Absolutism and the "Marriage" of opinions

Philosophy May 20, 2020

Everyone has opinions and the thinking process that goes behind each and every opinion differs from person to person. But, is there a thinking process that can be deemed to be universal? A way to think as nature intended? There is. And, it is found in the scientific realm. The unique thing about science is that nature forces one to think in that way. You cannot have an absolute opinion. For example, you cannot have an absolute opinion about gravity; if one jumps from a building, he/she will hit the ground. That's it. It does not matter what your opinion is.

We take another example of scientific thinking, now from the realm of quantum mechanics. Think of an electron; sometimes it behaves as a point-like-object, comparable to a little ball in a pool table that bounces around. But, sometimes, it behaves like a wave. And, nature forces one to hold both ideas at the same time to have a grasp of the behaviour of this electron.

This thought process is not only valuable to a scientist but it can be applied in other areas too. If one wants to learn how to think, it is valuable to be forced to hold different ideas in one's head at the same time. This thought process teaches oneself not to be an absolutist.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist (He was leading The Manhattan Project which gave birth to The Atom Bomb), during one of his lectures on BBC  (The Reith Lectures: Science and the Common Understanding),  said that one can be a communist which in his definition is someone who thinks that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, i.e., society is all that matters. Or, one could be a libertarian, which in his definition is someone who is on the far conservative end and thinks that the individual is the most important thing that matters (Note that this lecture was in the 1950's and society and its norms were different).

Oppenheimer further elaborated that in order to have a functioning society, we need to have a mixture of the two. One can wave between one way or the other, but one should hold both ideas in one's head at the same time. Oppenheimer concluded that being forced to this mode of thought, is one of the most valuable thing about science.

BBC Radio 4 - The Reith Lectures, Robert Oppenheimer: Science and the Common Understanding: 1953
Robert Oppenheimer examines the impact of quantum and atomic theory on society.

If one is an absolutist, he is always in a blinkered subset of what is actually happening. One cannot understand the world by being an absolutist, he has to hold all different views in his head. It is important to not be married to opinions and ideas. One can change opinions. He can be unsure.

Richard Feynman, another American theoretical physicist who also worked on the Manhattan Project, wrote an essay (The Value of Science) where he shared similar ideas to Oppenheimer. However, he focused that the most valuable thing about science is the realisation that we do not know. He stated that, if progress is to be made, one has to understand that we do not know everything. To quote some of his last lines,

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations

The Value of Science - Richard Feynman

To change one's mind is what freedom of thought means. Feynman demonstrated freedom of thought by using a direct example of that, which is Democracy. Democracy is a trial and error system. It is the admission that we do not know how to do it. Therefore, every four to five years, we will change the President or Prime Minister. Why? Because the latter does not know how to do it. There will be someone better that will come along and then someone worse, then someone better...

In conclusion, to anyone reading this. Do not be an absolutist, have different and even contradicting ideas and opinions. Do not be married to them. Place oneself in the shoes of the opposing person, understand where and how his conclusions are coming from. It is okay to change opinions and ideas a lot. It is okay not to be sure. It is okay to be uncertain.

Aditya Bholah

One of the curious chaps who's into tech, AI, physics and humanity.