Desiring to be right or desiring to know truth

There are two main ways to approach the intellectual life. They can shade over into one another somewhat, and each has its subdivisions, but it’s helpful to think of these two main versions structuring the possibilities of the intellectual life.

There’s the person who wants to get good at debating. The person who wants to find the best arguments and the best counterarguments against opponents, for the conclusion that’s known beforehand as right. The person who will trade arguments and evidence like changes of clothes as needed, but for whom the position defended will never alter.

I think we all start there, somewhat. Our upbringing and peer groups shape us to favour certain views, and even if we occasionally change or develop, we still approach the intellectual life as a matter of learning to prove ourselves right.

And then there is the alternative, which is the person who recognizes vast ignorance within and who is continually, laboriously searching for little bits of knowledge to fill up the yawning lack of understanding.

Somehow, the former group are very good at dragging you into long arguments, but most of the time the arguments won’t lead anyplace very worthwhile. If they inspire us to deepen our knowledge in one area or another, that can be a good outcome, but such a benefit tends to happen outside of the argument, almost in spite of the argument, and not as a part of the argument itself, in my experience.

It can be hard to recognize dogmatism within ourselves. It can feel reasonable to say that I know the answer already and I’m just trying to find the best way to explain why it’s the correct answer.

The sooner we can embrace our ignorance and set out to do something about it, though, the better. Let’s not waste time. There’s learning to be done, and a lifetime is barely enough time to get started on the project.

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