Believing what you want

This is a comment on the current furore about the issue of “safe space”, as covered here by The Atlantic

The New Intolerance of Student Activism

Unfortunately I failed to bookmark a couple of links I followed this morning, so I can’t give them here.  One was, I think, Steve Pinker describing a student having a meltdown when challenged by a professor to name one thing of which she was certain.  “Death” was her response, to which the professor came back with Hume’s argument about induction.  The other, more insightful I think, as about how opinion had shifted on the matter of gay marriage, and arguing that it was readiness to engage in argument, and be seen to be more reasonable, that wins out in the long run.  The writer mentioned someone saying the choice of a too reasonable sounding advocate of gay rights for some debate was dangerous, because people might come to agree, and went on to identify the discomfort of the person saying this in having his beliefs challenged.

I’m reminded of a teenage conversation of my own, when I came out with what I felt at the time a momentous and profound observation – that people believe what they want to believe.  My friend laughed at me, which is what you’d expect of a teenage boy, and I don’t think I managed to get out what had led to my moment of insight.  I’d actually been thinking about my own emotional response to maths – my subject – and how, if something didn’t seem intuitive to me, I found the process of having it proved to me, and my intuition shown to be wrong, as very uncomfortable.  However, I would eventually accept logic, and change my mind, but that this change of mind was not purely logical, but partly embarrassment at holding an illogical view.  I had switched to wanting to hold the logical view, but the psychological invariant was that I believed what I was most comfortable with.

So I wasn’t then meaning to be cynical about human irrationality, and I’m not now, but interested in emotional responses to the challenges of learning.

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