Sunday, November 23, 2014

Being Open-Minded

In 1997 in their song “Nutopia”, Pigface described a generation of people that is “Alive to the universe: dead to the world.”

What does it mean to be open-minded?  What does it mean to be skeptical?  

Generally we think of these two qualities as opposites.  We describe people as being open-minded if they seem generally agreeable when presented with new ideas.  And we describe people as skeptics if they challenge new information and are generally argumentative.  These are bold misuses of the terms, and I’m not just making a semantic statement here.
Nearly everyone entertains and accepts new ideas that conform to or align with the views and beliefs that they already hold.  Psychologists call this confirmation bias.  So I don’t define this behavior as being “open-minded”.  It’s just expected; it’s the default.

Likewise everyone is a “skeptic” when it comes to new ideas that contradict their views and beliefs.  This is because of cognitive dissonance, not because of genuine, active skepticism. 

It’s pretty easy, I think, to see a perspective where confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are really just two symptoms of a single underlying psychological tendency.  One is the positive aspect; the other is the negative.

Someone who is truly open-minded is willing to accept the possibility of ideas that defy his/her current understanding.  And a true skeptic is one who looks for flaws in new information regardless of value judgments, and even seeks to introspectively challenge his/her current understanding.  When stated this way, skepticism and open-mindedness sound like two steps in the same mental process.  They are two sides of the same metaphorical coin.

Open-mindedness and skepticism are not passive attributes of a person, but behaviors that critical thinkers actively perform to overcome the problems of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

Skepticism/open-mindedness is an intellectual, or rational mental process.  What is one to do, when confronted with ideas that can’t be rationally assessed?  For example, I have friends that use intuitive abilities to arrive at conclusions.  But even if you assume that intuition can lead one to a valid conclusion, you have to accept that the process could fail for a number of reasons.  What should one think if two people, who are accepted to have strong intuitive abilities present conflicting conclusions?  For that matter, how does one assess the validity of one’s own intuitively reached conclusions?   For another example, ff one accepts a given idea as a “spiritual truth”, how does one determine if it is or is not also an empirical truth (assuming there is no empirical or logical means to assess it)?

Rational type people tend to disengage from these questions pretty quickly because we don’t know what to do with them.  The natural inclination is to ignore the possibility that non-rational processes can lead to empirically valid ideas non-arbitrarily.  But that response is derived from cognitive dissonance, not skepticism.  And people that are intuitive by nature don’t typically engage in serious critical thinking.  As I write this, I can’t think of anyone that displays strong intuitive ability and is highly open-minded/skeptical.  Maybe intuitives could do something with those questions, but they don’t ever ask them.  And even if they did, could they explain their thoughts in a way that a rational person could understand?

I know that Buddha acknowledged the importance of both rational and non-rational faculties.  But I have not heard of any instruction on reconciling the two.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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