Quora Question: Why should books not be censored?
There are a number of problems with the idea that books should be censored. Here are just a few.
Perhaps the better question to ask would be: For those who advocate banning certain books, what are your arguments for doing this? I can’t imagine any argument that would outweigh other more important considerations; chief among them the importance of the free exchange of ideas.
Ideas are inherently dangerous and subversive. They usually advocate some sort of change or reform. Those changes or reforms are threatening to those in power whoever they may be. As such, if you make an argument for banning books, there are very few books that would truly be “safe” from this practice. Those that would be safe would be so banal and uninteresting as to be not worth reading, to begin with.
Any idea worth writing about is an idea that will offend someone or disturb someone’s thinking, challenge their beliefs, or threaten the status quo in some way. But, that’s precisely why we need those ideas.
Freedom of expression is too important a value and necessary to a flourishing society to risk the chilling effect of banning books.
A2A on Quora
No one is open to all points of view no matter what they might say. There are almost always some views that seem repellent on the face of it and it is difficult to overcome that perspective. In some cases, this is a good thing since not all points of view are equal in terms of plausibility and validity.
Of course, for many people, this raises the question: Who decides what counts as plausible and valid? In reality, no one decides this. What ultimately ought to decide this is a fair and objective evaluation of the evidence. This is best done by several people each independently investigating the claims and evaluating them according to the best evidence and reason we currently have access to.
What is more important than being open to other points of view is being open to challenge one’s own point of view in light of reason and evidence. Since we all hold beliefs about a large number of topics and no one is infallible it follows that everyone is currently holding wrong beliefs. The question is what do we do about that.
For most people, it is difficult to have their views challenged from the outside. Studies have shown that even when presented with clear, objective, irrefutable evidence that their views are wrong, this causes most people not to alter their views but to dig in deeper, double down, and deny that evidence which shows they are wrong.
So, the challenges that we need to our ideas can often be most effective if they come from ourselves. How do we do this?
We begin by being open to examining our ideas and being open to learning more about the topics in question. This is the real value of open-mindedness. We all have to be willing to read more about topics and include in this reading material we may disagree with. We all have to be willing to question the claims made regarding these topics. Especially when the claims being made are ones we agree with.
Why? Because it is easy to find flaws with ideas we disagree with. What is more challenging is to find the flaws in the claims made that we are sympathetic to.
Our points of view are not infallible nor should they be unchanging. We should regard points of view as we do eyeglasses. Eyeglasses are designed to allow us to see better. When they work they are very useful. But, when they begin to fail us we do not cling on to them irrationally. We replace them with a better prescription.
Similarly, our points of view should help us to see and understand the world around us better. When they fail to do this (and we determine this by examining the available evidence; when it piles up against our point of view we know our POV is facing us) we should not hesitate to replace them with better ones.
This takes practice, diligence, courage, and work. Critical thinking is not a skill that comes naturally. The human mind is not wired up to find the truth about how the world works. It is wired up to help us survive, bond to others who are close to us and defend ourselves against others who are not close to us. So, we have to work against several cognitive biases to evaluate the evidence available for any given point of view. This is the work we should all be engaged in.
Quora Question: How do you do “slow living”?
Slow living will look different depending on what your focus is and how you integrate it into your life. The beauty of slow living is the variation. Here are some possible ways to bring more slowness into your life:
Reduce your schedule: If you can try reducing your schedule. Are you or your family involved in a lot of different activities, classes, meetings, etc? Are there some of these you can drop in the name of slowing down?
Be more mindful: Mindfulness has become a very popular word and pursuit but it can definitely help with slowing down. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s washing dishes, cooking food, eating, taking a walk, just do that. Don’t multi-task. Focus on the activity itself and really take in the details of your experience. Notice your surroundings and your actions as you engage in them.
Turn off the tech: Another good way to bring slowness into your life is to reduce your use of tech. Don’t always be checking email, scrolling social media posts, watching television, etc.
