I remember one occasion during my first year in university when I was talking to a few people who were a couple of years older than me and for whom I had quite a lot of respect. Perhaps more importantly, they were popular members of a social group that I wanted to be a part of, a factor which influences a lot more of our decision making than most of us care to admit.
During this chat, one of them mentioned how she liked and respected people more if they had strongly held beliefs which they would unapologetically defend.
I want to talk about this claim. Is it good to have strongly held beliefs and to defend them staunchly in the face of criticism? I’m going to focus on the first half of this question in this post and will tackle the second part sometime in the near future.
I might as well set my stall out early. My opinion is that it is not a good idea to have strongly held beliefs. In fact, I would go so far as to say that one should be very, very careful about letting oneself get too attached to any kind of belief without at least thinking about it first (of course that is far easier said than done).
Paul Graham had this idea long before I did and wrote a very interesting blog post entitled Keep Your Identity Small in which he made the point that we cannot think rationally and objectively about our most deeply held convictions. He concludes that:
“If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible”
One of the most obvious examples of where labelling yourself with a certain identify can compromise your ability to think clearly is of course politics. I mean, it really doesn’t make any sense why one’s opinion on taxation should determine one’s stance on Israeli-Palestinian conflict or vice versa but when someone joins a particular political party that is almost invariably the result.
They no longer have the same thought-space available to them and are forced into toeing the party epistemic line.
Put simply, if you consider yourself to be a Label, then you no longer have to think so hard about various ideas. Instead, you can take the irrational shortcut of just asking yourself “What would other Labels do?”
What is the problem with this? Personally, I want my beliefs to be true and that demands that I follow the evidence. That would be much more difficult if I was consistently asking myself “What would other Democrats/Republicans/Atheists/Theists etc. do?”
It is important to state that I don’t take Graham’s essay to mean that I should have no identity at all. Instead, I have resolved to cultivate an identity that supports me in my efforts to have beliefs that are true. If identity can have such powerful effects, then it would be wasteful to not try to turn these effects to one’s advantage.
For example, by thinking of myself as being someone with a growth mindset, then whenever I find myself faced with a challenge I can cheat and use the shortcut “What would other people with growth mindsets do?” and that prompts me to the realisation that I can improve and overcome. This is an example of an identity which can really only have beneficial effects as it doesn’t tie my beliefs up with those of other people. In other words, it does not limit my thought-space.
Of course, you shouldn’t just assume that my approach is the best one.
Don’t toe the party epistemic line!