Taking Ideas Seriously
Not to be confused with Taking Children Seriously, which I frequently reference. But to take children seriously, too, one must take their ideas seriously.
I’ve been using the phrase taking ideas seriously for months now, in an effort to get people to explore the consequences of their ideas as thoroughly as possible and to then tentatively accept or reject them accordingly. Some people seem to make accommodations for ideas they hold dear and don’t want to be false—and for ideas they should know to be true but don’t want to be.
To my delight, I recently discovered that Ayn Rand uses the phrase in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It. I expect there to be some overlap between how she and I use the phrase.
Taking ideas seriously means not being afraid of where an idea might lead us, and not changing the idea to fit some cultural standard. It means being ready to reject false ideas in their entirety.
For example: If computational universality is true, we don’t need to study hardware to understand software. If taxation is theft, there is no possible justification for taxation. If empiricism is false, artificial general intelligence can be designed without the need for any sense data. If inductivism is false, then repeated observations really can’t generate knowledge. If we fail to show something animals do that could not have been encoded in their genes, then they really aren’t intelligent. If consciousness arises from (and only from) creativity, then they really aren’t conscious, either. And so on.
I have italicized the word “if” because we should hold and reject ideas tentatively. That is the Popperian, fallible approach. We might be wrong about our attitude toward an idea! But the tentative nature of either our rejection or acceptance of an idea does not mean that we should hesitate. That would prevent us from exploring our ideas’ implications in earnest.
Taking ideas seriously means not accepting a compromise when a better solution is available. It means that if something plays a role in our best explanations of something, we should tentatively conclude that it really exists—and if it doesn’t play such a role, we should tentatively conclude that it really doesn’t exist. (This is David Deutsch’s criterion of reality, see The Beginning of Infinity, chapter 1.)
Failure to take ideas seriously is why really, really bad and dumb ideas have managed to spread despite being false and having been refuted over and over again. Think of those who tell you: “You don’t need to take religion seriously, just treat it as inspiring fables—it’s the message that counts.” Those who look up their astrological sign because it’s “fun,” those who take personality tests because they’re “fun,” won’t get it. It’s only people who take ideas seriously who could meaningfully change their minds—those who don’t take them seriously just hold one idea interchangeably for another. To meaningfully have fun at all, one must take ideas seriously, including one’s own.
To be sure, not every failure to spot an inconsistency in a theory or a theory’s conflict with other theories is the result of a failure to take ideas seriously. But oftentimes, it is.
Taking ideas seriously can help prevent misunderstandings, too. E.g., if you read Popper’s work as suggesting that induction need not work, then you’re missing half his point—maybe his whole point—that induction plays no role whatever in the creation of knowledge. If you take this idea seriously, there is less of a chance for a misunderstanding. If you don’t, you can still accommodate induction in your mind, and you might as well not have read Popper to begin with. I think this is the mistake many of the narrow-AI researchers who have read some of Popper’s works make: they don’t take his ideas seriously, and so they continue to think that induction plays some role in the creative process, or that it might, which is utterly false.
The usual response to a refutation of one’s idea is to ask for more refutations of related or other points: “but what about…” That is not a rational attitude or approach, for one could always think of more things the opponent is supposed to refute. The rational attitude when one encounters a refutation of one’s position is to either successfully refute that refutation in turn, or to drop one’s position. There is no third way. The concept of a refutation embodies the maxim of taking ideas seriously, for, a refutation is only a refutation if it shows that some idea cannot be true. The watered-down, non-serious, fake version of a refutation is the claim that an idea need not be true. Of course, no idea need be true, or else epistemological foundationalism would be true.
History contains great what-could-have-beens that can be traced to failures to take ideas seriously. A prime example is that of advocates of socialism, past and present, shrugging off the horrors of its history in every country in which it has been tried by saying "that wasn’t real socialism.” What could have been if all those false prophets had taken the previous failures seriously? How many lives could have been saved? In physics, too, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger briefly considered the implication of his equation during a lecture—that there really is a multiverse—but warned his audience that this might “seem lunatic.” David Deutsch writes in The Beginning of Infinity, chapter 12:
Here was an eminent physicist joking that he might be considered mad. Why? For claiming that his own equation – the very one for which he had won the Nobel prize – might be true.
Schrödinger never published that lecture, and seems never to have taken the idea further. Five years later, and independently, the physicist Hugh Everett published a comprehensive theory of the multiverse, now known as the Everett interpretation of quantum theory. Yet it took several more decades before Everett’s work was even noticed by more than a handful of physicists. Even now that it has become well known, it is endorsed by only a small minority.
How much more progress could have been made in quantum physics had Schrödinger and others taken his ideas about the multiverse seriously from the start?
A failure to take ideas seriously facilitates the spread of bad ideas and hinders that of good ones, both inside and outside of one’s mind. This is the cornerstone of Rand’s criticism of moral agnosticism in her essay How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?:
Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.
It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you — whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?
Will you treat all ideas equally, or will you take them seriously?