Fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people are so full of doubts. - Bertrand Russell
If we ask ourselves the question “Do I have an open mind?”, we can all honestly say that we do. The converse is also true, because we all have closed minds as well. Essential to our survival, we have varying degrees of acceptance and dismissal to new information. We need an open mind to learn and a closed mind to be able to function.
The purpose of this chapter is to encourage everyone, including myself, to never forget how much we know and need to learn. And while it is necessary to have a closed mind to survive, I feel the more we open our minds to new ideas, the more we will grow as individuals and as a species.
First, I'd like to discuss how much we know. Humanity's infinite ignorance has been known since before the time of Socrates (2500 years ago), who has been quoted to say “I know that I know almost nothing, and hardly that.” I agree completely... one of the most important lessons I have learned is how little I know.
If it were possibly to sum up the entire amount of knowledge any one of us knows, this amount would be finite, since there is a limit to how much any of us can know. The amount of knowledge in the universe is infinite - there is, as far as we know, an unlimited amount of information with the potential to be learned.
Mathematics teaches us that when we compare a finite number (what we know) with an infinite number (what we could know), the finite number shrinks so small that it becomes virtually zero, meaning we essentially know nothing. The collective knowledge of our planet, from the moment life began until now, is finite. Humanity, on a universal scale, knows nothing. It is as the great Karl Popper said, “Our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” Popper also points out that no human can be smarter than another, since we all know virtually nothing.
But it's not so bad; we have already developed a knowledge base that far exceeds what any single human could ever hope to learn (even Ken Jennings lost on Jeopardy). And we will continue to learn and grow as long we have our experts who, as lifelong students, advance specialized fields of human understanding.
While it is true that we have already accomplished a lot, we have the potential to do much greater things. We tend to feel proud of who we are and what we have done (as we should), but we are still just cavemen with digital cameras. When we consider how long the human race has existed (less than 200,000 years) compared with how long our planet has existed (~4.5 Billion years), I find myself humbled and submit that we are just newborns on the cosmic scale. We still have unnecessary suffering due to war and starvation on our planet, both of which I consider signs of our archaic existence. We have a very long way to go to claim success.
Given how much we know, it seems reasonable to assume that the more we open our minds, the more likely we are to learn new things. However, learning is a slow process, and there is just too much information for us to learn. Therefore, we need a closed mind. We need an ability to cope with the massive influx of stimulus, otherwise we would not survive.
Not only are we designed to have closed minds to function, we are genetically programmed to seek status, and a high status usually comes from being successful. The feeling of confidence, or pride in ourselves, that comes from a closed mind is essential for us to feel secure with what we believe. When we are sure of ourselves in the face of conflicting ideas, we can be confident that what we believe is right, and confidence brings success.
It is human nature to become defensive when presented with an idea that conflicts with our beliefs. If someone says something we don’t agree with, it is natural to want to defend our point of view; that we are right and they are wrong. Wrong, I tell you… wrong. (Incidentally, if someone were opposed to this idea, they would undergo a rationalization process convincing them it is wrong.)
Having a closed mind is part of being human; it is something that is inherent in all of us. We need a closed mind to feel confident and secure. We cannot hope to be confident if we are lost in an infinite sea of doubt, and a closed mind helps us shut out doubt.
Pride is the manifestation of a closed mind, allowing us to feel like we are right and what we know is right. If an idea or a way of thinking threatens our pride, in the sense that it conflicts with our own understanding, it is both effective and efficient to dismiss it before giving it due consideration. We cannot spend all our time learning new things if we want to get anything else done. We have to go with what we know.
Not only are closed minds required for individuals, they are required for the survival of our species. Traditions, values, and institutions are the products of closed minds, ensuring what our ancestors believed is also what today's society tends to believe. Without closed mindedness, there would be no rules, and humanity is unlikely to survive in a state of anarchy. Reinforcing old ideals serves as the glue that binds society.
An open mind allows new information to be objectively considered, even if it conflicts with the mind's current understanding. For a mind to grow and learn, it must necessarily be open.
As individuals, an open mind can allow us to find out new things about ourselves and the world around us. With an open mind, we can learn and become more tolerant to the diversity of our species. When we open our minds to new ideas, we gain the judgment that can overcome the perpetuated ignorance of closed-mindedness.