Read a book: Reading is a great way to bring slowness into your day. Set aside a specific time, perhaps before bed or in the morning, to do some reading. Here are some good slowness suggestions:
Carl Honore The Power of Slowness
Christopher De Pree Astronomical Mindfulness
Brooke McAlary Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World
Rachel Jonat The Joy of Doing Nothing
Each of these will give you more ideas about bringing slowness into your life in a way that feels right for you.
Life is limited but this does not negate its potential for value or meaning. The very limit to life is what enables us to give our lives value and meaning.
If no one ever died, there would also be no particular value to one’s life or individual moments in it. After all, you’re going to live forever. So, why treasure any given moment? Why think that there is anything particularly special about any given moment?
More than that, there would be no urgency or even very much reason to do anything if no one ever died. Knowing you had an infinite amount of time would likely lead many people to do nothing figuring they could always do whatever they were thinking about doing later. And, they could. But, this possibility would lead to many negative results. Among them: boredom, loss of motivation, loss of interest in friendship, love, life itself. After all, there’s just so much of it!
On the other hand, the fact that you are going to die and the fact that you only have so much time to embrace life means you’d better do something with it while you have it. It’s the only chance you have to: experience, love, wonder, think, ask questions, learn, build friendships, embrace others, experience nature, and on and on. But, there is an end to it so it makes sense to get to it now.
The biologist Richard Dawkins offers an interesting, and perhaps helpful, perspective in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." You have been fortunate beyond belief in being alive. Also, you have been fortunate to be alive in a time when so many things are possible. But, your time is limited.
Questions like this about death implicitly seem to be questioning the very possibility of meaning in life which makes me think of the work of Viktor Frankl. He was an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor who wrote extensively about the importance of meaning. His approach, called logotherapy, is based on the idea that the central feature of human existence is the quest for meaning.
According to Frankl “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" and that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.” (Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy)
It is up to you to discover the meaning in your life. This can be done despite death and suffering. It can only be discovered in light of these things. Perhaps it’s a paradox but that is how life is.
Perhaps this Alan Watts video will help:
A2A on Quora: Can a teacher make you read a book that does not fit your moral standards?
No one can make you read a book. You can be assigned a book but are not compelled to read it.
Of course, not reading an assigned book has academic consequences (as it should). But, these pale in comparison to other consequences to not reading a book that differs from your beliefs.
Learning is about broadening your horizon, your perspective, and your knowledge. As a student taking a class, you are in the position of someone who has something to learn. Of course, you have knowledge and beliefs coming into the class but you could also benefit from an expansion of your knowledge and some challenges to your beliefs. Both of those will come by doing such reading.
As a result of reading a book that does not fit your moral standards, you may discover more about yourself and your moral beliefs. You may discover ways to strengthen your moral position. You might also discover that there are flaws in your moral reasoning that should be addressed.
In either case, you will certainly learn something useful and that is the whole point of reading books in the first place.
As an adult, you should then continue this practice of reading material you might disagree with. Reading and exposing yourself only to ideas you already agree with is not the way to grow as a human being and certainly not the way to become actively engaged in a diverse community.
One of the best lessons you will learn from your education is that it is possible to examine ideas and understand them even without accepting them. Ultimately, you have a choice about what ideas to accept and reject. You should strive to evaluate ideas in light of the best available evidence and reason and accept those ideas.
In some cases, the best available reason and evidence might support the beliefs you already hold. In other cases, reason and evidence will show that your ideas are not well-founded. In those cases, you still have a choice to make.
A good education will help you become a good critical thinker and good critical thinkers follow reason and the evidence where it leads recognizing that sometimes it will lead them to adopt different ideas than the ones they started with.
Quora Question: How can a normal person deal with having conflicting beliefs? What philosophers or philosophy should one read?
Holding beliefs that conflict with one another is more common than you might think. Often, these conflicts go unnoticed because most people do not examine their beliefs deeply or carry them through to their logical conclusion.
One of the problems with doing this is that it increases the likelihood of something called cognitive dissonance where a person has to directly confront the fact that their beliefs are in conflict. The most common response to this cognitive dissonance is denial. People simply deny that their beliefs are in conflict.
