Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Power of Conversation

Today, I had a conversation with a friend of mine. One of those wonderful, roaming conversations that managed to touch both on the merits of various tabletop roleplaying game systems and on the utility of deriving quantum mechanics from quantum field theory. You know, the kinds of conversations that you can have with awesome people. Along the way, we spent a while discussing a topic near and dear to my blogging interests: science and rationality in society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we agreed on most of what we talked about with respect to this important topic. Looking back has gotten me thinking about the pragmatic value of keeping the rationality conversation alive, even with like-minded people. There are many reasons that often come up in such meta-discussions, of course. Conversing with others can help you to realize that you aren't alone in everything, just as Darwin fish can serve to raise consciousness about the existence of freethinkers. Such conversations can help one to hone their arguments and develop confidence in their conclusions. Through conversation, we can also expose ourselves to novel motivations and arguments, even for positions we may already take. For the emotional reasons alone, it's worthwhile to keep talking about rationality and science, to say nothing of these kinds of pragmatic benefits.

That said, there's one purpose that conversation can serve that I feel deserves special emphasis. Through conversing with other people, whether like-minded or diverse, we can learn quite a bit about when we are wrong. We are all human (I presume, anyway), and are fallible in our applications of logic. As such, it is a wonderful opportunity for self-improvement to be able to hash through our views with those honestly seeking truth. Indeed, just as science is inherently a self-correcting enterprise that must deal with the limitations of human minds, so too must rationality in general co-exist with a self-awareness of our capacity for mistakes. In conversations with others, we are often called upon to defend, explain or otherwise make explicit those private ideas which shape how we understand the world. When we are in the wrong on an issue, this process can be a tremendously helpful mechanism for self-improvement. Even with like-minded people, one's justifications can be flawed in ways discoverable through open and honest debate.

Conversation, then, is an essential tool in the rationalist's toolbox. Without healthy conversation, we are each isolated and limited to the power of our own brains. This is a large part of why I appreciate having a healthy and vibrant discussion take place on articles that I post here, such as that attached to Context Isn't Everything. By the time that you, dear readers, invest in this nascent community, I am given a precious opportunity to discover the depths of my own wrongness, as well as to find points of agreement with my intelligent, rational and compassionate peers. The rationality conversation is everywhere, and I'm glad for what parts of it find their way here, conveyed by vibrant minds.

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