Have You Changed Your Mind Recently?

What have you changed your mind about? That was the question posed to dozens of scientists and intellectuals at the endlessly stimulating web site Edge.org. Paul Kedrosky took a stab at the question, too.

I love the question because it implicitly rejects inertia-powered living: believing something because you have always believed it, doing something because you have always done it, living today like you lived yesterday without stopping to ask why.

Questioning entrenched habits or beliefs is hard. It can result in uncertainty or self-doubt. But ultimately I think makes you a more rigorous and respectable thinker. Contra those who glorify "consistency" and pounce on any shift in opinion as "flip-flopping" or hypocritical, I pay attention to those who have clear uncertainties, those who have changed their political party affiliation in their lifetime, those who have a long list of sentences which begin: "In light of new evidence or new reflections I now believe…."

Since it's Inauguration Day and politics is on my mind, I believe inertia was the reason many smart conservatives (and I have many smart conservative friends) voted for McCain / Palin on November 4th. It was easier to hold onto old beliefs — around McCain's maverick-ness, around the Republican Party's so-called commitment to limited government — than confront new facts as they came in. Namely, McCain's pandering and politics-as-usual, his party's big-government ideas, the recklessness of Sarah Palin both as a person and in what his picking her says about him. No, close your eyes and chant in unison, "Personal responsibility! [What does that even mean?] Limited government! Fierce independent thinker! Democracy!" I don't mean to impugn the critical thinking skills of the tens of millions who voted for that ticket – many of them had rational, good reasons for their vote. But other conservative intellectuals who supported McCain / Palin showed a remarkable disinterest in reality as it was unfolding and instead clung to the facts of yesterday or abstract philosophical ideals no longer embodied by the candidate on the ground.

Hail the lifelong Republican who donated and volunteered for past Republican campaigns who voted for Obama. Hail the Obama supporter who voted for "progressive" policies and is now expressing anger at Obama's very-centrist appointments and statements to-date. Hail the person who's willing to base current beliefs off current facts, even at the cost of identity confusion.

Like so many of the ideas on this blog, I write about this aspirationally! I am as susceptible to inertia as the next guy. I get seduced by pursuing what's familiar without asking myself whether it's also right – sometimes it is sometimes it's not, but either way actively asking myself the question would go a long way to making better decisions.

Bottom Line: Have you changed your mind about something recently?

10 comments on “Have You Changed Your Mind Recently?
  • I changed my mind about Obama. It seems that I am as susceptible to the message of hope as the next fellow (or more so than the majority of the people at my high school who are appalled that he was elected).

  • Ben,

    This post reminded me of a South Park episode from several years ago that made the point that no one single answer is ever the answer. More and more, I have come to find that this is true, especially in politics, economics, even religion. Of course, on some issues there is a single answer, but often we don’t arrive at it without a fierce devotion to empiricism.

    While uncertainty and self-doubt are both troubling consequences of the habit of challenging your own beliefs, perhaps even more upsetting is the social and personal disruption of your life that can result, given we often form bonds around commonly held beliefs. The greatest example of this may be religion. I have considered myself a Christian for the last 8 years or so and have recently begun to seriously question almost everything Christianity is founded upon, including the very existence of any sort of god. Thus far, I have kept this entirely to myself because so many of my friends and family are Christians, even my own girlfriend. I’ll have to confront them eventually if I want to remain honest to myself and those closest to me, which is usually something I strive for.

    Mark Twain addresses this very dilemma in his essay, “The Privilege of the Grave,” recently published for the first time in The New Yorker. He writes, “Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.”

  • I’m no longer sure that simply shifting focus and troop numbers from Iraq to Afghanistan is a good idea. I’m starting to lean towards thinking that Afghanistan is just as big of a black hole of suck and failure as Iraq, potentially worse.

    BTW, Ben, unless I’m missing something, this post didn’t contain your answer. A forthcoming post?

  • I think it’s interesting to distinguish between deciding and acting.

    You could break down a decision and its possible routes of action like this:

    a) Decide and act (taken too far, this is overconfidence)
    b) Decide but don’t act (taken too far, this is laziness or cowardice)
    c) Don’t decide and don’t act. (i.e. prudence. taken too far, this is paralysis by self-doubt)
    d) Don’t decide, but act anyway (doubt, but suck it up. taken too far, this is recklessness)

    Entrepreneurs have to act, so they need a bunch of (a) and/or (d). Having predominantly (d) over (a) could cause you to evaluate your course of action more thoroughly, but at the same time, it could make for motivation problems when doubts arise and turn your (d) into (c). I bet the other way around, more (a) than (d), makes failure more painful. I wonder what the best balance is.

