My habit (though I’m not always consistent about this) is to look for diamonds in the rough of ideas, even apparently bad ideas. And I find that this sometimes gets me in trouble with some readers of this blog. For example, atheists don’t appreciate me looking for positive things to say about religion (even as I profess myself an agnostic). And liberals who see me writing liberal things sometimes express bafflement when I occasionally say something nice, say, about Ayn Rand. It may be, after many years of moderating classroom discussions between people with diverse points of view, that I’ve become wishy-washy in coming at issues (trying to attentively listen from multiple sides without ever rushing to reasonable closure). There is, afterall, something to be said for Hamlet finally making up his mind, and slaying his uncle Claudius, and putting the play to bed. Still, over the years, I feel like I’ve learned ten important things about the intellectual life (or, I should say, at least these ten things are important to me):
- Try to get comfortable in the mental space of Hamlet (have some confusion over whether “to be or not to be”; to do or not to do; to believe or not believe). Mentally inhabit contrarities in their turn. Don’t rush to closure. Keats called this quality of mind “negative capability“, and he suggested that Shakespeare was the supreme possessor of it. I think that Whitman and Barack Obama also have this quality. It’s the ability to shape shift, and take on personas and ideas for trial runs, and to walk in the shoes of others with some degree of sympathy.
- It’s usually wise to qualify your remarks, and not present them in absolute terms. Seek nuances. Make distinctions.
- In the thick of an argument, insist on clear definitions and evidence.
- There are nearly always, and invariably, many interesting sides to an issue, and each will tend to have grains of truth in them. Find those grains of truth.
- Ultimately, the universe may not hold together as something capable of full integration as a cosmos, but may be more like a patchwork. It may not be possible, for example, to coherently obtain (and to the full) things that most of us think of as good (such as both justice and equality at the same time). And it may not be possible to pull together a full explanation, say, of the mind’s existence from material properties. Despite our best efforts, the universe, including the universe of our social lives, may well have paradoxes, perplexities, and loose ends incapable of reduction, or of being brought together into a maximally happy whole (except perhaps in the mind of God, which we don’t possess or have access to).
- Ideas tend to take on lives of their own, and, without some discipline on the part of their adherents, tend toward reductio ad absurda. Thus, to offer two examples: If altruism is a good, some Christians may make it an absolute good; if selfishness is a good, some Objectivist might turn it into an absolute good
- Reality testing. It’s always a good idea to ask what the world would be like should your ideas prevail, or to discover, wherever possible, how your ideas actually interact with the world when they come in contact with it.
- Be hard on all living options in your intellectual vicinity. In other words, if being an atheist is a living and serious option for you, that is a signal that you should cast a harder skeptical eye on that idea than, say, something like Scientology, which may not be a living option for you (that is, you would never seriously consider becoming a Scientologist, but you would seriously consider becoming an atheist). Attacking an idea is a sign that you respect it. The very fact that you are going hard on an idea and giving it attention at all says that you take it seriously, and it is a living option for you.
- Be hardest of all upon your own current beliefs. Seek disconfirmations and raise doubts. Read the best books on the other side (those books that might well undermine your beliefs). Look at them and take their critiques seriously. Don’t push your doubts away.
- To the degree that it is humanly possible, avoid the temptation to engage in ad hominem and the demonization of others. Realize that you will sometimes fail in this regard.
Perhaps if I thought about it more, there’s one or two other big things that influence how I approach an issue, but these are the ten that I can think of right now. Maybe others have some additional suggestions?