Monday, July 23, 2007

If you want my opinion … (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

I'd like to thank Eric for inviting me to guest on The Splintered Mind. Blogging gives one a chance to express one opinions, so I thought I’d begin by saying something about opinions.

When we talk of opinions I think we often have in mind states of the kind to which Daniel Dennett applies the term. An opinion in this sense is a reflective personal commitment to the truth of a sentence (see especially ch.16 of Brainstorms). Dennett suggests that we can actively form opinions and that we are often prompted to do so by social pressures. The need to give an opinion frequently forces us to create one – to foreclose on deliberation, find linguistic expression for an inchoate thought, and make a clear-cut doxastic commitment. This, Dennett suggests, is what we call making up our minds.

But what is the point of having opinions? Non-human animals get on well enough without them, and much of our behaviour seems to be guided without the involvement of these reflective, language-involving states. Dennett himself makes a sharp distinction between opinion and belief, and maintains that it is our beliefs and desires that directly predict our nonverbal actions, whereas our opinions manifest themselves only in what we say.

I disagree with Dennett here. I think that opinions can play a central role in conscious reasoning and decision-making. They can do so, I have argued, in virtue of our (usually non-conscious) higher-order attitudes towards them (see here for an early stab at the argument and here for the developed version). However, it’s undeniable that many of our opinions do not have much effect on how we conduct our daily lives. Many simply aren’t relevant. Few of us are deeply enough involved in politics for our political opinions to have a significant impact on our nonverbal behaviour. Moreover, opinions have drawbacks. They are hard to form. It’s not easy to arrive at coherent set of opinions which one is prepared to commit to and defend in argument. They can be dangerously imprecise. People are all too ready to endorse blanket generalizations and sweeping moral prescriptions. And they can be inflexible. We sometimes hang on to our opinions beyond the point where a wiser person would revise or abandon them, and end up falling into dogmatism or self-delusion. (Someone once said of the British politician Enoch Powell that he had the finest mind in Parliament until he made it up.)

The wise course, it seems, would be to keep an open mind as far as possible, and then commit oneself only to qualified views, which one is always ready to reconsider. Why, then, are people so keen to form strong opinions and to broadcast them to others? (a keenness very evident in the blogosphere). The question is one for social psychologists, but I'll speculate a bit. One factor is probably security. It's a complicated world and doubt is unsettling, so it's comforting to have clear, well-entrenched opinions. A unified package of opinions can also serve as a badge of tribal loyalty, identifying one as a member of a particular party or sect and so fostering a sense of comradeship and belonging. Another factor, I suspect, is prestige: a set of clear, firmly held opinions is impressive, suggesting that one is knowledgeable, tough-minded, and decisive.

These benefits aren't negligible, but I doubt they outweigh the risks, and it might be better if we were all more cautious in our opinions. I'm not recommending quietism; it's often important to take a stand. But I think we should resist the pressures to form quick and easy opinions, and, in particular, that we should resist the pressure to choose them from the predefined packages offered to us by professional politicians and 'opinion formers'. Referring to opinion polls, Spike Milligan once said that one day the 'Don't knows' would get in, and then where would we be? Well, perhaps we'd be a bit better off, actually.

4 comments:

Jim said...

Hi Keith

I've mentioned this to Eric a few times in our discussions about internal speech in our stream of consciousness. Much of my internal speech is also extremely opinionated. And this phenomena plays nicely into a cultural setting were stong opinions are often rewarded.

Another reason provisional truths may be so unsettling is that such an agnostic stance is counter-cultural both externally(as you have indicated) and internally, when dealing with the largely dogmatic brain messages from the "Ministry of the Interior."

It strikes me that we my exist in a culture where the external system of cks and balances are under attack partially because the internal system of cks and balances(the ethical attempts to rein in our internal dogmatism) is also breaking down.

Keith Frankish said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for your comments. I'm sure you're right that there are internal pressures for dogmatism too. For one thing, probabilistic reasoning is very hard – at least at a conscious level. We find it much easy to process unqualified premises. Getting into wilder speculation, I suppose it could be argued that democracy tends to promote internal dogmatism (each of us not only has a right to an opinion, but a civic duty to have one).

But one way or another, we have a culture where doubt is often perceived as weakness, and being well-informed is equated with having strong opinions. For my part, I'm inclined to think of opinions as a necessary evil. Sometimes one needs to stop thinking, take a view, and start acting. But forming an opinion on a topic involves ceasing to deliberate about it, and one shouldn't do that lightly.

Best, Keith

Jim said...

Hi Keith

It it could also be conceptualized that another name for democracy is openness. The idea that society does, in fact, have a system of cks and balances means, to me at least, that there are only provisional truths and that ideally what are system allows for is a kind of nuturance of time to allow differences of opinion to be played out endlessly.

The issue of having a functiong internal system of cks and balances
implies that internal impulses such as the move towards dogmatism are ultimately recognized as separate from self not as a part of a definition of self. Once such a recognition takes place, it perhaps becomes practically possible, if one chooses, to ck such impulses. The ideal result, on a personal level, as on a political level, is a movement toward openness.

You are certainly right that doubt is perceived as weakness in our culture which to me is a type of empirical proof that dogmatism is on the rise both internally and externally.

Take Care

Keith Frankish said...

Hi Jim
Participatory democracy may equate to openness, but I don't think our current form of representative democracy does. In a party system, opinions are tribal badges and uncertainty entails a loss of political identity and effectiveness. We appear to have a culture of debate, but it's mainly histrionic opinion-mongering and the citizen's chief contribution is to choose between predefined options. This doesn't foster openness, nor the skills required for participatory democracy. Perhaps there is an internal analogy here too. If the most effective people in society define themselves by what they believe, then we'll find it hard to disown our own dogmatism.
Best, Keith