Are You Introspectively Bi-Curious?

Do you find your inconsistencies interesting or revolting?

Posted Jun 25, 2013

This isn’t a sexual question but is still a very intimate one about a fundamental personality trait:

When you discover an inconsistency in your thinking, are you curious about it?

When someone points out that you’re saying two opposite things, do you think, “Now that’s interesting, I'm bound to learn something by investigating my bi-modal (two-way) position.”?

Or are you knee-jerk quick to look away, change the subject, deny the inconsistency, scorn your challenger for being impertinent, or just move on to talk about the weather?

I’m an advocate of introspective bi-curiosity, but then I would be.  Being introspectively bi-curious has been very good to me. Most of the 450 articles I’ve written here are my rich reward for mining my own inconsistencies, noticing myself saying or believing two opposite things.

Lots of us would claim to be introspectively bi-curious. It sounds like being open-minded which in our culture is considered a virtue we would all want to claim to have. I don’t believe such self-flattering declarations. To me, what drives us is not principle but price—what it costs and what it gets us. 

If you’ve not gained reliable benefits from being introspectively bi-curious, there’s no reason you would ever pay the price of such inquiry. In some circles it’s quite costly to introspect about your inconsistencies, cutthroat cultures in which the first sign that you’re inconsistent is like sporting a spot of blood within a dangerous pecking order. People will pounce, as though if you’re inconsistent about one thing, you’re a liar, a fool, the loser, a dufous in some stiff winner-takes-all competition. That’s too high a price to pay, and many of us have paid it so often that though we’d like to claim ourselves introspectively bi-curious, we don’t trust that we can afford to be.

I’ve lucked into rare academic circles that aren’t cutthroat, research teams where eyes-on-the-prize we concentrate on the questions and not the status, all of us willing and able to posit things exposing our inconsistencies, pointing them out to each other and exploring them without loss of status. I’ve been part of one research team for 20 years on which I can’t remember a single time any of us pulled rank on another, turning the conversation into a pecking-order competition. I’m lucky. From what I’ve seen a whole lot of academic interaction is much more cutthroat than that.

And yet academics should know better, at least in theory. Intellectual history really takes off with Plato's writings, the first time where we can track someone introspecting in real time and on paper (well, papyrus) so we can spot his inconsistencies and learn from them. Hume said that "truth springs from arguments among friends," which could including befriending yourself while debating your own positions, introspectively.

Science is largely about ferreting out inconsistencies in a quest for ever-better models of the way things are, models to be beat by better models should we discover them. We academics and scientists know that new ideas come from conflicts between existing ideas. As the philosopher Hegel is famous for claiming, we make progress through the clash of our ideas and our resulting negotiation between them:  An argument (thesis), a counter-argument (anti-thesis) and a fruitful debate yielding new insights (synthesis).  

Well, you can't get to a new syntheses if you can't afford to notice that your theses and antitheses clash, if you can’t say, “Yes, I guess I’m of two minds about that.” 

Of course, we’re all of two minds about something. Declaring that you’re on the fence on some issue is the beginning of inquiry, and isn’t itself a failure of bi-curiosity.

But being on the fence, can feel unstable and if you thought your opinion rested on something more solid it is at first humbling. When you thought you were spouting truth while standing on a firmly planted soapbox instead of a tottering one, you might resist the tottering, saying anything to regain firm footing. When challenged on your inconsistency you might feel the quick defensive impulse to say:

“Obviously you misunderstand me.” (It’s all you. No flies on me.)

“What, do I have to watch my every word with you?!” (It’s all you. You’re a bad person.)

“Well, I bet you’re inconsistent too.” (an adult version of “I know you are but what am I?)

“Hey nobody knows anything really, just dig the mystery” (a high-minded way of saying shut up.)”

Or you might just reassert your opposing positions, zigzagging back and forth between them until you exhaust your challenger and he goes away.

There are many reasons we might feel that we can't afford to notice our ideas clashing. If you depend on two conflicting ideas to get you through the day, if they're load-bearing walls supporting your sense of self, or enabling you to keep your job, or keep your family happy it's going to be much more difficult to be intellectually bi-curious. But also if you believe that the thinking you've already done has earned you the right to claim to have discovered the truest truth--no further thinking necessary--you'll think you've graduated out of intellectual bi-curiousity.

One of the most popular lines recommending introspective bi-curiosity is this from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function...”

Few people know where he goes from there, though:

“…One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the "impossible," come true.”

Which is fine but not where I’m going here, Fitzgerald really just offering yet another one of those sweeping “just do it” encouragements I agree with only half-heartedly.  

For the introspectively bi-curious, its about holding two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and deciding what to do about it, how to synthesize, which could mean going with one or the other idea, or some hybrid synthesis, but no matter what being able to face squarely into the fact that you hold them, rather than deflecting news of your inconsistency.  That’s the kind of first-rate intelligence I admire and aspire to. 

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