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Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Open Mindedness, Corruption of the Mind, and Searching for ‘Truth’"

Continuing the conversation(1,2,3):

Open Mindedness, Corruption of the Mind, and Searching for ‘Truth’, EconTech [CC 3.0]: Mark Thoma began something of a conversation on how Democrats need to respect the views of others more:

If you are a Democrat, let me ask you a question. Do you truly, in your heart of hearts, respect the beliefs of a religious fundamentalist, someone who has a strong relationship with their church, opposes abortion, has doubts about evolution, and so on? If you found out your child had these beliefs, how would you react? Would your first inclination be to try to change their beliefs, to explain through gentle (or not so gentle) persuasion why other beliefs - your beliefs - are better? Or would you fully respect the beliefs as much as you do your own?

In the first instance, the obvious answer is no; if only because it is an essential feature of our decision making process that the beliefs we come to ourselves are respected more than the beliefs of others. Put more eloquently by Robin Hanson:

But this does seem a handy opportunity to repeat that while disagreement isn’t hate, it is disrespect.  When you knowingly disagree with someone you are judging them to be less rational than you, at least on that topic.  (Judging them less informed or experienced by itself can’t create disagreement.)  It might be only a minor disrespect, if you think this disagreement suggests little about whether you’d disagree with them elsewhere.  But disagreement is disrespect, nonetheless.

Of course, I believe Thoma is trying to get at something slightly different, namely how we treat each other, in terms of manners, in the course of political/scientific/social/cultural/etc. discourse; whereas Hanson is discussing approximately what we think of others during that discourse. Certainly a degree of respect, in Thoma’s usage of the word, is necessary in order to have a productive conversation, particularly in resolving political conflict. However, a line MUST be drawn. Some people are simply not worth having a conversation with; the weight we should give the information coming from them is zero.

There are at least two ways to get to this conclusion. The more emotive one is a bit easier (when is it not?): blatant racists, sexists, homophobes, those guilty of crimes against humanity (e.g. genocide), etc. have  lost their moral worth and judgments of value from them ought to be given much less (if not zero) weight. Why should we care about the opinions of mass murderers and those who willingly hold arbitrary prejudices? This is not to say that they do not have the right to express their opinion, just that the rational should not bother paying attention to them.

Isaiah Berlin expressed a similar opinion in his The Pursuit of the Ideal (pg 11, not carefully transcribed):

There is a world of objective values. By this I mean those ends that men pursue for their own sakes, to which other things are means. I am not blind to what the Greeks valued — their values may not be mine, but I can grasp what it would be like to live by their light, I can admire and respect [I believe this is closer to Hanson's usage of the word] them, and even imagine myself as pursuing them, although I do not — and do not wish to, and perhaps could not if I wished. Forms of life differ. Ends, moral principles, are many. But not infinitely [I believe he means here not that there is some finite number of values that people can pursue, but that there is a subset of values which are legitimate, even though that may be an infinite subset] many: they must be within the human horizon. If they are not, then they are outside the human sphere. If I find men who worship trees, not because they are symbols of fertility or because they are divine, with a mysterious life and powers of their own, or because this grove is sacred to Athena — but only because they are made of wood; and if when I ask them why they worship wood they say ‘Because it is wood’ and give no other answer; then I do not know what they mean. If they are human, they are not beings with whom I can communicate — there is a real barrier. They are not human for me. I cannot even call their values subjective if I cannot conceive what it would be like to pursue such a life.

Of course, there are differences here. Namely, Berlin is saying that there is no way to communicate with such people. Thus, even if we wanted to assign some positive weight to what they say, that is, afford them some respect (Hanson/Berlin), we simply cannot because we are incapable of understanding what they mean.

I’m confident that from a rationalist’s standpoint, some religious fundamentalists fit into both categories. I simply cannot understand beliefs which maintain that the world was created a few thousand years ago. There are vast swaths of data which indicate that to be an absurd proposition with nothing to indicate otherwise. The interpretation of the data seems to be accurate. The same models gives us advanced medicine, computers, cars, and all the other high tech conveniences that have made our lives so much easier than our forebears. For such a group, who otherwise lead non-partisan lives and with whom I do not interact in any significant way, I cannot give them respect (Hanson/Berlin) but at least can treat them respectfully (Thoma).

Things are different when it comes to the political landscape, however. Some fundamentalists act to deprive others of liberty, a grave injustice. Some act through intimidation and terror. Others work through democratic processes to pursue anti-libertarian ends. Even though I cannot understand these people, their actions have a moral content which I can contextualize and rightly deem to be unjust, to varying degrees, along with those who would condone them. For such people, and I believe there are more than we care to admit, I do not feel any need to treat them with much respect.

There is another angle from which this needs to be approached, however. At some point, rationalists are interested in pursuing knowledge. Unfortunately, human minds are not particularly good at maintaining a wall between what we know (at least, in some probabilistic sense) to be true and untrue. This is why I sometimes say (if not here, in my personal life), “He is not even worth listening to”. When we hear things, especially repeatedly, we simply forget if they are true or untrue because our brain does not maintain a bibliography of our knowledge, much less an annotated one:

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.

Thus, when I run into someone who is willing to believe that the universe is a few thousand years old, I recognize that they are incapable of making judgements based on evidence, and anything they say to me, if I listen to them enough, will begin to ring true. That I have good reason to believe their opinions more likely than not to be wrong, listening to them would be a mistake. A literal corruption of the mind that I, knowing this to be possible, should take action to avoid.

Stereotypes, however, are still prejudicial. Thus, when Megan McArdle says (via another Thoma post):

…Let’s be honest, coastal folks:  when you meet someone with a thick southern accent who likes NASCAR and attends a bible church, do you think, “hey, maybe this is a cool person”?  And when you encounter someone who went to Eastern Iowa State, do you accord them the same respect you give your friends from Williams?  It’s okay–there’s no one here but us chickens.  You don’t.

What she is really arguing against is prejudicial stereotyping. And it does occur (obviously). I am from a small town in Louisiana. I had a professor (if you want to know, an extremely conservative economics professor) completely write me off because he found out where I was from. Another student I didn’t even know found it worth remarking upon how blatantly this guy was treating me even though I had proven up to that point to be one of the more correct responders in class (the professor spent most of the time berating students for answering his question incorrectly). Further, anyone who has attended an elite institution knows that there is a significant portion of the student body that does not have the intelligence of, say, a bean pole, and that their geographic origins are not concentrated in any one place. Of course, those who stereotype the academics are making the same mistake.

Thus when we meet someone and begin discussing controversial issues, it is best to give them a chance or five to prove themselves capable of making reasoned arguments, regardless of their background. To do otherwise would be unjust and unwise.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 12:15 AM in Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (50)

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    » Avoiding Those Who Aim to Corrupt Your Mind from Pacific Views

    Mark Thoma has been having a conversation about being opened minded and whether Democrats need to look at how they treat small town Americans. An interesting point about what it means to be respectful and willing to listen to others... [Read More]

    Tracked on Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 01:57 PM


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