Can You Be Too Open-Minded?

I have said in the past that Openness is the only one of the Big Five personality traits which cannot be excessive. It is always a good idea to increase one’s own Openness; for all other traits, only some people would be well served for increasing it.1 The precise ideal point for any such trait might be different from trait to trait; higher-than-average Agreeableness is probably a good thing, while Extraversion may have a broad range in the middle within which no individual position is better or worse than another. For Openness, that ideal point is at the extreme high end. In other words, if open-mindedness is a virtue, it is not a virtue which is the median of two extremes, as Aristotle said all virtues would be; it is still a virtue if it is taken to the extreme.

This is what I said, and this is still largely what I believe, but of course there are people who disagree and I thought I might take some time to consider some possible objections; furthermore, this is not the whole story. There are cases where open-mindedness can be corrupted, but I think I can explain how such a thing would not happen as a result from an excess of open-mindedness but rather from a deficit of some other virtue.

The place to begin is with the phrase, commonly misattributed to G K Chesterton, that you should not keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. (Some short Internet research suggests that this quote should be attributed to Walter Kotschnig in 1940.) A possible reason for this misattribution is that Chesterton did say something similar:

For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid.

Finally there is another phrase which you might hear sometimes if you advocate for, or are assumed to advocating for, open-mindedness: If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. (Its original attribution was much more specific, incidentally.) This is something I’ve been told from time to time in comboxes.

Between these phrases, I think I can identify two concerns about open-mindedness:

    1. Being too open-minded will condemn a person to being eternally unmoored;
    2. Being too open-minded will make a person vulnerable to bad ideas and poor reasoning.

 

I will tackle these in reverse order because the second has already been well-addressed by Carl Sagan. Continue reading

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Simple and Sophisticated Pleasures in the Capitol

While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.

an image of several elaborate chocolate cakes, including some with rabbit decorations

Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”

I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.

I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.

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Consistency in Two Traditions of Fantasy, Part 2: The Deathly Hallows

A Second Possible Consistency

In Part One of this discussion, I introduced the problem of appreciating different kinds of consistency in fantasy literature and then I elaborated the planetary correspondences of The Chronicles of Narnia as an example of a fantasy series which uses a different kind of consistency than a logical one. Now, I am not going to argue that L. F. Baum also had planetary correspondences in his work, or that the Harry Potter franchise has some hidden theological depths. What I want to suggest, though, is that each might have something more like a thematic or atmospheric consistency in place of a logical one.

A painting of a thestral

Carol Smith, “Harry Potter-47”

I think it is worth making a distinction between two ways in which that might be true. First, it might have achieved such a consistency which is easy to overlook if you aren’t primed for it; Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, according to Ward, Are an example of this. Second, it might attempt such a consistency but not have achieved it. What I mean by this is that various markers in the text suggest a sort of consistency which it aims at but a careful examination of the text will nonetheless reveal it was not successful. In that case logical consistency of the sort at which G. R. R. Martin excels would not necessarily be the best standard by which to judge the text; however, the best standard by which to judge the text is some other kind of consistency at which it also fails.1 In such a way it might be analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which really doesn’t work in the sense of logical consistency: the population distributions and the modes of agriculture, resource extraction, and economics are all impossible or at least seriously implausible. However, Tolkien does a sufficiently good job of making all of the cultural aspects look coherent that this is easy to overlook. So it might be more accurate to say that these other texts might be better judged by different standards of consistency than it is to say they are consistent in different ways, because they may have failed to meet those different standards of consistency.

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Consistency in Two Traditions of Fantasy, Part 1: Narnian Astrology

