Why You Shouldn’t Keep an “Open Mind”

by | Nov 2, 2000 | POLITICS

“You should keep an ‘open mind.'” If you have ever expressed a definite opinion on anything, you’ve probably heard this popular catch-phrase in response. On college campuses, the “open” mind is considered an unlimited virtue. College administrators, teachers, and many students preach that we should keep our minds open to other philosophies, cultures, religions, ethical […]

“You should keep an ‘open mind.'” If you have ever expressed a definite opinion on anything, you’ve probably heard this popular catch-phrase in response. On college campuses, the “open” mind is considered an unlimited virtue. College administrators, teachers, and many students preach that we should keep our minds open to other philosophies, cultures, religions, ethical beliefs, and political views.

An “open mind” is one that is open to all ideas, values, and behaviors. It is often accepted as the unbiased, non-dogmatic alternative to the “closed” mind–the deliberately stunted intellect that clings dogmatically to a set of beliefs, despite the many facts that contradict them. An example of this latter type is the Christian fundamentalist who rejects the theory of evolution, instead claiming that “Creationism” as described in the Bible is true. He holds this belief despite the massive amount of fossil evidence, carbon dating, and laboratory tests confirming the theory of evolution, while providing no real evidence supporting “Creationism.”

Such a mentality closes his mind to obvious facts in order to hold on to his current beliefs. Whatever hash of contradictions, empty generalizations, and dogmas have been presented to him by his parents or chosen group, these are what he accepts without a conscious effort to find the truth. It is as a supposed contrast to this approach that the “ideal” of an open mind gains credibility. If being closed to new ideas makes us dogmatists, then being open to these ideas must be the proper approach, the logic goes.

The first question to ask the person who tells you to keep an “open mind” is: “Open to what?” Nazism? Creationism? Female genital mutilation? Binge drinking?

The answer is generally that one should be open to all philosophies, religions, cultures, and behaviors. Consider what this includes. Nazism is a political philosophy, which holds that the only purpose of the individual is to make sacrifices for the state and the master race. Should we be open to Nazism? Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all religions that uphold “Creationism” in their primary documents. Does this mean we should be open to “Creationism”? In many African cultures, female genital mutilation is a very common practice. Is it acceptable? Binge-drinking is one of the most popular weekend behaviors at Duke. Should students be open to binge drinking? After all, rejecting any of these ideas or behaviors would be “closed-minded.”

Consider what would happen to a biologist who took the idea of an “open mind” seriously. Her job is to study the evolution of the human brain versus the brain of a chimpanzee, a common evolutionary ancestor. At college, she was told that she should not be closed to new ideas. In her research, she is on the verge of a new finding that expands our current knowledge about the nature of the human brain. She has lab tests and facts to support her theory; it doesn’t contradict any knowledge she already has, she is certain she is right. But then, she asks herself, “Am I really being open-minded? After all, Christianity would say that this whole evolution idea is bogus in the first place.” She thinks, “Now there are no facts to support this theory, but what about the theories that say that there are no objective facts knowable to humans, like the philosophy of Immanuel Kant or John Dewey’s philosophy of Pragmatism? Shouldn’t I be open to other philosophies besides those that advocate the power of human reason? How am I to decide between conflicting ideas?”

She isn’t, if she keeps an “open mind.”

The fallacy of the “open” mind is that it treats all ideas, values, behaviors, no matter how disconnected from reality or destructive of human life, as worthy of consideration. It gives no means for deciding between contradictory ideas, only the order to be “open” to all of them. Since one should be “open” to philosophies, religions, and cultures that preach reason or unreason, adherence to the facts or a denial that facts exist, logic or contradictions, provable statements or arbitrary assertions, one literally has no means of coming to any definite conclusions.

The philosophy behind the “open mind” is skepticism, the denial that absolute knowledge exists. Observe this attitude in the beliefs of those who tell you to “keep an open mind.” They are not crusaders for the discovery of truth, they invoke their catch-phrase as an all-purpose refutation to someone claiming knowledge. To take a personal example, last year when debating another student on which was the moral economic system, capitalism or socialism, I made what I considered a clear case for why capitalism is moral. Instead of pointing out flaws in my arguments or making a positive case for socialism, he said I should “keep an open mind,” because after all there were a lot of people who disagreed with me: John Rawls, Jesus, John Stuart Mill, among many, many others. He did not try to defend any of these positions, he merely asserted that since these other positions exist and have popularity, I should be open to them. The “open mind” advocate does not say, “Be open to this position, because of the evidence supporting it,” he says, “Be open to this position, regardless of the evidence.”