As a species, the more accepting we are to new information and developments, the more we can objectively criticize both old and new ideals, thereby improve the faults of our society and of our world's system. If we allow for growth on an individual scale, it can allow for growth on a societal scale as well. Open minds are essential for progress.
A closed mind is both natural and essential. An open mind leads to new growth and understand, and most often, self-improvement. This section provides us with a few suggestions on how to increase the level to which we are open to new ideas, and therefore, increase the likelihood of self-improvement. These suggestions include acknowledging our ignorance, thinking objectively, being more tolerant, and always learning.
As humans, we will never be perfect
One step towards opening our minds is openly acknowledging how much we know, and how easy it is for us to be ill-informed. It is hard to admit we are wrong about anything, but humility is essential for increasing open-mindedness. This is not easy to do, since admitting that we are fallible conflicts with our pride, but like Marsellus Wallace says in Pulp Fiction... “Fuck pride!”
We have all had experiences in our lives where we have been wrong or where we have changed our minds about something. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes; it is what we do. What is important is how we deal with our imperfections... If we rely on closed mindedness, we tend to dismiss our errors and continue feeling like we are right. If we try to have an open mind, we can learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves, so that we are less likely to repeat the mistakes we have made.
Being open to criticism; either from within; or from others; can lead to improvement. Being open-minded means trying to be honest with ourselves, and trying not to get defensive with regards to others' opinions of us and our opinions. Criticism allows us to locate our weaknesses and errors, thereby providing us with an opportunity for self-improvement.
Trying to think objectively
Socrates taught his students that the pursuit of truth could only begin once they start to question and analyze every belief that they ever held dear. If a certain belief passes the tests of evidence, deduction, and logic, it should be kept. If it doesn't, the belief should not only be discarded, but the thinker must also then question why they were led to believe the erroneous.
The challenge in doing what Socrates suggests is to look objectively at the issue. Since we tend to already be on one side of the argument (either by personal choice, or what we have always been taught to believe), then we naturally feel our choices are right, and that we are right. To do otherwise would be to admit that we are wrong, and those who taught us are wrong. But, like I previously noted, there is nothing wrong with being wrong, especially if we acknowledge that we are wrong.
Trying to be more tolerant
Pride in self and pride in one's own culture is perfectly natural. But this same pride can also bring feelings of superiority, meaning that we feel that our way of living is the best, and all other cultures and beliefs are somehow inferior. Increasing our open-mindedness will result in our being more tolerant of the diversity amongst humans.
It is with regards to closed-mindedness from one person towards another that I often find myself being a hypocrite, in that I am intolerant of intolerance. I strongly feel that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance tend to subside with learning and understanding.
An open minded individual tries to see that, despite superficial differences, humans are essentially the same. We share the same needs, the same hopes and dreams, and the same fears. Any human, regardless of race or gender, when given the same opportunities in life, has the potential to achieve the same level as any other. (We can consider genetic handicaps, or the lack thereof, one of life's opportunities)
Increasing our level of open-mindedness means we always seek to learn new things and grow. If we fail to open our minds to new aspects of life, if we start to think we know everything we need to know, then we miss out on new possibilities and new opportunities for self-improvement. As long as we aren't facing the boredom of omnipotence, there will always exist the exhilaration of learning new things.
In our world, with so much going on, so much to do, and so much to learn, we have no choice but to depend on our leaders and our experts. We depend on our experts for the truth, and we depend on our leaders for judgment. We have no choice but to leave our trust and faith in these individuals to do what they feel is best.
Unfortunately, certainty is not something humans can ever be certain of. Like any human, our experts and leaders are faced with the task of being right while being infinitely ignorant. No human is infallible; we all make mistakes.
If we have leaders and experts with minds that are mostly closed, the flaws of our society can only persist. When those in charge have minds that are even a bit more open, progress happens and our world improves.
I do not know if there is a point to encourage people to have an open mind. Those of us who are more open minded already strive to have an open mind. Those of us who are more closed minded feel like there is little new to learn, and therefore do not feel the need for increased open-mindedness. But I feel it rarely hurts to try.
A closed mind never changes; an open mind can learn and grow. Opening our minds more, and being more tolerant towards the differences amongst us, will be essential for paving the path that takes our species beyond the dark ages. A better world is waiting for us, and it starts when we have an open mind about having an open mind.
Next Chapter - Education: Our Best Investment