Claim: We can usually learn much more from people whose views we share than from those whose views contradict our own.

Reason: Disagreement can cause stress and inhibit learning.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim and the reason on which that claim is based.

We have all heard stories of famous intellectuals who have spent many fruitless hours in discussions with people who held opposing views in their passionate pursuit of the truth. These discussions can be full of negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, and can eventually prevent the speaker from continuing their quest for knowledge. This claim is valid in the sense that it is inevitable that some disagreements will impede learning.

In addition to its motivational impact, a disagreement between two people may justify an inability to acquire knowledge. For example, suppose a physicist and a chemist have opposing views about how a particular chemical compound is formed. In that case, the chemist’s viewpoint may be reinforced by the physicist’s argument, thereby stifling the chemist’s desire to investigate the matter further. The dispute is, in this sense, detrimental to the physicists’ intellectual growth. However, the disagreement does not necessarily stop with the chemist because it can turn to another scientist with an opposing view. The chemist might then conduct additional experiments that reveal details about the previously unknown chemical to the physicist. Furthermore, if the two parties continue to disagree, the chemist might turn to another scientist who does agree with the physicist, thereby arriving at the same conclusion.

This example illustrates how a disagreement between two people can lead to the discovery of new information. However, it is also true that people can learn very little from people whose views contradict their own. For example, suppose a philosopher is convinced that life has no meaning. In that case, a biologist who has devoted her life to studying the evolution of species will be unable to enlighten the philosopher. The biologist’s point may be strengthened by evidence from her experiments, but such an argument is unlikely to convince the philosopher to abandon his beliefs. In this case, the biologist’s difference of opinion with the philosopher does not inhibit the biologist’s ability to acquire knowledge. Instead, it prevents the biologist from assisting the philosopher in developing understanding since the biologist has no intention of sharing her beliefs.

The claim’s assertion that disagreement can sometimes inhibit learning, however, is questionable. Indeed, if two people have opposing opinions, their discussions can be painful. Someone with such a disagreement might feel humiliated or angry. Such emotions can prevent a person from listening to the other’s viewpoint or accepting its validity. Nevertheless, such feelings do not inhibit learning. Anger at one person’s views can lead a person to seek out others who hold those views, resulting in the discovery of a new viewpoint. The continued dialogue will reveal that both people have valid points, and this knowledge often promotes greater understanding.

Furthermore, a person’s ability to acquire knowledge is not impeded by disagreements with respected members of their community. A person who discounts the opinions of other intelligent individuals may miss out on many opportunities to acquire knowledge. Colleagues and friends might shun a person whose beliefs do not conform to the majority’s views, but such a person can still be well-traveled and well-informed.

Interpersonal disputes can also inhibit learning. Suppose a mathematician convinced that the Earth is flat encounters another mathematician who argues that the world is round. The mathematician who supports a spherical Earth is likely to point out that he has received many proofs of his view. The mathematician who rejects the spherical Earth theory may attempt to refute these proofs, but the mathematician who supports the round Earth theory is unlikely to be swayed. The mathematician who supports a round Earth, on the other hand, may occasionally agree with the ideas of the flat Earth advocate, but such agreements are often superficial. Neither person is likely to give up their beliefs, even if further investigations reveal the truth of the other’s theory. For this reason, disputes about the nature of reality will not prevent researchers from learning new facts.