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Let people change their minds

Everyone does it. Some people do it several times a day. Others, weekly, monthly, or even just a few times in their lives. We would be suspicious, and rightly so, of someone who claimed never to have done it. Some have even become famous for doing it. Making a public show of it can make or break a career. But how often is too often?

I’m talking about changing one’s mind. As philosophers, we are often surprised when one of us reverses position on an issue. Hilary Putnam, for example, was famous for changing his mind, and this fact is mentioned in nearly every article about him. But why is this really so remarkable? Indeed, isn’t the really surprising thing that we’re not changing our minds more often? Think about it: We spend our professional lives discussing and assessing arguments against our position. We have lots of intelligent colleagues. Indeed, I think many philosophers are not only as intelligent as I am, but more intelligent. Of this group, some have given more thought to the issues than I have. As a result, there are very strong arguments out there against my position. And this isn’t just because I happen to have a weak view; the same can be said for virtually any interesting philosophical position (if no one disagrees with your view, you should worry—it’s not a good sign). Given this, and given that our profession is predicated on the view that arguments should and do affect our opinions, the question remains. Why is it so noteworthy when philosophers change their minds?

Maybe changing one’s mind frequently is a sign of taking positions too quickly, without sufficiently attending to, or waiting for, evidence. If I find myself changing my mind about an issue, it is a sign that I made up my mind prematurely to begin with—I should have waited to hear more arguments on the issue.

Maybe. But not necessarily. One could end up endlessly flipping and flopping precisely because one takes belief formation very seriously. While some changes of heart might happen because of overly hasty belief formation, or beliefs that are motivated by self-interest, it’s also possible that a willingness to take countervailing evidence and arguments extremely seriously leads one to change one’s mind often.

Yet another possibility is that mind-changing doesn’t actually reflect change in beliefs; instead, philosophers who change their minds are simply taking up arguments without believing them, perhaps for opportunistic reasons—getting more publications, say. In this case, the changing one’s mind is really changing one’s position, since one’s mind was never fully made up to begin with.

Belief in one’s work might have instrumental value—perhaps one will defend it more ardently if one is a true believer, perhaps one will produce more or better arguments—but it’s not a requirement or duty. We’re more like lawyers than priests. Our job is not to profess views out of faith, but to offer the best possible defense of the positions we choose to represent. If that’s right, philosophers who change their mind often are not deficient in belief, and don’t lack sufficient conviction, because no conviction need be required. A good argument is a good argument, regardless of whether or not its author sees it as such. If this is right, then it’s no surprise when philosophers change their mind; we ought to expect and even reward it.

Still, one might worry about relaxing the requirement that philosophers believe what they write. If people aren’t required to stand behind their arguments, we seem to be opening the door to a kind of cavalier attitude towards argument, a kind of just-putting-it-out-there casualness that leads people to make arguments for the sake of eliciting a reaction.  And while eliciting critique can be productive, it can also be distracting and a drain on our epistemic resources. Responding to arguments takes time, and for this reason alone, lowering the bar so that one needn’t believe an argument in order to make it seems to open the door to problematic trolling—making claims or taking positions just to elicit a reaction.

The solution here lies in distinguishing two things: our attitudes towards specific arguments and positions, and our attitude towards the broader project we’re engaged in when we do philosophy. I’ve been arguing that philosophers don’t need to believe in their arguments in order to make them. But what they do need to believe in is the project of philosophical inquiry itself. A philosopher might offer up her argument in the absence of conviction but in the hopes of furthering the philosophical discussion around it. This is very different from someone who offers up a controversial claim in order to stir the pot of internet discourse, or enrage his opponents. While belief in one’s position can be laudable, it’s not the only laudable motive for doing philosophy. One can aim at truth even while reserving judgment on whether one has hit it this time.

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Recent Comments

  1. Mr. Anthony Tamburro

    My old philosophy tutor had a simple Maxim. To be a philosopher you must believe nothing; trust no-one but know everything, then you can start your philosophical journey

  2. Stephen Kamugasa

    In the real world, where strong reputations are often at stake, it is a mark of great wisdom and leadership for one to change one’s mind. And speaking as a Briton caught up in the whirlwind of Brexit, it is a quality which is sadly in short supply our political leaders today.

  3. David Sullivan

    Philosophy teachers usually try to find strong arguments to persuade students to think seriously about a particular theory even though they themselves don’t believe it to be true. That’s fine because the students quickly learn to be sceptical about the ideas they’re presented with – to trust no-one in Mr Tamburro’s tutor’s words. That scepticism should continue throughout their life: a good student of philosophy, whether an undergraduate or a professor, will always be open to changing their mind. It is sometimes different for politicians. I suspect some of the politicians who claim to have changed their minds over Brexit have done so out of expediency. That’s something we might expect in politicians, but surely not in philosophers.

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