A Problem with Harry Potter

Due to the news that in the latest Harry Potter film the snake Nagini is revealed to be a human woman transformed, there has been a recent popular re-evaluation of the seven novels which originated the franchise. Many of the observations that I’ve seen on Twitter have focused on Rowling’s troubling use of racist stereotypes and her very Anglocentric errors. I have little to add as far as that goes because anything I’d have to say has been said already by others; the most relevant Twitter threads are Alexandra Erin’s and Shivam Batt’s. There is an assumption in some of these threads, however, that the world of Harry Potter could be or ought to be logically consistent in much the same way that our own is, which I consider to be mistaken. Take, for instance, questions of scale: of course it is logical nonsense that a school the size of Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in Britain given what the population of wizards in Britain seems to be in the books. And by the standards of something like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series or G. R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, which have admirably plausible, intricate, and well-developed worlds, that’s a problem. The assumption that fantasy worlds must be built on some sort of logical or plausible structure is very characteristic of how mainstream fantasy1 does often operate, but I think it is worth observing that there have always been other kinds of fantasy which do not share this assumption: Barrie’s Peter Pan books, Carrol’s Alice books, and Baum’s Oz books come most readily to mind. These books’ lack of logical consistency does not mean that they lack any internal consistency; rather, they may have consistency of a wholly different kind. I think the best way to begin exploring this other kind of consistency is by examining Michael Ward’s interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which I will spend the rest of this post doing. In a subsequent post I will speculate about possible consistencies in Harry Potter and other fantasy.

A reproduction of one of the original illustrations of THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, depicting a faun with an umbrella and a girl walking through forest.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA are in the public domain in Canada, and my understanding of Canadian copyright law is that the original illustrations therefore would be as well. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong in this.

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On Fallibilism, Protestantism, and Woo: 25 Fundamentals

Lucy Keer at the blog drossbucket wrote a post called “20 Fundamentals,” inspired by John Nerst’s post “30 Fundamentals” at his own blog called Everything Studies. The idea of each is that the author would list some of the background assumptions, attitudes, or approaches on which their thinking was based. I read “20 Fundamentals” with interest; Keer seems to be part of a cluster of rationalist and rationalist-adjacent blogs which I sometimes find quite compelling. My experience reading “30 Fundamentals” was different; I more often find rationalist and rationalist-adjacent writing infuriating than compelling, and John Nerst’s fundamentals were very much a mix of the two.

Some carpentry tools on a sawdust-covered workbench, including a vice and a pencil.

“Old traditional carpenters tools retro vintage style,” by Kyon Cheng

What’s interesting about the fact that I found this post of his so frustrating in places is that my response mirrored the experience which caused him to write it in the first place:

It’s exasperating to read something were the author’s preoccupations and thought patterns are so unlike your own that you want to launch into a long counterargument every other sentence. The kind of background assumptions that float by unnoticed when you agree with them work very differently when you don’t. What happens when you read a text by someone with a very different underlying worldview is that things sound not so much simply false but some combination of nonsensical and outrageous. “Bullshit” captures the feeling rather than “false”.

That is a pretty good summary of how I frequently feel when reading the rationalists and rationalist-adjacent, well-articulated by the sort of person whose writing I sometimes feel that way about. Their writing bewilders me: there are things that are so obvious—so obvious!—which they fail to see, and the things they take to be self-evident aren’t at all, and moreover they often seem to draw not just the wrong conclusion, but the wrong kind of conclusion, from their chosen examples and test cases.

Nerst, a large part of whose project is to disagree better, goes on to write the following:

It was only later and with more experience that I could piece together how their writings made sense against a whole other background of beliefs and interests than my own. This background was never explicitly described to me. It had to be inferred, and I came away with the conviction that we should be far more explicit about the assumed background against which we intend to communicate.

It is in that spirit that he wrote 30 fundamentals which to a greater or lesser extent define that assumed background. He also writes, “I’d like to encourage other bloggers and writers to do this too. It’s a great tool, not just for others but for yourself too. Have one you can link to so people can sniff you out and get a feel.” I think that there is merit in this exercise, though I wouldn’t be as normative about it as he seems to be, so I’m going to try it.

I like what Keer says:

What I ended up producing was a bit of a odd mixed bag of disparate stuff. Some are something like factual beliefs, some of them are more like underlying emotional attitudes and dispositions to act in various ways. // I’m not trying to ‘hit bedrock’ in any sense, I realise that’s not a sensible goal. I’m just trying to fish out a few things that are fundamental enough to cause obvious differences in background with other people. […] I’ve mainly gone for assumptions where I tend to differ with the people I to hang around with online and in person, which skews heavily toward the physics/maths/programming crowd. This means there’s a pretty strong ‘narcissism of small differences’ effect going on here […].

