Op-Ed: Let's have some New Year's Irresolution

Posted Jan 2, 2008 by John Rickman
Emerson wrote "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The ability to admit error is what allows us to grow intellectually. So with the new year upon us now would be a good time to form some New Year's Irresolutions.
Recently the Edge Foundation, which is an organization of outstanding intellectuals in the fields of science and technology, asked a group of distinguished thinkers the question "What have you changed your mind about? Why? Their answers make fascinating reading.
Many moralist believe that a firmness in convictions is the sign of a strong character but they are wrong. Their fundamental mistake is in confusing integrity, which matters, with inflexibility, which does not. To "fight to the last ditch" may be a virtue in a soldier but it is the ruination of a person's intellect.
Even in warfare however discretion is often the better part of valor and many a war has been won by a general who knew when it was better to retreat than to fight on in a hopeless position. Douglas MacArthur was no stranger to victory but also knew when to withdraw, or as he put it: "We are not retreating - we are advancing in another Direction."
From the day the first early human decided that fire really wasn't such a bad thing after all, through all the other great thinkers up to the present day the ability to change one's mind is at the very core of almost every advance in art, science, religion and philosophy.
Intellectual conversion can hit one with a blinding flash of insight, like Paul on the road to Damascus, or it can be the product of long and arduous contemplation. It was only after much study and soul searching that the Catholic monk Martin Luther abandoned the beliefs that had led him to become a monk in the first place and propose 95 new ideas, or theses, which he nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
Generations later a young Protestant divinity student named Charles Darwin spent years struggling against his own evidence for evolution by natural selection. His final capitulation to an idea that he had resisted for so long stands as one of the greatest intellectual about faces in history.
At the beginning of the 19th century almost everybody knew for a fact that there were no invisible creatures living in their water. It was a simple, and easily observable, truth that Cholera was the wrath of God being visited on the sinful dwellers in big cities. Later people were forced to admit that it really wasn't the wrath of God after all, it was evil night vapors and bad humors. Still later people were forced to change their minds once again and now admit that there really were in fact creatures invisible to the naked eye living in their drinking water and that it was these tiny microbes that were responsible for the death and destruction that moralist had blamed on sinful thoughts.
While perhaps not as earth shaking as the epiphanies of Paul, Luther or Darwin, or as life changing as the discovery of the germ theory of disease, modern thinkers continue to have intellectual turnabouts which, while they may not transform the entire world, at least change the person's inner universe.
For example in response to the Edge Foundation's question of the year Todd Feinberg, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who once believed that the notion of a soul was a fanciful religious invention has since said:
“I have come to believe that an individual consciousness represents an entity that is so personal and ontologically unique that it qualifies as something that we might as well call ‘a soul’.”
Another scholar who answered the Edge Foundation's question was geneticist Craig Venter, founder of the Institute for Genomic Research. Recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world he was also instrumental in mapping the human genome. He has recently changed his mind about the capacity of earth to withstand the effects of human pollution.
Like many or perhaps most I wanted to believe that our oceans and atmosphere were basically unlimited sinks with an endless capacity to absorb the waste products of human existence. I wanted to believe that solving the carbon fuel problem was for future generations and that the big concern was the limited supply of oil not the rate of adding carbon to the atmosphere.
He now believes that global warming, caused by, humans is "irrefutable" and that it poses a serious threat to humans:
Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilise all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive. There are those who like to believe that the future of life on Earth will continue as it has in the past, but unfortunately for humanity, the natural world around us does not care what we believe. But believing that we can do something to change our situation using our knowledge can very much affect the environment in which we live.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came out in praise of being a "flip-flopper," in politics as well as in science:
When a politician changes his mind, he is a "flip-flopper". Politicians will do almost anything to disown the virtue - as some of us might see it - of flexibility. Margaret Thatcher said, "The lady is not for turning." Tony Blair said, "I don't have a reverse gear." Leading Democratic presidential candidates, whose original decision to vote in favour of invading Iraq had been based on information believed in good faith but now known to be false, still stand by their earlier error for fear of the dread accusation: "flip-flopper".
How very different is the world of science. Scientists actually gain kudos through changing their minds. If a scientist cannot come up with an example where he has changed his mind during his career, he is hidebound, rigid, inflexible, dogmatic!
Even Ronald Reagan, who is the secular icon of many Conservatives, was once a liberal Democrat until he "flip-flopped."
So this year, instead of making the usual "New Year's Resolutions" which seldom survive to see Valentine's Day let us instead boldly declare our irresolution by vowing to change our minds when the situation warrants it instead of adopting a pit bull determination to resist admitting a mistake. The catalyst of this change of mind can come from a variety of sources. According to the Edge Foundation:
When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.
There is a story that, when accused of changing his views on monetary policy, John Maynard Keynes replied to his challenger:
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
That is the question of the year. What do you do?