Saturday, May 16, 2009

How to think: Minimize your identity?

Paul Graham says (via Stuart Buck at Overcoming Bias):

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. ...

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. ...

If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
What do you think? Good solution, too drastic, or just ridiculous?



Jason (the commenter) said...

Diogenes : I am a citizen of the world.

Well, if you're a citizen of the world you'll always be a stranger and no place will ever be "home".

LemmusLemmus said...

I think his analysis is correct. And I think the solution to the problem is already contained in fn. 2 of the essay:

'There may be some things it's a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual label—like putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initial—because it doesn't commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn't committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a bibilical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he's committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.

Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Yes, strictly speaking, you're putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense.'

I don't know why he's so dismissive. Following the evidence wherever it leads can be a very central part of your identity, distinguishes a person clearly from almost everybody else and is very hard. Likewise you could make the following a part of your identity: "I'll try to consider the evidence on its own merits and not the political implications it might seem to have"; "I'll try to be open to arguments that may change my opinion on a topic"; "When encountering an argument, I'll try to evaluate it fairly even if it's from someone I dislike." And so on.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Keeping one's identity light and flexible is the key to wisdom, happiness, and virtue. Sentences beginning, "I am...," merit skepticism. Also sentences beginning, "You are, "They are," "S/he is."

Jason (the commenter) said...

This is the age of customization. You can walk into a McDonald's and mix Sprite and Coke, follow whoever you want on Titter, make your own play-list. It should be the same with identities.

There's no need to believe everything a liberal does, no need to do everything the French way, no need to embrace gay culture. Pick and choose, but choose! It's fun to embrace things and fun to believe. Withdrawing is just fear and shame, and it's still choosing, just choosing a culture of alienation.