Fighting apathy with a stimulating intellectual life


Attention, curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual humility are all habits on the rise. Several authors claim they’re the antidotes to the sense of weariness that the pandemic brought with it.

Languishing could be “the dominant emotion of 2021.” This prognosis is from psychologist Adam Grant, author of the book Think Again, in which he invites readers to refine the way they think.

In an article published in The New York Times, Grant defines languishing as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness”; a state of mind characterized by a loss of enthusiasm and energy; a sluggishness –“you’re indifferent to your indifference”–. It’s not depression, but it clearly indicates “the absence of well-being”.

Languishing was already a problem before the coronavirus hit, Grant says. Certain inertias are contributing to it, such as scattered-mindedness brought on by constant distractions –we switch tasks every ten minutes–, lack of motivation and the feeling of never getting things done.

Faced with this loss of energy and lack of enthusiasm, Grant offers advice to regain “the freedom to focus,” joining the ever-growing list of apologists for controlling our attention: Cal Newport (Digital Minimalism, Deep Work…), Nir Eyal (Indistractable), Daniel Goleman (Focus), Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation), Nicholas Carr (The Shallows, The Glass Cage) … The leitmotif of this literature is shared: whoever aspires to living a profound life must be able to immerse themselves in meaningful intellectual experiences.

This immersion not only offers peace of mind; it also clears our thoughts: we stop feeling like we’re looking at life through a foggy windshield –a metaphor Grant uses to describe languishing–, and we get a sense of that clarity which comes from living a focused life, capable of carrying out the tasks we set out to achieve.

Scouts or soldiers?

In Think Again, Grant talks about another way to give ourselves some clarity in how we see the world: by exercising the “ability to rethink and unlearn.” We could consider it an art, because it is not about getting rid of any or all points of view, but rather, only those that aren’t well grounded in reality. (It’s no coincidence that the word humility comes from humus (earth, ground), Grant reminds us.) The inquisitive mind of the scientist and critical thinker need this intellectual humility to remain aware of how much they still have yet to learn.

Grant observes that updating is a habit we practice in many areas of our lives. We update our wardrobes, what’s on our bookshelves, our kitchens, without a second thought… But when it comes to our points of view, things change: “We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995. We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.”

Julia Galef’s book The Scout Mindset follows a similar line of thought. The philosopher of science and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, encourages us to swap our “soldier mindset”, which puts us on the defensive towards any data or argument that threatens our way of seeing the world, for a “scout mindset”, where curiosity leads us to seek out what is true, even if it’s not what most benefits us or those in our tribe.

Whoever aspires to living a profound life must be able to immerse themselves in meaningful intellectual experiences


Certainties are possible

Both Grant and Galef advocate for intellectual flexibility, to be open to changing our minds when new data and arguments emerge that improve our understanding of the world. But in a society allergic to dogmatism, their approaches can give rise to embracing a sense of permanent suspicion as the epitome of wisdom. G. K. Chesterton warned against this years ago: “We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”

One show of this false modesty is the idea that a change of opinion in itself has value, as if any arrival at certainty were altogether impossible. This is what the docuseries Change Your Mind, where philosopher Michael Sandel gathers a group of European millennials to discuss current issues, hints at at times. The series, which is available on Filmin, is one of those intellectual experiences worth diving into. But it could be criticized for presenting the changes of opinion of some of the participants as wins for rationality.

It’s unclear why we should celebrate a change of position if that change does not serve to better align my views with reality. Nor is it clear why we should celebrate doubting more than being certain: if we admit the former, it’s only because we recognize we want to arrive at the latter. Of course, self-doubt is necessary and it helps with the advancement of knowledge, but in itself, it serves of little purpose.

Ethics professor Francesc Torralba of Ramon Llull University explains it very well in his recently published book Humility, another quality the pandemic has given cause for revaluation. St. Teresa of Jesus’s definition of the virtue (“humility is walking in the truth”) “evokes movement, effort, but also directionality”. Since we do not believe we are in possession of the truth, we go out in search of it; and through “an exercise of detachment from prejudices, clichés, stereotypes, norms and false truths”, we strip ourselves of everything that prevents us from understanding more fully.

But, at the same time, we recognize that there is an “end of the road”, that we are moving towards “a purpose”, which is precisely what relativism and skepticism deny. “Relativism is a disregard for the truth and, incidentally, reason. If it’s all the same, if no shimmer of truth can truly be known, research and any earnest dedication to science and philosophy is meaningless.”

The search for truth isn’t what gives way to dogmatists. Rather, it is our uncritical complacency towards our own judgments and opinions, which no one is free of (relativists included).

Let yourself be surprised

In The Happy Dispute, philosopher and journalist Bruno Mastroianni proposes the habit of reframing as a way to revitalize the public conversation and, above all, to enrich one’s intellectual life.

“Without confrontation, (…) one ends up living according to imitation and conformism.” It’s the languishing Grant speaks of: a sort of mental boredom which develops from only listening to likeminded people. On the other hand, says Mastroianni, if we dare to leave our thought bunkers and expose ourselves to “questions formulated in languages from other worlds” (through conversation, books, a podcast, a movie …), it’s much more likely that we will enjoy a life rich in “unexpected ideas, happily open to new relationships and knowledge.”

It’s the same piece of advice given by Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute. Why not try something other than polarization? Now’s the time to disconnect ourselves from the people who feed “the culture of contempt” and stay close to the individuals who open us up to new perspectives, even if we don’t agree with them. The question that he suggests we ask ourselves earnestly is, if I stop reading this writer or watching this program, “will I miss something I don’t already think or know?”

Added value

A good way to stimulate the intellectual life of a society is to inject some complexity into discussions about values, as the journalist Amanda Ripley proposes. In the face of journalism that largely spreads these controversies with stereotypes and false dilemmas, she advocates paying more attention to the implications of the issues discussed.

This type of journalism takes time. And also, courage; today many of us turn to our news channels of choice looking for security and confirmation, complexity is uncomfortable. Among other things, because nobody likes coming across inconsistencies in their own view of the world or “buts” about the politicians they so admire.

Ripley reminds journalists that their job is not to make readers feel better. And to the owners of the media companies, she presents two arguments as an economic incentive. First, while it is true that some readers want “outrage, which is to say, simplicity”, there are also many who have disconnected from the media, fed up with the polarization. “What would happen if they one day stumbled upon a different kind of story — one that intrigued them instead of terrifying them?”

And second: now that more of the media is opting for subscription-based business models, it seems that their future depends on a “shift from a one-night stand business model to a long-term relationship with readers”, based on trust. “Indignation will always be the easiest way to lure readers, but by itself, it’s not enough” to achieve and maintain loyal subscribers.

Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher

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