Monday, July 09, 2012

The Paradox of Intellectual Passion

I am presently reading an unpublished paper on self-ownership and homesteading, and it occurs to me that some of the libertarian theorists working in this area have made rather gross blunders because they so badly wanted their conclusion to be true: if the only alternatives to self-ownership are communist ownership of people or slavery, then libertarianism is justified, so those must be the only alternatives, because then libertarianism is justified!

But, of course, libertarians are far from the only ones subject to this danger (that just happens to be the subject of the paper I am reading). We all are prone to it. When I present an argument against reductionist materialism, for instance, do I like the argument because it is a good argument, or because I badly want it to work?

A solution suggests itself: only do intellectual work on issues about which one does not care. But that is a terrible solution, as it is only one's intellectual passions that can lead one to endure the slog of performing careful research and painstakingly refining one's arguments.

Self-criticism is a partial solution, but it can be taken too far; when that happens, the self-critic never publishes anything. Peer review helps, but if the reviewer shares one's passion, she may have the same blindness one does, or, if not, the reviewer may have the opposite blindness, rendering her unable to appreciate one's argument even if it is fully sound.

Any other ideas?


  1. I think it is possible to be both (1) be genuinely interested in an intellectual question yet (2) not care which way the question is answered.

    For example, I happened to be interested in the debate between yourself and Ed Feser over whether plants experience consciousness, but I wasn't invested in the topic enough to want it to be resolved one way or the other. Can plants feel something like pain? It's an interesting question, but I honestly can't say that I'd prefer one answer to another.

    Then again, am I interested enough in that topic to seriously pursue it? Probably not. The topics I'm *most* passionate about, admittedly, tend to be ones where I care about the answers a great deal. But my point is that one need not be totally disinterested or bored with a subject, as you suggest, in order to be objective.

    1. But Mike, the very problem is not being mildly interested in a topic and curious about what is going on, but having the passion to plunge into researching it without biasing all of your findings based on the passion that drove you to study the matter in the first place.

  2. Give up and become a dancer.

  3. It's a hard question, but I think that you should try to de-emotionalize your views about the means, and only remain passionate about the goals that you want to achieve.

    I think it is much easier to be less biased if you see your intellectual opposition still as friends in terms of what is wanted to achieve. Almost all want liberty, independence, safety, a nice living standard, no crimes, no fraud, a healthy planet, no tyranny etc. for themselves and equally for others.

    Of course there is no perfect solution. You can never be sure that you are not biased.

  4. Sister Y (curator of the blog, "The View from Hell") rrecommends proactive intellectual engagement with "epistemic peers" who hold views that tend to challenge our most bias-prone ideas. This isn't the same as merely "reading the opposition"; it's about, as she puts it, "counteract[ing] our social belief-protection systems." Emphasis on "social."


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