As my girlfriend likes to remind me, 95% of what I say is aformulation of something I’ve said before. Whether I’m talking about football with friends or debating philosophy with colleagues, I fire out cached replies like a robot prompted by trigger words.
Zonal marking? “Bad idea.”
Steven Pinker? “Deserves more credit.”
Animal consciousness? “It exists.”
Most people I know respond the same way. Our days are filled with re-hashes of familiar arguments and counterarguments. We race through conversations, trying to show how we’re a person like this and definitely not that. When we say “I don’t know,” it seems like we’re missing a chance to signal one of these virtues.
But there’s power in admitting when you don’t know the answer. There’s wisdom in acknowledging that even if you passionately believe something, there’s room for possibility, for discovery, for progress.
Many are the flaws in human reasoning which lead us to overestimate our beloved story. Our understanding of the world is shaped by tribalism or bias in the media, and it can be incredibly skewed. As a result, all of us retain convictions filled with holes that a 12-year-old could probably point out.
The problem begins in our brains. By default, the moment we land on an argument that seems sound, even if it’s based on a single piece of bad evidence, our thinking process comes to a halt. Our mind’s goal is not to reach the most accurate conclusion but to ﬁnd the ﬁrst one that hangs together well and ﬁts with our prior beliefs. Pattern completed, investigation over.
So how do you stop your mind from completing the pattern the usual way?Simply reverse your order of thinking. Instead of letting your brain fill in the answer and then finding support for it, decide to make up your mind after the investigation. Allow the evidence to settle the answer, rather than the other way around. Think to yourself: “I might not know this. Or my opinion could be wrong. So let’s see. What are the arguments?”
This might require you to sit in an uncomfortable space where you question all you once believed. But try it. The next time you take something for granted, ask yourself: What would be the opposite of this argument?
Do you believe that humans won’t go to Mars because “it’s just a fact” that our species will never leave this planet? What’s the alternative?
Do you think the way we educate our children is okay just because that’s how school works and how it’s always been done? What are the other stances out there?
Are you convinced that robots will never tell youwhat to do? What evidence might tell us otherwise?
When I was young, every time someone said the word “religion,” I would immediately think “dumb.” My naiveté dismissed everything that involved the supernatural as crazy. But then I grew up and met people who consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. I started to reverse my process of thinking, wanting to know more about how they approach the world. I discovered that what’s central to faith is finding meaning through shared practices, while relying on a community of people with similar values. It’s hardly about putting forward cosmological hypotheses. Now, instead of ridiculing believers, I envy them.
Let yourself go there. See what happens when you start to answer a question, but then stop and get curious. You might find yourself on an unexpected path. Look around, appreciate how far you’ve come, and keep walking.