Man, seemingly independent and enlightened but actually a chump, believes some bland, seeming truism P; but the gloriously paradoxical truth is that not-P, the exact opposite! After twenty or thirty times this gets old. Read his (short) book on Aquinas – it's maddening.

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  3. Well, I'll have to disagree with you there. His book on Aquinas is actually brilliant; as Gilson said, he captures more of Aquinas on paper in an accessible way than most academics could. The paradoxical turn takes some getting used to, but I don't think it's any more tiresome than any other sort of joke. For that is really what they are: jokes, and, what is more, in the case of Wells, the joke of one friend on another, since they were fairly good friends. Chesterton wrote his books for much the same reason everyone reads them; they're funny, a bit of intelligent buffoonery that's not afraid occasionally to make a thoughtful point. I suppose buffoonery can sometimes become tiresome; but I suppose I'm more easily entertained by buffoonery than most people. Besides, it sometimes goes well beyond mere buffoonery into something that's quite a serious point -- open mindlessness, for instance, is a good one.

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  4. I think this picture of openmindedness is too simplistic. The attitude can not be described with a single number. People are more or less openminded towards various subjects, depending on their past experience with similar subjects. This is actually an essential part of a practically functioning intelligence. We learn to give certain classes of claims more credence using certain hueristics that can often fail us. But when those heuristics get messed up, it's not always the hueristic's fault. (It is the hueristic's fault when people adopt irrational and dogmatic beliefs that they are emotionally opposed to being questioned.) Sometimes it's just that the little sampling of the universe that a particular person has gotten over the course of their life is, by chance, really unrepresentative of the wider universe.

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  5. I would have to agree with pdf on this one. I am currently in a situation that demonstrates how predicisive the "open minded" can be based on past experience, where the past experience predetermines the current situation's outcome. Therefore regardless of difference of mind between one individual and another, the preconceived notion that actions and events that seem similar are going to produce one outcome that was reached before in a similar situation. Where the one in question seemed open minded to begin with, the unseen and unprovable facts that lie within myself are disbelieved and my actions and decisions that, although completely good intentioned, are misunderstood, and preconceived to be that which they are not. Thus, my good intentions are seen to be malicious rather than taken at face value for truths. The painful reality of it is that it's very hard for a lot of people in this day and age to even have an open mind... myself included, and I readily admit to this.

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  6. This was well written. I wished I could cite you for an essay however I doubt a blog entry will suffice as an adequate reference.

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  7. Good post! The other day I was arguing with my bro about the existence of ghost. As a Christian, I don't believe in ghost as according to the bible that after people die, they either go heaven or hell. I believe unexplainable activity are just devil's or God's doing. My bro is a Christian but he leaves his mind open and believes in everything. He said that I should be open minded. I know well that I'm an open minded person. I thought I may be close minded that's why I'm here. Now I can double confirm I'm open minded. Firstly because of your post and secondly because I was open to the idea of myself being close minded. I believe in the bible! I come to conclusion base on facts.

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