On Indecision and Being Wrong

Why is changing your mind or being uncertain about something so taboo in most societies? I understand there are some things one shouldn’t be agnostic about – such as whether murder is moral – and I know flip-flopping out of opportunism or hypocrisy is unfavorable. But what’s wrong with admitting that you don’t know something, or would rather do more research and be more informed before making up your mind

Furthermore, what’s wrong with changing your mind over time? If, ideally speaking, we become more knowledgeable or mature about something as we grow, then obviously we’d change our beliefs accordingly. If we discover valid evidence and sound arguments in favor of an opposing position, why not take that position? That’s far better than sticking to a belief based on pride, stubbornness, or close-mindedness.

Yet all of that makes us look indecisive or even dishonest. I’m not quite sure why the former is always so bad either. Everyone starts with a clean slate about something. No one is born knowing all the facts, issues, and arguments of a particular topic, and thus we shouldn’t expect people to just take a position from the get-go (at the same, we shouldn’t strongly endorse a perspective we’re not well-versed in). Even those who are pretty knowledgeable about a subject can and should acknowledge their intrinsic limitations: as individuals with limited cognitive and sensory abilities, we’re exposed to only so many different perspectives and data, and can only take in so much. Inevitably, there will be things we simply didn’t know, and otherwise wouldn’t have known, without their introduction to us by others.

However, that’s a tough fact for most of us to swallow, myself included. I’ve always noted how ego and pride can be the two greatest detriments to truth and knowledge. It’s very difficult to admit not knowing something, or to admit having been wrong. In both cases, you feel your integrity is compromised and that people will see you as less intelligent, and may perhaps even take you less seriously.  There’s also an element of game theory involved: you might want to admit your wrong or don’t know, but feel that others – be it your “opponent” or you “audience” – will gloat or take it badly. We’re all raised to accept that making mistakes are a fact of life, and should even be encouraged insofar as you learn from them.

But that’s difficult to put into practice when we seem to view “being smart” as being “right” and knowing everything. Your credibility becomes discounted by others, which is something no one wants. It’s clear that we need to change the way we look at intelligence, and the way we define what is “smart.” For me, intelligence isn’t constituted by being a repository of raw data, having all the answers, and being consistently accurate about all your views. Being smart is about being open-minded, reasonable, willing to listen and discuss, and obtaining a rational and empirical basis for why you believe what you believe. It’s about being curious and inquiring, and having the ability to explore alternative views, opinions, and positions.

Of course, I don’t want to convey the impression that I’m coming from another extreme either. I don’t expect, nor desire, that people change their minds on a whim. No one every accepts being wrong or having a change of ideas too quickly, whether they’re ignorant or erudite. The path to greater knowledge and truth is incremental and requires reflection, re-confirmation, and contemplation. You don’t want to change your entire view on something too readily – it’s better to test it, think on it, re-evaluate, and so on.

As with most things, it’s all about balancing between confidence and humility. The over-confident will never learn anything because they will insist they know it all already. Even if they know deep down that they don’t know something, they’ll continue to save face for the sake of their reputation. The overly humble will seek to be tolerant and accepting of all views for the sake of appearing open-minded (or perhaps to simply be a nice person), but in doing so will never allow themselves to be definitively grounded in any ideology, making them flighty and uncommitted. The key is to find that middle-ground, to be open-minded but weak-minded, to be enlightened but arrogant about it. As with most things, all this is easier said than done. But it’s a start at least.