Make war on complacency not on people – Paris, January 2015
I have been a visitor in the incomparable city of Paris in the great country of France for almost three weeks now. Less than two weeks ago, Paris and France suffered a great injury, an egregious insult. Nearly twenty people were killed. Their lives ended brutally, undeservedly, and un-naturally.
I am a foreigner here and likely not attune to the subtleties of Parisian emotional expression. I am sure that there are signs that I am missing and others that I am misinterpreting. Yet there are facial, postural, gait and prosodic universals to emotional expression. My reading of those told me that Parisians feel a quiet patriotism and a steely resolve to remain a country of diverse intellectual thought and free expression.
The attacks began on the morning of January 7, a Wednesday and the third day of my class, Introduction to Neurobiology, here in Paris. Since I teach first thing in the morning, I did not learn of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo until after class. As I prepared for class on Thursday, I was thinking of the importance of 1) entertaining all sides of an issue and 2) considering all issues up for discussion and consideration. No topic should be sacred and no viewpoint should be above discourse. Being intellectually free means being able to talk about anything and entertain, at least for a moment, all points of view. The opposite of intellectual freedom is polemical thinking, harkening to an opinion without any possibility of change for any reason.
On Thursday, I came into class and asked that the students write an essay on a neuro-philosophical question, one for which there is no single correct answer. [The question was: If you could re-open the sensitive period as an adult, would you? and if so, under which circumstances?] At the time, I was in the throes of dismay at the lack of intellectual tolerance evidenced by the attacks. Therefore, I proposed that students exchange their papers and defend a viewpoint other than their own, an approach that is essentially a copy of high school debate team rules and also bears resemblance to the rule that every defendant in the U.S. is deserving of representation.
The students were seriously not excited about my viewpoint swapping-idea. I thought about this for quite a while. And upon such reflection, I have come to think that enforced consideration, and even defense, of others’ points of view is exactly what we need to combat more attacks such as that on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I began to think of the words of Rebecca Goldstein in Plato at the Googolplex, a book that considers multiple questions about philosophy: What is philosophy? What was philosophy in the time of Plato? Is philosophy still relevant? Has there been any progress in philosophical thought since the days of Plato?
I am sure that many of you think that I have forgotten the topic of this post. And yes, I do digress but stay with me, there is a point.
Let’s first consider whether progress in philosophical thought has been made since the days of Plato. Professor Goldstein argues that “Philosophical progress is invisible because it is incorporated into our points of view. We don’t see it because we see with it.” In other words we are using a common shared philosophy to frame questions as well as to discern what constitutes an answer. In this way, philosophy is fundamental to every human intellectual pursuit and in fact to human life as we all use this framework to answer for ourselves: What is a good life? How do I live my life well?
How did Plato approach this problem? Professor Goldstein writes:
“What is it according to Plato that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world…. The violence with which [philosophical] questions whip through one’s presumptions and certitudes, undermining, overturning, destabilizing, and disorienting….enact an inner drama both terrifying and exhilarating. Inner drama is the essence of philosophy doing its work….Philosophical thinking that does not do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.”
And there you have it. Let’s do violence to our assumptions. Let’s do violence to our long held beliefs. Who knows? It may turn out that an assumption or belief withstands the mental attack. And it may turn out that we change our opinion. The answer is not the point. The examination is. To paraphrase the words of Northern Exposure’s Chris Stevens, “it’s not the thing you fling, it’s the fling itself.”
So here is one person’s plea to turn violence toward our thoughts. Let’s upend understood facts. Let’s make war on complacency. Let’s kill narrow mindedness rather than each other.
Categories: The brain in the news