The Vulnerable Thinker

Consider separately a friend’s reaction to the following statements:

  • “I’ve started collecting beetle specimens from local woodlands.”
  • “I’m not going to have kids.”
  • “I don’t think our government should increase taxes to help the poor.”
  • “I don’t think our government should recognize the right of gay people to marry.”
  • “I don’t think monogamy is the best relationship style for everyone.”
  • “I think religion is false and harmful. There is no good reason to believe in a god.”

The vast majority of people listening to each of these will make an immediate judgment about the speaker’s character, worldview, intentions and intellectual cohorts. Many will also take personal offense from some of these statements, despite the fact that all of them concern only the speaker’s own mind or activities. (And no, I don’t agree with all of these statements.)

We are programmed, as social and tribal creatures, to react quickly and negatively to any ideas that might jeopardize the state of our selves or our tribe. The world of ideas has big stakes and most of us are unsophisticated players, so it makes sense that any given player would be conservative in their play. Our primary focus is on retaining the assets—or what we think of as assets, but are often handicaps—that we have already accumulated. Our handicaps are often buried right alongside our assets, all as some form of bias or belief: monogamy is obviously right because I practice it and everyone else has for centuries; I shouldn’t steal because it will devalue my reputation; only unfeeling people could possibly object to government welfare; kindness will pay dividends and should be practiced whenever possible; religion is the sole source of morality.

Conservatism of the mind is an exclusionary practice. The judging listener above is missing out on intellectual exploration: maybe each of those statements sounds strange, wrong or offensive, but perhaps the speaker has unique and interesting insights that the listener would not have otherwise considered. What if the speaker doesn’t want government to help the poor because she has found a much more effective way to do so without government? What if her lack of desire for children will enable a wealth of creation and contribution to humanity that would otherwise be impossible?

The fact that most listeners would miss out on potentially great ideas or important arguments is merely sad, though; their personal loss and intellectual sclerosis is tragic in a small sense. There is a consequence of their quick judgment and closed mindedness that is much more pernicious, however. An idea extinguished or ridiculed in its infancy could—and over the limit of all new ideas, will—destroy a branch of thought that would have significantly improved the greater human condition. Ideas are precious and fragile at the point of creation, as their creator is vulnerable. Judgments and unthinking rejection of those ideas come so effortlessly, but are at the same time so incredibly destructive to new ways of thinking and to a particular thinker’s courage.

As far as we have progressed as a species over the past few millennia, it is undoubtable that we continue to extinguish potential sources of future greatness and accomplishment without a second thought. This phenomenon is tragic on a massive scale. That a species would strive for enough intelligence to find purpose beyond its mere daily survival, succeed in that endeavor, and then systematically squash new sources of intellectual progress due to its laziness and petty tribalism is deeply agonizing.

To the thinker and the speaker we can say: we admire your courage in our better moments, we appreciate your vulnerability when expressing new and sometimes unpopular views and we will continue to strive for progress through intellectual curiosity and engagement of our strange friends and their sometimes wacky ideas. We will maintain a healthy skepticism and we will always press for evidence and sound logic, but we will not dismiss you out of hand because your idea is alien or seems to threaten a worldview with which we have become lazily complacent.

May our open minds be rigorous, generous and always curious.

Originally published:
June 30, 2012

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