The Power of an Open Mind

Open-mindedness. Free thinking. These ideas are frequently paid lip service by influential thinkers and talkers, but very few people ever consider what this truly means or what one has to do to have an open mind. Those who ever do think about these things rarely act on them. This latter condition cannot necessarily be helped, but if more people truly knew what it means to have and exercise an open mind, chances are that we would have more free thinkers. In this essay, we will examine the consequences – good and bad – of having an open mind, and we will also examine how some of the bad consequences could be eliminated or lessened.

First, allow me to cut through some of the most common misconceptions about open-mindedness.

The chief criticism is that it leads to idecisiveness. Someone looking for both sides of every issue and discussing and debating everything, the proponents of this argument claim, will never consider himself ready for action or decision. He will hang on forever, seeking alternatives and flaws. Better to come out with guns blazing, ready for action. Admittedly, open-mindedness can be carried to extremes. Paralysis by analysis is a very real phenomenon. Also, in some situations you will not have time to examine every possibility. Life includes times when a quick decision must be made; there is simply no time for the thorough analysis that would be preferable. However, just because you don’t have the time to do a great deal of research doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do any. Whatever information you can dig up on a subject is preferable to none at all. Open-mindedness doesn’t mean never making up your mind; it just means making informed decisions and being prepared to modify them should new information come along.

In his wonderful book Dumbth, Steve Allen refers to an “ego-investment” that people make in an answer when they arrive at it, usually after a long and tedious process. The longer the deliberation, the greater the ego-investment. They resist suggestions and evidence to the effect that their answers might be incorrect, because it took quite an exertion to arrive at these answers, and they dread the very thought of having to go through the process again. These are the people who tend to rise to the upper levels of management due to their speed at making difficult decisions and the fact that they have the courage of their convictions. Such qualities are not inherently bad, and are in fact desirable in a manager, but these people tend to deeply frustrate their subordinates, who make comments (generally to their spouses or to other coworkers when the boss is not present) such as:

  • “He’s so bullheaded.”
  • “She’s as stubborn as a mule.”
  • “There’s no such thing as reviewing a decision with him. Once he makes a pronouncement, it’s final. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
  • “She rules the place like a tyrant. Every once in a while she comes around and passes judgement on an issue, and the peasants are expected to bow down and never dare to question her.”

… And so forth. This person is the epitome of a closed mind. Perhaps he or she would mend his or her ways if able to see the error in them, but all of the subordinates are afraid to say a word for fear of being beheaded. The point of this example is not to castigate tyrannical managers; rather, one should note that there is no good in this method of behavior. Those who believe in doing things this way and point to their superiors as justification should ask themselves how they react as a subordinate to such behavior. Truly wise businessmen covet those who are able to see perspectives other than their own. Perhaps the wisdom of people who run the organization for which they work dictates otherwise, but this is no excuse for being closed-minded in other fields of life.

The second objection commonly raised is that all of the fact-checking and information-gathering is tedious and boring. For these people, the term “research” probably conjures up an image of being forced as a youngster to sit in a dark, cavernous library, forbidden to talk, leafing through densely written tomes and old encyclopedias. In some cases there is no substitute for library research, but most of the time it will take other forms. For example, on matters political there is a vast amount of information available at the newsstands. Whatever opinions one may have on the state of modern journalism, there is still a wide variety of quality reading material available. In addition to newspapers there are the better magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, and Time. All of these publications generally provide sound and thoughtful articles written in a lively and readable style. Please note that it is essential to read publications with biases different than your own, in order to fully see both sides of issues. A liberal Washingtonian should therefore read the conservative Washington Times in addition to the left-leaning Post; his conservative brethren should do the opposite. The point here is that the world of print journalism contains much more information than one would perhaps expect, and reading a magazine or newspaper is generally easier and more interesting than searching out some long-forgotten scholarly work.

