Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Open-mindedness and Skepticism

I hold it a virtue to be open-minded and skeptical.  Open-mindedness is the ability to momentarily consider any idea as true.  Skepticism is the ability to momentarily consider any idea as false.

The reason I like people who are skeptical and open-minded is because, given an infinite amount of time to express our ideas, we can always reach agreement (or at least we can lay out all of our reasoning and completely understand each other).  This is not necessarily true with those who are non-skeptical or non-open-minded.  Of course, there are things in life other than agreement...

Paradoxically, I like people who are confrontational rather than agreeable.  I find agreeable people tend to sweep issues under rugs, which is never a good thing for close friends (or lovers).  When people disagree with me I don't react emotionally.  I find it interesting, provided they don't have a shallow opinion that I've heard a million times before.  I'm lucky in this, because disagreements are plentiful in life and thus I'm provided with an unending supply of entertainment.

I like people who tell me when I'm doing something wrong.  I feel secure with such people because I know I won't unwittingly offend them.  Even if I disagree with their criticism, I appreciate their confrontation.  I try to be confrontational myself, but because I'm easy-going and virtually unoffendable I hardly ever find anything wrong with people (except for one thing).  Actually it's more like: all my friends are so awesome that they rarely do anything very wrong.

I know some people don't like arguments, they feel arguing only ever creates conflicts and no-one ever changes anyone's mind in any case.  These people are right.  99% of the time.  The vast majority of people are not skeptical or not open-minded, and with at least one such person in a discussion deadlock is imminent.  However, I feel discussing things is really important.  If I had never discussed my values and beliefs with people throughout my life, I would still have a philosophy and world view that I now look upon as vastly inferior compared to what I currently have.  While you may not change the other person's mind, exposure to other people's ideas and feelings broadens your own and gives you a deeper understanding of human nature.  As an added bonus, on a rare occasion you will change the other person's mind, and on another rare occasion your own mind will be changed.  These gems are worth arguing for.

The beef that people really have with arguments and confrontations is that they expect that the other person will get emotionally upset.  This is actually a very legitimate excuse for not confronting somebody, but should not be the case with friends.  You can say "hello" to someone in such a way that will offend them, you can swear at someone in such a way that it will make them smile.  The problem is not in the content of the argument or confrontation, the problem is that people suck at giving and receiving criticism.  In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that if you can't confront or disagree with a friend because you're afraid of their emotional reaction then you need to either learn how to present your criticisms more sympathetically or get a better friend.

So have you figured out what that one thing is that I rarely get to confront people about?
       Bad epistemology.  (Epistemology being the philosophy of knowledge, i.e. What do we know? What does it mean to know something? How do we know what we know? etc..)  Most people are flexible in some parts of their thinking, but too much of their mentality is based on unaltering assumptions, as though these are handed down from some higher power.  Interestingly, in my experience epistemic arrogance is independent of intelligence.  Very smart people will cling to certain ideas, especially if the ideas are deep and nuanced, and regard them as the absolute truth.  Whereas skeptical and open-minded people are less likely to be fooled by emotion, blinded by grand ideas or shackled to iron logic based on flawed assumptions.  Their knowledge is malleable and adaptive, they don't hold on to it like a treasure, and it tends to converge to something resembling actual reality.  I have an opinion: I think people should be skeptical and open-minded.  Perhaps I'll confront you about it soon.