How are things?

I very much like this post about determining what things are like in reality (with much more here). When I was an undergraduate, I heard two things within weeks of each other that changed my perception of ‘truth’. The first was this quote from Nietzsche:

A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!

The second was a lecture on international relations. One speaker – a rhetoric professor, if I recall correctly – mentioned that it’s very hard to convince people of things. Often, we assume that if the other person just had more information, they’d come around to our side! But of course that person usually thinks the same thing.

I know, none of this is particularly mindblowing after your freshman year of college. But I do find that the hardest thing in life is stepping outside my own biases in order to perceive the world as it is, not as I wish it to be. Try to stay under the impression that you are always wrong. Yet another reason to frequently read other people whose opinions your strongly disagree with – after all, if you’re reading opinions you agree with, what are you gaining?

Study things from as many points of view as possible, and try to understand as many models of thought as you can. This way, you can better understand the behavior of other people, and how people can think in ways that seem incomprehensible to you. If an atheist, talk to religious people until you understand them well enough not to consider them silly; if religious, talk to atheists until you understand them in the same way. Get at least passingly familiar with all the existing genres of fiction, and especially study science fiction – the good sort of science fiction…

Recognize your fallibility. Realize that in a quest for the truth, your own biases become your worst enemy. To defeat your enemy you must understand it, so set forth on studying it. Follow blogs like Overcoming Bias. Read up on the field of heurestics and biases – the book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases comes highly recommended, and though I haven’t read it yet, I plan to do so soon. Find the time to peruse articles like Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases and Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks. In your interdisciplinary studies, especially emphasize the sciences…

Discuss the same subjects repeatedly, even with the same people. If you are losing a debate but still cannot admit you’re wrong, ask for time to ponder upon it. Decide if your hesitation was you being too caught up in the defense of a topic, in which case you only need time to get over it and accept your opponent’s arguments, or because there was more relevant information in your mind that you couldn’t recall at the moment, in which case you need time for your subconsciousness to bring them to your mind. Be very sceptical of yourself if you disagree with something, but cannot justify it even with time – you might be dealing with bias instead of forgetten knowledge. If questioned, be prepared to double-check your intuitions of what is obvious from scientific studies, and be ready to discard your intuitions if necessary.

Avoid certainty, and of all people, be the harshest on yourself. 80% of drivers thinks they belong in the top 30% of all drivers, and even people aware of cognitive biases often seem to think those biases don’t apply to them. People tend to find in ambiguous texts the points that support their opinions, while discounting the ones that disagree with them. Question yourself, and recognize that if you want your theories to find the truth, you can never be the only one to evaluate them. Subject them for criticism and peer review, and find those with the most conflicting thoughts to look them over. Never think that you have found the final truth…

[apropos of very little, photo from]

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