Can You Change Your Mind?

We all have beliefs and opinions that will likely remain unchanged no matter what counter-evidence is brought to our attention. This is actually typical of all humans, since our politics, faith, values, and views are shaped by psychological and social conditions that are largely outside of our control (and usually unnoticed in their influence).

Yet every one of us will claim that our beliefs are based on sound reasoning and facts — in contrast to our opponents, of course. In that case, we should ask ourselves the following: what would it take for me to accept my opponent’s beliefs? What sort of proof would I need to discard my deeply held views?

If you can’t find any reason why you should think differently, then in essence you’re admitting that your views are purely visceral rather than evidence-based. Either change the basis of what you believe — i.e. try to find evidence for it, and discard it in the absence of said evidence — or admit that your beliefs have nothing to do with reality or rationality, but are instead the result of unthinking emotional or psychological attachment.

If we’re going to take up a belief or opinion based on “gut instinct,” faith, or whatever else you want to call it, then we might as well be honest, recognize it, and not hold it against others if they don’t see eye to eye with our views (after all, if said belief is based on personal feelings, rather than something objectively measurable, then you can’t expect everyone else to agree).

Also, there’s no harm in saying “I don’t know” or “I believe this based only on what I know.” It’s honest and it represents a fact of life: not everything is knowable to everyone.

To the best of my ability I try to hold myself to these standards. Otherwise, I leave it to others to call me out.

In Defense of Scientific Inquiry

A frequent and erroneous criticism of science is that because it has been used for evil, a scientific worldview is foolish if not dangerous. Commonly cited examples of this abuse include eugenics, social Darwinism, and weapons manufacturing. As the argument goes, being too scientific – be it individually or as a society – will lead us down a corrupt path, perhaps as extreme as the Nazi regime’s goal of a racially pure utopia. Science is cold and calculating, and those who put too much stock into will end up eroding their own moral and ethical fiber. Additionally, this is often presented as the reason why religion is vital, if not superior, to science.

There are many problems with this perception, particularly the notion that science and religion are on the same spectrum (more on that later). While it’s certainly true that science has been manipulated to serve dark ends, those objectives were not the product of scientific inquiry. Racist, murderous, and totalitarian ideologies have always existed, and evil people will always co-opt any institution or system they can to further their aims, whether its religion, politics, or science.

Furthermore, these ideologies tended to be rather unscientific, regardless of what their proponent claimed. Social Darwinism, if one bothers to look at the history of it, was hardly backed up by any scientific evidence (Darwin himself never proposed such a thing, despite the name association). Nazi and eugenicist concepts of race were similarly unscientific, and were at best the product of a misunderstanding of scientific conclusions (and at worst outright nonsense that merely cloaked itself in science for legitimacy).

The most important refutation, however, goes back to my previous mention about science and religion not being comparable. Science is a methodology, not an ideology: there is no creed or dogma from which scientifically-minded individuals can commit atrocities. Science is an instrument, not an institution or belief-system. Plenty of tools are used for evil, but the fault lies with their wielder, not the mechanism itself. We don’t discount the value of automobiles, rockets, or planes just because they’ve been used in warfare.

Non-scientific and irrational motivations are what lead to the misuse of science, not “too much science.” There is simply no such thing. Humans derive their values from all sorts of other places, since science is absent of any principles besides the importance of reason, empiricism, and falibilism (although if we construe it broadly, science can better our values: a commitment to rational thinking, for example, can inform our ethics and morals).

Regardless of how it’s been abused, there’s no denying that scientific inquiry has proven to be the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about our world and universe. The fact that it’s been misapplied or misunderstood is a problem of human nature, not science. Science is constantly evolving, just like the rest of us. Scientists have been wrong plenty of times, and they’ve been guilty of as much immorality and incompetence as anyone else. But the beauty of science is its ability to explore, ask questions, and seek to improve upon itself. Given all the problems our planet faces, we could use more scientific thinking, not less.