Another useful source of information is discussion. Familiar forms include the one-on-one, the debate, the roundtable, the water-cooler gathering (although this is not helpful if the level of conversation never rises above office gossip), and the newly popular electronic communications such as e-mail and “chatrooms.” The people with whom we come in contact every day are a potentially very valuable source of information and opinion that most of us have never utilized to its full potential. Chances are there is someone you know who is considered a “radical” and is probably thought of as more than a little crazy. Seek this person out and ask him to tell you in detail about his “crazy” ideas. Don’t interrupt, no matter what your impulses; just listen. If he is not merely a demagogue or actually insane, he will likely have ideas worth thinking about, and he will probably be so happy at having found someone who will hear him out that he will be willing to answer any questions you have. Perhaps in the end you will not agree with him, but at least he made you think. Remember that in most cases the only reason he was branded a radical is that his views challenge those of the establishment. Don’t fall into this trap in your own thinking. The true mark of a free thinker is that he will never attempt to prevent someone from speaking just because of an ideological conflict. If your own views are really worth holding, they will stand up to whatever arguments your opponents can muster. The beauty of free speech is that one has the opportunity to hear thousands of opposing viewpoints without censorship. Revel in this opportunity!

One important note here is that you should not accept something as the gospel truth just because it comes from a reputable source or is written convincingly. Even the greatest minds in the world have been wrong before. No matter how strong the arguments made, take the new information and weigh it against your current database of facts and opinion, and in this way decide its merit. As an example, consider the “pro and con” debates (two articles written on opposite sides of an issue) that newspapers often run on the editorial page. I enjoy reading these, and I read any that I come across. The arguments are often strong and well-documented, and I find myself easily swayed by them. If after reading the “pro” article I were asked my position, I would almost undoubtedly come out in favor of it; but if I were asked after reading the “con” article, I would be strongly against it. However, by reading both articles carefully and pondering the verity of the arguments, I am able to form an educated (but not irreversible) opinion. If new evidence comes to light later on, I may change my opinion. There is nothing wrong with this; this is making use of the best available information. If you were in charge of planning strategy in a war, would you make plans without considering the latest reports from the front? Of course not. If you’re willing to look for it the information is there for you, so use it to your advantage.

At this point, some of you are probably thinking:

“Suppose I read about an opinion and I don’t agree. After reading it I still believe I’m right. Wasn’t I just wasting my time?”

Not at all! In fact, this is a good thing. When you thoroughly study an opposing argument and consider it seriously – and then decide that your opinion still holds – so much the better. An opinion that can be defended against contrary arguments is one that is worth holding. But do not let such triumph blind you to other objections that could be raised. A free thinker is always searching for new ways to test his ideas.

The final common objection to open mindedness is something along the lines of:

“My opinions are right. Theirs are wrong. Reading about wrong opinions is a waste of my time.”

People who believe this are so far down the path to ignorance that there may be no saving them, but I will make an attempt to help them see the light of sweet reason. Holding firm to all your beliefs despite any amount of evidence to the contrary is not only an unfortunate waste of citizenship in a culture of free speech (residents of South Africa in the bad old days of Apartheid would have given anything for the opportunities you have) but also is very dangerous. Countless duels, brawls, feuds, grudges, and even wars could have been avoided if one party had been capable of admitting that they may have been wrong and thus seeing the other side’s point of view. It is important to ask yourself: why am I so sure of my beliefs? We will go deeper into this later, but for now I will just say that you could be surprised at the answer.

Now that we have debunked some common misrepresentations of free thinking, the question naturally arises of what it really is. So far we have generated a definition concering the use of information in forming an opinion or making a decision. But free thinking means much more than that. It means weighing cherished, long-held beliefs against real-world evidence. It means examining your politics, rethinking your religion. (As Allen wrote in Dumbth, “Does this suggestion make you uneasy? Good. That means you’re paying attention.”) It means constantly examining and reexamining your positions. It means challenging traditional social values and systems of thought. What once was a right answer may no longer be, in light of the current state of things. Above all, it means that you are willing to amass as much evidence as possible before forming a firm opinion, while also being ready to modify it to fit new evidence. In fact, this will serve as a good definition of free thinking.

