A Certain Lightness of Mind

There’s that famous quote, attributed to the Buddha, that if you want to find water you should dig one six-foot well instead of six one-foot wells. In other words, seekers for truth should commit to one kind of philosophy fully, not skip from philosophy to philosophy like a dilettante. It’s a very religious idea, stressing as it does the importance of faith. Don’t give up at the first problem, it urges. Live your philosophy, despite obstacles, and you will find out its strengths better than you ever could by simply thinking about it.

I think that many people hold this kind of approach naturally. To learn philosophy you need to unlearn this tendency to commitment, however. Philosophers need a certain lightness of mind, an ability to dance over four or five competing ideas without bias. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

First-years learning about utilitarianism for the first time are generally struck by its simplicity and power. Certainly I was. Fine, I thought. I will believe this and see where it gets me. And so many of the arguments against utilitarianism – thought experiments where the utilitarian choice seemed immoral – had little effect on me. I responded like a Catholic: despite my intuition, these actions must be correct. I took the disconnect between my moral intuition and utilitarianism to be a defect in my intuition, and trusted that as I “kept on” with utilitarianism my intuition would catch up.

Now, of course, I have no problem hearing new ideas with only one ear. I have acquired an admirable lightness of mind, and I can read through five or six different philosophies without properly agreeing or disagreeing with any of them. This is obviously an enormous improvement, and I hope that in a few years I might be a good enough philosopher to neither agree or disagree with anything.


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