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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 1

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

I appreciate the conversational style of the writing so far.

EDIT: Note that the early part of the book is introductory in nature and the ideas will be elaborated on more later in the book. And I'm commenting as I go, I did not read the whole book first.

p 1
The myth of the closed mind is the popular theory that some people, or some beliefs, are impervious to argument. Almost everyone today seems to accept the myth of the closed mind.
Not the people I know, e.g. on The Beginning of Infinity email list. It's generally accepted there that such a thing is false.

What people do have is criticism-resistant ideas. But if you know the right thing to say, you can still persuade them. This can be hard. Often the right thing(s) to say isn't the direct approach. Just directly explaining the truth on some subject, in the straightforward way, doesn't reliably work very well with criticism-resistant people/ideas/attitudes.

People do things like argue in circles. Or make a bunch of inconsistent statements to defend some entrenched idea they have, and each time one is refuted they make another, either an old one or an ad hoc new one, and they just keep going forever, not caring that they often contradict themselves and keep being wrong over and over.

Why? Well, one reason is they have some other misconception(s) they aren't communicating which is behind the whole mess. And if you explained better ideas about *that* then you could make progress, but they won't give you much help in figuring out what that is.


Another reason people don't accept ideas we try to persuade them of is that we are mistaken. (They may also be mistaken, too, or not.)

Another common issue is that people are in a mode of trying to lecture and correct you, instead of listening and learning. Or that you are in such a mode and not listening enough. Even if you're mostly right -- and you might not be -- the other guy may have some good points which your view doesn't address well enough. If you improved your view to better address those issues, it'd be more persuasive.

p 2
Our evolution has made us sensitive to the way the world is, given us a degree of general curiosity about the world, a respect for logic, and a respect for effective and efficient means.
Not so. Some cultures, and persons, do not respect logic (really: Percival's conception of logic, which I share, but some people do not share). And biological evolution doesn't have knowledge about logic. These descriptions of our attitudes to life our cultural not biological.

pp 2-3
We can decide not to read or listen to an argument, but we can't decide to remain untouched by a telling argument that we have heard or read.
I agree we can't just arbitrarily decide to ignore it *once we decide it is telling*. But there is a big gap between reading it and understanding why it's telling.

By "we" I mean most people in our culture. There have existed cultures and people that wouldn't care if an argument was telling, and which don't respect reason or logic.

The gap between reading something and understanding it is that you have to *learn the content* which goes beyond the words. One can hear or even memorize sentences without understanding what they are about. To understand, we have to think about them. We have to *guess* the meaning and *improve* and refine our guesses with *criticism*. That's how we learn things.

Whether we take an *active*, learning role -- with guesses and criticism -- or take a *passive* role and don't make the effort to understand -- is a choice that's up to us. Learning is an active process -- requiring activity by the learner himself -- passivity after hearing or reading can sabotage progress.

The book goes on to say we can't decide to be unmoved by arguments that we grasp, and can't knowingly accept error (what we regard as error). I agree there but it's not equivalent to the prior statement and also doesn't elucidate issues about how people must take an active, learning role in order to grasp things. There's a common assumption that if we listen to someone say something in English, and we speak English, then we know what it means automatically. Not so, as Karl Popper's philosophy implies and is covered more in The Beginning of Infinity chapter 10 and here.

p 3
Darwinian evolution has given us rough and ready but robust and irrepressible, specialized brain modules for solving special recurring problems our ancestors faced during the Pleistocene: choosing a mate, detecting cheats, making inferences about the world of people, animals, and objects.
No, as The Beginning of Infinity explains our minds have universality (with regard to creating knowledge), they aren't a collection of special case algorithms.

Even setting that aside, as a matter of logic and some basic facts, nothing from Darwinian evolution is "irrepressible" which means "impossible to repress". Our minds are powerful enough to create technology including technologies for changing human genomes. So at the very least we will be able repress such things using those technologies, when they are a bit more advanced. There's nothing impossible about that kind of technology, and nothing about our genes to absolutely prevent us from taking that kind of action.

Or, similarly, we could upload our minds into computers to escape our genes. I don't think such drastic steps are necessary to be autonomous persons in control of our own lives, but in any case they mean it is possible to repress our genes.

Elliot Temple on March 23, 2012

Comments (1)

An Elephant's Foot

Dear Elliot,

I am honoured that you are reviewing my book The Myth of the Closed Mind. I look forward to more fruitful exchange on the issue i try to deal with in my book.

May I say, it appears that your critical comments are only informed by my brief suggestive desription of the main arguments for the closed mind and my initial presentation of my main conjectural axioms for the whole project. You ought to have mentioned the fact that i say in the Prologue, from which you quote, that i will quickly run through the closed mind arguments and my rebuttals, later expanding in considerable detail my case. The book is 304 pages long.

So, if you would read further, it will become obvious that a great deal of what you say you will find i agree with. For example, ypur comments about understanding requiring a trial and error process of guesses and error correction is exactly what i say in the book. In fact it is pivotal for my arguments about the evolution of systems of ideas. You also overlook the conspicuous fact that i say we have both semi-automatic cognitive modules (including belief) but Also language, with which we can construct more sophisticated theories and tests of our ideas. This also explains why in a later post you think that my theory of wishful and fearful thinking implies that we have to belief somwthing in order to test it. No, that 's how the automatic module behaves. Of course we can, and i make considerable use of this fact, work with a linguistically formulated theory without believing it. My point is that wishful thinking can be seen to have arational function - exactly in the way that Popper makes out for a theorist 'sticking to his guns'.

In short, have a closer look at the trunck,tail and tusks of my argument. May i thank you again for reviewing the book.

Ray Scott Percival at 1:52 AM on March 27, 2012 | #2140

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)