I’m going to attempt much the same, though the people I tend to argue with online differ markedly from those I tend to spend time with in real life, and for that matter they tend to differ markedly from each other. I might therefore avoid a narcissism of small differences and veer toward another, far less useful vice: an isolating eclecticism, bogged by eccentricity. I will also lean toward revelations that are new to me.

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Moored in Space by Drifting through Time

Some Thoughts on Feeling Grounded by Local History

If you read the Alberta Museums Association’s “Sustainability Working Group Recommendations Report,” you’ll find descriptions of five kinds of museum sustainability, one of them perhaps somewhat surprising:

Health and Well-being sustainability: refers to “the condition or state of being well, contented and satisfied with life … Well-being (and so quality of life) has several components, including physical, mental, social, [intellectual,] and spiritual. Well-being and quality of life are also used in a collective sense to describe how well society satisfies people’s wants and needs.”iv; “a shared sense of meaning and purpose is the single attitude most strongly associated with community well-being. The process of arriving at collective meanings is central to the health of a community.”v [emphasis and superscript in original]

Lest you fear, as I do, that the emphasis on collective meaning will produce homogeneity by erasing disagreement, the document goes on to address cultural diversity:

Social sustainability: “deepening and diversifying relationships, aiming to reflect the diversity of society in all that they do”viii: engaged in socially responsible work that affects real social and environmental change with the potential to create public benefit on a larger scale.ix [emphasis and superscript in original]

Although I came across these passages in the course of grant writing at a local history museum which was, until recently, my place of employment, I found that in the last two years or so I have returned to this again and again outside of work.

Fort McMurray–my place of residence between April 2016 and last week–is a strange community, one with an identity very much up for debate. It is not clear what collective meanings its citizens might share, and if there are any, I’m not sure how much I like them. I have had trouble reckoning with it as something of an outsider. It is a city of outsiders in a way unlike most other communities of its size, of course, with a high turnover rate in its population, but I am also something of a political outsider, a leftist in this most (economically) right-wing of cities. It is a hard city to make friends in at the best of times and I found it harder to do so because I knew I would be leaving in just a few years. How could I find a place for myself in this city? How could I ground myself if I knew I would not be putting down roots?1

An aerial photograph of downtown Fort McMurray. Highway 63 frames the left side of the photograph, while the Athabasca flows just below the horizon at the top of the image.

Photo of Fort McMurray, 1991, by Gord McKenna at Flickr, with a Creative Commons License.

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A Glut of Tradition

How many times I have written and rewritten some version of this post, I cannot say. At this point I do not even know what all of my reservations with this post are: that this is self-pitying, perhaps, or self-indulgent, or just a waste of time? I’ll publish this, I think, to keep myself honest, so that if I ever start getting too big for my britches you can link me back to this, say, “So, did you ever solve this problem?” And I’ll publish it so that if you feel the same way you’ll know that you aren’t alone. Not that seeing another person struggle the same struggle has given me any comfort that I can recall, but there are some people who are consoled by the idea. And, hey, I doubt some Silicon Sophia will resurrect us all in her microchips one day, but if it ever happens I suppose she can use this to improve her simulations.

A black and white image of a man standing before library stacks, holding a large number of books along one arm.

“Scene from the State Library” by State Library Victoria Collection

Near the beginning of this blog I had a crisis of sorts: what is the point of having opinions at all, let alone sharing them online, given how little I really know? I am far behind in the game of understanding the world. What makes me think I could ever catch up? I resolved this to some extent at the time and I mostly forgot about the affair. I regained a sense that I might stagger toward some understanding–albeit a limited understanding–and that this process might be instructive for someone or other. A little while later I had so regained my confidence that I tried to explain in a more systematic way the thinking I had been doing. Sure, this was provisional, trying on ideas rather than arguing for them, but that was more than I had been comfortable with previously. Alas, for the last year the sense of futility has returned, powerfully so, and for a more robust, theory-informed reason.

It began, however, with excitement. I had stumbled upon a suite of philosophy blogs into which I fell headlong; Speculum Criticum Traditionis and Digressions & Impressions are two notable examples. The one I’ve already mentioned here, and which prompted me to start reading Alasdair MacIntyre, is Amod Lele’s Love of All Wisdom. Lele is a comparative philosopher of a strongly synthetic bent; although more inclined to analytic philosophy than to Continental philosophy, he has the latter’s interest in putting Western and non-Western philosophical traditions into conversation. If you click through and look at his blog’s marquee you’ll see five representatives of the traditions he in particular is working through: Śāntideva, Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, Confucius, and Martha Nussbaum. What I found particularly exciting about his work is what he calls the “methodological MacIntyre,” referring to the way in which Alasdair MacIntyre adapted the work of Thomas Aquinas and, more importantly, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos to consider how to decide between incommensurable philosophical traditions.

