Changing your mind

John Brockman over at the Edge website periodically poses a stimulating question to a whole range of thinkers, some of the worlds finest minds. I’m currently reading the book compiled from responses to the 2006 question: “What is your dangerous idea?” Fascinating.

The 2008 question is; “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

As the Edge site says:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”

One hundred and sixty three contributors answered this question with relatively brief statements. They are well worth reading. I have listed extracts from a few of the contributors below.


Steven Pinker (Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought) Used to think humans had stopped evolving. Now he says: “Humans might have evolutionary adaptations not just to the conditions that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, but also to some of the conditions that have prevailed only for millennia or even centuries.”


Lawrence Krauss (Physicist, Case Western Reserve University; Author, Atom) changed his mid about what the universe is made of and how it will end

“And that is what I find so satisfying about science. Not just that I could change my own mind because the evidence of reality forced me to… but that the whole community could throw out a cherished notion, and so quickly! That is what makes science different than religion, and that is what makes it worth continuing to ask questions about the universe … because it never fails to surprise us.”


Carolyn Porco (Planetary Scientist; Cassini Imaging Science Team Leader; Director CICLOPS, Boulder CO; Adjunct Professor, University of Colorado) says: “I’ve changed my mind about the manner in which our future on this planet might evolve.”

“I used to think that the edifice of knowledge constructed from thousands of years of scientific thought by various cultures all over the globe, and in particular the insights earned over the last 400 years from modern scientific methods, were so universally revered that we could feel comfortably assured of having permanently left our philistine days behind us.”

“And now, I’m no longer sure that scientific inquiry and the cultural value it places on verifiable truth can survive without constant protection, and its ebb and flow over the course of human history affirms this. We have been beset in the past by dark ages, when scientific truths and the ideas that logically spring from them were systematically destroyed or made otherwise unavailable, when the practitioners of science were discredited, imprisoned, and even murdered. “


Michael Shermer (Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American; Author, Why Darwin Matters) now believes: “Human nature is more evolutionarily determined, more cognitively irrational, and more morally complex than I thought.”


Brian Goodwin ( Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots) has changed his mind about: “the general validity of the mechanical worldview that underlies the modern scientific understanding of natural processes.”

He says: “Science can now be about qualities as well as quantities, helping us to recover quality of life, to heal our relationship to the natural world, and to undo the damage we are causing to the earth’s capacity to continue its evolution with us. It could help us to recover our place as participants in a world that is not ours to control, but is ours to contribute to creatively, along with all the other diverse members of our living, feeling, planetary society. “


J. Craig Venter (Human Genome Decoder; Director, The J. Craig Venter Institute; Author, A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life.) had “wanted to believe that our oceans and atmosphere were basically unlimited sinks with an endless capacity to absorb the waste products of human existence. I wanted to believe that solving the carbon fuel problem was for future generations and that the big concern was the limited supply of oil not the rate of adding carbon to the atmosphere.”

Now, he says: “Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilize all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive.”


Alan Alda (Actor, writer, director, and host of PBS program “Scientific American Frontiers.”) has changed his mind twice about God. He used to be a believer but became and atheist. Then: “The problem for me was that just as I couldn’t find any evidence that there was a god, I couldn’t find any that there wasn’t a god. I would have to call myself an agnostic. At first, this seemed a little wimpy, but after a while I began to hope it might be an example of Feynman’s heroic willingness to accept, even glory in, uncertainty. “


Dimitar Sasselov (Astrophysicist, Harvard) says: “I change my mind all the time – keeping an open mind in science is a good thing. Most often these are rather unremarkable occasions; most often it is acceptance of something I had been unconvinced or unsure about. But then there is this one time …”


PZ Myers (Biologist, University of Minnesota; blogger, Pharyngula) says: “If I embark on a voyage of exploration, and I set as my goals the willingness to follow any lead, to pursue any interesting observation, to overcome any difficulties, and I end up in some unpredicted, exotic locale that might be very different from my predictions prior to setting out, have I changed my destination in any way? I would say not; the sine qua non of science is not the conclusions we reach but the process we use to arrive at them, and that is the unchanging pole star by which we navigate.”


Susan Blackmore (Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction) says after researching the paranormal: “What remains now is a kind of openness to evidence. However firmly I believe in some theory (on consciousness, memes or whatever); however closely I might be identified with some position or claim, I know that the world won’t fall apart if I have to change my mind.”


Roger Highfield (Science Editor, The Daily Telegraph; Coauthor, After Dolly) comments on science as faith: “Today the Society talks of the need to ‘verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment’. But whose facts? Was it a well-designed experiment? And are we getting all the relevant facts? The Society should adopt the snappier version that captures its original spirit: ‘Take nobody’s word for it’.”


