Monday 18 January 2021

Ideas Are Too Exciting; Arguments Are Too Hard

It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure. 

Unfortunately, most ideas are bad - wrong, misleading, dangerous, or of very limited use or relevance. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory. 

The attraction of ideas is that they promise to help us make sense of the world. But we are too ready to accept ideas for what they seem to offer, without checking to see if the offer is real. Indeed they do allow us to see the world differently. But while that shift in perspective generates a feeling of insight, that is not in itself evidence that we are now seeing things as they truly are. We confuse the 'oomph' of intellectual novelty, that comes from seeing things differently, with actual significance or value (an entire industry called 'the news' also feasts on this cognitive bias). We allow ideas' psychological effects on us rather their logical qualities to determine how we receive them. 

Unfortunately, given the way human minds work, bad ideas are more likely to have these attractive psychological effects than good ones. Consider the perennial attraction of conspiracy theories (and most religions), which offer an alternative simplified way of making sense of the strange and unwelcome things happening in the world by turning them into a meaningful story with ourselves at the centre. This has the benefit of reducing the  cognitive burdens of understanding the world. In addition, the structure of these theories is distinctly flattering to believers: since the conspiracists are trying so hard to fool us, we must be important after all; since we can see through their ploys, we must be more powerful than we seemed. 

But besides these well known benefits, novelty plays a particularly significant role in the attractiveness of conspiracy theories and other kooky ideas. It is not merely comforting (a kind of intellectual junk food) but intellectually exciting to come to think that the world is run by Bill Gates or NASA or  whoever. It makes you see everything from a fresh perspective, which makes all sorts of new connections and meanings jump out to you. This in turn gives you the feeling of gaining genuinely new and important knowledge, of enlightenment: of seeing further and truer than you did before and than all those other people still stuck in their dark cave. 

'Now I see how it really is!
(Plato's allegory of the cave)

Bad ideas like conspiracy theories are everywhere of course, and this is unlikely to change while the business model of social media companies depends upon amplifying their reach and attraction. But as a lecturer in philosophy I want to talk about the problem of bad ideas in the self-consciously intellectual space of the university. It is one of the defining pleasures of the university experience to be introduced to and explore a wealth of new ideas and to talk about them over a little wine until late into the night. But I have become increasingly concerned that this ideas-based model of education substitutes a cornucopia of ideas for the harder, less rewarding work of learning to think clearly and systematically. Although this might be most obvious in the humanities - as I explore below, even philosophy - it seems to be a general feature of contemporary 'consumerist' university education.

Firstly I worry about the kind of ideas that students are interested in, and which their consumer power puts on the curriculum. Overwhelmingly they demand ideas characterised by novelty value not argument value, because novelty value is something they can already appreciate and argument value is something they have not yet been taught. Secondly I worry that acceding to students' hunger for exciting new ideas may prevent them ever learning the value of argument - for how are they to notice what their education is missing when it feels so right?

My bachelor philosophy students want to learn about ideas radically different from convention, ones that claim things are the opposite of what most people believe (especially their parents). Since so much of social convention is garbage, any proper philosophy curriculum will automatically supply this (and be detested for impiety and corrupting the youth). The problem is that the very love of novelty that attracts students to philosophy conflicts with what is required to do philosophy well. A good idea, these students have come to believe, is one that turns your whole world upside down. It is significant that this is a subjective standard that is accessible without any philosophical training in how to think properly, and indeed that it subverts the point of such training and the authority of those who have it. The student qua 21st century education consumer thus asserts their right to judge intellectual value for themselves, just as they do in other spheres of their life, about what kind of sandwich they want or what colour coat they like best. 

Worse, this belief in the world overturning properties of good ideas means that the very fact that some idea is not considered a serious contender by most practising academic philosophers is taken to indicate its radical or exotic potential and hence its value. Hence, many students demand ideas from outside or against philosophical convention, such as critical race theory or Ayn Rand or relativism or exotic long dead schools of Indian Buddhism.* There often seems to be an implicit conspiracy theory operating here too, suggesting that the real or best knowledge is deliberately held back from students and they need to assert themselves to reach for it. Sometimes that conspiracy theory comes directly into view, such as in the claim that western philosophy deliberately suppresses the great ideas of other cultures out of some kind of racist jealousy - which is itself an electrifyingly radical idea and therefore readily accepted. 

This anti-conventionalism can be linked to a second key meta-idea that students seem to have gotten into their heads, that knowledge is esoteric: a secret shared among a few initiates. If real knowledge is anti-conventional, then a constitutive feature of it is that it cannot be widely believed around here. Hence, any idea that is widely held (like liberalism) cannot be the true knowledge you are looking for. You will only find wisdom by looking in places where other people aren't looking - or don't want you to look! Utilitarianism does not satisfy this thirst for knowledge because there are too many books about it for it to be worth knowing. Ubuntu or Mohism become instantly fascinating as soon as their obscurity is identified. Moreover, from the esoteric perspective knowledge is validated by the stories that can be told about it. The history of the idea, for example, and how it came to be suppressed (by the bad guys) and (re)discovered (by we the enlightened). But origin stories are emotionally satisfying myths. They are not an argument that provides (exoteric) reasons and evidence for why you or anyone else should use this idea to think with instead of something else. 

I worry at the uncritical way my students seek out and absorb anti-conventional ideas and think that this is what doing philosophy consists of. I worry that they think they know all kinds of things when all they actually have are a bunch of unlikely ideas and some cute stories. 

