by Michael Maciel
I’m thinking that the opposite of being naive isn’t being smart, as though naivete is ignorance by definition, but rather, the opposite of being naive is to be cynical. However, both words have negative connotations, so we have to strip them of that before we can keep from using them inappropriately.
Naivete means the lack of experience, wisdom, or judgement — easy to see why it’s a negative. But what if the word isn’t as accurate as we suppose? Or, if it is accurate (many people do lack those things, after all), what if it’s sometimes used inappropriately? How would we know unless we think about it more carefully?
If we can look at cynicism for a moment (also regarded as a negative), which means an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest, we can also ask ourselves if we sometimes use that word inappropriately, as well. Usually, when we call someone a cynic, we imply that they disagree with whatever it is they’re being cynical about. We tend to use it as a pejorative, especially when they are being cynical about something we believe. But in reality, they might just be applying critical thinking.
These two concepts, cynicism and critical thinking, are easy to conflate, but they are entirely different. Critical thinking means the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. It’s not prejudicial thinking but analytical thinking. It’s analyzing an issue in order to arrive at an informed opinion.
In the same way, we use the word naive to imply that a person is not well-informed, when in fact they may be idealistic. But that word, too, has a negative connotation. It implies, whether correctly or not, that the person is somehow disconnected from reality and that they are not looking at the sense data. Perhaps a better word for this possible misinterpretation of the word naive would be “creative.”
Creative thought — at its best — uses all of the available data as a springboard to launch into the realm of the possible. It’s climbing on top of what’s known and then looking out from there to see the unknown. But it’s a special kind of unknown: it’s not what we know that we don’t know, it’s what we don’t know that we don’t know. For instance, we know that we don’t know the secret of anti-gravity. We know that. But it’s what we don’t know that we don’t know that holds the secret. That’s why we haven’t figured it out yet.
So just as the word cynicism can keep us from recognizing legitimate critical thinking, so can the word naive keep us from recognizing legitimate creative thought.
We seem to be born with a proclivity to one or the other of these ways of looking at the world. We are either questioning what we see or we are busy imagining what would be ideal. And just as the human nervous system has two separate mechanisms to control our metabolism (one to speed it up and one to slow it down), so do our minds have mechanisms to do the same thing — to either construct increasingly optimal solutions to the problems of life or to fact-check those ideas so as to avoid unforeseen consequences should we act on them.
One is an exploratory mindset, and the other is a protective mindset. One ventures beyond the known to discover what’s new, and the other wants to conserve what has already been established. One says, “We can do this better,” and the other says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Obviously, either mindset without the other would quickly lead to disastrous outcomes. It would be like trying to drive a car with a gas pedal but no brakes, or vice versa. We would either crash or simply go nowhere.
The world seems to be divided almost equally down the middle between those who think creatively and those who think critically. And isn’t it wonderful. The outer things that differentiate us, such as gender, socioeconomic status, general intelligence, and education, don’t have any bearing on which of these two mindsets we have. We seem to be born with them. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, because we need both to survive and thrive. Nature has somehow ensured that both will be equally represented in the population across multiple dimensions.
While we can strive to understand that frame of mind to which we are not native, we can never become it. It will always be extrinsic to our nature. This is a good thing, because it guarantees that we can remain objective. And objectivity is essential to critical thinking, and to some extent creative thinking, as well. (Objectivity and identity are another innate dichotomy but are a topic in their own right, perhaps better explored in a separate article.) For this reason, both modalities would do well to respect each other, because though they are complementary, they will always be at odds.
Trying to blend the two would be counterproductive. In fact, emphasizing their differences — as long as it’s done within a framework of mutual respect — maximizes the advantages of both and safeguards against either inadvertently drifting away from reality. As Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind” — just one example of this psychological polarity. But interject too much of one into the other, and the strengths of both are diminished. A healthy antagonism is required, and both need to keep their watchful eye on the other and never let the gulf between them get too wide.
Another example is whether the government should be entirely a secular affair, or should it allow itself to be informed by religious values? One could argue that the overzealous separation of the two has led to the exaggerated consumerism that is polluting our planet — also, the rise in teen suicides and inordinately high divorce rates. But again, these are topics for another time. It does seem, however, that this fundamental polarity is universal.
Peacefully coexisting with those on the opposite side of this cognitive divide requires open dialogue within the context of mutual benefit. We have to assume that we both want the same thing — a better world to live in. And unless the other person has proven him or herself to be pathologically predisposed towards ruin and annihilation, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt in this regard. We must never accuse them of being evil simply because their views of a better world differ from ours. This is true diversity — viewpoint diversity.
No one knows the perfect condition in which everyone can thrive, but we do know that forcing everyone to be the same is not it. Many societies have tried this approach, and every one of them ended in a bloodbath, without exception. Those that have survived for any appreciable amount of time have allowed for open dialogue and compromise. This holds true for large groups as well as intimate relationships. When we recognize this fundamental difference between us, it opens the door to a world that is both stable and innovative.