When evaluating your current beliefs, the most important thing to consider is the reason behind them. To echo a previous question, why do you believe what you believe? One-sentence answers are trouble, especially answers such as “because my (mother, father, teacher, priest, rabbi, God, etc.) told me so.” I feel this point is important enough that I will italicize it: accepting on blind faith the unsupported opinion of anyone is the pit of ignorance, even if the opinion happens to be correct. I cannot emphasize this enough, for we will get nowhere unless we understand this. As an example, suppose someone asks you why stealing is wrong. We all know (or at least accept) it as true that stealing is wrong. But why? Saying, “because Father So-and-So says it is,” is logically unacceptable. After all, Father So-and-So could be wrong. In this case he is not, but would you accept whatever he said just because he says it? If you would, this demonstrates ignorance in the extreme. To take a better example, why do you believe what you believe about abortion? Is it because Father So-and-So said that abortion is murder and thus morally wrong? What about in cases of rape or incest? Is it wrong then? Why?

Abortion is one of the issues I like to call “land-mine issues” because the debate concerning the issue is usually governed by rhetoric and emotion rather than logic. At some point in the debate, you will probably start to scream that those who disagree with you (if you are pro-life) are godless heathens who deserve to burn in Hell or (if you are pro-choice) unenlightened uptight Bible-thumping hypocrites. At this point we are so far from the issue of abortion that any appeals to reason by either side would be wasted breath. It seems obvious on paper, but 99 percent of those who argue over abortion use these tactics with alarming regularity, and the national stage is filled with such ad hominem (personal) attacks. I beseech you not to do this. Do not use these tactics; do not respond to them when they are used against you; and above all, do not use them to justify your position to yourself. Self-deception is among the most hurtful things you can do. If your position is tenable, you should have no trouble finding solid logical evidence to support it. Please do so, and don’t force yourself to use ad hominem arguments. They are the mark of closed-minded ignorance.

Bear in mind that there is a justifiable reason for receiving this basic sort of instruction when we are very young. Young children simply do not have the intelligence required to grasp the nuances of a logical argument. Remember when you were much younger and your response to every parental demand was, “Why?” Your parents replied with some mumbled evasion, and you accused them of having no good reason – right? Perhaps they did and perhaps they didn’t, but even if they had, you would have been completely unable to grasp it. Now that you are more intelligent and mature, you need not follow the path of blind acceptance. Remember that it is easy to create “pseudo-logic” to defend your beliefs, but it is much harder and more painful to examine your beliefs under the microscope of evidence and reason. However, it is necessary that you take this step in order to become a free thinker.

A free thinker loves debate. The idea of a truly free information exchange – a chance to measure and defend ideas against those of others – at once excites and invigorates. Free thinking, like philosophy, is naturally suited to and in fact feeds upon open discussion. Seek out those who disagree with you and draw them into a debate. If you are not inclined toward this sort of personal contact, there are thousands of electronic newsgroups and chatrooms you can join. Don’t be obsessed with “winning” these debates, but rather with testing and exploring new points of view. I will coin the word “freetalk” to describe the open exchange of ideas and opinions, without necessarily passing judgement, that is the essence of open-mindedness. Freetalk is a paradise for those with open minds. There are few things that I enjoy more.

I feel it necessary to include a few words here about the General Semantics movement, most visibly championed by the late S. I. Hayakawa and Alfred Korzybski. General semantics and freetalk form the basis of the philosophy of open-mindedness. The main idea behind general semantics was expressed by Hayakawa in his book Language in Thought and Action (which I consider almost required reading for free thinkers): “The symbol is not the thing symbolized; the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory it stands for.” Obviously all except the very young and the mentally retarded can grasp this concept, but its ramifications may not be as obvious.

For instance, this means that sweeping generalizations about the nature of races and groups of people must be avoided. If we were lied to by five Caucasians, for example, could you then say that all Caucasians were liars? Of course not. The same applies if you were lied to by twenty, a hundred, even a thousand Caucasians. In fact, you could not make this specific generalization unless you had been lied to by every single Caucasian – past, present, and future – to tread this Earth. This sounds ridiculous, but it is true. This does not mean you can never recognize the existence of patterns. If you are cheated every time you work with an organization, you would be well advised to avoid doing further business with that organization. But to say that every member of that organization is corrupt on the basis of your experience would be ludicrous.

