An Open Mind

Making the rounds on Imgur is a presumed letter written by a professor of Cross-Cultural Psychology and sent to his students following a prior dispute about his curriculum (the university and the professor’s name are, of course, withheld). Aside from eloquently scolding some of them for their behavior – which you’ll learn about as you read along – his lengthy tract makes excellent points about the importance of challenging one’s views, keeping an open-mind, and facilitating an atmosphere of free inquiry.

As a university graduate who loved school, I could certainly relate with the instructor’s dismay and subsequent suggestion. I even deal with or witness similar incidents. A lot of people, even in their vibrant and curious youth, are too embedded in their preconceived beliefs; they seem regard an education as nothing more than a path to get a degree and make money (and in fairness, this mentality stems from institutional flaws within the education system, as well as pernicious societal influence.

But even outside the university environment, we should strive for the kind of honest and free-thinking that is outlined in the letter. We’re not perfect, and we’ll always be prone to bias, irrationality, and prejudice. But the point is to at least try and, most importantly, not infringe on other people’s efforts to learn too (in or out of school).

How I Form My Beliefs

I would like to clear up a common misconception that I find myself frequently encountering, while also clarifying my ideological positions.  I’ll try to keep it brief.

A good amount of people seem to assume that because I identify myself as pragmatic, freethinking, and utilitarian towards both religious and political matters, that I cannot – or even should not – take a stand on anything.

Apparently, not explicitly identifying with any one political and ideological position leads to an assumption that you are therefore outside these beliefs and thus have no basis to speak on them. To take a position is construed as disingenuous, because one is supposed to be “neutral” in such matters, given the lack of a self-identified label.

Allow me to explain. My positions on a number of issues are contingent on the following criteria: reason, logic, empirical evidence, verificationism, and practicality. In other words, I reach my conclusions about political, socioeconomic, and philosophical matters on testing their rationality, effectiveness in their aims, ethical implications, and efficiency. This stands in contrast to those who base their positions on  partisanship, parochialism, dogma, or authority, and who subsequently do not assess or think critically about the views they’ve taken and why they’ve taken them.

For example, if I support a particular government policy, I do so once I’ve considered a number of things – whether such a policy is worth more than it costs, benefits more people than it hurts, and meets ethical and moral criteria. I do not predicate my support of this policy on who is behind it – or their political party, creed, gender, etc – unless those factors had some sort of bearing on said policy’s implementation.

I will not viscerally support something just because it appeals to my innate bias or sounds pleasant. Rather, I must pause my knee-jerk reaction, and seek to investigate the details and opinions regarding this position before formulating any strong opinion on it. Prejudice is natural to any humans – we’re all mired by cognitive biases and a need to make a quick judgement of something. But that doesn’t meant we cannot mitigate these tendencies and learn to restrainour acting upon them until looking into things further.

I will also not take the word of just one authority on the subject, but try to gather as many different  sources as possible, especially if they oppose one another. That last part is key: I must weight the dissenting and contrarian arguments made about any viewpoint I’m considering, and determine their validity, compare their claims to what is claimed of my viewpoint, and ultimately make a decision as to who’s is most valid (if either, since it’s very likely that I find both sides, as presented, to be invalid).

In short, I try to make sure that whatever position I hold is as well-researched, well-thought out, and well-reflected upon as humanly possible. Even upon “picking a side” or otherwise developing a strong conclusion, I must never cease this practice. I must always hold up my ideas and opinions to constant scrutiny and challenge, because new ideas and new knowledge emerge all the time. As a human being, I cannot possibly know everything at every given time, and thus must be open to the introduction of a previously unconsidered or unknown position. I may even go out of my way to directly call out for such challenges if I see fit.

Now obviously, I am not flawless in this practice. Far from it actually – I’m prone to arrogance, stubbornness, and vitriolic behavior as much as anyone. But the point is that I must nonetheless always try maintain this methodology to the best of my ability. I must even be open to the possibility that this very approach of mine is flawed. Perhaps it seems too fallibist and absurd of me to do so, but I find it less problematic than some alternatives, such as a confidently holding a belief without any exposure to, or challenge by, other ideas.  Too much dogma, close-mindedness, and parochial attachment leads to stagnation. There can be no progress in society without progress in thinking.

Too be clear, taking a side doesn’t automatically mean you are biased or partisan in and of itself. I’m in no way saying that those who are sure about their positions are guilty of arrogance or ignorance. It all depends upon whether you’ve based your support on evidence and reason, and whether you are are sincerely attempting not to defer to authority or cognitive bias. In other words, if you can give me good, well-developed reasons for what you believe, then even if I disagree with it, I can concede that at least you’ve reach your position in a genuine, well-meaning way (and perhaps that I should consider it as well).

Being utilitarian or pragmatic doesn’t mean I have to be neutral and indecisive about everything. Though I am undecided about a lot of things, it is only because I do not feel like I know enough about them to take a strong stand. I’d rather admit to not knowing  something than claim to know it just too look strong – doing the latter would be dishonest to myself and others, and is bound to make me look stupid and untrustworthy at some point.

My friend Paul, an astute philosopher, broke it down rather well in his response to this very post on Facebooj:

First, suspending belief until one is INFORMED on the matter. Only after one has acquired all of the data, consulted others, and thought about it greatly should one come to a conclusion (there are exceptions, but this will do as a rule of thumb). Anyone who has read an introductory philosophy book will know precisely what I’m on about: you read an argument on one page and find yourself convinced until you turn the page to read the objections, and suddenly things aren’t so clear.

This brings me to the second theme that underpins your post: that the pursuit of wisdom is a collective matter; “No man is an island.” In pursuing wisdom, truth, and goodness, we NEED others to help us along the way for the reasons you brought up in your post (all of the types of biases, to be specific). Sharing our thoughts with others (preferably those who are also informed) is one of the many tests that we can put our ideas through.

I’m a part of “Philosophy Forums.” Often times when I try to create an argument, I am confident in it. After I post it on PF and people respond… not so much. This process is crucial, which is why, if we want to maximize our wisdom, we must associate with people who ALSO value wisdom so that they can help us along the way. There are other tests that we can put our beliefs through–rational, pragmatic, etc.–but we cannot always conduct these tests ourselves. Aside from all that has just been said, I think others ought to adopt your system. Most won’t for the reasons Kant laid out–laziness and fear, but it is a process that children ought to be taught from a young age. Once you’re taught to consider beliefs in such a fashion, it’s EXTREMELY difficult to consider them and accept them on other grounds (like pleasure).

All this is why I am a fan of dialectical methods, such as the Socratic debate – the idea that opposing views points should be openly exchanged in a civil manner interceded with inquiries and reflections that stimulate critical thinking. If everyone brings something to the table, and allows others to do the same, it leads to a lot of illumination about perspectives, alternatives, and ideas we may otherwise have never known about it.

The exchange of ideas and the practice of freethinking are the most crucial elements to improving society and the world – such an exercise is subsequently dependent upon an attitude that welcomes challenges to convention wisdom – especially your own – and critically reflecting on what you believe and why you believe it. A world of close-minded dogmatists with no sense of intellectual growth gets us nowhere.

If you disagree with all this, then by all means present your reasons – I’ll gladly “hear” you out 😛