    I like (d) in when it comes to philosophy/politics/etc, since it lets you get things done while continuing to consider the issues. It’s unpleasant, though. Doubt is the price of acting without deciding.

  • I was just thinking about this the other day and I would really love to talk to a hardcore Republican that voted for Obama during these past elections—if that even exists.

    I live in Illinois so it’s all Dems, all the time. It gets a little tiring because you get the feeling that everyone has kind of given in to the intertia of thinking the same way and not having any intelligent debating about the “other side.”

    One time in grad school I made a comment to the whole class that made it sound like I was pro-Bush (which I realized as soon as it was out my mouth) and the reaction from the class was stunning: it was like I had spit in a girls’ face or something. Very interesting!

  • I’ve changed my mind about the fear of death.

    I’ve never been an atheist, but I can accept atheism as a tenable philosophical position if one defines it, like Patrick Bateson in his essay at Edge, as “a lack of a belief in a God.”

    But I consider it a logical fallacy to insist, like the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, that one knows God or deity does not exist, as much as if one insists that he knows ‘He’ or it does exist.

    When any of us talks about the spiritual or the supernatural, the best he can do is describe what he believes to be true, which implies a faith in what cannot be scientifically demonstrated.

    Until I smoked salvia I’d always been proud to say that I didn’t fear death, because I did not see it as annihilation of personality. Now that I’ve had the experience, I must say that when confronted with what seemed to be the end of my life, I was utterly terrified.

    When at the time it seemed a certainty that I would die, I most emphatically did not want to.

    I had bought one of the weaker grades of Purple Sticky (salvia leaf impregnated with an extract of the active principle, Salvinorin-A) at a headshop before they made it illegal here.

    I shudder to think what sort of experience I might have had if I’d tried a stronger grade.

    As a veteran psychonaut, I didn’t really expect much effect– maybe a pleasant buzz, like weed.

    What a shock! Instantly after I vaporized a bowlful with an ultra-butane lighter, I was seeing the world as if through a conical telescope, the wide end at my eyes, and the dimensions of space-time wrapped inward on themselves like an infinite spiral.

    It may sound very hallucinatory, but this was far beyond any visual or neocortical sensory experience I ever had on psilocybin or LSD.

    I was conscious of thousands of long arms grasping at me from what I can only call the ‘Grave’ of the floor of my house. I could feel their hands pulling me, as if to join them in their world. They seemed voraciously hungry to have me there.

    At the same time, as I looked around the interior of my little cathedral, the atoms of the scene, observed from this new angle of sight, rearranged into what I call ‘clown’ faces. They were leering at me like living, breathing voodoo masks.

    The scariest thing was that it seemed I had initiated a chain of events which would inevitably end in my death. The hungry hands, even though it felt as if they were going to pull me into the floor, did not seem malignant. The clown faces didn’t seem to be evil so much as amused at my predicament.

    Fortunately, the whole experience didn’t last more than two or three minutes, and I rapidly came down, with a peaceful afterglow.

    I was so shaken by this paradigm-shattering ‘trip’ that I resolved never to try it again. But the next day curiosity overcame me, and I repeated the experiment, to see if it happened again.

    It did– grasping hungry hands, leering clown-faces and all.

    Anyway, I can state with assurance that I do not want to die, just yet.

  • I am one of those republicans who voted for McCain who hasvoted for Bush both times in the past. Though I am a republican more so in a classical sense than to say that I adhere to the party lines today, I weighed the two candidates against each other and voted republican because I believe that a vote for a libertarian candidate would have been a waste in a utilitarian sense. The economic policies of our government are suppressive to a number of families. Mine, having been the benefactors of an inheritance were required to hand over 48% of a dead mans’ life earnings and savings to the government. When the government begins to tax opportunistically and at the rates that it does, it becomes Machiavellian in nature; Barack Obamas’ economic policies do not reflect any deviation from this course. McCains’ to a greater degree did. I have many qualms with the republican party as my ideals about government align more closely with the libertarian party platforms, but I also understand that there are certain realities which the libertarian party has yet to sufficiently address. I would be willing to debate the merits of my ideals and stances with anyone who wishes. Political discussions are a vehicle by which individuals can better clarify their own positions, including my own. I can be reached through my blog.

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