“When someone thinks differently from you, does that mean they’re not thinking?”
Those were the words of Alan Turing, the godfather of modern computing.
In 1936, at the young age of twenty-four, Turing began working on the Turing machine, which effectively laid the foundation for the digital computer that’s ubiquitous today.
His decryption of the Nazi communication code shortened World War II by two to four years and saved close to twenty million lives (almost ten percent of the world’s population).
His seminal contribution to the study of the biological process of how organisms take shape gave rise to a metamorphosis, a subject that commanded deep interest much later.
But in 1954, when he was just 41 years old, Turing committed suicide.
The reason? Medication.
Turing was a homosexual, which was considered “gross indecency,” a crime in the UK.
The law convicted Turing and offered him two choices. He could either go to prison, or he could agree to hormone treatment. “As if he’s like the universal computing machine where if you change the program, you can change the outcome,” Water Isaacson wrote.
Turing chose the latter so he could continue working. But the chemical castration didn’t just take its toll on his body (it made him impotent and grow breasts). It also took its toll on his mind and pushed him to suicide.
That was not all. In fact, what happened after was even more unfair.
Turing’s phenomenal achievements in the fields of mathematics, computation, biology, and others were swept under the carpet until 2013 when Queen Elizabeth issued a posthumous “royal pardon” for his criminal conviction.
Turing knew this would happen. In a letter to his friend near the end of his life, he shared that his homosexuality would not just get used against him but against his ideas as well, in a poignant syllogism:
Turing believes machines can think.
Turing lies with men.
Therefore, machines cannot think.
Syllogisms work well in math. If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. But outside the realm of mathematics, they mess things up royally (no pun intended, Queen Elizabeth).
At a subconscious level, we understand this. Yet, when it comes to practice, we still behave like primates. We still stick to syllogisms like:
This person shared an idea.
The person’s opinions don’t align with mine on a topic that matters a lot to me.
Therefore, this person’s idea is wrong.
We witness such behavior in many fields that fuel strong opinions. But nowhere is it more visible than in political opinions.
Sandipan Deb wrote about how people on one side of the fence realized that they got cut off by those on the other side. Another example was a Pew Research Center study which found that 47% of people who planned to vote for Clinton didn’t have any close friends who were Trump supporters.
Social media has made it easy to find people who think, talk, and act like us. So we’re okay with losing real friends and opportunities to make meaningful progress. The bond, the warmth, the swapping of ideas and experiences… all gone in a flash.
That’s why the world appears a spiteful place. Nobody listens. Hating people and saying malicious things has become easier than ever.
But what if we didn’t follow conventional wisdom?
What if we hold our strong beliefs loosely and periodically examine the factors that contribute to them? What if we ask ourselves, “In the current context of things, how valid is this belief?”
Almost every belief or theory has evolved as more empirical data presented itself. We don’t drink water from public fountains as we did in the 1800s. Newton’s law of gravity is not as universal as it seemed for centuries. The earth is not flat, nor does the sun revolve around it.
Can we let our strong beliefs evolve as well? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use pragmatism as an approach to examining ideas?
Building such a mindset is difficult. When ego tugs at you, when you feel pressured to adhere to the norms of your circle. But it’s also what you need in order to become a better person.
Examining ideas and their contributing factors will make you a deeper thinker and help you build a broader and realistic perspective of the world.
It’ll help you avoid the bias of getting blindsided by the personality proposing the idea. You’ll avoid blindly accepting an idea proposed by an “expert”, or dismissing one proposed by an outsider or by someone whom you don’t agree with on a few things.
All this will make you kinder and impact the world around you positively. And since the world essentially is a reflection of who we are, you’ll eventually get what you send out in return.
Crimes like physical harm are non-negotiable (except those caused in self-protection).
But homosexuality was (is) not a crime. Homosexuals are just different. Imagine how much mankind could’ve progressed if Turing lived a well-deserved long life?
Let’s not dismiss every idea or thought from someone simply because we don’t agree with them on one or two points.
Our species got to the current level by understanding one another like human beings. Maybe it’s time we reverted to behaving like that evolved species rather than behaving like the irrational primates we evolved from.