Cultivating Curiosity

In my drive to hold fewer opinions (or at least hold them less strongly), for a while I tried to cultivate a healthy skepticism about things I believe – for instance, by attempting to question one opinion every week. This didn’t work, at least for me, because it felt too negative. Instead, now I’m working to cultivate curiosity. Here are a few thoughts on the process.

First, opinions are not free-floating entities in the world, but are held by people (sometimes so strongly that their identity is bound up with their beliefs). Thus I seek to consider why someone might hold an opinion that I don’t. There could be many reasons: their experiences are different from mine, they’ve read different books than I have, they’re at a different time of life than I am, their cultural background is different from mine, they prioritize things differently than I do, etc.

Second, I seek to decouple an opinion from what I perceive as its implications in the world and treat it in a purely intellectual or exploratory fashion. (This might be similar to what Julia Galef calls the scout mindset, although I’ve not yet read her book.) The core experience is getting to the point where I can say to myself, “huh, that’s an interesting way of looking at things” without judging people who might look at things that way.

Third, coming back to myself, I apply these two techniques to my own opinions. Maybe I think what I think because I’ve had certain experiences or I’ve read certain books or I grew up in a certain time and place (etc.). Maybe other ways of looking at things are just as interesting as mine, or better illuminate phenomena or explain causes than mine does, or provide a valuable perspective that I hadn’t considered (etc.).

Becoming more curious doesn’t necessarily mean that I change my mind, because I’m not convinced that I can really do that. Instead, changing my mind seems like a gradual process, not a matter of flipping a switch or actively pushing myself in a certain direction.

Intriguingly, cultivating curiosity is not merely mental but has practical benefits. As I observed in my last post, cultivating curiosity with regard to other people leads to cultivating empathy. I’ll need to ponder whether it might lead to cultivating other virtues as well, such as patience or generosity.

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