Further, this means that deciding the value of an idea based on its source is wrong. Everyone claims that they don’t do this, but every once in a while someone comes along and proves it. There are many of these sorts of polls, but I will mention two. The first was an informal survey done several years back by Allen in one of his books in which readers were given a quote with a prefacing statement that clearly indicated it to be Communist propaganda. The passage included such phrases as:

“… the ‘capitalist’ economic regime has spread everywhere to such a degree… that it has invaded and pervaded the economic and social life of even those outside its orbit… In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few… The dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money…”

Later, Allen identified the author of the quote as Pope Pius XI. There are no statistics available on this, but it it safe to assume that the vast majority of readers were fooled. The second case concerns the disturbing O. J. Simpson trial. In case you have forgotton, seventy percent of whites surveyed thought he was guilty, and seventy percent of blacks thought he was innocent. Some of this discrepancy may have resulted from different ways of looking at evidence, but the fact that Simpson was a famous black folk hero played an undeniable role.

One issue that has come to the forefront in recent months is the budget battle. The debate of big versus small government and tax cuts versus tax hikes has fascinated the public for quite some time. I must confess that, although I deplore the Republican bullying tactics (especially the government shutdowns), I am indeed in favor of reducing government. There is far too much red tape and bureaucracy which accomplishes nothing and costs billions. The Democrats have demagogued on Medicare in an effort to regain power, but I see through their rhetoric and (though as a former flaming liberal it is difficult to admit) I realize that the Republicans have the better ideas – or at least have ideas. My views are best summed up by a quote from a major ideological leader in the battle, whom I hope you will read and consider:

“Our country needs a government that is smaller and more responsive… that moves authority away from the federal government to states and localities – that produces fewer regulations and more incentives – that has more common sense and seeks more common ground… [E]ven though we have cut our huge budget deficit in half, we need to eliminate it completely.”

Don’t you just love the sound of it? Now, who do you suppose wrote this government-trimming manifesto? Bob Dole? Newt Gingrich? Phil Gramm? Steve Forbes? Would you believe that it really was Bill Clinton? Clinton wrote this in his foreword to Al Gore’s book Common Sense Government. Whatever opinions you may have of Clinton’s presidency, this passage actually sounds as though it could have come straight out of Gingrich’s mouth. Remember that the idea, not the man, is the important factor.

Now we will examine the consequences of open-mindedness.

Admittedly, there are limits to it, and it can be carried to excess. For example, if we were to get up every morning and ponder the deeper meaning of our alarm clock, ruminate on our shower, and hold a roundtable discussion on what to have for breakfast, we would get nowhere. We’d never make it to work. Much of our daily life is governed by routine, and it is in our best interest to adhere to such things (although we should periodically examine our routine and decide if it could be improved). However, too many people never think beyond their routine and are remarkably unconcerned with issues that do not directly affect it. They think of other things as irrelevant and not worth attention. The key is to strike a balance. A free thinker sets aside time to consider matters of grand importance but does not let these ruminations interfere with the daily course of events.

The other possible result of open-mindedness in excess is that it can lead to indecisiveness. Someone who waits around forever for that last little bit of evidence when a decision is needed immediately will lead himself to ruin as surely as one who proceeds in ignorance. Once again, a balance must be struck. But it is important not to confuse indecision with careful deliberation. A little time spent hand-wringing while we gather information now will save a lot of time and heartache spent sorting out the wreckage of an ill-advised decision later.

Generally, the rule of thumb is that the rumination involved in free thinking should be an important part of your day but must not interfere with your ability to complete necessary tasks. Granted, it can be time-consuming, but the time must be planned for. These limits do not apply to the application of free thinking of course. The point of pondering is to help you make better life decisions. When there is no substitute for a quick decision, do what you can with the time you have and rely on your previous experience if possible. This is why you should think about important things before you need to know them.

All of this is the worst that can happen to a free thinker. The best that can happen is that he will be free of all the irrational prejudices and unexamined opinions which govern too many people. A recent survey shows that 76% of Americans cannot name the Senators from their state; 58% believe that more of the budget is spent on foreign aid than Medicare, when in reality the Medicare budget is roughly seven times that for foreign aid; 47% could not name the Speaker of the House; and 94% were unable to name the current Chief Justice. I could go on, but my point is made. I’m not sure which is worse for the country: a large block of the populace, ignorant of basic political facts, refusing to participate in the political system; or this group voting in ignorance based on prejudices.

