Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Remark on Open-mindedness

One often hears someone say that he or she cannot imagine any other explanation for X. Even more common is a rhetorical statement (often dribbling out of the mouth of a politician) that there is no conceivable alternative explanation for Y. A pseudo-scientist might claim that the scientific consensus is that there is only one way to explain phenomenon Z. How should one construe such remarks, especially when they come from oneself?

The simple answer is that such dogmatic attitudes should cause one pause – they typically represent the wrongheaded confidence with which a person holds a position. Nearly every complex issue or situation has alternative explanations, even when one is unable to generate them. The logic of complexity is such that alternative explanations nearly always exist. This ability to resist dogmatism is based on a reminder I have adopted from a remark in one of O. K. Bouwsma’s unpublished journals – namely that it would be a remarkable coincidence if the world happened to coincide with the limits of his imagination. From “I cannot imagine it” to “it cannot possibly be otherwise” there is a huge leap, and it is seldom a leap of faith – it is a leap of hubris. Getting others to see the difference in those two statements (“I cannot imagine  it” vs. “it cannot be”) is a challenge, and it is especially challenging to recognize the difference in one’s own thinking.

The way I try to remind myself of this difference is through the following mantra:

              I know less than I am generally inclined to believe.

I have been reminded of that simple fact on all too many occasions.

Mike Spector
5 August 2012