Feynman’s first principle: on the virtue of changing one’s mind

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As an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy. Actually, that’s not technically true: I came within one credit of double-majoring in philosophy and psychology, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take one more ancient philosophy course (a requirement for the major), so I ended up majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. But I still had to read a lot of philosophy, and one of my favorite works was Hillary Putnam’s Representation and Reality. The reason I liked it so much had nothing to do with the content (which, frankly, I remember nothing of), and everything to do with the introduction. Hillary Putnam was notorious for changing his mind about his ideas, a practice he defended this way in the introduction to Representation and Reality:

In this book I shall be arguing that the computer analogy, call it the “computational view of the mind,” or “functionalism,” or what you will, does not after all answer the question we philosophers (along with many cognitive scientists) want to answer, the question “What is the nature of mental states?” I am thus, as I have done on more than one occasion, criticizing a view I myself earlier advanced. Strangely enough, there are philosophers who criticize me for doing this. The fact that I change my mind in philosophy has been viewed as a character defect. When I am lighthearted, I retort that it might be that I change my mind because I make mistakes, and that other philosophers don’t change their minds because they simply never make mistakes.

It’s a poignant way of pointing out the absurdity of a view that seemed to me at the time much too common in philosophy (and, which, I’ve since discovered, is also fairly common in science): that changing your mind is a bad thing, and conversely, that maintaining a consistent position on important issues is a virtue. I’ve never really understood this, since, by definition, any time you have at least two people with incompatible views in the same room, the odds must be at least 50% that any given view expressed at random must be wrong. In science, of course, there are rarely just two explanations for a given phenomenon. Ask 10 cognitive neuroscientists what they think the anterior cingulate cortex does, and you’ll probably get a bunch of different answers (though maybe not 10 of them). So the odds of any one person being right about anything at any given point in time are actually not so good. If you’re honest with yourself about that, you’re forced to conclude not only that most published research findings are false, but also that the vast majority of theories that purport to account for large bodies of evidence are false–or at least, wrong in some important ways.

The fact that we’re usually wrong when we make scientific (or philosophical) pronouncements isn’t a reason to abandon hope and give up doing science, of course; there are shades of accuracy, and even if it’s not realistic to expect to be right much of the time, we can at least strive to be progressively less wrong. The best expression of this sentiment that I know of an Isaac Asimov essay entitled The Relativity of Wrong. Asimov was replying to a letter from a reader who took offense to the fact that Asimov, in one of his other essays, “had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight”:

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15. February 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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