There’s an interesting article in Psyche: How to foster ‘shoshin’. “Shoshin” is a Japanese Zen word referring to a “beginner’s mind.” The idea is that when we take ourselves to be a beginner in a subject, or at least still a student of it, we’re more open to possibilities. But as we begin to think of ourselves as experts, we tend to close off those possibilities.
Key suggestions from the article:
Explain a theory or idea to yourself or someone else. Overconfidence in your own knowledge and expertise fuels closed-mindedness. By attempting to explain an idea or argument to someone else, you will get a more realistic sense of what you do and don’t know.
Argue with yourself. It’s an essential part of human psychology that we are inclined to seek out knowledge and information that is consistent with our current views and beliefs. Try to be more aware of this ‘confirmation bias’, and deliberately counteract it by debating with yourself – look for evidence or arguments that challenge your current perspective.
Recognise that intelligence is not fixed but accrues through the pursuit of knowledge. If you believe in the malleability of intellect, this is known as having a ‘growth mindset’ (by contrast, if you see people as essentially either smart or ignorant by nature, then you have a ‘fixed mindset’). By periodically reminding yourself that expertise is something that accrues through study and effort, you are more likely to develop a growth mindset, and in turn this will help you to be more open-minded.
Look to the stars. Gaze at the night sky, take a walk in nature, or listen to a stirring symphony. Any activities that invoke in you the emotion of awe (wonder at the enormity and beauty of the world) will increase your feelings of humility, and inspire a more open-minded perspective.
I find blogging to be an excellent way to deal with the first suggestion: explaining an idea to yourself or someone else. You often have to condense a lot of material in a way others will (hopefully) find intelligible, but also be prepared to defend your particular take on it.
It also works pretty well for the second point: arguing with yourself. I have a graveyard of draft posts which began with a particular conviction, but at some point in the writing became untenable. Somewhere in trying to work through the logic, or in anticipating possible objections, I realized I no longer bought the thesis anymore.
Of course, if I should fail to do these adequately before publishing, a lot of intelligent people will point out the fumbles. Arguing with ourselves can be good, but debating real opponents is often a better reality check. They’re less likely to go easy on our blind spots.
The third point about intelligence not being fixed, is crucial. I frequently encounter people who take themselves to be experts on a particular topic, or to at least to have superior knowledge of it. But many who think they’re experts, aren’t. It’s a fact of life that people who know less, often overestimate their knowledge, while genuine experts tend to be more aware of their limitations and are more likely to issue cautions about hasty conclusions.
The problem with illusory expertise is that it frequently leads people to lock themselves out of learning more. They’re already an expert, the thinking goes, so no reason to listen to new ideas that don’t accord with their own. Recognizing that expertise is an ongoing process, not a permanently achieved state, and being open about learning new things, helps to guard against this rut.
The article’s last point about awe seems particularly useful when we’re tempted to summarily dismiss a proposition just because it seems absurd or ridiculous. If we can summon some sense of wonder for it, then we’re more likely to give it a fair hearing. We might still end up finding good reasons to reject it, but it’s less likely to simply be because it violates our expectations.
Of course, as a skeptic, a lot of people think I’m closed minded. And to some extent, they’re right. It’s not practical to be endlessly open minded. We all have limited time, and have to decide where to invest it. I’m not going to spend much of mine looking at propositions in areas I’ve repeatedly found unfruitful in the past (except maybe for entertainment), or theories that seem more motivated for a comforting result than to explain the data.
But I think being open minded goes both ways. People should be open to the need to justify their propositions, and to fulfill the first key suggestion from the article and provide clear explanations. They should also be open to the possibility that the proposition isn’t reality. Often when people are telling me I’m closed minded, they’re being evasive on one or more of these points.
But that’s the problem with talking about being open minded. Everyone wants others to be open minded about their favorite ideas, but are typically less eager to be open minded about everyone else’s.
What do you think about the article’s suggestions? Or my take on them?