When I was growing up in the 1950s, cars still had carburettors and distributors to supply fuel, air and the spark to make the engine fire. Car tyres had tubes, and country roads were mostly not paved. All of which led to breakdowns being a regular feature of motoring.
When cars were stuck on the side of the road, some people drove by, others stopped to help. My dad always stopped to help, perhaps because he was a lay preacher, perhaps because he ran a service station. We often seemed to stop on the way to a morning church service in the country. Mum was not impressed that dad would always use his well-ironed white handkerchief to dry a soggy distributor.
Farmers were also reliable ‘stoppers’ rather than ‘passers’ when a stranded motorist needed assistance. Mostly stalwarts of the very conservative Country Party, as it then was, they stopped just like the wharfies and other socialist sympathisers, the kinds of people who were the backbone of Meals on Wheels and other ‘do-gooder’ working class organisations.
I pondered this a lot when as a young uni student. I would return home to heated arguments about the war in Vietnam, conscription, the destruction of the environment by unrestrained capitalism and so on. People who in really important ways behaved the same when it came to helping their fellow human beings face to face, had widely differing views on what is in the best interests of their fellow human beings in general. They would think they had little in common. But they shared the most important of human attributes – a genuine concern for others.
I tried hard to remember this as I got older. We tend to slip too easily into thinking that people who do not share our views, our politics, are bad people in some way. Indeed it is hard not to think like that as we move through life and find that our circle of work colleagues and friends narrowing to people ‘of like mind’.
I was helped by learning from philosophy that we humans are not, as we like to imagine ourselves to be, observant and rational beings – homo sapiens, the wise animal. We would be better described as (excuse the made-up Latin) homo self-deceptivus, the self-deceiving animal. We tend to engage our rational faculties to defend a view after we have formed it, rather than to come to our views in the first place. In forming our views self-interest, emotion, group think and personality trump logic and evidence. We turn to logic and evidence, to the extent that we ever do, when our views are challenged, not when we are coming to a position on some matter.
Philosophers have understood this from the time of Socrates. He had especially good advice on how we can live less like homo self-deceptivus and more like homo sapiens. Don’t wait for others to challenge your beliefs, make it habit yourself. Whenever we have a strongly held view about something, say, to take a couple of local and topical examples, the expansion of the salmon industry or the reform of senior secondary education, always ask yourself ‘What evidence would change my mind about this?’ If we cannot say what would change our mind, how will we recognize the evidence which should change our mind when we encounter it?
The deep lesson of philosophy is that being rational – guiding our actions by the search for truth and the application of logic – is work. It is hard work. It does not come naturally to us humans. Rationality is a learned practice, one we need to continue to work at. And that work is done in dialogue, with ourselves and more powerfully with others. Maintaining open and respectful communication with those that disagree with us is a crucial part of maintaining our own rationality.
In dialogue we can unpick our differences. Where do we disagree in our values? Where do we disagree on what evidence is relevant to the issue that divides us? How do we disagree about what conclusion some evidence supports? Where do we disagree on what else we need to know to firm up – or change – our views?
It is a strange thing that we think it reasonable that it should take a year or so and many skilled people to build us a house, yet we build our views of the world often without seeking the assistance of others and take little time over it. How much richer our lives would be, and how much more likely we would be to avoid false belief, if we took as much trouble to build our mental world as we do our physical world. That is why, for all of us and at all stages of our lives, of all the things we can do with our time, education is the most rewarding. And the means of true education is always dialogue.
Michael Rowan is a philosopher with particular interests in science, education, and how people can resolve their disagreements by learning from each other. Here, he writes for the Communicating: the Heart Of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.
Something to think about: If you are opposed to the expansion of, say, Tasmania’s salmon industry, what evidence would change your mind; while if you are in favour, what evidence would persuade you to become an opponent? Have you looked for any such evidence, and if not, where might you go to find it?