Educated minds entertain ideas without accepting or attacking them

Some years ago, my wife, Nita, and I welcomed an Old English sheepdog into our family. We called him Beau Maximus (Beau for short) for his beauty and size. He was a shaggy hulk of a dog with hair over his eyes and a propensity for laying his tongue on your hand, holding it still for the longest time while he soaked up the salt.

One hot summer day, Nita and Beau went for a walk along the dirt road that followed the irrigation ditch. Beau, who loved the water, decided to take a plunge into the irrigation canal to cool off. But once in, he could not get out. 

Nita jumped in after him, but she did not have the strength to lift the eighty-pound sheepdog out of the canal, and Beau was too exhausted to help himself. She called for help, and mercifully, a neighbor heard her cry and came to her rescue—getting on his knees, reaching down, and stiffening his back to pull both Nita and Beau out of the drink. Once extracted from the canal, Beau was so weak that he collapsed on the road, head down, his body limp. 

The neighbor graciously ran to his home, scrambled into his pickup truck, and returned, rambling down the canal road, dust flying, like an ambulance on a sacred mission.

When the neighbor got out of the truck to lift Beau onto the tailgate, he said, “Well, maybe Beau won’t bark at me anymore.”

On cue, Beau barked at him—this kind man, this fearless liberator, this canine savior.

How rude. But what we humans have to remember is that Beau was being true to his nature:  He was protecting his master and his territory.

A dog can be forgiven for incivility. Forgiving humans is more difficult. The human brain is certainly more advanced than the canine brain—I think that even avid dog lovers would agree to that. But sometimes the higher levels of human brain potential are left dormant, which is the upshot of this essay.

Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I think that single sentence captures the reason for much of the misery in the world. The uneducated are incapable of entertaining a new thought. I’m not talking about people who are unschooled. There are lots of college graduates who are incapable of entertaining an original, foreign, or antithetical idea (think of some of our more bellicose politicians). By uneducated, I mean incurious.

The fully evolved human brain not only takes care of the lower-brain fight or flight instinct, but also the higher-brain functions of reason, empathy, and curiosity.

When curiosity is employed, the evolved human is able to listen to a new thought and “play” with it. He or she is not limited by fight or flight instincts. The evolved human is able to consider the new idea and say, “Hmm, very interesting. I never thought of it that way before,” and not feel immediately compelled to accept or attack the idea

Imagine that. Imagine the richness of dialogue—especially in problem-solving and conflict resolution—if we could simply entertain the ideas with a calm and optimistic sangfroid. Imagine a room of adversaries—accustomed to snarling—listening and contemplating with exquisite curiosity, not to build a case to excoriate the opposition, but to fully understand their views. What a wonderful world that would be.

There is another benefit to curiosity. It lengthens our lives. A 1996, five-year study reported in Psychology and Aging found that curiosity was positively correlated with the health of the central nervous system of 2,153 elderly men and women. The higher their scores on curiosity, the longer they lived.

This is all good news, but there is a caveat. There are some among us whose brain evolution has been delayed by either nature or nurture or both. These people are working at a great disadvantage. They have not—perhaps cannot—experience the joy and abundance of unplugged curiosity. They see the world in black and white. They are convinced that if they are right, others must be wrong, and, more importantly, must be properly castigated. These are the hardcore radicals of the world. They cannot be reasoned with. If you know them, or you come to know them, my advice is to steer clear. They live in an incurious scotoma that is fashioned to bury you.

There is another adjective for such radical beings. The word is “evil.” Do not fool yourself, evil does exist. Scott Peck, the author of the huge best seller, The Road Less Traveled, wrote another, less popular (but not less meaningful) book entitled People of the Lie. He described evil in this way:

“Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life—particularly human life—such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body.”

Most incurious people are not evil. They are just deficient in awareness and empathy. But all evil people are incurious, with no interest in entertaining the ideas of others.

Still, evil or not, if you find yourself in the company of unevolved, incurious human being, beware. Despite your kindness, despite your good intentions, they may repay your benevolence with a snarling snap and a loud bark—or worse.

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