What I am getting at here is the same thing that others (especially philosophers of science) have long been concerned with: that our enthusiasm for revolutionary ideas can run ahead of, and even endanger, our responsibility to evaluate them carefully and systematically. Hence Karl Popper's concern that widely believed theories like Freudian psycho-analysis and Marx's theory of history had gained people's credulity by their qualities as 'myths' rather than their success in understanding the world. 
I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still 'un-analysed' and crying aloud for treatment. (Popper in Conjectures and Refutations)
Popper's solution to this was to distinguish scientific theories from non-scientific theories (which should be treated as myths) on the basis of their exposure to empirical falsification. To Popper and other philosophers of science there was nothing wrong with 'myths' in themselves. By changing how we see the world - say, by seeing nature in terms of natural selection rather than Creation - new ideas may well improve our understanding and generate new testable hypotheses. Indeed it is hard to see how else we could hope for improvements. The key point is that the discovery of some new view of things (in which imagination and creativity and unconventionality are all helpful) should always be followed by a second phase of justification that focuses on whether this idea is worth believing, or is merely a myth. This phase is concerned with the quality of the argument for the idea, and is dominated by a quite different concern for empirical details and methodological precision and consistency. It requires holding the idea at a distance and attempting to consider it as you would any other. It requires attitudes and intellectual virtues much more like those of an accountant than a free-spirited, free-thinking artist.

The success of science demonstrates the success and limitations of this insistence on justification. The scientific revolution of the 17th century introduced a new method of solving disputes between ideas - empirical arguments - which depended on the systematic search for empirical evidence for and against. (Philosopher of science Michael Strevens has a wonderful new book on this, reviewed here.) This method is certainly effective, but it is also massively tedious:
behind these achievements [of science] . . . are long hours, days, months of tedious laboratory labor. The single greatest obstacle to successful science is the difficulty of persuading brilliant minds to give up the intellectual pleasures of continual speculation and debate, theorizing and arguing, and to turn instead to a life consisting almost entirely of the production of experimental data. (Strevens in The Knowledge Machine)
Most disputes in philosophy cannot be resolved by this method of empirical argument because philosophy is about 2nd order problems and therefore the right answer does not depend only on what the facts happen to be but on what was the right question to ask. Philosophers wonder together about how best to think about problems - such as 'What is the meaning of life?' - where we do not yet know what it is that we want to know (previously). Discovering and trying out new ideas is certainly central to the philosophical process. But so is justification. Without attention to the arguments, philosophy degenerates very rapidly into bullshit. 

Despite lacking the empirical decisiveness sometimes available in the natural sciences, analytic philosophers can and do justify the value of our ideas and the reasons for believing them at great length, rigour, and detail. Doing so requires establishing critical distance to our creations and acknowledging the possibility that they may be failures. In order to justify our idea as if to an impartial spectator scrutinising it from outside we must get somewhat outside the idea: we must get it outside our head again after spending so long getting our head around it. But besides that important shift in orientation is the quantity of work required. A standard exercise in justification is 10,000 words long, or even book length. They are immensely demanding to produce to the required standard (which is why I haven't bothered here). They are also hard work to consume, which is why so many undergraduates excited by philosophical ideas are nevertheless so reluctant to read the arguments behind them. 

A crude economic analysis may be warranted here. Ideas are fun to learn, think with, and talk about. Therefore ideas have a high psychological pay-off to effort ratio. In contrast, arguments are boring and difficult to make and consume. Therefore arguments have a high effort to psychological pay-off ratio. It follows that, even in the university, there will be much higher demand for ideas (and the corresponding quantity supplied) than there will be for the arguments that we need to distinguish good from bad ideas. 

It is true that the distinction between ideas and arguments is a fuzzy one. There is no precise boundary where explanation of an idea ends and argument for it begins. But in general it is clear enough when people are attending seriously to the challenge of justification by explaining and examining evidence, coherence, and validity, and when they are not. It is also true that some ideas in philosophy and elsewhere are very difficult to understand and are therefore perhaps not so cheap after all. (Yes, I am thinking here of certain continental philosophers.) The danger is that the experience of one kind of effort (of understanding a complicated idea) is mistaken for another (the tedious work of examining the justification for the idea), in the same way that climbing a mountain may be misunderstood to be a worthwhile achievement merely because it was a difficult one. Indeed I often find students confusing obscurity with profundity in just this way - an error I also relate to the meta-idea of knowledge as esoteric, whose main challenge lies in finding and extracting it from its hiding place.


To sum up. New ideas make our brains light up, but that phenomenology of enlightenment easily misleads us about their value. We need quality control and therefore we need to work through the impartial arguments for the exciting new ideas we come across; but we don't because that would be way more work and way less fun. The result is that our minds are abuzz with things we think we know, and which feel important to know, but which probably aren't either.

Also, yes, I know I am part of the problem. This is just one more idea designed to catch your interest with its (mild) novelty and anti-conventionalism. I didn't have the time to practise what I preach and lay out a proper argument for it that would lay its presumptions and assumptions open for inspection and challenge (and would you have read it if I had?). Perhaps someone else could do that for me and let me know if this idea is one of the good ones? That would be great.

*Note I am not arguing in defence of the traditional Western canon. It is absurd to claim that the ideas of Plato or Aristotle or other figures from the Western canon are worth studying just because they are the ideas of Plato or Aristotle, or because they are 'ours'. That would be cultural fetishism rather than philosophy. Students deserve to study good ideas no matter their origin story and also to be trained in how to think properly about which ideas deserve our interest and commitment.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at Leiden University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.