Friday, July 24, 2009

Snap judgment

One of the most difficult things in the world to do, for me, is withholding judgment. It's something I have to constantly work at, to train myself in, and for a scientist or a mathematician looking to discover the untested truth of propositions, one of the most important.

The moment I look at a proposed theorem, or a math problem, or read the description of a court case, I want to be able to say "Well, obviously, it's this." I want to know that man is definitely guilty, I want to know that the proposition holds for all x>3, I want to be able to tell immediately if a fuel is a thermodynamically viable carbon-neutral energy vessel. I'm impatient like that, and growing up with the ability to answer nearly any of the "math" problems posed to me within seconds probably didn't help.

I mean, I sped my way through the SAT, taking less than half the time allotted on each section, just because I wanted to say I knew answers immediately, to make snap judgments. It didn't matter that it was important for college admissions, and it probably didn't help that the one time I actually went back and made myself check my answers, telling myself the test score was important, I got a 1480 that was almost exactly the same 1480 I'd gotten the previous year (740/740 vs 760/720).

But the thing is, I also hate being wrong . I just have to be right, and being wrong would be even worse than having to wait for the answer. So I learned - slowly and painfully - to withhold judgment. The study of philosophy has been very helpful for me in developing that patience, and I've withheld judgment about many things that few people hesitate to fix in their mind. I'm comfortable with being an agnostic; I push myself to try foods that I was sure I disliked; I understand how to take a hypothetical position and work up a whole tree of contingent conclusions while keeping my assumptions in clear sight.

It's not what I really wanted - to know the answer now - but if I can only either be sure I'm right, or have my answer now, I'd rather be sure.

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