The Humble Thinker's Guide for the Age of Information Overload
Anyone who follows politics today in the Trump/Brexit Era knows we live in a jungle ecosystem of competing narratives locked in a struggle to control our minds. And they’re very good at it. Even terrible ideas thrive today because they can be expressed in sophisticated ways that appeal to our biases.
The old grand narratives of God and country are in full retreat, and nothing equivalent has stepped in to replace them. We’re left wandering through an intellectual landscape dominated by the loudest voices confidently proclaiming the most ridiculous garbage, but doing so with the most reassuring nonchalance.
What to do then? How does one form a coherent worldview when constantly bombarded by so much conflicting information? I’ve struggled to answer these questions in any meaningful way. Like most people, I want to believe in something; I want my moral compass to point true north, but I also don’t want to fall for the latest fad like a chump.
So I’ve tried to come up with a few simple guidelines to keep me intellectually grounded in this mad, mad world. They focus on humility, doubt, openness, and a healthy dose of self-reflection. That said, I’ll be just as fearless in taking a stand when I’m convinced that the cause is just.
The trick is to find the right balance between doubt and certainty.
What follows is by no means a comprehensive list, and one that is ever-evolving as I continue to gaze at my navel and wonder.
1. Be a gentle skeptic about what others believe
But be a discriminating one. Sometimes the beliefs and values society takes for granted rest on shaky moral ground, held together only by habit, tradition, and consensus. Ancient Greece was the home of democracy, but it also viewed slavery as a natural part of the social order. The equality women enjoy today is a relatively recent phenomenon, more a historical anomaly than anything. Caste and race had long constricted the social possibilities of a person’s life. For most, this meant no social possibilities at all. Today, we consider these practices hostile to human flourishing.
Few people questioned the institution of slavery in ancient Athens or the status of women everywhere else. These things just seemed natural and normal. Therefore, question the certitudes of your own social milieu. I have no doubt that we are doing things today that posterity will condemn us for. Perhaps how we treated the animals we ate? Or maybe what we did to the environment? Identify those invisible evils if you can and then adjust your moral compass accordingly.
Yet be careful that skepticism about what others believe does not become a kind of cranky contrarianism. For a person who questions everything and only questions everything believes in nothing. Don’t be the lazy skeptic who just dismisses everything out of hand without taking the time to look into it. Objective facts and truths exist. Sometimes what others believe is actually right. Uninterrogated skepticism merely poses as intellectually rigorous. It’s not.
On the contrary, it risks sliding into a condition where no objective facts are trusted and any consensus is always suspect. “How do we really know….?” Here one finds the well-trod path to conspiracy theory, relativism, denialism, and eventually nihilism. Stay away. Do your homework. Take the time to assess and judge claims made by others, especially those you disagree with.
Be wary of ideology, especially when it pretends to be scientific. Respect expertise, especially scientific, though not blindly so. Discern between fact and fiction to the best of your ability. Once you have done so, don’t be afraid to reach provisional conclusions. Then defend or dispose of those conclusions as appropriate. And always be a gentle skeptic, for you are wrong more often than you would like to admit. Remember this.
That’s why you need to…
2. Be a harsh critic about what you believe
If you should question what others think, then do the same for yourself. This is more difficult because we want to think our beliefs and opinions are all correct. But we’re made of the same flawed material, prone to bias and motivated reasoning. We more passively accept the claims of those we agree with while ignoring any inconvenient facts that threaten our precious worldview.
So be on the lookout for evidence of your own tribal thinking. Doubt your ability to reach any final truths, but pursue them as if you can. I am confident that the world outside my head could be understood if only I rolled up my sleeves and tried to understand it. However, I still question my ability ever to achieve any full and final understanding.
The universe is over thirteen billion years old. I may live a hundred years if I’m lucky.
Here is the perspective of time.
The universe is tens of billions of light-years across. I will occupy a tiny part on a small planet in an average galaxy, one among billions.
Here is the perspective of space.
That’s how you need to think about it. Zoom out until you appear like an ephemeral atom, and you’ll have some idea how silly our intellectual pretensions are.
On the human scale, I live in one culture among thousands that have existed throughout history. Assuming my beliefs and customs are superior simply because they are mine is folly. When I think I’ve found a truth is when I need skepticism the most. I’ll provisionally embrace that truth, if I must, but will leave the door of doubt cracked open.
This is the paradox of the humble and grounded thinker: asserting truths while still admitting doubts, engaging in a never-ending dialectic between belief and doubt. Striving, ever striving, to know more, while understanding the ultimate absurdity of it all. We must climb this mountain of insight, not to reach a peak that remains forever out of sight, but for the sheer joy of occasionally turning around to bask in the view from higher up.
Some people have great difficulty recognizing they are wrong. Don’t be like them. When you uncover an error in your thinking, view it as like finding a malignant tumor. You wouldn’t want to let it slowly grow and metastasize, would you? No, you want to cut it out as soon as possible.
Likewise, with error. Trust me, nothing is more difficult than admitting mistakes, and even more so after loudly, proudly, and publicly proclaiming otherwise for so long. But doing so is necessary. Think of every error eliminated as another step up the zig-zagging path on that mountain of insight.
