Monday, April 20, 2009

Mental Filters

I write about a pretty wide variety of topics. Some common ones are:
  • Algorithm Design
  • Ethics and Morality
  • Philosophy
  • Politics
  • Learning
While these topics seem somewhat distinct, they all intersect on one question:

What things are good and how can I best do them?

The site's tag line is "Genuine and Artificial Intelligence", but the purpose of intelligence is to do good things, rather than bad things, inefficient things, or evil things. I think of each post as an opportunity to learn how to learn.

So it shouldn't surprise you that I love well reasoned and articulated explanations, especially things explaining how we think. For example, this essay on Lies We Tell Children was worth a blog post. I found one last week on the subject of open-mindedness. It's well worth the 10 minutes, so I highly recommend watching it:

There's a lot of good stuff in there, but I particularly liked the point about mental filters, starting at roughly 7:23. A lot of people think that being open-minded means you are willing to consider any idea, which essentially means your brain lacks a mental filter. They define being open-minded as accepting any idea you are told, no how far-fetched the circumstantial evidence is. What this really means is, "you should agree with me no matter what." And ironically, that's the exact definition of being close-minded, as it means they aren't open to other ideas.

The main point is that being open-minded means considering the evidence and logic for different explanations, then believing the explanations that best fit the evidence and throwing out the ones that don't. In other words, being open-minded is predicated on having an evidence filter.

Everyone is confronted with both true and false concepts all the time, and it's impossible to have a world view that only believes the "correct" things. Statistically speaking, you are virtually guaranteed to believe some ideas that are flat out wrong. But the objective is to minimize the percent of incorrect ideas you believe. That means the key word is "filter". If you have a brick wall for your mind, you are unable to accept any new ideas, so the incorrect premises you have will only turn into more incorrect conclusions. And if you have no mental protection at all, you'll believe all kinds of crazy things.

I believe many people who are truly close minded mistake the mental filters other people have for brick walls. They falsely conclude that because someone rejected their idea, that person must not be open to any opposing ideas, rather than simply having a good reason for rejecting theirs.

All of this is well and good for understanding "the other guy". But how do you make sure that you aren't "the other guy"? Remember, the most close-minded people think they are open-minded, in the same way that arrogant people think they are humble. There's no firm method to conclude whether you are actually open-minded, but keep this in mind: Truly open-minded people occasionally change their beliefs. Ask yourself this question:

When was the last time I philosophically disagreed with someone, and after we expressed our beliefs, they changed my mind?

If you think you are open-minded but can't remember the last time someone else changed your opinion on something substantive, you are probably more close-minded than you think. Recognizing when you are wrong and having the humility to admit it is the true mark of an adult mind.

No comments: