Skip to main content

Morning Prayers address

Appleton Chapel, Memorial Church

Changing Your Mind

When is it good to be consistent, grounded on steady principle, and unwavering? Or bad to be stubborn, dogmatic and unyielding? When is it good to be open-minded, nuanced, and flexible in thinking? Or bad to be easily influenced, muddled and vacillating?

I have found myself reflecting these last weeks on these questions and the tensions between them. In my Jewish religious tradition, we are now in the period known as the Days of Awe, when we are asked to reconsider the wisdom of our past acts and to learn for the future. Our University renews itself this week as classes begin. We are proud of both our open-mindedness and our skepticism – the absoluteness of our commitments to academic freedom and free inquiry. I need not remind you that issues of steadfastness vs. nuance are not without relevance to the current presidential election.

One of my intellectual heroes, John Maynard Keynes, was asked why he was contradicting something he had said earlier. His response was, “When exposed to new information, I change my mind – what about you?” Famous passages in Emerson on the hobgoblin of small minds suggest a similar perspective.

For many types of questions, Keynes and Emerson must be right. There is really no way for a rational person not to alter his or her views in the face of new information and argument. Most of us view with wonderment those who today cling to the Biblical creation story as literal truth. We reflect on choices that we have made that have come out badly, open to the possibility that we chose unwisely and should change our method of choosing. And we expect strategy – whether for a nation at war or a university altering its curriculum – to be altered in the face of unexpected developments.

And yet, there is more to it than this. We marvel at, even as we admire, Socrates and Galileo for their unwavering conviction even in the face of the ultimate punishment. We honor Nelson Mandela and, in a different way, Winston Churchill, for the firmness of their resolve and their steadfastness in hewing to a position once taken.

For every example where we applaud flexibility, there is one where we celebrate consistency. What is the difference? Perhaps a large part of it is this: Evidence should change minds; pressure from others unconnected to evidence or argument should not. Keynes and Emerson clearly contemplate responding to evidence and argument. Socrates or Galileo or Mandela or Churchill are not stubborn in the face of evidence – they are stubborn in the face of pressure. Or to put the same point in a different way, courage in holding to one’s beliefs when they are unpopular or might be persecuted is a very different and more noble thing than holding to beliefs for their own sake or because of a disregard for new argument and evidence.

Why do I go through all this? Because it seems to me that this distinction is often missed – in political debate over flip-flops, and the all-too-common activity of seeking what might be called “negotiated truth,” a version of history or social science or interpretation in which everyone can find something to agree with but where the imperative of agreement trumps either consistency or fidelity with the available evidence.

As we begin this year at Harvard, let us remember the words of one of the University’s distinguished scholars, William James. Said James, “Thoughts are the precious seeds of which our universities should be the botanical gardens. The university most worthy of rational admiration is that one in which your lonely thinker can feel himself least lonely, most positively furthered, and most richly fed. The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children will be that of her downfall. Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.”