In short, keep your mind open and self humble. For this to work, one must be ready to discard bad ideas for better ones, no matter how provisional those may also turn out to be. True enough is good enough, as long as good enough is a little bit better than before. Believe to doubt, doubt to believe, but…
3. Don’t let identity politics put you in a box you can’t get out of
Who are you? No, really, who are you? As Hannah Arendt once noted, “The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him.” (1)
Arendt meant that who we are is in large part defined socially, by how we relate to others and the roles we play in society. Defining the core ‘who’ of someone’s being is almost impossible without also asking ‘in relation to what?’ Who am I? I am a husband, a father, a soldier, a citizen. These are some of the identities that define what I am in relation to my wider social world. Notice how those roles are set in a broader, more communal sense? Even if we can't directly share an identity, we can complement other ones. A husband is in relation to a wife. A father is in relation to his children. A soldier is in relation to his service. A citizen is in relation to his country.
Such identities don’t exist without relation to others. Implied here is a reciprocal relationship bonded by a responsibility to others. These social identities are healthy in that they promote both broad and deep social connections between individuals - they complement each other like mother and father - which then nurture the civic health of the community.
More narrow ego-centric identities, in contrast, are attempts to distinguish ourselves from wider world. I am an atheist, a vegetarian, a left-leaning progressive. Those are also my identities, but they are much more ideological and don’t bond me to the wider social world in the same way that more broadly social identities do. They pigeonhole me, and are self-limiting by definition. The more niche the identity, the more it will be set in opposition to everyone else.
Or take those whom comedian Dave Chappell recently labeled the alphabet people. The ever-expanding alphabet soup (LGBTQQIAA is one extreme, though LGBTQ or LGBTQIA+ are more common) represents the perils of identity politics taken to absurd extremes. The reasonable justification for this appropriation of the alphabet is that it brings together groups traditionally marginalized for sexual preferences or non-normative gender expression. I don’t wish to downplay how such discrimination pushed people to embrace identity politics with such passion in the first place, but the fact remains that it did. Each letter carved out yet another niche for individual expression.
Thus the wonderfully diverse rainbow spectrum of human sexuality ends up reduced to a bar-code of fenced off identities, each battling for recognition and affirmation. That’s not to say such identities are bad in themselves, only that too much emphasis on one at the expense of the others is counterproductive. Diversity then becomes divisive. Sex and gender are parts of who we are, of course, but they should not be the loudest parts.
That’s just one example. Implied in these divisions is that age-old human urge to create ever more circumscribed Us vs. Them distinctions. A more balanced mixture of personal and communal identities offers us some personalized texture in what is otherwise a bland and homogeneous mass society.
When personal identities dominate, however, they threaten to rip apart the social fabric. Avoid this. Put more emphasis on those communal identities that make you part of a greater whole and less on the personal ones that separate you into tribes. Don’t get trapped over-emphasizing identities that define themselves through the lens of victim-hood, egotism, ideology, and grievance. Those end up becoming small bands full of angry zealots bent on imposing an orthodoxy on everyone else.
The balanced individual will be a mosaic of identities, none standing out significantly from the others. So avoid becoming that person whose life is dedicated to fostering just one type of being. You’ll end up a tedious, one-dimensional person with a monochrome soul. Be better than that, but remember to...
4. Listen more, talk less
A challenge today is that people are discouraged from having tough conversations. Therefore, our beliefs end up shaped by the media we consume, instead of the people we interact with. Consuming media from partisan sources nudges people toward more radical positions than they would otherwise hold.
One antidote is more conversation. Most people naturally tend toward moderation. Talking with real people rather than just listening to pundits in the media is a first step in the right direction. And have substantive conversations when you can. You know the old saying that we should avoid discussing politics, sex, and religion? What nonsense! But that’s what we do for the most part. Instead, for social safety, we end up talking about the weather, our dinner, and whatever’s on television.
Get others to open up and talk. Ask them questions and follow up questions. Find out what they believe. Probe their thoughts on politics, religion, and social issues, but on second thought, leave sex out, except with the closest of friends, or else be ready to reap the whirlwind.
Avoid debate, promote discussion, and do that by listening more than talking. Don’t mimic the demagogues that dominate our media. If any critiques are offered, make them gentle, oblique even, and not done in a way that comes across as cruel or humiliating.
By putting the focus on listening, especially to those you disagree with, you open yourself up to their worldviews. You are better for it, even if those world-views are irreconcilable. As a by product, by encouraging others to articulate their beliefs, you may help them self-identity errors without having to point them out. Expressing ideas makes it easier to identify their flaws.
More than once, as I’ve tried to express an opinion, I became uncomfortably aware of how little I actually knew about the topic. And yet, there I was, acting like I did. That’s the time to shut up and listen. Here is an opportunity to see the world, however briefly and incompletely, through someone else’s eyes. This can only have a moderating influence, promoting empathy, mutual understanding, and respect.
We need more of this.
1 — Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition., The University of Chicago Press., 181.