Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More Things in Heaven and Earth: Thoughts on Openmindedness and Skepticism

Like most people, I like a good quotation, and I have several favorites. A good, pithy observation can stick in my head for years. Some stick because they make me say, "Yes! Exactly! That's just how I would have said it if I were clever enough." Others stick because they bother me.  That happens when I can't quite decide what I think about them, but I'm pretty sure the answer is important.

One of these bothersome quotations is from Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The context here is that Hamlet has been having a chat with his father's ghost. The ghost vanishes, and Hamlet's friends Horatio and Marcellus walk up. Hamlet makes them swear not to reveal his plans to avenge his father's murder. From beneath the grave, the ghost backs him up, saying, "Swear". Horatio, understandably taken aback, says, "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!" Hamlet replies, "And as a stranger therefore give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

I've loved that quote ever since I first heard it. It's a great reminder to be openminded. We live in a great big weird universe, and our little minds have just begun to understand it. There are plenty of things out there that we have no idea about, so we shouldn't get too smug about our theories. Taken that way, Hamlet's statement is similar to Newton's reflections about his discoveries: 

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

But the Hamlet quotation is commonly used in a different way. It comes up in discussions of astrology, miracles, and yes, ghosts, whenever someone says they are skeptical of those things. Then, the quote is used to tell those people, "Stop being so skeptical! You don't know everything, so how do you know it's not true?" 

I don't know Shakespeare's feelings on such things, but I don't care for that use of his quotation. Yes, we should be intellectually humble and open to the possibility that the universe is full of surprises, but that doesn't mean any particular claim about ghosts, miracles, etc. is true. Maybe there are such things as ghosts and maybe not. I doubt it, but if I ever saw enough evidence that they existed--evidence that couldn't be debunked as a hoax by skeptics--then I would have to conclude that they exist. The point is that to say "the world is full of unexpected things, therefore this particular unexpected thing is real" is fallacious reasoning. 

Open-mindedness is a virtue, but only to a degree. Which brings me to another saying that comes up often in these discussions, but not often enough: 

I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. 

I say it's a saying, and not a quotation, because no particular person seems to have said this exact thing. It's often attributed to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, longtime publisher of the New York Times, but it may predate him. Like many common "quotations", it's probably evolved into a more streamlined and memorable phrase over time (the Newton quote above often takes a shorter form, for example). 

Wherever it came from, it's a good thing to remember. We live in a big, complex, hard-to-understand world, and there are plenty of hucksters and charlatans in it, trying to get us to do what they want and buy what they are selling. It doesn't do to be open-minded to the point of gullibility. Truth doesn't come easy, and there are a lot more false claims than true ones. As P.T. Barnum, one of the great hucksters in history, said:

There's a sucker born every minute.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be a sucker. What's needed, I think, is a balance between openmindedess and skepticism. As I've said elsewhere in this blog, those things can be seen as two sides of the same coin: an attitude of not clinging too tightly to any idea, whether you currently believe it or not. If you're willing to consider--or abandon--any idea according to its merits, then you are both openminded and skeptical. They aren't mutually exclusive. At their best, they are mutually necessary.

I've been saying this for years, but I've recently remembered where I got the idea: from a book by Carl Sagan called The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Here's an extended quote, where he explains the essential balance we need to strike:

what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all. Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.
This balance is certainly central to science, but I think (and I think Sagan would have agreed) that it has an even wider reach than that. It also works when trying to think about any idea, to try to determine whether it's true or at least useful. 

There's another balance that has to be struck, though, when it comes to skepticism--the balance between skepticism and cynicism. Contrary to popular belief, the two aren't the same. Skepticism is a probing, realistic view of the world, whereas cynicism is an overly-negative view. A cynic thinks the world is nastier than it really is. Still, it's easy to slip from skepticism into cynicism if you're not careful. Realism, for one thing, can be depressing. There's no guarantee that skepticism will make you feel better about the world. It's easy to come up with all kinds of false, but comforting, ideas about how the things are. In fact, comfort seems to be a more popular criteria for judging ideas than evidence or truth. Studies have shown that depressed people are more realistic about some things (how well other people like them, for example) than happy people. That's a depressing fact in itself, huh? If you stay skeptical all the time, a lot of the things people do can start to seem a little nonsensical--arbitrary at best and farcical at worst. That happens to me sometimes, and it is a little depressing.

The trick, I think, is to remember two things (though I don't always remember them). First, focusing on negativity doesn't do anybody any good (unless you're trying to change something negative, and then it's still more effective to stay as upbeat as possible). Winston Churchill has a good quote here, as he so often does: 

I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use being anything else.

Optimism here doesn't mean self-delusion, or turning a blind eye to injustice. It just means remembering the good and the hopeful, while staying mindful of the bad. That's the second thing to remember: to pay attention to the good things. Sure, this world is full of nasty stuff, from dishonest politicians, to wars, to brain-eating amoebas. But it's full of a lot of love and goodness and beauty, too, and remembering that is the way to keep from slipping into cynicism. It's possible to be skeptical while still maintaining a sense of awe and humility, and a respect for beauty and goodness. If that hackneyed word "spirituality" means anything to a skeptic, it means that kind of attitude. Unlike some smaller-minded skeptics, Carl Sagan respected spirituality in that sense. The older I get, the more I'm amazed by Sagan's intellect and elequence, so I think I'll end with another quotation from him. Once again, he's talking about science in particular here, but there's no reason it shouldn't apply to the search for truth in general.

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.