Taking Stock: Our Ideas

The Edge poses its annual question; this year’s is

What did you change your mind about in 2007? The world’s intellectual elite spread some New Year humility.

We remember Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” and are not surprised these rather large ones have changed their minds. Of course, they also make distinctions:

This is the season when, for a day or two, millions of people delude themselves into thinking that fixed goals, firm purposes and rock-like convictions will bring happiness. Set up some distant destination — whether of weight loss or career progression — and trudge doggedly towards it, advise the secular priests of self-improvement. But every lifestyle guru makes one basic mistake. They confuse integrity, which matters, with inflexibility, which doesn’t. So why not abandon the narrow path to disappointment and opt instead for some new year’s irresolution?

Anyway, responses have to do with evolution and human nature, sex & genes. Some are revisionist history (Freeman Dyson about the effect of WWII bombing). Some have to do with the nature of the earth, of science, of technology.

Insights come when we “go back on ourselves” – see in an opponent’s arguments seductions we, too, may have felt. So Rupert Sheldrake tells us about human nature while criticizing his creationist opponents:

In practice, the goal of skepticism is not the discovery of truth, but the exposure of other people’s errors. It plays a useful role in science, religion, scholarship, and common sense. But we need to remember that it is a weapon serving belief or self-interest; we need to be skeptical of skeptics. The more militant the skeptic, the stronger the belief.

Sometimes skepticism is merely nasty – one of my students was convinced that pharmaceutical companies actually found remedies but didn’t develop them because then people wouldn’t need medicine any more. That is juvenile. And it does make one wonder about the nature of the decisions such a person makes in daily life. But, of course, some skepticism is wonderfully bracing in an open discussion.

Denis Dutton discusses changes in the way he looks at culture and man’s nature in his “The Self-Made Species.

These last two posts have been derived from – as so much has this year – from the generosity of three men who make me want to get up & see what they’ve dug up. Their hard work, delivered to my home free each day, broadens my horizons. So, thanks this year and every day to Jonathan here, to Dutton at A&L, and to Reynolds at Instapundit.

Of course, I’m left asking myself: Does Fred Thompson’s increasing attractiveness to me – as irrelevant as he may be to the final election – come from a cultist’s appreciation of the way a Tennessean like Reynolds frames the links, or from my television-addiction and affection for a deep voice and a comfortable presence, or because he actually seems to understand & like country music. I tell my children, of course, it is for his policy positions. I do indeed believe that leaving a good deal more to the states is not a bad thing; his hawkishness has been consistent; he doesn’t tell us he thinks he can end world hunger nor does he submit to 30-second discussions of complex issues. His discussions of his opponents, like so much about him, seems that of a grown up. I want someone comfortable in his own skin, used to bad reviews, sure that being president is really, really important but him being it may not be. But, then, cultists always think they think for themselves, too & this may all just be Glenn’s mind control. (And of course he’s right – Thompson’s standing does indicate that his positions may be right but his management skills & marketing ones aren’t as good as they should be.)

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