  • The informed free thinker will not vote for someone because of party affiliation or what their friends or parents say. He will vote on issues and leadership ability instead. The slickly produced campaign ads will not affect him. The candidate’s positions in debates and voting record will.
  • A free thinker will not be shackled to the mistakes of the past and the assumptions of the present. He will be free to search out new solutions and new alternatives without the irrational fear of the unusual and different that is the hallmark of a closed mind.
  • He will no longer have the traditional barriers that block so many from reaching their full potential as thinkers. He will “stand taller than all the rest,” as Eric Stetson likes to say, “because his feet are on the ground and his head is in the clouds!” Entirely new realms of thought will become open to him as he considers new ways of doing things that would never previously have occurred to him.
  • He is invigorated, rather than concerned, by the prospect of discussing his beliefs and ideas.
  • He is not afraid to rock the boat and challenge the establishment. He does not fear attempts of others to dissuade him or brand him as crazy.

In short, the free thinker is a liberated individual who is truly free.

The only way to properly see and understand the underlying ideas behind great philosophies is to completely remove all the old constructs and irrationalities that governed your previous thinking and absorb and judge the new ideas for what they are. As the famed psychologist George Miller once said, “You must assume that whatever a person says is true. You must then figure out what it could possibly be true of.” Do not react to what you hear or read until the end. Prejudging is a waste of your time and energy. Limiting yourself to narrow opinions is an unfortunate loss of a wonderful opportunity to expand your mind. Perhaps the heart of this philosophy lies in seeing the whole; allow yourself to do this freely.

Obviously, free thinking alone will solve nothing. It won’t cure our societal ills or bring about world peace or determine appropriate cultural standards for the next generation. Just being open-minded won’t do any of this. Application of open-mindedness will, however. It is not enough to have a society full of people who have the ability to truly think for themselves. In addition, we need leaders who have the open mind and the courage to act on their convictions. Having good ideas is a good thing, but it takes a special (and very necessary) quality to lead others in these ideas.

Therefore, once you have come up with well thought-out, well researched positions, it is vital that you speak out. The current national debates could use a few reasonable voices. Many great thinkers have had wonderful and potentially very useful ideas, but they never left their mountaintops and ivory towers, instead spending their days writing and ruminating. Ralph Waldo Emerson is a perfect example of this. He wrote volumes on the philosophy of Transcendentalism, but his lifestyle was utterly conventional; it was left up to Henry David Thoreau to practice what Emerson preached.

One of the few exceptions to the general rule of reclusive thinkers was Michel Equiem de Montaigne. He applied his common-sense philosophy as mayor of Bordeaux, making such statements as, “The mayor and I are two very different people.” Montaigne’s philosophy was that of an informed free thinker and one that would be wise to follow in our era, but the purpose of this example is that he was actively involved in his community in a way that few thinkers have been in history.

You don’t need to be Montaigne to be an active voice of reason and open-mindedness. All you need is a set of well explored and defensible beliefs. With the advent of the World Wide Web it is easier than ever to make your voice heard on a national or even global stage, but your aspiration need not even be so grand. Each person you enlighten with your philosophy is an improvement over the prior state of things. Start small, working with friends, neighbors, and coworkers, and work your way up. If your ideas really make sense, people will listen. You don’t have to become involved in politics, but it is definitely an avenue worth considering if you are so inclined. However you choosed to go about it, I urge you to make your voice heard. The condition of the world today virtually dictates that those who have gained wisdom share it with the uninitiated.

Before we part ways, I would like to make a few comments concerning what has been discussed. First, if all of this seems overwhelming, relax. It may be a bit difficult to implement right now, but eventually it should be second nature; soon there will be no way for you but the proper way. Second, if you take one thing out of this essay, let it be a love of freetalk. Freetalk is a natural and easy way to practice and develop open-mindedness. With time you will come to see it as one of the more enjoyable and invigorating things that you do during your day. Finally, remember our definition of free thinking: being willing to amass as much logical and factual support as possible before forming a firm opinion, while always being ready to modify it to fit new evidence. This sums it all up rather nicely, and if you keep this in mind as you progress through the rest of life’s decisions you will never be led astray.

What you have in your mind?