People are often quick to state that they have what we call, in the popular vernacular, an “open mind.”
We understand this to mean that they are open to changing their views when presented with evidence that directly contradicts those views.
Sometimes it means that a person is capable of entertaining, on a somewhat equal basis, the perspective of someone else, even if that person comes from a wildly different background or has a startlingly different set of views.
But it’s on this topic that I think the old adage, “easier said than done,” is apt. Or perhaps we can amend it.
Easier spoken than proven.
How does one prove that they have an open mind? How can it be demonstrated?
Furthermore, is it really a virtue? The current social media scene makes it hard to know whether or not it is, because, at least from the point of view of the political struggle, there is this notion that certainly, not all views are equal, deserving of expression, or otherwise worthy of being entertained.
For instance, is having an open mind a virtue if it leads one to entertain the perspective of someone who is racist or in favor of policies that place excruciating pressure upon the poor?
It gets even murkier when it comes to left vs. right politics in America. The left assumes that the right enables and abets racists, misogynists, fascists, and the like, and that no amount of intellectual argument in favor of conservative viewpoints can correct for that.
Some critics of the left, including those on the left itself, will say that that is a very hardline attitude that has something in common with some of the more unsavory types on the right as well. The horseshoe image of things applies here, methinks.
It’s for this reason that I find it difficult to decide on whether or not an open mind is something even worth having, or striving to have, given the stakes at play when it comes to things like climate change.
How much time should I spend trying to balance my perspective with the perspective of others?
What is the balance between intuitive judgment and checking that judgment with a rigorous attempt at intellectually determining whether or not that judgment is good?
How many facts does one need to collect, how many arguments, how many back-and-forths must be conducted before arriving at a place in which we can confidently say, “This is the right view to have?”
What is, even, a “view?” Is it a physical structure in the brain that has something to do with the emotional reaction we have when confronted with the words/images of something in the external world?
Is it nothing more than synaptic connections that determine in a machine-like way what sort of responses we will have to the spoken/written/expressed views of someone else?
I hope it’s becoming clear how one can begin to ask an endless amount of questions pertaining to this topic of what it takes to have an open mind.
That, for me, is part of the problem.
A Zen perspective, or what we might think of as a “totally in the Eternal Now” perspective, would say that endless deliberation in the realm of intellectual thought is simply another trap.
You can spend an egregious amount of time thinking about your thoughts, but it won’t make any amount of difference as to whether or not those thoughts are true.
And so the Zen master may just spontaneously arrive at their views through a reliance on their personal experience combined with how that experience has shaped their intuitive judgment.
On the opposite end of this, a very hardline intellectual who believes (interesting word there, believes) very strongly that objectivity is arrived at through rigorous scrutiny of fallible human intuition is the only path toward true knowledge.
Of course, I don’t think the truth is found in extremes. We know very clearly that our intuition can be wrong, yet we also know that intellectual arguments in favor of a position may not have anything to do with the truth either.
So what are we to do?
Well, we can start by having a laugh at the whole situation.
I think this is a good exercise because, after all, we only live once, and spending that entire life shouldering an Atlas-like burden of needing to be right about every last little detail pertaining to humanity doesn’t seem to be conducive to a happy-go-lucky mindset of joy and gratitude.
Now, at the same time, some of us may not be able to entirely let go of the need to participate in civil discourse and the critique of our society and culture.
How then, do we go about arriving at the “right-views” if we are also, at the same time, to maintain and nurture a mind that becomes more “open?”
After all, there comes a point where we have to cast a vote, which is a judgment call, and one that I think we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss as ineffective.
I know one thing about myself. I don’t like the feeling of having a closed mind, and I think that I am intimately familiar with that feeling.
It feels much better having arrived at a place in which I can let ideas go as easily as they come, almost as if an intensely painful pressure has been dissipated.
At the same time, I don’t wish to dismiss as silly the quest for better morality, both on a societal level and within my own life.
So what am I to do?
What are you to do?
Well, for the time being, I am falling back a little into the realm of emotion and intuition.
I don’t need an intellectual argument to tell me that keeping kids in cages, regardless of their immigrant status, is wrong. It’s just a gut revulsion to the whole scenario. I could care less what an “intellectual” argument in favor of enhanced border security has to say about the matter.
Should I have an open mind about that situation? Should it be able to be proven wrong, so that one day, when presented with some sort of “evidence,” I change my view and can then say, with confidence, “Yeah, I guess it was okay to throw kids in cages and rip them from their families, causing massive terror and trauma that will likely go on to affect them well into adulthood?”
I’ll pass on that.
It’s still a complicated subject, however, since a lot of views aren’t directly related to things we can look at and react with revulsion or approval.
Take for instance economic debates about which policies will be effective versus ineffective.
Any number of statistics and studies can be used to conjure any number of narratives about why the statistics are what they are.
And so now we’ve run around in a circle. We’re in another subject altogether. The narrative surrounding the facts versus the facts themselves. How do we go about having an open mind pertaining to the stories other people tell about the facts?
That’s a whole other realm of subjective, woo-woo discourse. One that I’m not prepared to go into in this post.
In fact, this entire post has been nothing more than an exercise in conjuring up compelling sounding word salad out of thin air. Maybe you find it compelling, maybe you see right through it.
But within that is another interesting question.
How do we tell the difference between compelling sounding, philosophical word salad, from well-reasoned intellectual discourse stemming from a solid intuitive judgment that is based on facts?
Is there a unanimously approved system for such deliberations? Some sort of method that is tried and true that we can all agree upon?
Or do we have to, at some point, give up looking for that sort of thing, and simply trust in our own ability to tell right from wrong?
What then, is an open mind?