A Closed Mind
When is a Closed Mind Appropriate?
It’s hard to describe things in absolutes like “never.” Should we ever have a closed mind? Yeah, of course – I have a closed mind about my wife. She is the only one for me, and I would never consider another nor compare her to another. I see no problem with this.
But I think we’re talking here more about things like beliefs and values. And on that, I think that there is some relevance to my above point. Sometimes, when we’re talking about a belief that is unprovable or an opinion, it might be most helpful to make a commitment and stick to it. Our culture is not good at commitment in general, and some things are better committed to. I believe that nobody is beyond hope, and that’s a commitment that is worth sticking to. I also believe that Bud Light is a terrible beer, and I’m sticking to it.
What about other beliefs? I believe that we normalize things that are so core to us, and so proven to us, that they become part of who we are. We have a closed mind regarding them. My Christianity is so core to my identity, and to me so highly proven, that it’s become part of who I am. I can’t imagine what kind of evidence would ever, for me, disprove my Christian belief. And again, I think there’s an intrinsic value in the kind of commitment that leads to that closed mind. Without it, we can be wishy-washy. If a person has a wide open mind about their most core beliefs, they must not be all that important to them after all.
I believe that we all have things that we have closed minds about. We all have some sort of authority that we assent to, whether it’s a religious book, human reason, or scientific evidence. These authorities, by definition, create a closed mind. A scientist is closed to anything that ignores the evidence. A humanist is closed to anything that is irrational. A religious person is closed to anything that contradicts the religious book. I’m not ready to say that this is wrong, only that we need to be careful about how many things we let into this category.
There are, of course, many things that we need to have open minds about. A new experience, a new acquaintance, or a family member. We ought to have an open mind about our current situations. I like my job and my home, but I ought to have an open mind that I could also like a different job and a different home. We also ought to have an open mind about many of our beliefs. I believe that supply-side economics increases economic inequality, but I am willing to be proven wrong. I focused most of my post on things about which I think it’s good to have a closed mind. Don’t read that to mean that we ought to have a closed mind about most things. In fact, I think we ought to have an open mind about most things.
Response from Aurelius
We approached this question differently, which is great. In matters that are unprovable, we cannot use the scientific method and there is therefore merit in sticking to what we believe to be true, our opinion. I also think there is merit in remaining agnostic depending on the matter. I can’t prove there is no God, but I see no reason to commit to him not existing or commit to him existing. That is, there’s no evidence or experience to compel me to believe, and on the contrary the current ideas of God do not match anything I find to be true. Others feel the exact opposite and that’s ok. If an idea of God were to arise that were supported in my viewpoint, I could be swayed. In that way, I haven’t committed to atheism. When it comes to my wife, I’m committed. I am not open to other possibilities unless a rare situation developed such as unfaithfulness, abuse, or neglect. I’ve heard older couples say that what got them through so many decades together was not primarily enduring love but unwavering commitment.
I like your approach here, and it brings up the subject of values. We should not easily, or perhaps ever, waver in our values. I will always uphold some core values I’ve taken to heart: honesty, reason, love, commitment, education, justice, compassion, and persistence. My mind is closed to violating these values. Other values of mine tend to fluctuate in importance based on life stages, such as ambition, loyalty, obedience, punctuality, boldness, and self-reliance.
Whenever possible I like to approach matters scientifically. From that perspective, closed minds are detrimental. They hinder progress by introducing biases that skew the truth. For instance, if I have nothing indicating to me how our world came to be, I could use the best science of our day to arrive at a universe 13.8 billion years old, expanding, and begun with a Big Bang. Countless findings support these conclusions. It doesn’t mean these are irrefutable, but they are heavily supported and extremely likely. On the other hand, if I have a closed approach to answering this question by adhering to 2000+ year-old religious writings, I could arrive at a 6000-year old Earth created the same calendar week as the universe. This is inconsistent with what science shows, so science must be wrong in this case, causing distrust of corroborated science and hindering further discovery because we already know the answer. A closed mind is harmful to science
Ibn al-Haytham created the scientific method in the 11th century during the Golden Age of Islam. He was interested in finding truth, inviting scholars and obtaining texts from all over the world. In this pursuit he developed and taught the principle to not trust ancient writings at face value but instead to question and critically examine the writings from many perspectives. Submit only to arguments and experiments that hold water, not to oration or unverifiable texts. Further, suspect and question your own ideas to avoid prejudice and careless thought. Truth will then follow (see Cosmos S1E5 for a brief history of al-Haytham’s scientific achievements). In other words, question what you and others take for granted and perform experiments and critical analyses to reveal the truth.
After repeated evidence supports a hypothesis it becomes a scientific theory. At this point it is reasonable to more or less close your mind to the other options, but even trusting in the scientific method can backfire. The cause of peptic ulcer disease (PUD) was up in the air until the 1950s when a single study found that bacteria was not present in biopsies of the stomach, leaving the hyperacidity theory as the only remaining cause. Two Australian scientists kept an open mind, and decades later postulated that PUD might be caused by the bacterium H. pylori since antibiotics seemed to consistently treat PUD patients. Their findings were repeatedly rejected until Marshall, one of the scientists, dangerously consumed the bacteria in a dramatic effort to show that antibiotics cure the symptoms. They received funding, published their findings, and 20 years later were awarded a Nobel Prize. The closed mindedness of this area after the 1950s study delayed this discovery and subsequent treatment of the disease.
Closed minds are generally bad for science, so, how do we keep an open mind?
Derren Brown, a British illusionist and psychological manipulator, states, “Being open minded doesn’t just mean believing everything because you’d like it to be true. Being truly open minded means being prepared to change your beliefs based on the evidence or the lack of evidence.”
Response from Antipas
Great thoughts, Aurelius. Your researched approach is admirable and I really appreciate your example of PUD. I agree that a closed mind seems to be bad in general for science. We tend to close our minds once we accept something as proven. The key question, however, is what do we accept as proof? Even science is getting divided in recent years because of the question of what is accepted as proof. There is a growing body of “pseudo-science”, such as anti-vaccinators, organic and non-GMO proponents, essential oil vendors, and so forth, who are changing the scene quite a bit. I’m no expert on any of these debates, but in them you have people who are mingling science with other values and ideas and coming up with answers that are being hotly debated. Even if science totally disproves that there is any health benefit to eating organic foods, will Whole Foods go out of business? Nope. What we accept as proof is the key question.
I think that we are converged on the matter of values and commitment. I, however, have different values. Whereas you accept the scientific method and evidence as proof, and that is one of your highest values, I value something higher than both. That leads me to have a different worldview and different things I will accept as proof, because I have different aims – rather than knowledge, sometimes my aim is spirituality or theology.