A changelog for the mind

Imagine we’re sat across from one another and I’m trying to get the measure of you, to figure out who you are and how you think. In such a situation, I’d ask the following question: “What was the last thing you changed your mind about, and why?” It’s one of my favourite questions because it reveals a few critical things; first, a person’s self-awareness, and second, a person’s intellectual courage. Think about it. To answer such a question adequately you have to be aware of the movement of your own thought and be able to articulate it. That’s hard. But it’d be easier if we all kept a changelog for our mind.

A “changelog” is what it sounds like. It’s a chronologically ordered list of changes made to a project, and it can include only notable changes or all changes. Typically, changelogs are kept alongside software projects. For example, a lot of open-source projects keep changelogs as a top level file. Wikis also contain a similar feature; on Wikipedia you can view the edits and revisions made to an individual page by clicking “View history” at the top of the page.

But why would keeping a changelog for our intellectual apparatus be useful? There’s three answers to that. The first is that it would create humility via awareness. It would reveal the fragility of our beliefs and thinking, showing us how often we have to evolve and update our thoughts about ourselves and the world. Second, it would allow us to peruse past versions. To look at what we used to think, speculate why we thought that, and use what we find to inform decisions in the present and future. Third, and most importantly, it would allow us to pinpoint errors and revert.

‘Revert?’ Go back to thinking what we used to think? Pointless.

Not really.

One of—possibly the—key tenet of thinking well is updating prior beliefs, incorporating new evidence and modifying what we think accordingly. But an update can also be a revert. Say we become enamoured with a particular person or idea. Perhaps its influence is pervasive enough that it causes us to change some of our fundamental assumptions about the world. And perhaps some later episode reveals to us the error of our infatuation and the wrongness of the changes we made because of it. What do we do? We update by undoing. 

If you had a changelog for the mind this would be simple; you’d find the point immediately before delusion set in and begin again from there. But of course, modifying our thoughts isn’t that simple because we don’t—and probably can’t—keep changelogs of our mind and its stances concerning different topics and concepts. Which is why I like asking people, “What was the last thing you changed your mind about?” Because it’s such a hard question to formulate an answer to.