Subject closed – or not
Something W K C Guthrie said about Socrates set off a train of thought.
[S]ince no one will try to find out what constitutes right action, or what is the real meaning of freedom or justice, if he thinks he knows it already, the first task was to convince others too of their ignorance.
True enough, probably – unless she already thinks that things keep on being worth thinking about even if she does think she knows something about them already. That’s why a basic stance of skepticism, uncertainty, revisability, is a good thing. If we have it, we’re likely and predisposed to go on (and on and on) trying to find out things even if we have thought about them before. We’re never finished. There are no closed questions.
The belief or conviction that we already know all that needs to be known on a subject probably does impede further inquiry and thought about it. That’s a sensible time-saving mechanism in a world of finite time and attention, especially when it comes to simple straightforward factual information like bus timetables, but it’s also the high road to dogmatism and delusions of infallibility and lack of practice in thinking and questioning on more complicated subjects. The absence of a sense that ‘That subject is settled, closed, there is nothing to think about’ is a necessary condition of thinking about it. If you really think there is nothing to think about, then you won’t.
So, as with biases, I’ve been trying to figure out if I can think of any closed subjects – subjects that are closed for me. Subjects I just wouldn’t want to think about no matter what the new evidence or arguments. Er – I couldn’t do it. I can think of subjects that bore me into fits, and that I avoid discussing or thinking about in certain terms – US politics, for example, which is 95% campaign and only 5% substance (figures pulled out of air), and just unbelievably boring and pointless. But that’s different from closed. I can’t think of anything actually closed. I must be fooling myself! I must be, that must be sheer delusion. Tax policy. Economics. No…I feel resistance, but that’s laziness and ill-informedness, not imputed knowledge. I can’t think of anything I know so much about that there’s nothing to think about. Well that’s plausible enough! Maybe I’m not fooling myself: maybe that’s just the product of ignorance and a bad memory. I’m serious. I find it easy to get interested in subjects I’ve already learned something about, because I’ve forgotten what I learned. I can just start over. Wonderful quality, that! It leaves you pig-ignorant, but also keeps you interested. Let’s see…belief in the existence of the self. We’ve never talked about that (surely?), so let’s get down to it.