I’ll explain.

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The Study of Anglicanism, Excerpts

Along with my first-ever set of gaming dice I recently ordered and received The Study of Anglicanism (1988), an anthology, edited by Stephen Sykes and John Booty, of articles on Anglicanism. Three or so years ago my then-priest recommended it along with A Passionate Balance as a way of getting to know the tradition better. Now that I have begun to read it, I thought I would write brief responses to its articles.

DYDyr3sVMAAmcL5

Photograph my own.

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Am I Autistic? Would It Matter?

Since the beginning of the new year I have realized that I might have high-functioning autism.[1] I am currently unclear about two things: how I would find out if I do and whether it would matter if I do.

This isn’t the first time I considered the possibility that I might be on the autism spectrum. When I was in undergrad I realized that certain of my traits–discomfort with eye contact, inability to interpret physical touch, minor social awkwardness, occasional bluntness and tone deafness, intellectual obsessions–were typical of autism or resembled symptoms of autism. But whenever I researched it I found that I didn’t have certain traits you would expect of someone who was autistic: not only did I pretend play a lot as a child, it was neither repetitive nor focused on a consistent topic; I am more than capable of interpreting tone of voice and reading implied content in speech; I am about average at interpreting body language; my verbal communication skills are better than usual. By my best understanding of autism at the time, I did not qualify, so I stopped looking into it and stopped thinking about it.

However, I’ve learned a bit more since then. One of the things I’ve learned is that autism is still poorly understood and that what traits are required for a diagnosis is up for (some) debate. Moreover, I’ve learned that adults have often found ways of compensating for symptoms of autism; if they learned these techniques unconsciously, they might not be aware that they are using work-arounds. This discrepancy between an ideal case of autism and what autism might actually look like prompted a particular Twitter user to create a list of traits common to people with autism that don’t appear in most diagnostic lists. It was her opinion that a person who exhibited half or more of those traits was autistic; indeed, there was one trait that she considered properly diagnostic, such that anyone who exhibits it is autistic regardless of how they answer the other items on her list.

I won’t be coy. I answered yes to the diagnostic question. When I first saw it I was very skeptical that the question was really diagnostic–indeed, I’m still skeptical[2]–but I took it seriously enough that I worked through her list. I answered for how I act right now and got exactly 50/50; if I answered for childhood, I would probably have had just over 50/50, but distributed differently. That was high enough that I started to take it seriously. Continue reading

Absolutist Pluralism

From time to time when I stake out pluralist positions on the Internet, I am accused of relativism. It took me a little while to articulate how pluralism does not necessitate relativism, but I think the more interesting point is that many morally absolutist worldviews in North America today are minimally pluralist. Conservative forms of Christianity offer some of the best examples. That’s what I want to outline in this post; in part, I hope to direct people here if I ever get into such an argument again. If you find this argument compelling, you can use it in this way too.

(If you prefer “moral realism” to “moral absolutism,” feel free to swap them in your head. I’ll be using “absolutism” because “realism” has way to many meanings, depending on the specific philosophical argument at hand, than I care to deal with here.)

kxTYRQ

Source: Lawrence OP at flic.kr/p/kxTYRQ

I can give an abstract case for a pluralism compatible with an absolutist view of what’s good for humans: Imagine there are sixteen types of people in the world, but there are thirty-two ways of doing something (earning a living, say). It might be the case that for each type of person a different way of doing something is best. Nonetheless, it does not follow from this that all thirty-two ways of doing something are good. A full half of them might, by objective standards of value, be bad for people at the same time that many of them are legitimate. Moreover, it may be objectively the case that for people of any given type, one way of doing something is best. However, I think this abstract case too readily allows a person to project their ideas about pluralism onto it. Specific and unexpected examples, I suspect, will work best to drive the point home. The examples I want to use are vocations and complementarianism. Continue reading