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How To Change Your Mind

Steven Campbell-Harris tells us how philosophy can change thinking.

Did you know that the Dalai Lama is afraid of caterpillars? Have you heard that the first passport holders had to give written descriptions of themselves instead of photos?

If you are like most people, reading these facts from 1342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted has changed your mind. Granted, you haven’t had to upturn your worldview and reexamine everything you thought you knew. Nonetheless your perception of passports and of the Dalai Lama ever so slightly altered. We might call this the adaptation model of changing our mind; we reshape our beliefs in the light of new information.

However, we don’t only change our minds in this way. As the Dalai Lama himself put it, change also comes from within. Take the following statement. Would you agree with it? ‘You can be a good person and have friends’. If you do, consider this quote from the French Enlightenment statesman and philosopher Montesquieu, “a truly virtuous man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend. If men were truly virtuous, they wouldn’t have friends” (Pensées et Fragments inédits de Montesquieu, I). Montesquieu doesn’t try to persuade us that friendship is morally problematic by presenting new information about the world. Instead, he appeals to a principle of impartiality that many of us already share, leaving us to carry on the work of persuasion by ourselves. Are friends more deserving of our help than strangers? If not, why should we assist them more? As we question ourselves, we might think differently about the original statement.

Practitioners of the Japanese martial art Ju-Jitsu are trained to use an opponent’s energy against them instead of directly opposing it with their own force. Montesquieu appears to be doing something similar here; practicing a kind of argumentative Ju-Jitsu. He tries to awaken a dormant belief in us, then steps back and allows the force of our own beliefs to work against us. This technique for argument doesn’t apply exclusively to matters of morality. For example, the following belief is quite common: ‘The present exists’.

The argument below aims to refute this claim:

1. If the present is of any length, some of it will be in the past and some will be in the future.

2. But the present can’t be in the past or the future, by definition.

3. So, the present can’t have length.

4. But if the present can’t have length, the present can’t exist.

Once again, this argument presents no new data or information. Instead, beliefs we already hold (consciously or not) such as ‘the present moment has some duration’ and ‘the present can’t be in the past’ are tested against each other to see if they make sense. If we are to change our minds as a result, it will come from an acknowledgement that what we thought we knew is more problematic than we had anticipated. Our present self is aghast at the complacency of our past self.

Thinking in Crisis

When I teach philosophy in schools I often see children changing their minds in this way. Throughout the enquiry they become clearer about the principles to which they are already committed and notice apparent conflicts with them. There the work of philosophy begins, with greater self-knowledge and the drive for consistency.

The English historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood once claimed that philosophy “does not, like exact or empirical science, bring us to know things of which we were simply ignorant, but brings us to know in a different way things which we already knew in some way” (An Essay on Philosophical Method, 1933, p.161). Collingwood is right to say that the work of philosophy is to shed new light on old beliefs: by seeing something familiar in an unfamiliar way we can relearn it. However, he doesn’t adequately address the sense of confusion that follows this. Philosophy is thinking in crisis. When we revisit our beliefs we find ourselves stuck, imperilled, lost. We need a way out.

Many of the classic problems of philosophy come from juxtaposing different beliefs. I believe both that ‘the River Thames today is the same River Thames from last year’ and that ‘the water in the Thames is always changing’. But if the water in it has all changed, in what sense is it the same river? I am told that ‘time and space began with the Big Bang’, but also believe that the claim that ‘time began’ is paradoxical because for something to begin presupposes time. So must time therefore be eternal?

These and other problems of philosophy are spring cleaning for the mind. Perhaps this is why the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described philosophy as “a work on oneself, on one’s own interpretation, way of looking at things” (Culture and Value, 1970, p.16). Interpersonal disagreement, or disagreement between people, is incidental. The real work is in resolving our intrapersonal disagreements: our disagreements with ourselves. Socrates concurred, “It would be better for me… that multitudes of men should disagree with me than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself” (Gorgias, 482c). The ‘being one’ in Socrates’ statement is both aspirational and declarative. We are a hodgepodge of different desires, thoughts, and feelings, and yet somehow aim to present ourselves as, and to be, one person. Part of the goal of philosophical thought is to reconcile our many views into a coherent whole and so act and be as one in the world.

Motivations for Self-Examination

When we recognise an inconsistency in our beliefs we may find this irresistible to puzzle over. The possibilities on offer can elicit a childlike wonder. The feeling is akin to that described by Arthur C. Clarke who, in contemplating the possibility of alien life, wrote “two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying” (quoted in Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century, 1999, p.295). We can be drawn to philosophy by a sense that the different possible answers on the Big Questions are equally compelling, terrifying, and awe-inspiring. Questions such as: Do we have free will or not? Are there moral facts? Is time an illusion? Regardless of the answers we reach, they will have a profound impact on how we think about the world.

Nevertheless, we may feel this sense of wonder and deep intrigue when considering philosophical possibilities and still not be moved to investigate. We may instead choose to stay in a state of detached perplexity, not seeking any resolution. This was the avowed goal of the school of Pyrrhonian scepticism founded by Pyrrho of Ellis (c.360-c.270 BCE). According to the Pyrrhonists, when we are pulled in different directions by our beliefs or reason or evidence, we should choose to stay in a state of suspended judgment. When we are not committed to anything, we don’t have to be defensive about our beliefs and we can be even-keeled and non-dogmatic in our dealings with others. This way we can achieve a freedom from mental disturbance (ataraxia in Greek). The suspension of the desire for truth can set you free!

While the Pyrrhonian way may be tempting, for many it amounts to an evasion of responsibility. We shouldn’t prematurely decide that some matters will never be settled. They might not be; but the only way to put this daily to the test is by continuing to strive for maximum coherence from our beliefs and the evidence.

In the end, then, it seems we are left with a fundamental choice. Either we can leave this potential disharmony with our beliefs alone by ignoring it or developing a deep skepticism for the truth; or we may find that these conflicts prompt a quest for invention and a desire for new ways of viewing the world and ourselves. In the process of destroying old beliefs, the hope is that something more durable will emerge. And along the way, we might just change our minds.

© Steven Campbell-Harris 2020

Steven Campbell-Harris is a philosophy specialist and teacher trainer at the Philosophy Foundation, an award-winning charity that brings philosophy to schools and the wider community.

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