Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to know if you're intellectually honest

Paul Graham writes:

Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn't. Odds are you just think whatever you're told.

The other alternative would be that you independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are now considered acceptable. That seems unlikely, because you'd also have to make the same mistakes. Mapmakers deliberately put slight mistakes in their maps so they can tell when someone copies them. If another map has the same mistake, that's very convincing evidence.
Graham doesn't use the phrase "intellectual honesty," but that's what he's getting at. Oddly, there are some people (including Matthew Yglesias) who deny that there's any such thing as "intellectual honesty," unless it's used as a synonym for just plain "honesty." I think that's a big mistake.


Balfegor said...

Is he really getting at "intellectual honesty"? I've always thought of intellectual honesty as having more to do with the ability to step back and criticise one's own thinking, to recognise, to some degree, when one has engaged in sloppy or illogical thinking.

The exercise Graham suggests is an exercise in practicing intellectual honesty, I guess, but it doesn't of itself tell you whether you're intellectually honest (you can cheat on the exercise, after all, and lie to yourself).

Or perhaps all these years I've just been understanding "intellectual honesty" differently from everyone else?

John Althouse Cohen said...

It's not the definitive test or a fool-proof test. It's far from comprehensive; for instance, you could be intellectually honest even while taking a view most of your friends would find offensive. But it's still one way to test for intellectual honesty.