Think another way

by Shihang

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.

Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”, 1.5.170-173

 

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

John Maynard Keynes

 

I rose when I was called by the chairman, and as best as I tried to hide it, I was sure everybody could sense the fear in the air. I clutched at my folded script desperately, and started telling the opposition why my team thought religion was more a force for good than for evil. Occasionally, my teacher nodded encouragingly, and that seemed to be a good sign. There was only one problem: I desperately disagreed with what I was arguing for. The opposition would make a counter-argument and I would note that it was one I would use myself. As I was making the reply speech, I could not help thinking how absolutely idiotic it would be for any reasonable person to disregard the points that the opposition had made. Disastrously or so I am told, I offered to settle for a draw.

Unfortunately, I think I learnt the wrong lesson from this woeful endeavour. I came away convicted in the need for critical thinking. I dismissed debating as an exercise where the debater must argue against his own convictions, an intellectually dishonest pastime. In an Orwellian spirit, I thought that society would be better off if everybody was more comfortable engaging with arguments rather than slogans, where there is not a prima facie rejection of ideas and attitudes because they differ from the traditional way things are done. In hindsight, it appears to me that what I was calling for was independent thinking. Instead of encouraging thoughtfulness, I merely emphasised the need to think about issues and avoid fallacy when coming to logically valid conclusions.

While this was important and necessary, it occurred to me that it is not helpful in solving important normative questions. It is like having the right solution to a wrongly formulated problem. Thoughtfulness is not merely the ability to construct valid and considered arguments. It is having the openness to consider new arguments as objectively as we can and the confidence to criticise or accept it without insecurity. One intellectual experience that showed me the error of my ways was when I realised that the free market ideology I aggressively believed in was a bankrupt philosophy. Having learnt the rudiments of free-market philosophy at 15, I started argued against government intervention and welfare programs, stressing the loss of efficiency that will result and dismissing any welfare gains as unimportant. I was having a heated discussion with a friend about the importance of welfare policy, when she quickly grew irate at my callous dismissal of the misery of the unemployed. My problem, according to her, was that I had mistaken arbitrary indicators like efficiency as ends in themselves, instead seeing them as means towards human happiness.

She was right, of course. I had dogmatically believed that greater efficiency and prosperity would bring happiness. I was reminded of the time I was debating about the merits of religion. It would be absolutely idiotic to wave away her arguments as I have always done. As I became more aware of the issues of equity and equality, it became apparent that I had to change my beliefs. While I had always made a virtue of intellectual consistency, I realised that it was futile to enter discussions with the assumption of infallibility, and an eagerness to reject others’ ideas. I must be open to letting the facts apparent to me change, and when they do, I should be ready to change my mind.

[One of the essays on my hard drive, which I must have written for one thing or another.]

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