The “open mind” is a cover for mental laziness. The goal of the person who tells you to “keep an ‘open’ mind” is to undercut your certainty in your beliefs without having to refute them or justify his own. Once he does this, he feels, “All of my ideas, values, and behaviors are legitimate. No one can say that they are wrong, if they try I’ll call them ‘closed-minded.'” The particular whims the “open” minded person indulges vary. The uncritical acceptance of his parents’ religion, the voting habits of his racial “brothers,” the binge-drinking habit of his fellow fraternity members, the Marxism of his Literature professors, or the Zen Buddhism of the Self Knowledge Symposium, are a few popular choices.

To the extent that he has any beliefs, the “open-minded” person chooses and accepts them arbitrarily, i.e., without rational basis. When encountering someone who claims objective knowledge, he is fiercely skeptical. “How do you know you’re right? People make mistakes.” “Lot’s of people disagree with you. Aren’t you open to what they have to say?” “Have you read such-and-such’s book? Or encountered this religion? Well, then how do you know it’s not right and you are?”

Unfortunately, the tactics of “open mind” advocates often work. Students are afraid to pass judgment on ideas or behaviors they consider wrong, for fear of being labeled “closed-minded.” Often, they do not search actively for answers to life’s major questions because they have accepted the “open-minded” premise that there are no answers.

The “open” mind is a dead end, just as a “closed” mind is. While the “open” mind claims to be the antidote to the dogmatism of the “closed” mind, it merely clings to the dogma that no knowledge is possible (except, of course, the knowledge that one should be keep an “open” mind). Both the “open” and “closed” minds fail because they are intellectually passive. Neither involves a critical examination of ideas.

There is an alternative to the skepticism of the “open mind” and the dogmatism of the “closed mind”; it is the approach that has been used to discover every truth in mankind’s history: keep an active, objective mind.

An objective mind is open in a very important sense. It is open to all facts, and their connection using logic. In other words, it is open to the use of reason but closed to the use of anything else-unjustified feelings, faith, “divine revelation,” hunches, or cultural heritage.

The objective approach to knowledge is the only way to discover any truth, because it entails looking at reality. Newton discovered the laws of mechanics by observing reality and finding relationships among the physical behavior of objects. He was not open to the groundless idea held in many primitive countries that the movement of physical objects is due to the will of some supernatural being. Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by observing the similarities in bone structure among different species. He was not open to the idea that the Bible trumps all evidence.

The fact that others hold contradictory positions leaves the objective student utterly unaffected. He knows that reality is what it is, and that two contradictory positions cannot be right. So he looks at the facts, and sees which (if any) theory corresponds to them, in physics and in ethics, in psychology and in politics.

If the objective mind encounters contradictory positions on the theory of evolution, he does not remain agnostic about the validity of each. He critically examines each position for correspondence to reality. He observes that one side can point to fossil evidence, proven dating techniques, and laboratory tests, while the other can point only to a book that a lot of people accept on faith. With the facts of reality as his standard of knowledge, he accepts the theory of human evolution as true, rejecting Judeo-Christian “Creationism,” and any other explanation that puts feelings over facts.

Don’t fall into the trap of the “open mind,” or be intimidated by those who use it to attack knowledge and certainty. You should pursue truth with fervor, accepting no contradictions, always focused on the facts.

Alex Epstein is a philosopher who applies big-picture, humanistic thinking to industrial and environmental controversies. He founded Center for Industrial Progress (CIP), a for-profit think tank and communications consulting firm focused on energy and environmental issues, in 2011 to offer a positive, pro-human alternative to the Green movement. He is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less. He is the author of EnergyTalkingPoints.com featuring hundreds of concise, powerful, well-referenced talking points on energy, environmental, and climate issues. Follow him on Twitter @AlexEpstein.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Related articles

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest