The power of unlearning

An underrated virtue

Show me a man who can unlearn silly notions and I will show you somebody who has the capacity to make meaningful progress in learning. A collection of silly ideas deeply entrenched in the mind is the greatest hurdle to intellectual progress. Take an apparently innocuous opinion such as man being the best of God’s creation, or the belief that dark tea has a deleterious effect on one’s fair complexion. Try making anybody who holds these, or other such views, see their utter silliness, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred you will realize how utterly futile your effort has been.

Let me first address a question that may have reared its head in the mind of the reader: What difference can belief, howsoever silly, on such trivial matters possibly make? The answer to this is that the human mind is supposed to be one whole. More than the issue itself, it is how one reaches one’s conclusions that is important. You cannot be whimsical when it comes to some issues and logical on other matters. Thinking clearly and logically is a habit, not an arbitrary, case-by-case activity. If one is not careful to prune away silly thoughts on the apparently trivial matters, it is only a matter of time before one demonstrates a slipshod attitude towards the more serious issues as well.

Furthermore, reality itself must make a coherent picture in one’s mind if one is to place any new items (new knowledge) into the framework already there. If reality is a room, then your view of it is like a wall-to-wall carpet. If it is cut wrong in one corner, it may be made to fit there but will inevitably leave a gap or a bulge somewhere else. Since unscrutinised ideas constitute a large part of most everybody’s view of the world, getting rid of these preconceived notions is imperative if one is to make any contribution beyond regurgitating thoughts and ideas heard from random sources many of which one does not even recall. Until conscientious mental hygiene is practised and silly ideas are continuously got rid of, no real progress can be made in understanding. Unlearning, therefore, is an indispensable part of learning.

Purging the mind of silly ideas is easier said than done though. From the moment one opens one’s eyes as a baby till the time one dies, there is a relentless barrage of silliness flying around in all directions, some of which is bound to stick to the psyche. The result, if one is not constantly on the lookout for clutter, is an extremely unholy mixture of some sound ideas and a lot of nonsense.

Cherished and long-held views are notoriously difficult to abandon in favour of new ones. It is an unfortunate human trait to regard familiar ideas as reasonable no matter how silly they may be. Unfamiliar ideas on the other hand, no matter how sound they are, appear to make very little sense, especially when they are first encountered. The familiar beliefs imbibed at the knee of one’s parents are especially hard to reconsider objectively owing to all the emotions involved. Emotion (or passion) has great utility when it comes to being true to one’s principles in the face of adversity. But they have zero value when it comes to arriving at those principles. In fact, they are extremely detrimental to that process.

Getting rid of the clutter everybody (to a lesser or greater degree) accumulates over the years, then, is no piece of cake. What makes it an even more onerous task is the fact that, notwithstanding the analogies frequently pressed into service, eyes and ears are no cameras or microphones. For what is already in the mind regulates what new data goes in. In other words, what one already believes on any given issue controls what fresh evidence is admitted into the thought process. This makes correcting the course even more difficult than it otherwise would be. This is not to say that the task is impossible; but it calls for relentless vigilance and a spirit of inflexible and life-long adherence to the truth.

There are two distinct domains of knowledge. When it comes to moral and philosophical questions, one must refer to the Quran for definitive answers. No traditional answer, politically correct view or urban legend matters if it is against the verdict of the Quran. If, on the other hand, it is a question about an empirical matter, it is science that will decide the issue. In neither case is there any room for folklore or old-wives’-tales. Returning to the ‘best of creation’ question, the Quran paints a very different picture to the myth generally believed. Regarding our second issue, according to science, drinking dark tea makes your skin no darker than eating blueberry yogurt makes it blue. We love our dear aunts and grandmas to death but their views on such subjects usually amount to little more than very charming baloney.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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