We all have ideas or concepts that exasperate us when they’re brought up. Mine have changed over the years. When I was younger, anything that called into question certain ideas, such as the religious faith I was raised in, or the mantra of American patriotism, irritated me to no end. I tended to reject propositions that criticized these ideas sight unseen.
As I got older, I gradually learned to question those initial impulses. Doing so eventually led to some pretty dramatic shifts in worldview. Which I think at some level I must have understood would happen. My older emotional reactions were, in retrospect, an impulse to protect a particular worldview. I must have known that giving serious consideration to certain propositions would lead to those types of changes.
But arguably, a worldview that has to be protected is a problematic one. Ideally our worldview should adopt to observations, not be threatened by them. Which is why I think it’s important to realize when an idea feels threatening, when it makes you angry or outraged, and scrutinize carefully why that is so. It might feel comforting to just reject an idea that doesn’t comport with our existing viewpoint, but it doesn’t get us any closer to truth.
Propositions that tend to trigger me today fall into the same mold as the old ones. It’s just a different worldview that now feels threatened. Over the decades, I’ve gradually come to see science as the best tool we have for understanding reality. So I tend to react with exasperation when someone talks about science being clueless about or inappropriate for a certain area.
Often I think my exasperation is rational. People who make these types of claims are all too commonly trying to sneak in some cherished notion that science hasn’t left much room for. But I frequently have to remind myself that part of being scientific is understanding and acknowledging the limits of science, and current scientific knowledge in particular. That was one reason I reluctantly ascribed to instrumentalism for a long time, despite not being happy about it. (And was happy to find an alternative, although this is a new thing to be careful not to be defensive about.)
A while back there was an article about how clueless science is about sleep, about why almost all animals sleep. Initially I reacted with my usual annoyance, but after a little bit of reading from multiple sources, I was forced to acknowledge this is an area where science actually doesn’t have a good handle yet. It’s embarrassing really. We don’t understand something as common as sleep. There are plausible theories out there, but none of them seem well validated yet by the data. There are plenty of other areas like that, along with ones where science is genuinely not the right tool.
So I think it’s a virtue to scrutinize what makes you angry. But what is the best way to do that? I think the answer is to fulfill the requirement your math instructor always put on you in school: show your work. In other words, explicitly lay out the reasoning for rejecting a particular proposition (or accepting one). You should at least do this for yourself if no one else. Although laying it out to others tends to do a better job of exposing hidden assumptions, hand wavy steps we may not realize we’re making.
Often we may be reluctant to do this, for the same reason we reacted negatively to begin with, to protect aspects of our worldview. Ultimately, laying out our thoughts exposes them to criticism. It opens up the possibility that we ourselves may have to change, at least in the face of fair reasonable criticism. (Unfair criticism from people who won’t show their own work is, unfortunately, all too common, but can usually be ignored.) But again, if our worldview isn’t adjusting for what’s out there, then how good of a job is it actually doing for us?
Unless of course I’m missing something? Maybe protecting another aspect of my worldview without realizing it?