Let me give you three tips that can help deal with this conflict and then suggest some good philosophical books.
Your beliefs are tools that can advance your values. But, if your beliefs are not advancing your values, they can and should be changed. Changing them becomes easier if you can recognize that they are not the same as your values.
Here are some good books that can provide you with more insights:
Julia Galef The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't
Adam Grant Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
Jamie Holmes Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing
Quora Question: I'm a school custodian and when people ask me what's my job I'm ashamed to tell them what's the best way I could say what I do without saying I'm a custodian?
Let me begin with a lengthy quote from Barry Schwartz’s excellent TED talkwhich I think sheds light on your question:
“Let me begin with an example. This is the job description of a hospital janitor that is scrolling up on the screen. And all of the items on it are unremarkable. They're the things you would expect: mop the floors, sweep them, empty the trash, restock the cabinets. It may be a little surprising how many things there are, but it's not surprising what they are. But the one thing I want you to notice about them is this: even though this is a very long list, there isn't a single thing on it that involves other human beings. Not one. The janitor's job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital.
“And yet, when some psychologists interviewed hospital janitors to get a sense of what they thought their jobs were like, they encountered Mike, who told them about how he stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones was out of his bed getting a little exercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly up and down the hall. And Charlene told them about how she ignored her supervisor's admonition and didn't vacuum the visitor's lounge because there were some family members who were there all day, every day who, at this moment, happened to be taking a nap. And then there was Luke, who washed the floor in a comatose young man's room twice because the man's father, who had been keeping a vigil for six months, didn't see Luke do it the first time, and his father was angry. And behavior like this from janitors, from technicians, from nurses and, if we're lucky now and then, from doctors, doesn't just make people feel a little better, it actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well.
“Now, not all janitors are like this, of course. But the ones who are think that these sorts of human interactions involving kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of the job. And yet their job description contains not one word about other human beings. These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people. And beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what "doing right" means.”
Your job description may be similar to the one Schwartz describes which does not mention other human beings. But, your work supports the learning that goes on in school as much as the teachers, other staff, or the principal. Without your work, that school simply could not function.
And, if you’re like Mike or Charlene, or Luke, you do your job with an eye towards supporting the students and teachers in the school.
Your job is nothing to be ashamed of. It is important work and creates an environment where students can enjoy coming to learn. Be proud of that and be proud to tell people what you do!
A2A on Quora: What is a person who changes his mind?
Someone who is open to considering new information and evidence and altering their opinion based on that. In other words, a critical thinker.
Changing one’s mind has a bad reputation. We ridicule politicians as “flip-floppers” for doing this. We over-value the idea that one should stick to their beliefs regardless. I’ve had students tell me that there are certain opinions they will believe no matter what. Presumably, that includes evidence that clearly shows their opinion to be wrong.
An interesting perspective on this is offered by Adam Grant in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, where he says:
“Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life–they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinion, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.”
We should encourage people to update their views and practices in light of new evidence. If someone is not doing this, it means they are not learning anything new.
Quora Question: Is modern society structured so that people don't have time to think critically of their life?
I’d like to take a contrarian position on this question and hopefully offer some useful insights.
I don’t think society is structured to work against people thinking critically. However, there are impediments to people engaging in more critical thinking.
I think the main impediments are several cognitive biases that prevent people from taking a critical look at their ideas and beliefs. Let me mention a few of these.
The knowledge illusion. The world around us is very complicated. But, while we tend to recognize this fact when prompted we routinely ignore it when it comes to expressing or examining our own opinions on the world. We tend to recognize the limits of other people’s knowledge while failing to recognize our limits. We all suffer from what Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach refer to in their book The Knowledge Illusion as the illusion of explanatory depth.
Consider the following example from their book:
This is the knowledge illusion. As they point out in the book, “Our point is not that people are ignorant. It’s that people are more ignorant than they think they are. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from an illusion of understanding, an illusion that we understand how things work when in fact our understanding is meager.”
