The Outlines Of An Open Mind
(Note: I didn't originally want this hub published in the "Atheism & Agnosticism" category, but the publishing template required a sub-category, and offered no suitable "philosophy" category. So here we are).
When it comes to extraordinary or outrageous notions, one of the most common counsels is to “keep an open mind.” In principle, it's sound advice. After all, one cannot truly know if one's own position or understanding is correct without comprehensively exploring all points of view.
But the challenge to be “open-minded” is often issued with a misunderstanding of what it truly means. Most commonly, it seems to be mistaken for a philosophical prohibition against EVER rejecting an idea (especially the particular notion one happens to personally favor).
Put simply, open-mindedness is intellectual flexibility -- a consistent and practical readiness to impartially examine new ideas (or re-examine old ones), and a willingness to have one's own ideas or beliefs examined or challenged. What matters most is not one's conclusions (if any) regarding an idea, but the process that leads to them.
Still, it's one thing to be 'open-minded.' It's quite another to be so 'open-minded' that one's brain falls out! For example, another common misconception regarding open-mindedness is the implication that we must start over from 'scratch' when confronting each new idea. But this is both impractical and irrational.
In truth, we approach each new notion with a template of knowledge and understanding shaped through experience and prior conclusions. We compare and contrast new ideas to those we've already analyzed. We learn which resources are dependable, and which modes and methodologies are most helpful.
The most common obstacles to open-mindedness are personal or ideological biases, and the most pernicious are dogmatic religious and political philosophies, which make certain ideas or paradigms sacrosanct. One is so committed to one's presuppositions that every observation or experience is filtered, limited or adapted to fit them.
By contrast, the open mind strives for objectivity. It seeks to honestly test one's ideas and arguments against facts, evidence and even opposing points of view, changing them or abandoning them altogether if they fail. As the atheist author and debater Sam Harris reminds us, “I don't want to be wrong for a moment longer than I need to be.”
One key to objectivity is recognizing the difference between what we KNOW and what we BELIEVE -- two terms that are often mistakenly used interchangeably, or considered merely gradations on the same scale (as if “knowledge” were simply a more certain level of “belief”). But they are different intellectual approaches to reality. “Knowledge” is merely an awareness (an ac-knowledge-ment) of objective facts, while “belief” is a subjective perception of reality.
In practice, what one “believes” should be grounded in the objective facts one “knows.” Conversely, what one “knows” should be totally independent of one's beliefs. In any case, it seems the actual state of belief isn't a conscious choice. Even Blaise Pascal, in his infamous theological 'wager' understood this, and suggested that non-believers “act” as if they believed, in the expectation that one can eventually “cure” one's self of unbelief.
What we DO choose are the criteria, methodologies and modes of thinking we employ in our examinations of the world (and just as importantly, we choose whether we'll apply them consistently and honestly). Three of the most useful are skepticism, logic and the scientific method.
Far too often, skepticism is mistaken for close-mindedness. But in truth, skepticism is merely the practical exercise of doubt in the absence of evidence, not a defacto rejection of new or unique ideas. Uniformly rejecting every new idea creates an incapacity to learn and leads to intellectual paralysis. And uniformly accepting every new idea (especially those that are mutually exclusive) is the pathway to intellectual incoherence.
It seems self-evident that rational human beings occupy the reasonable middle ground, accepting some ideas while rejecting others. While it is not necessary to make up our minds about each and every idea to which we are exposed, we must inevitably draw conclusions about SOME things. Conclusions -- the practical function of the thinking mind -- are the building blocks of intellectual awareness.
Ultimately, the key to objectivity is applying our skepticism to ideas and arguments that AGREE with our biases as well as those that disagree!
Rules of logic are tools that help us navigate our way to the truth more consistently. Understanding the difference between tautologies (statements that are necessarily true, i.e. -- “something is or is not”) and contradictions (“something is AND is not”) can help avoid common logical fallacies and help ensure the consistency of premises in one's reasoning.
For example, if we follow the premise that “everything must have a cause” with the premise that “there must be a first cause” (the cosmological “prime mover”) we are not only failing the tautological test (because it is impossible to know if either premise is necessarily true), we are employing contradictory and mutually exclusive premises (because the truth of one will disprove the other).
The very essence of the scientific method is a commitment to objectivity and the elimination of personal biases in investigating the world, by emphasizing falsifiability, consistency of results and critical peer review. It is self-correcting, with no “absolute truths” -- only the best currently available explanations. Its driving force is exemplified in the phrase most repugnant to the ideologue and the true believer:
I don't know.
More Than Intellect
In the end, the open mind is more than just the difference between pointless arguments and productive discussions. It's the difference between mental stagnation and intellectual growth. And at its most creative, an open mind can change the world, like the young patent clerk named Albert who daydreamed of chasing light beams and free-falling through space. Ultimately, his inspirations and insights upended our understanding of time, matter and even perspective!
Just as significantly, it's also the difference between abstract moral dictates and genuine moral understanding, for only the open mind can experience empathy (the ability to see the world through the perspective of others) -- the only genuine foundation for human morality.
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