Austin Dacey (philosopher, Center for Inquiry; author, The Secular Conscience) comments on wat matters to him: “I do not expect (and we do not need) a “science of good and evil.” However, scientific evidence can show how it is that things matter objectively. I cannot doubt the power of reasons without presupposing the power of reasons (for doubting). That cannot be said for the power of the Holy Spirit.”


Helen Fisher (Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University; Author, Why We Love) had “long suspected this human habit of “serial monogamy” had evolved for some biological purpose.”

Now, after researching the statistics she suggests: “Like pair-bonding in many other creatures, humans have probably inherited a tendency to love and love again-to create more genetic variety in our young. We aren’t puppets on a string of DNA, of course. Today some 57% of American marriages last for life. But deep in the human spirit is a restlessness in long relationships, born of a time long gone, as poet John Dryden put it, ‘when wild in wood the noble savage ran.’ “


Related articles:
Holiday reading
Most ideas in science are wrong!
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Questions science cannot answer?
Limits of science or religious “fog”?

8 responses to “Changing your mind

  1. Hey Ken,

    Just a quick question that popped in my head…

    In the past, you and I have talked (with Ian at times, and with Damian at others) about ‘choices’ as they relate to ethics, morals, values, right-and-wrong, etc. The discussion probably wasn’t systematic, of course, and we probably got side-tracked by this or that; but –at any rate– the following question comes to mind…

    Some would say that the sum total of humans (including actions and thoughts and such) can be 100% contained within the realm of biology. They would say that when you get right down to the detail of what’s happening inside our bodies and brains, we only appear to be making choices; where what is really happening is that our complex biological machinery is actually only responding to its environment, to circumstances, to external forces… In other words – they would say that what many call ‘free will’ or ‘choice’… is an illusion.

    If free will and choice are illusions, then how can we meaningfully speak of things like ‘changing your mind’?

    I find this topic of ‘choice’ very interesting.

    Hope you are well.



  2. I think it is Christopher Hitchens who says “Of course we have free will – we have no choice about that!”

    I know discussion around concepts like “free will” get pretty convoluted and philosophical and I think there are often assumptions involved which can change the meaning.

    To me, we don’t have the “fee will” or “choice” implied by the “ghost in the machine” – something outside our biology which is responsible for controlling us and making decisions. To me, that seems an unnecessary step in that if we argue that the “biological machine” needs to be controlled – then who controls the controller? The “ghost in the ghost in the machine” and so on.

    Why cannot the “free will” and “choice” be exercised by the “biological machine?” Postulating an “illusory” “ghost” doesn’t seem to help – it has to respond to environmental influences, external forces, etc., and to body chemistry and the neurological relationships in the brain comprising our thinking, memory, feelings, etc. It seems to me that the brain is in the ideal position to do this job – it’s wired into the body in a way impossible for a ghost to be.


  3. Thanks Ken,

    Good thoughts, and I absolutely LOVE the Hitchens quote! 🙂

    To press (or ‘re’-press) the question, however…

    What I’m wondering about is this:

    I have no problem that we are ‘responding’ to external influences/forces – that’s spot on, I think. But my musing questioning included that of (if we are only responding to external forces) “…how can we meaningfully speak of things like ‘changing your mind…'”

    The idea (and I think it’s a good one) isn’t just that we can correct, sharpen or otherwise ‘steer’ our ‘minds’, but also that we need to…

    To add another thought… When we have an idea about some ‘thing’ and then we let go of that idea for another one it is not necessarily because the ‘thing’ itself has changed, but rather our perspective about that ‘thing’ has changed. For example, the ‘data’ hasn’t changed, it’s just that we’ve learned more about the data, and our interpretation of the phenomenon has changed, adapted, altered…

    But it seems there is often a point where we ‘choose’ to ‘let go’ of a pre-existing idea (interpretation of data) and ‘opt’/’choose’ another idea (interpretation of data)…

    interesting stuff…



  4. Two possibilities:

    1: The data hasn’t changed but we get new data which we must include in our mental representation of reality. That can lead to a new representation, a change of mind, which in no way requires negation of the original data. I imagine Pinker’s change of mind about contemporary evolution of humans is an example. This probably happens frequently in scientific research.

    2: Our mental representation of reality is inevitably influenced by our own psychology, world views, beliefs, prejudices, etc. These can change, evolve, develop, etc., and this could influence our internal representation of reality. Young people can often have very sharp pictures of reality, maybe even extending to arrogance. With maturity people can mellow, see reality in shades of grey rather than back and white, and therefore change their mind on various things.

    I rather suspect that for many people their changes of mind are more motivated by psychology and belief than by evidence. Or the corollary, psychology and belief often immunises people against changing their minds when the evidence should dictate otherwise.


