Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Boldly Think What No One Has Thought Before

Recently I've been rereading a biography on a thinker whom I haven't seriously read for many years. His thought gets mixed reviews in my assessment.

But what is striking me most as I review this material is not so much the content itself as the way that it is described, the way many proponents of this man's views have received his ideas. Philosopher T (let's call him) is described as a "bold" thinker, a "visionary" thinker, an "original" thinker.

This gives me some pause. It sets off a warning signal.

Let's briefly consider the question: To what extent are boldness and originality virtues in the realm of thought. Of course, it all depends upon context. Clearly, when old ideas clearly are not working, creativity and nerve in exploring new options are the dispositions that the moment requires. Certainly, too, one can admire courage: the courage, for example, to claim one's convictions, to articulate difficult truths against opposition, etc.

What about "boldness" in the sphere of thought? I have philosophical and theological discussions in view primarily, but consider an analogous situation which calls for thought: You exhibit a bizarre combination of symptoms. Your physician can't figure out what's wrong with you, but makes a couple of tentative hypotheses. You get a second opinion, and the second doctor is confused too, but has his own theories. In utter frustration, you see a third position. This one is young and brash. He is "bold" both in his diagnosis and prognosis and in his prescription for a cure. He expresses his views with a confidence and clarity that the previous two professionals lacked. What's more, he recommends to you a "bold" new experimental procedure -- and a risky one, at that.

In this scenario, whose view do you trust? Of course, many factors come into play. The situation would seem different, too, if you had followed the first two doctors' suggestions and your suffering had only worsened. But there is a difference between boldness and desperation.

There's a difference between throwing the Hail Mary pass when your team is behind six points with 10 seconds left in the game and calling this play in the second quarter when your leading by six points and are just five yards out of your own end zone. In the first instance, the long pass is your only realistic hope of winning. In the second case, the call (most coaches would agree) is "bold" indeed, but idiotic.

This is my question: In the spheres of theology and philosophy (one might include the social sciences as well), which virtue, overall, is more a propos: boldness or humility? An unqualified answer is impossible, but much can be said for the latter option. My ideas are bold. But what if they're wrong? What if they're really wrong. Tyrants can be quite bold.

Another thing I've noticed in reviewing this thinker's following: He has quite a fan club. A well-organized professional society with scholars from a broad array of disciplines is dedicated to exploring his thought. Part of its mission statement is to "defend" Dr. T's ideas.

Really? Is this in keeping with the spirit of inquiry? Should a professional society of scientists, let's say, dedicated to the work of Einstein, Planck or Darwin strive to "defend" it's foundational thinker's legacy? Explore, certainly. Debate, to be sure, if any serious challenges to the theory exist. Such is the spirit of scientific inquiry.

As I understand scientific theory, it needs to be proven and tested continuously to account for new data. Eventually, if the data demand it and our tools for interpreting it improve, a paradigm shift might be in order, and that move may very well requires creativity, boldness and vision. But what if a group of followers is defending ideas that are basically fantastical or just plain crappy?