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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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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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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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

Are Jones’s Theological Worlds Comprehensive?

I have mentioned W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds construct more than a few times here. It is one of the constructs I use to help me understand why other people believe and assume the things that they do. But I’ve also expressed concern here about two potential problems that arise out of Jones’s very Christian emphasis: a) how useful is it to apply Jones’s construct to non-Christians and b) how comprehensive is his set of Worlds?

To an extent that last question is an empirical one which will be difficult for me to answer; Jones’s method involved surveying hundreds of people and I do not have the resources to do the same. But there is another way to attempt to answer the question about comprehensiveness which, I have discovered, might also help make his constructs more useful for non-Christians. After a bit of thought I think I have been able to schematize his Worlds so that they do, or at least might, cover all possible sources of anxiety and obsession about the human condition.

DnhB8H

Stephane Lollivier at flic.kr/p/DnhB8H; I spent a while trying to find a Creative Commons image of a garrison town with a wooden palisade in boreal forest, but no such luck.

Let’s start with that human condition: human life is characterized by a) individual humans with their own internal dynamics b) embedded within and enmeshed with an environment which includes, but is not limited to, the facts of time and space, of the Laws of Thermodynamics, and so on, and c) associated with other individual humans (even if only their own parents) in ways more or less organized. The internal workings (understood both physically and psychologically) of any given human, which I will call human nature, has various requirements (ie. sustenance, medicine, narrative), some of which that person can only attain from the surrounding environment; when humans organize themselves into institutions, they usually do so with the purpose of making it easier for themselves to meet these needs through collective action. These organizations are necessary because it is often difficult for people to meet their needs either within themselves or through interaction with the environment. Even when it is not difficult to meet these needs alone, there is no guarantee that it will remain easy.

Therefore there are three places where crises may arise for any given person: in the environment (which, again, includes all contingent and all necessary features of existence, such as time and space and the laws of physics), in the person’s own internal workings (which might be generalized human nature or a specific person’s unique nature), or in human organization. Indeed, while all problems must necessarily involve elements of each of these three aspects of human existence, an individual person may experience one of these as being more responsible or more ultimately responsible in comparison to the other two.

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Guilt and Shame in the Colossus of Rhodes

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Colossus of Rhodes, an iron-framed and brass-covered statue of the titan and sun god Helios, which stood in the harbour of Rhodes, Greece. Built in 280 BCE, it was the tallest statue of its time at 70 cubits high (about 33 metres or 108 feet). Contrary to popular depiction, it likely did not straddle the mouth of the harbour. Nonetheless, it would have been an impressive sight to any sailors approaching the city. Greek myth animated another bronze colossus in Crete named Talos: either Hephaestus or Daedalus made the automaton on Zeus’s behalf in order to defend Europa, queen mother of Crete. He had one vein in his metal body, which ran from his neck to his ankle; it was fastened shut with a single nail. When the Argo approached, with Jason at the helm, Talos tried to repel it and Medea used her sorcery to dislodge the nail. His ichor ran out of him like molten lead and he died. The Cretan word talôs is equivalent to the Greek hêlios, meaning the Sun, which is the subject of the Colossus of Rhodes. Much later the Romans made further bronze colossi: the Colossus of Barletta, the Colossus of Constantine, and the Colossus of Nero.

Coloso_de_Rodas.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coloso_de_Rodas..jpg

I feel like I live inside a colossus of this type: a brazen image of myself, physically idealized, well-proportioned and gargantuan. It is hollow, and I stand inside it with the clear understanding that I am supposed to grow into it. I am supposed, somehow, to fill this statue so that it is merely my own skin. But I have no sense that this thing is possible, nor how to achieve it if it is. Instead I try to operate the colossus and speak from it like a puppeteer. Relying on the full extent of my scant ingenuity I try to create the illusion that I have done what I am supposed to do, or at least that I am in the process of growing into it. But I know better. I have made no gains in that direction. From within, the colossus rings as empty as it ever has.

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MacIntyre on Sophoclean Tragedies

Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.

dp67Vf

Source: UCI UC Irvine at flic.kr/p/dp67Vf

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A Partial Apology for Liberalism, or, A Partial Criticism of its Critics

Before I begin, a note is warranted: I will be dropping a lot of names in this piece and I want to put you at ease before you have to deal with them. I don’t expect that any of my likely readers will be familiar with most of the people I mention and I am trying to write specifically so that you can still understand what’s going on without knowing who they are. Anything I need you to know about them, I will tell you myself. I will also provide links should I fail in this endeavour or should I succeed in piquing your interest, but I do not intend for you to rely upon them. That said, let’s begin.

A statue of the Godd of Democracy, holding a torch aloft, behind whom are evergreen branches.

The Goddess of Democracy at UBC. Source: Carl Mueller at flic.kr/p/5cNvQY

A few weeks ago I found Love of All Wisdom, the philosophy blog of Amod Lele. There’s a lot going on with Lele’s work that I find interesting and compelling. An academic philosopher with a PhD in the subject, he describes himself as working in the Aristotelian, Buddhist, and historicist traditions and his work is wide-ranging, bringing a huge variety of both Western and non-Western philosophers to a problem. (His header has pictures of his major influences: Santideva the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Aristotle the ancient Greek empiricist, Hegel the German historicist, Confucius the traditionalist communitarian, and Martha Nussbaum the contemporary academic philosopher.) He also uses a few different categorization schemes for philosophies, two of which he’s organized into a quadrant system that I am thinking of adopting: integrity vs. intimacy and ascent v. descent. (If I was still at my old blog, I’d add it to my Taxonomies of Religions list.) His thought is new to me, but I admire his precision, erudition, creativity, and seriousness–a rare combination of traits in a thinker.

Although I would love to just list the things I’ve learned from Lele, what I want to focus on for this post is where his ideas intersect with those of other people whose thought I’ve encountered lately, who explicitly reject the anthropology, and therefore politics, of liberalism.* Continue reading

Against Libertarianism: An Annotated, Opinionated Bibliography

Jon Wong has asked me to write a post about my understanding of libertarianism, and I agreed to do it.* In retrospect, this was maybe foolish: I can’t think of anything interesting to say which hasn’t already been said by others. So rather than write 3000 words that have already been written, I will introduce those already-written words which best represent my understanding of libertarianism.

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Source: Tom Wardill at flic.kr/p/yFx8a

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