The maxim that “[f]or every problem there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong” (by H. L. Mencken) is often repeated. However, we stop at saying that it is wrong, and don’t look at its effects in society as a whole. For there are plenty of solutions out there which are simple, neat and wrong. There are also plenty of solution which are more complex, messier, and still wrong (just look at all the laws in the law books, which have never solved anything and definitely fulfill all three criteria).
The reason why I point this out is because it relates very much to a thought I had recently. It seems to me that curious and incurious people both have one thing in common: they see everything around them, every experience, as being pregnant with meaning. They both try to construct explanatory schemes which gives them the answers to why things are the way they are, and how things should be.
But there are vast differences in the kind of schemes that both groups use as their explanatory schemes. The incurious people use arbitrary ad hoc schemes (God did it, karma, destiny/God’s will, “spirit forces,” etc) and schemes based on prejudice (nationalism, racism, sexism, manichean worldview, etc). These schemes shut down further thought, new questions and new answers. They are meant to be the end point beyond which one cannot and must not look.
For example, when someone explains a fact with “God did it,” nothing more can be said beyond that. How did God do this? Blank. How can we differentiate between things that God does and things that nature or man does? Blank. How do we deal with the ethical consequences of what God does? Blank. God did it, and that settles it. You either believe it or you don’t.
The manichean worldview is another popular scheme that shuts down thought. For instance, why did Hitler commit all the incredible crimes that he did? Because he was an “evil person,” of course. By what magic do some people acquire the property of “evilness”? Blank. How can we identify “evil people” before they get the power to inflict evil? Blank. How come people identified as “evil people” can still do good things? Blank. He was an “evil person,” and that’s all the explanation you need. Any attempt to explore the issue, or to portray him as a human being, means that you are trying to cover up this absolute and complete “evilness.”
In contrast, the curious people use theories which expand their understanding and open the mind towards further thought and questions. Science is a good example of that. For every question that science answers, five new questions open up, and new areas of thought are created constantly. In fact, any thinker who tries to shut down his reasoning, who sets up dead-end streets in his mind, cannot be called a good thinker at all.
Also, there is another major difference in how each group treats new experiences. The incurious will do everything they can to fit new experiences into their schemes, no matter how bad the fit. The curious will do the exact opposite, trying to fit the schemes to their experiences. If the fit is bad, they will either try to explain why, or change their scheme to fit the new experience. This idea of a revolution in thought, a change of paradigm, exists in all fields where people are curious and honestly seek truth, and is known to all such persons as a personal experience as well.
If someone says “God did it,” then not only is there no further thought possible, but also no amount of evidence can dissuade him of that premise. After all, God can do anything, and can have any motivation that the believer can come up with. All the monstrosities of this world, all the diseases, all the suffering, can be explained away to any believer’s satisfaction, even though such rationalizations are always illogical. The atheist, on the other hand, has no need for such rationalizations, because he has no such metaphysical absolutes to defend.
If someone believes that Hitler was an “evil person,” then no evidence can dissuade him of this position either. After all, any seemingly good action can be explained away as a sociopath trying to posture himself as being compassionate. But if a person is really interested in learning why Hitler grew up from being a child to being a genocidal dictator, or to explain the rise of Nazi Germany, or the origins of any criminal mind, he can read biographies and psychological analyses. By understanding what factors acted upon the “evil person,” he will necessarily expand his understanding to encompass this person’s family, the institutions he was subject to, and his society as a whole. In doing so, he may refute some of his own beliefs.
Now, most people reject both attitudes, and see any attempt at constructing a system of thought as being dogmatic. It is not hard to understand why they think so. After all, religion has made a monopoly of moral and ethical systems, and these systems are very contradictory and self-repressive indeed. Therefore most people associate system-forming with the contradictory and the self-repressive, and will spend all their energies trying to contradict all the systems they see, or trying to show how self-repressive they are. Once again, this is a natural reaction.
I call this group the “agnostics.” Although this is mainly a metaphor, actual agnostics tend to be in this category also. There are few experiences more frustrating than trying to convince an agnostic of anything. In all things, the agnostic attitude is “I don’t know anything, and you don’t either.” They may even see people who make schemes of thought as being arrogant, or even as trying to impose their opinions on others. Some people simply revel in the mystery, and believe that understanding a thing somehow destroys its wonder. Others believe that base pragmatism gives them the higher ideological ground.
In fact, most people are agnostics to some extent, and will readily reject the idea that anyone can possibly know anything about this or that field. But man is a meaning-seeking animal, and this impulse is fundamental to our sociability. After all, what is speech but a search for meaning in sounds? Likewise, as the maxim goes, “[r]eading is bringing meaning to and taking meaning from squiggly little lines.” This may seem trivial, but the difference between that and interpreting daily events is merely one of scope.
An agnostic would agree that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (to paraphrase Shakespeare); a curious would try to figure out exactly where all the sound and fury comes from. The end result is that the curious gets much farther in his capacity to understand life than the agnostic. Therefore, one should not be afraid of explanations, even if they may turn out to be false in the future. After all, a little bravery is required to confront the truth.