Friday, 10 September 2010

What Do You Mean "Open-Minded"?

When I was a child I was led to believe that someone could bend spoons just with their mind. In fact I was led to believe that psychic powers such as mind-reading and telekenesis were real. For a time I was worried about others reading my thoughts and even strove to see if I could learn others.

At the same time I remember other kids claiming they could do so, with the amazing feat of knowing what the person would say next. It was apparent though that far from being able to read minds it relied on intuitive psychology by asking leading questions. Those worked some of the time, yet all attempts to actually read thoughts proved fruitless.

I don't know when I fully gave up on dualism or even when I first started doubting it. But at some point I for practicality gave up on it, then as I got older and read more I gave up on it. This is not an account of why belief in psychic powers is silly, but what it means to have an open mind.

It seems there are two different things meant when someone brings up open-mindedness, and while irreconcilable they are often equivocated. The first is a basic principle of sceptical inquiry:
Don't dismiss out of hand the possibility of an idea.
This should be reasonable enough, it would be a shame if an idea was dismissed with no possibility for acceptance without a proper examination. Otherwise it would be arguing out of ignorance. Yet this basic principle is bastardised with what many mean when they ask about an open mind.
Don't use science and reason to deny my experience.
The problem with the way people use open mind is wanting to suspend what we know to place a narrative in its place that sits outside it.

This is not to say that science and the application of reason are infallible endeavours, but that the suspension of them at the first sign of a conflicting narrative isn't really a good way of going about things. To take on board without consideration would be just as bad as dismissing without consideration, at both points the idea has gone unexamined beyond the reflexive.

The difference between the different forms is the difference between examination of the evidence and contemplation of the interpretation. If someone says they saw Bigfoot, it's not their good word the case rests on but what the evidence says. It might be that they actually saw it, that's a possibility however remote but we can't take that account on board as being either truth or lies.

The first kind is a recognition of fallibility while the second kind is putting interpretation above all else. To use an analogy of Dan Dennett, the first kind is seeking the grounding of cranes while the latter is begging for a skyhook. The skyhook may ultimately lead to other cranes that we can't yet comprehend but whether there are cranes or not is incidental to the acceptance of the skyhook.

I wasn't aware of the Skeptic movement until about 5 years ago, one of my old house-mates introduced me to Bullshit! and from there reading the likes of Michael Shermer then getting more involved both online and offline. But that didn't turn me into a sceptic, I was one for years without even knowing the label let alone the movement.

It's that first kind of open-mindedness that distinguishes a sceptic from a non-sceptic. No-one is downright credulous, and indeed it would be hard to put ideas like conspiracy theories into anything other than misapplied scepticism. The difference between the two kinds of open-mindedness is the desire to ground the beliefs as much as possible; to show the cranes from the ground up rather than to grasp at skyhooks.

Perhaps one day someone will come along that can really bend spoons with their minds. I doubt this in the telekenetic sense, but there's always the possibility. But until such time as can be demonstrated that it can work and how that fits into a well-grounded epistemology, then there's every reason to be sceptical of those claims. The danger is the equivocation between the grounded sense of an open mind (that it might be possible) and the other sense where seeing someone bend a spoon means he did it through telekenesis.

As is so often said, open your mind but not so much that your brain falls out.

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