It’s often surprisingly difficult to find people with whom you disagree. They are out there, sure, but you seem to gravitate towards the ones you can agree with, the ones who are reasonable, the ones whose judgement you know you can trust. Because they agree with you.
But of course, it’s a lot easier and more reassuring to hear that your views are right — and if not right, then at least almost right, so close to right that others recognise your ability to reason and feel they can reason with you. If you’re a teenager and all your friends are rap fans, it’s one thing to say you like Vanilla Ica (you’re wrong, but you can be reasoned with), and another thing completely to say that you like Justin Bieber or Johann Sebastian Bach.
The same goes for your perceived level of ability to reason. If, for example, I am a world-renowned philosopher and I get fan mail from someone who obviously is not a philosopher, perhaps hasn’t even understood my most basic ides or thoughts — it’s easier to ignore that fan. He probably sends fan mail to famous people in general, and he probably wouldn’t understand much of what I tell him anyway. Just ignore him, and he will go away.
Daniel Dennett is one of the most renowned (and famous) philosophers alive today. And some years ago I wrote to him: I was that fan.
I had just read his book Breaking the spell, and I wanted to thank him. Just tell him I liked the book, really, as I am in no position to thank a world-renowned philosopher for writing a book; why should he, or anyone care? As if he, or anyone who doesn’t know me, would care about me liking that book or not. I sent the e-mail and felt good about it for some hours, and then I forgot all about it.
Some days later, he replied. And he didn’t just say “thank you”. In my mail, I compared his analysis of the incomprehensibility of religions with the incomprehensibility of Finnegans Wake, suggesting that FW would be a better book, and even more incomprehensible, than the Bible, and that one should put it as a secular version of the Bible in all hotel rooms. Dennett replied that he had read Günter Grass in German, not understanding many idioms, but thinking that they made sense to Germans. When he got them translated, however, they were just as baffling.
And then he said: Maybe some day I’ll think I have time to try FW again. I gave up on it the first time.
He gave up. I, on the other hand, was reading it for fun. I understood a lot less than him, English being my second language and my references to all kinds of literature and philosophy being far more narrow and shallow — but I enjoyed the incomprehensibility, the digging after words I could understand, jokes I could get, occasionally entire sentences. After many years, I still understand very little of it, and I too have more or less given up on it.
As a world-renowned philosopher (I keep saying that), why would you admit this “intellectual defeat”, as it were? Why would you write to a fan that he, the fan, can “read” (you don’t read FW, but that’s another story) a book you have tried, but given up on?
I think the answer is this: perspective and wisdom.
Dennett describes himself as “an autodidact—or, more properly, the beneficiary of hundreds of hours of informal tutorials on all the fields that interest me, from some of the world’s leading scientists.” He obviously has a huge network of friends with differing perspectives. (Today’s tasks.) To get that kind of network, you have to be humble. You have to admit that others can teach you things you don’t know, but also correct your false beliefs. If you know you’re right, there’s no point in asking others about their perspective. And if you’re not ready to change your beliefs, there’s no point in having this kind of network, no point in listening to other people than the ones you agree with.
But of course, if you never listen to people you disagree with, you’ll never learn anything new. And even if you knew everything, and no-one could teach you anything, being able to listen to others and taking their arguments seriously, is a part of being wise. (Wisdom implies humility: a besserwisser is not wise.)
When I began running barefoot three years ago, the guru was Ken Bob Saxton. And he still is: Very few people in the Western World have run for so many years and so many kilometers barefoot. (Of course, there are many places elsewhere where barefoot running is the norm, especially for kids, but that too is another story.) I could relate to Ken Bob. His worldview is similar to mine and more similar to the Scandinavian way of thinking than most Americans’. And in my naivety I expected going barefoot to fit with my thinking, and that everyone who take off their shoes will become more Scandinavian in their thinking.
I was wrong. Daniel Howell is the author of The Barefoot Book, the best book about barefoot living I know of. He is a professor of biology. He should be some kind of hippie, right?
And yet, he is anything but. He is pro-gun, pro NRA, not “birther“, a christian fundamentalist. He believes that there will be a civil war in the USA in the not too distant future. He is the embodiment of most of the traits that Scandinavians dislike about the USA. And he walks and runs and lives his life mostly without shoes. (EDIT: Howell clarifies: he is not a birther, but he does have doubts about Obama’s citizenship. He doesn’t say there “will be” a civil war, but that civil unrest is a real possibility. (But he is definitely pro-gun/pro-NRA.) It’s difficult to see the nuances when you’re far away (and that’s why the further apart you are, the more you need to communicate; not less.))
I exchanged a couple of e-mails with dr. Howell and realised his views are so far from mine that we probably never even will find a common platform on many issues. The instinctive reaction would be to back off and let him be, just shaking my head, not understanding that it’s possible for a man to share some of my beliefs and yet be som radically different in others.
The wise thing to do is to listen to him, hear his arguments, accept them or not, but never ever thinking that my arguments are any better just because they are mine. I have lots to learn. Lots of beliefs to change.
And I am very grateful to him for sharing his opinions with me, to explain why he means what he means, and not just cut me off. He never once did the e-mail equivalent of shaking his head in disbelief, but listened to me and tried to show me why he thinks as he does. He took me seriously.
In this sense, both Howell’s and Dennett’s lesson is the same. They both have strong opinions, but they don’t insulate themselves from other opinions. On the contrary.
I would call that one aspect of wisdom.