Some are more closed-minded than others.

When two people of different worldviews talk to each other (no matter what the worldviews are), the argument that the other side is “close-minded,” “too negative/critical” or “is not looking at the evidence” is sure to come up. We always think the other person is just being willfully resistant to what we’re saying, and that we’re just trying to get them to see the truth.

Actually, that’s not really true. We are all close-minded at a very basic level, insofar as we all give more importance to facts and observations that confirm our own beliefs. For the most part, this is not a conscious process, but rather it’s part of the way our brain processes information. There are good reasons why our brain might want to do that, but the end result is that it takes us a long time to change our mind about anything, simply because we don’t process the knowledge required as fast as we would without the bias.

Given that we are all close-minded, there is still one ideological area that does make it even harder for people to change their minds or to be fair about their observations or the evidence presented: fixed ideas.

I have already described fixed ideas as any absolute believed as an a priori. Fixed ideas are the fulcrum of indoctrination, and are what makes “good people do evil things.” They are the magic trick that turns a single concept or idea into the center of a whole worldview dedicated to it.

What’s particularly relevant to this topic is that the fixed idea is formulated as totalizing. The first example of a fixed idea I gave was “the Bible is an infallible book.” Naturally, if one has accepted this as true, then why should he rely on any other source but the Bible? This idea reduces all of life’s questions to the solutions given by the Bible, and excludes all other solutions. The same is true of the other two examples I gave, “the law must be obeyed absolutely,” and “my country, right or wrong,” which are really related fixed ideas (the expression of the country is in the law, and the law exists because of the country).

There are other, more philosophical fixed ideas. The presumption of egoism, the belief that all human action is “ultimately” or “fundamentally” egoistic, is one of them. This view is closely associated with the scientific push-button model of man, and the Objectivists and others stuck in the “cold hard rationality” style of reasoning. The same thing is true of the presumption of naturalism (the belief that whatever nature equipped us to do is our moral duty).

As for all other totalizing ideas, anything you use as evidence against it can be reinterpreted as fitting some arbitrary corollary of the idea, or some ad hoc rationalization. Any behavior you think exhibits altruism can always be shot down, since one can construct any “just so” deeply psychological scenario (unquantified, of course, since that would destroy the whole premise) which shows that the person was “really” acting egoistically. And this must be so since “we all know that everyone always acts egoistically, and that’s just the way it is.” Therefore anyone who proposes that there are altruistic actions must simply be mistaken, or too lazy to think of a good “just so” scenario.

In the same way, the Problem of Evil doesn’t disprove God, because God wanted it that way, to test us. And when you ask, what about all the instances of evil that don’t test anyone, indeed that are not even known to anyone? Well, they will tell you, God has a reason. God always has a reason. How can it be otherwise? Anyone who can’t think of a reason for God to do something is just not imaginative enough.

I think it should be obvious why the fixed idea is of particular interest to the issue of minds being closed. As long as a person is confident in his fixed idea, which reduces all other possible avenues of thought to itself, changing his mind is not just difficult but plain impossible, as any possible evidence necessarily becomes integrated within the idea. It is clearly possible for such a person to change his mind, but it first requires him to lose confidence in the idea.

When we say that someone is closed-minded, we are implying that they are closed to the truth. I know we all believe that truth is a property of propositions, and that therefore a person must be evaluated on the basis of how many true or false proposition he adopts.

But, after a great deal of thinking about epistemology, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong way of looking at it. Truthfulness, I think, is a property of the agent, not of a proposition. Pursuing “the truth” takes place as a constant harmonization and conciliation between what we observe and what we believe. The more we are diligent in that task, the more truthful we are.

In order to perform this conciliation, we use epistemological principles. Epistemology itself starts from a position of anxiety, the anxiety that we are not naturally able to reconcile our beliefs with our observations effectively. As Skinner’s famous experiments with birds have shown, this anxiety is most naturally resolved by superstition, and this is why superstition is a long-standing form of epistemology. The anxiety exists within a certain context, and epistemic systems as a response evolve within that context.

Theologians will try to use that anxiety as some kind of proof for their position. I have already analyzed this addle-headed tactic when I debunked Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. The main problem, of course, is that by cutting man off from his own cognitive faculties, theologians also cut man off from knowledge of God, making Christianity impossible. All attempts to use fear or insecurity as an argument ultimately backfire in this way.

The fixed idea offers an easy answer. It’s reassuring, because it precludes the possibility of error. It’s easy to apply, because it’s universal. And, of course, it tells you that you are a superior kind of person.

5 thoughts on “Some are more closed-minded than others.

  1. Roderick T. Long June 26, 2011 at 06:11

    “I have already described fixed ideas as any absolute believed as an a priori”

    I would say that fixed ideas, absolutes, and a priori ideas are different things. To say that an idea is fixed is to say something about the stubbornness with which it is held — its resistance to contrary evidence. To say that an idea is an absolute is to say something about its content (that its truth is held to be invariant across contexts), which is a separate point. And to say that an idea is a priori is to say something about what sort of evidence is relative to defeating it. I think mathematics is both absolute and a priori, but being bad at math I certainly don’t hold my mathematical beliefs as immune to correction!

  2. Roderick T. Long June 26, 2011 at 06:12

    Argh! When I said “relative to defeating it” I meant “relevant to defeating it.”

  3. estnihil June 26, 2011 at 11:17

    I was just wondering whether you have any history of reading the Overcoming Bias and Less Than Wrong blogs – you seem as if you’d fit in well there, with their bias-awareness and search for truth.
    I like your closing comment about superiority – few people acquire the skill of arguing without regard for ‘winning’. They care only that their idea – their meme or meme-set, becomes the dominant one and spreads itself to a new host, not that the best (most true) meme wins the argument. I think, more broadly speaking, that superiority in relation to the mean person is actually quite a frequent belief in people – in fact I believe there have been studies purporting to show that people, on average, believe themselves to be above average.

  4. Francois Tremblay June 26, 2011 at 13:49

    Roderick: Check my entry on fixed ideas and see if you agree or disagree with what I state within.

    estnihil: I have seen both of these blogs before, but I don’t have any particular interest in them. Thank you for the compliment, though. You are very correct about the fact that most people think they are above average, and that arguing on the whole doesn’t serve reason. The fact is, I don’t think anyone converts to anything on the basis of arguing. People seem to convert mostly on the basis of a self-induced process of examination once their cognitive dissonance gets too high.

  5. Leaving Society July 3, 2011 at 14:33

    I’d like to think that I’m actually quite quick to change my stance when a contrary one proves sturdy enough to migrate to. I don’t often experience unpleasant emotions when considering changing my stances, really. I’m aware of the ubiquitous nature of the phenomenon known as confirmation bias, and I realize that it has a cultural basis, but we can train ourselves to overcome our own conditioning.

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