Changing our Mind

I’m currently reading Robert Skidelsky’s single-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was one of the most remarkable economist, thinkers and writers of the 20th century. His letters and books are full of witty remarks and unique turns of phrase. Here’s some examples:

  • “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
  • “Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”
  • “If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.”
  • “There is no harm in being sometimes wrong — especially if one is promptly found out.”
  • “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”
  • “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
  • “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

One of my favorite Keynes quotes involves his reply to a criticism of him for changing his mind on a policy position he’d taken in the past. In a sharp and arresting retort Keynes replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Keynes was insinuating two things in this remark: One, changing our mind is naturally what we do as we become more educated on a subject over time. That’s just common sense old chap! And two, “What do you do, sir?” is Keynes’s way of asking his critic if he’s one of those people who prefers the “hobgoblin” of consistency over intellectual integrity. A question we should all be asking ourselves.

Changing our mind is something honest and thoughtful people must sometimes do. Changing our mind about various ideas and beliefs is something we should be doing over our lifetimes as we experience and learn. It’s the true sign of a mature mind. This is especially true in politics, where many people’s beliefs are based more on gut and party than a thoughtful evaluation of people, policy, facts, and sincere interests. “Life is,” as James Barrie said, “one long lesson in humility.”

The safest course is to always remain humble about knowledge and certainty while remaining open minded and intellectually curious.

3 thoughts on “Changing our Mind

  1. I’ve been thinking more about this post as I worked on a project this morning that defies conventional wisdom and everything about it is contrary to something more-or-less fundamental ‘everyone’ knows to be true. They might be right. But their reasons for believing they’re right have nothing to do with any original thinking they’ve done on the matter. Someone sometime convinced the people around him it was true, they convinced others, and somewhere along the line the thinking lost contact with the source and the matter was no longer up for grabs.

    Most of what each of us ‘knows’ came to our state of knowing by similar routes. Anonymous strangers did the original heavy thinking, people we have no reason to trust, no way to know their motives. But once we ‘know’ something it’s damned difficult to listen when someone who knows something different begins to say so.

    So we have our own package of knowings and nobody who knows something else is going to listen to them, and they have their packages of knowings we aren’t about to learn anything from unless we’re able to give up our own long enough to force a state of listening into our being.

    Interestingly, when we do, there’s one hell of a lot to be learned, even though we already know it ain’t true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thoughts Anonymous Host. The quality and reliability of information is a real challenge for those who recognize, like you, that there is a problem. My experience tells me most people are rather careless with the quality of their understanding. How we come to know many things through a “package of knowings” is very true. Authority and culture lead the way in that realm. But as for the project you’re working on, depending on what we’re talking about here, the original thinker could have been wrong in their assessment (or they could have been dead on right!).

      Again, I don’t know what you’re referring to exactly, but sometimes we can test ideas, either through years of experience or through the experience of many people which can cause us to revise the original thinker’s idea. The scientific method is the most reliable way of demonstrating the truth of a hypothesis. But then even a pile of valid scientific studies can fail to penetrate a thick skull. In your case I’d be the guy going back to the original thinker — if that’s possible — to examine what they really said and thought. And then I’d be asking myself if the original thinker’s idea is still valid in light of what we now know or understand.

      Good to here from you Anon. Thanks for commenting.


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