  5. Thanks Ken,

    So I guess the question is how do we ‘choose’ to not let our psychology, and belief, etc. prevent us from changing our minds?

    In other words, how do we keep our minds open?

    And why do you think the philosophical assumption about the goodness of open-mindedness is so near-universal?

    It seems to me that we are not only assuming that open-mindedness is a good thing (and I think it is! – provided, as is often said, you aren’t so open-minded that your brain falls out), but it also seems that being open-minded is an (to coin a phrase) ‘on-going choice’, that we must all continually make…



  6. I don’t know that open-mindedness is near-universally accepted. I remember a Maoist saying to me once that he though dogmatism was a good thing. I could see his point. It made things so much clearer to him and he did seem afraid of losing his faith. I think a lot of people are like that. Probably most of us prefer at least a bit of dogmatism to relieve us of the work involved in thinking.

    My own feeling is that maturity which comes with age can be a liberating force in this area. But age in itself doesn’t always work.

    I find my experience in science has been helpful. I’m not saying that scientists are any more open-minded than other people. They also have an emotional commitment to their pet ideas and beliefs. But the social activity of science is very sceptical and does force one to pay attention to facts, and be prepared to change ideas which are proved wrong. I think that experience can make one more open-minded on issues outside one’s direct work. But, again, not always.

    Inevitably we all have emotional attachment to our beliefs and that gets in the way of open-mindedness. Perhaps we have to encourage ourselves to be less emotionally committed. Perhaps its a bit like the Action and Commitment Therapy we have discussed before. Perhaps we should be prepared to look at our beliefs from a distance, see them as beliefs (and just beliefs), and learn to separate the emotional feelings we have about them.

    I wonder what success Buddhist meditators have with looking at their beliefs in this way? They do seem to have a lot of success with emotions.


  7. Interesting topic, huh?

    A couple of observations:

    Re – Maoist & dogmatism:
    I think there are times where we are glad someone clung tightly to their beliefs, and other times we wish they would freekin’ let go! 🙂 Your Maoist example could be a time to let go, and (for example) Sophie Scholl –and the movement the was a part of, resisting the Nazi regime– could be an example of a time to hold on for dear life…

    Re – old age
    You’re very correct, I think. This too can go both ways. Many of us would agree that older = wiser, etc., and that (quite simply) older people have more life experience, and (hopefully) have been exposed to a lot more ideas than only their own (or those of those around them)… But we also know what it’s like to see the ‘old-cooter’ syndrome, where grandpa and/or grandma gets more and more ‘set in their ways’… 😉 Maybe they’re just getting more and more ‘right’??? 🙂

    Re – emotional attachment
    Like observation, I think that full objectivity is impossible. (There is no view from nowhere…) I can see the logic behind the idea of ‘distancing’ one’s self from their ideas/beliefs/etc. in order to evaluate them more ‘objectively’ and free from ‘subjective’ feelings, but you run into all kinds of problems, I think… Trying to second-guess yourself is really hard to do. Am I biased…? Am I over-correcting for my bias…? Am I distancing myself too far…? Am I truly able to do this emotional distancing myself…?

    Far more important than me trying to sort out my emotional attachment to ideas, I think the best way to sort out ideas is –of course– in community (nothing quite like some ‘others’ to truly bring a ‘self’ into full expression). Emotions (at whatever level, and held by whoever) can be checked, balanced and ideas can be worked out and/or sharpened, etc.

    I reckon, that emotions lead to irrationality precisely when someone is more and more detached from corrective community. Those emotions, however, I think are very important and valuable. It is a good thing to be devoutly passionate about the search for the truth, for example. It’s what (for example) keeps the dissenting voice alive…

    So, yeah… Like I said, sometimes we are glad that someone held to their beliefs with a ‘Kung-Fu grip’ (see Ben Stiller in ‘Meet the Parents’), and other times, we desperately wish them to ‘let go’…



  8. Community could help, but may hinder. It depends on how opened-minded the community is and, let’s face it, most communities will have their own dogma they wish to protect and project.

    I still think the Buddhist meditative approach is a possibility. With thoughts and emotions it is completely non-judgmental – just an examination and seeing the thought as a thought. However, I suspect that very few practitioners get this far with emotions and thoughts, let alone beliefs.

    Still, I guess beliefs are what enable us to carry out our lives – they don’t have to be “correct” or correspond completely to reality. In fact they reckon realists would tend to be pessimist and depressive and therefore wouldn’t achieve things. We have to by positively delusional about ourselves to be effective. So I guess we shouldn’t worry too much about being completely objective with our beliefs – but I think it is important the self-examine for destructive beliefs.


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