Sunday, September 30, 2007

An Open Mind

Recently, whilst debating on the Today message board, I have noticed a polarization between those who regard themselves as old school atheists and the so called New Atheists. The former are characterized as 'open minded' whilst the latter are seen as 'zealots'.
I am sceptical about the concept of open mindedness. It might be true that a psychometric index of flexibility of thought, or receptivity to new patterns of information might credibly be formulated and tested. I do wonder whether people can accurately assess this in the course of debate though. For example, are we swayed by irrelevant factors when deciding how open minded a contributor to a debate is? Factors like how much their position conflicts with ours and how confrontational their style of debate seems.
I wonder whether there is a direct correlation between the cognitive flexibility of a person and how open minded they seem to be. My initial thought is that there is not.
What do you think?


John Bryden said...

Psio, nice to see you've come up with another of your interesting questions that appear here from time to time -- and this is indeed an interesting question, in regards to engaging in "philosophical" conversation with others. How open-minded am I? How open-minded is the other party?

There seem to be two facets to it. First, what is it to have an open mind? Second, what signs show that an individual has this quality?

Keats, the poet, coined the term "negative capability" to denote the capacity in an artist of being open to the world as it is, and therefore able to more truly reflect the world through his art. It is this attitude that I think is the core of open-mindedness -- the willingness to accept the world as it is, which implies the willingness to accept new information, even if it conflicts with one's existing preconceptions.

As to detecting the characteristic of open-mindedness in individuals, this is not so easy. For example, a person with an argumentative personality sometimes turns out to be willing to change his mind in the light of new information; after arguing it out thoroughly, of course. It seems to be more about underlying character than the superficial aspects of personality. A deep sense of truthfulness, at the heart of it.

Those are my few comments, for what they're worth.

Psiomniac said...

I welcome your comments John and found nothing to disagree with here.

ephphatha said...

I think John is right to raise the question of what it is to have an open-mind. The way people talk, I get the feeling sometimes that everybody means something different by it. Some mean "unsure" or "agnostic" or "indecisive." Other people mean, "a rejection of the status quo." When I use the term, I just mean I'm willing to entertain a contrary position. I'm willing to hear the arguments. But I readily admit that I'm closed-minded about a lot of things. If somebody (besides my daughter) tells me there can be square circles, I'm not exactly open to that. I'm still curious about the argument, but more for entertainment purposes than actually wondering if they might know something I don't.

Psiomniac said...

I agree and I think it depends on the context. I see it as a property of process rather than content. So I regard the kind of open mindedness worth wanting, to be a kind of flexibility of thought that allows you to see things from other perspectives coupled with an ability to assess evidence fairly even if it is leading in an unexpected direction or seeming to lead to a position contrary to the one currently held.

nb said...
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Psiomniac said...
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On the side of the angels said...

"Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." GKC

Matt said...

I'm bumping around your area for the first time (since meeting you at Andrew's site), attempting to fill out my perception of your thinking, and I'm getting the idea that you have some pretty solid instincts when it comes to issues surrounding philosophy, religion, etc.

This post in particular raises a very interesting issue in the overlap between the rhetoric of common sense and that of philosophical debate. I have some parallel thoughts in this post, "Cult Followers and Free Thinkers," that I wrote some time ago. It's heavy into jargon picked up from my earliest obsession, Robert Pirsig, but I think the general thoughts can be gleaned fairly easy. The simple idea, which Stanley Fish elaborates with disturbing incisiveness in The Trouble With Principle, is that a belief held is one held absolutely. Whatever having an "open mind" might refer to, it isn't that it is a belief held less tightly than another hold's their beliefs.

I think it has to rest entirely on a person's general behavior surrounding the elaboration of ideas. For instance, do we really want to say that, since a person happens to never have changed their mind about anything important, they are closed-minded? I don't think we do. I think we should center the epithet around the notion of intellectual curiosity, of polite, and as you say, fair treatment of opposing viewpoints. Well, maybe not even polite. Perhaps, simply, if someone shows to have given something a considerable amount of thought, if they have engaged opposition in as fair a manner as is conceivable, then we should say they're open-minded.

And then we still need to be okay with ourselves being closed-minded about somethings, like Nazis.

Psiomniac said...

Thanks for stopping by. I agree with your post here and I enjoyed your linked Pirsig post.