Related to this is the bias we all tend to have of thinking that our beliefs are correct. This is well illustrated in Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong. In her excellent TED talk on the book, she asks some people a seemingly easy question: What does it feel like to be wrong?
Their answers: “It feels bad.” “Embarrassing.” “Humiliating.” You’d probably agree. But, there’s a problem.
This is not what it feels like to be wrong. This is what it feels like to find out you’re wrong. What does it feel like to be wrong? Nothing. It feels just like being right.
So, we tend to think we know more about things than we do and we tend to believe that our beliefs are right. After all, they feel right. With those two things working against us, you can see why it might be difficult for people to engage in more critical thinking. What would be the point? Their knowledge and belief are already well justified and accurate.
Having said this, I will point out that several factors don’t help individuals to break out of this trap. We are constantly bombarded with news stories that are, in part, designed to polarize us and not require in-depth analysis on our part.
We are also inundated with several other life factors some of which are external and some of which are internal. These factors, such as the pressures of finding and keeping a job, raising children, etc., don’t always encourage critical thinking either.
The irony of this is that all of these other factors, which together you might interpret as society being structured to hinder critical thinking, would all greatly benefit from more critical thinking not less.
But, it will be difficult to see that because of the powerful effects of the biases I mentioned earlier. Overcoming those is the key to improving critical thinking.
Like most other things, people will make time for something if it is an important priority. The popularity of sports is a good example. No amount of societal influence will do much to diminish the drive to watch and participate in sports.
Until the motivation to examine your own beliefs and knowledge is as powerful as the motivation to watch your favorite sports team, critical thinking won’t improve much.
A good first step would be to read these books:
Steven Sloman The Knowledge Illusion
Michael Syed Black Box Thinking
Adam Grant Think Again
Julia Galef The Scout Mindset
Quora Question: How unique and similar are people?
If you’re like most people you don’t think you’re like most people. Even when people think they are different they usually think this for very similar reasons. Even when people do their own thing, they do so in remarkably similar ways.
The fact of the matter is that within a narrow range of possibilities we have far more in common than most people think. But, we are not wired up to see things in terms of what we share with others who are different than us but to focus on those differences. So, it’s difficult to overcome the cognitive bias towards seeing and emphasizing these differences.
But, if you can do so you will discover the underlying commonality. The key is not to get lost in the differences but to see those differences as variations in a fairly narrow range of possibilities.
To begin to see this examine a universal need such as eating. Yes, there is quite a bit of variation in what people eat across cultures and times. But, begin to look for common themes and practices and you will begin to see how alike we are.
Another way to begin to see similarities is to have a thoughtful discussion with someone who disagrees with you on some issue. it could be any issues: abortion, immigration, climate change.
Again, instead of focusing on the differences which are obvious look for the similarities which are sometimes below the surface. Look for fundamentals.
For example, even though you disagree do you understand how their reasons lead them to come to a different conclusion. In other words, if you believed their premises would you understand how they came to their different conclusion? If so, then you share a similar logic since you understand what they are thinking.
Often this is the case with disagreements about issues. We share the same ways of reasoning and the same biases. We come to different conclusions not because we fundamentally disagree but because we draw a conclusion from different starting points. Those are often due to accidents of circumstance, experience, and environment.
They are rarely due to fundamental differences.
At the biological level, the similarities become stronger, not weaker. Genetically we are virtually identical with only a small amount of difference accounting for the differences we see in observable variations.
So, why are there so many variations? Most of the differences can be attributed to differences in environment, culture, and upbringing.
Two groups of people with identical languages, religions, eating habits, and political beliefs can develop a wide range of variations just by being separated in space and time. In other words, given enough time and separation in geography, those two identical groups will develop in different ways and ultimately diverge in their cultural practices.
But, even after that divergence, there will be underlying and fundamental similarities that persist. We just have to look for them.
A few books that might provide more insight into some of these points include:
Leonard Mlodinow The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
Dan Ariely Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator