Holding Multiple Opinions

2021-05-31

Sometimes it's difficult to hold fewer opinions in your own mind or to engage in cognitive empathy toward others; that's when it can help to hold multiple opinions at the same time. This might sound like the mental equivalent of juggling plates, but it's a skill worth cultivating (and one with an ancient pedigree, as evidenced for example by the Letter to Pythocles by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus).

Most phenomena, especially in social affairs and human interactions, have a multitude of causes. See if you can identify them, understand them, and consider them as contributing to the outcomes you observe. It's best to start with events that happened long ago (say, the fall of Rome) or that aren't fraught with personal significance for you (to choose something at random, the decline of hat-wearing over the last hundred years). You can even make a game of it by identifying as many causes as possible. As you become more skilled, you can extend this style of thinking to the more recent past (say, the American housing bubble that ended in 2005) or older events in your own life (for instance, why you didn't get promoted at that job you quit ten years ago). Eventually you'll be able to calmly reflect on current events and hot-button issues, such as the causes of and reactions to the COVID pandemic or that disagreement you just had with a friend or colleague.

One method I've found especially powerful is to think like a historian: 50 or 100 years from now, what might scholars think about the causes of something that's front and center right now? (As Nietzsche once advised: between yourself and today lay the skin of 300 years.) Naturally, it helps to read great historians such as Thucydides, or to read multiple accounts of historical events you find fascinating (years ago I read a few dozen books about the causes of the industrial revolution). An added benefit of this method is that 50 or 100 years from now the things people are all worked up about might have been completely forgotten, which will help you realize that perhaps they weren't so important in the first place!

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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