Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Philosophy and Dogmatism

The New York Times columnist David Brooks is a fan of studies of human behavior. In a recent column, called “Social Science Palooza,” he summarizes the findings of a number of recent studies. Some of them are quite amusing.

Among my favorites:

- More physical contact among teammates on basketball teams correlates with better performance.

- Men are less inclined to date women who dumped their last boyfriends (instead of being dumped), while women are more inclined to date men who dumped their last girlfriends.

- Men tend to adopt more risky and daring strategies when playing chess against attractive women.

The finding most relevant to philosophy:

- The more people doubt their core convictions, the more they tend to forcefully defend them. (This phenomenon has long been recognized, but Brooks describes a recent study that supports it.)

This last one of course merely indicates a general tendency—it doesn’t mean that all people who forcefully defend their own views really doubt them. But chances are you’ve witnessed people (maybe even yourself) displaying forceful, and apparently irrational, conviction in the face of strong contrary evidence.

I think here’s a place where philosophy can do some good in the world. By promoting intellectual honesty and the pursuit of truth, study of philosophy can help to offset our all-too-human tendency to dig in our heels when in fact we feel doubt. Philosophy can encourage us to be gracious when our views are subjected to critical scrutiny.

This issue calls to mind a quote I read to my students on the last day of my Intro to Philosophy class this semester. It’s by Bertrand Russell, from the last chapter of his book, The Problems of Philosophy.

“The value of philosophy,” he says, “is . . . to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. . . Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom . . . [I]t removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”
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