A Body At Rest

People have been trying to figure out how the world works for a very long time. Even Aristotle tried his hand at physics over 2,000 years ago, attempting to formulate the laws of motion, the first of which he claimed was “all objects have the tendency to rest.” In other words, no matter how an object is moving, nature will conspire bring it to a halt. This law makes sense when looking at the world around us, where any object that we set in motion stops moving after a time. Physics, however, has never been famous for being so simple, and motion is no exception. It took 2,000 years and the arrival of Isaac Newton on the scene to come up with the real first law of motion: “An object will remain it its current state of motion unless acted upon by a force." This is also known as the statement that all objects have inertia, the tendency to resist a change in motion. Understanding this property of objects was an enormous step forward for science.

However, it’s not just mass that has inertia. Think about how hard it is to change someone’s mind, especially when talking about beliefs that have emotional resonance, and you’ll understand what I mean when I say that ideas have inertia just as much as objects do. Changing our minds requires that we admit we’re wrong after all, and admitting that we’re wrong is usually an uncomfortable experience. Because of this, we often cling to our beliefs in the face of possibly-overwhelming evidence, as can be seen rather clearly in climate change deniers. It wouldn’t be right to call this inertia ideological laziness, though. Justifying one's in the face of evidence to the contrary can take an incredibly amount of mental effort, far more than changing one’s mind would. Our minds simply are resistant to change because changing them requires moving through a somewhat uncomfortable process. Primacy is given to the idea we already hold.

We see the effects of this mental inertia all the time when people are discussing current events. Oftentimes, policy change such as gun control or the opening of relations with Cuba is opposed by using some form of the “this won't work” argument. However, these policy changes are usually being considered because current practices don’t work. If we know that something currently isn’t working, why not make the change to something that may or may not? At worst, we would end up with no change in the situation, and at best we would see radical improvement. It sounds like a no-brainer. But this is where mental inertia comes in. We don’t want to make the change simply because change is hard and sometimes unpleasant to make, both in terms of the work required to make the change as well as convincing ourselves that our current system needs to change. So we stick with what we have, giving primacy not just to the ideas we hold but to the policies we currently embrace.

When it comes to large-scale decisions about the future of our country, however, we cannot be complacent with ideological inertia. When the decisions we make effect the lives of many in far-reaching ways, we can’t be willing to stick to plans that don't work just because they’re what we used to. When we have the 12th highest rate of firearm deaths per capita in the world, we cannot allow inertia to keep us from making a change. When we’re deciding policy we must be constantly evaluating and innovating, always striving to improve the governance of our nation. If our experiments don’t work, then they don't work, but these chances are chances worth taking when faced with policies that themselves don't work. I'm not saying that this will be comfortable, or easy, or a quick fix. But for everyone in our country, for everyone in the world, we must overcome ideological inertia and change for the better.