One of the core tenets of my thinking is maintaining what I call intellectual tension.

This means that I make sure to challenge all of what I currently understand. Sometimes it’s from one pole to the other as when I study atheist books and other works, from my perspective of being a generally orthodox Protestant Christian.1 Sometimes it’s from a position nearer to the middle as I try to refine intermediate positions, as when I listen to both liberal and conservative podcasts.

I know I’m doing good work challenging the status quo when I feel emotions start to build up. Feelings rarely add value,2 but their presence means a position I hold dear is being tried. And I want this trial.

I like to make an analogy to human anatomy and physiology, in a very layperson way. Sometimes emotion signals scar tissue tearing away from its surroundings, as during post-injury rehabilitation, and the result is improved joint mobility. Sometimes emotion signals growth, as the muscle pulls and strains against its origin while weightlifting, and the result is a stronger motion. In both of these cases, the analogous result is a clearer understanding overall.

Do you have any areas in your life you are unwilling to examine? These you ought to pay particular attention to. Emotions we are unable to power through during an argument—internal or external—means that an ostensibly-intellectual position we hold has become bound up in our identity. A challenge in this case is an existential attack, and as such, we lash out in self defense.

I find this pursuit of intellectual tension3 to be valuable, and I try to build it in to my daily practice. If done as a maintenance task, I seem more able to respond like an adult during arguments. If I seek out counterpoints after a challenge, I have probably already fallen short of this ideal.

Perhaps the best the best plan is to live by the quote, “strong opinions, weakly held.”4 Intellectual tension keeps our grip loose(r).

  1. There is a ton of nuance here, and I am generally unwilling to align myself with those who currently, publicly espouse the Christian religion. My faith is deeply personal, unsurprisingly, but it may warrant a separate post at some point. Email me if this is something you’re interested in seeing me write about. I feel a lot of trepidation even contemplating it. ↩︎

  2. A counterexample would be when emotions motivate us to dig in and truly study an issue. ↩︎

  3. In philosophy terms, this would likely be called dialectical tension, but I lack the expertise to ensure I’m using the term of art correctly. ↩︎

  4. I’m pretty sure I first read this quote on Jeff Atwood’s blog↩︎