Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Ambivalence, Doubt, and How I Think

Not me

by Ben Howard

I have a Master’s degree.

I’m not saying that to brag; I’m saying it to remind you that I know I’m supposed to form my opinions in intellectually rigorous ways, or at least I’m supposed to give off the appearance of genuine intellectual honesty.

But I don’t. Not at all.

I’m fascinated by the ways people come to conclusions and the way our minds fashion opinions. I’m fascinated by the things that fashion the way people interpret the world, and furthermore the ways in which the eventually come to conclusions.

One of my favorite books is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. If you have a friend who relentlessly uses the word “paradigm,” they’ve probably read this book.

The core concept of the book explores the way in which scientific progress comes about. The myth of scientific progress argues that scientists compile all the available knowledge then form an opinion. Basically it argues that scientists make objective findings.

However, as Kuhn explores the history of scientific revolutions he discovers something that doesn’t fit into this story. When major changes come about, what he terms “paradigm shifts,” they don’t take on a logical trajectory.

According to the logic of the myth, as each scientist encounters new data they will change their findings to fit the new data, but this isn’t what happens. Instead, these shifts occur generationally. The established generation of scientists resist the new data (with the occasional outlier) until they pass on, leaving the newer generation in a position of authority. With the rise of the new generation comes the rise of the new paradigm.

Even with the goal of objective analysis, it is impossible to escape the power of the subjective mind.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
by Thomas Kuhn
This leads me to my moment of intellectual honesty. While I want to tell you that I balance all sides of an argument against each other and pick the best one based on an objective starting point, that’s not what I do.

Instead I respond to arguments on an intuitive level. To put it more crassly, I respond based on feel. I don’t mean feelings of happiness or sadness or anger, but feel about whether or not the argument fits. Whether it slides in and broadens my perception of reality. Whether it ameliorates doubt and ambivalence.

That’s how my faith has been shaped. It’s how my politics have been shaped. It’s how my views on relationships and maturity have been shaped. I sense instability and begin to search for a philosophy or an explanation that explains the sensation.
Let me be clear, I’m not searching for an explanation that makes the doubt/ambivalence/instability go away. I’m not looking for a drug to soothe my aching soul. Instead I’m looking for words to put to sensation. A elucidation of what I already know that I feel, even if I’m unable to express it.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece called “Notes From A CoffeeShop.” I wrote it as a narrative because I couldn’t explain my discomfort, my frustration, my ambivalence, my distrust of my own reaction and response. I couldn’t explain what I knew I felt.

But it’s not the first time I’ve had the feeling.

So here is my question, is it intellectually dishonest to trust my intuitive sense of doubt and ambivalence while I search for a way of expressing myself?

Does anyone else think like this? If not, how do you come to your opinions?

I look forward to hearing what you have to say.


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1 comment:

  1. Yes and no, which you know is my ever ambivalent response. Personally, I blame it on being a Libra.. that whole thing about balancing all sides, giving "on the one hand/and on the other" its due.

    I have two competing selves when it comes to how I come by my views the world: the first is a rational self who usually operates from an epistemology of suspicion - this self is very good at finding the fallacies in a theory, and poking holes in narratives that tie things up too neatly and try to avoid the messiness of life.

    The other self is the intuitive self - this one approaches the world in much the way you described. This is where things come freighted with feelings that can't be put well into words. Things may feel like they just "fit", or I may feel like there's something "unsafe" about a given construct for the world. Call it premonition, or intuition, or a form of Idealism.

    My navigation of the world holds these two as guiding stars, triangulating my way by means of their relationship to one another. I can't buy in to explanations that have so cleaned up reality that their clay feet lie bare and exposed to reason. I can't choose theories so cold and heartless that they feel untrue to experience. I can't forego one for the other, and in the strange alchemy of the two, my own approach to truth and to reality and to all is catalyzed into being.