What helps us accurately determine whether our beliefs are true or not? Many philosophers who study the nature of human knowledge and belief—epistemology—think open-mindedness is crucial to this (though they think other so-called intellectual virtues—such as humility, thoroughness and courage—are important too). In general, they claim, the more open-minded people tend to be, the better they are at seeing the world as it really is.
Philosophers try to give concepts like open-mindedness—that is, concepts that are intuitively meaningful but difficult to define—more precise definitions in order to understand them better. How do they approach this task? Take “morality,” for example. People tend to have widely divergent ideas about whether particular acts are moral or immoral, but they almost universally agree that some actions are more moral than others. So, one way to get clearer about how people’s moral intuitions work is to present them with two different hypothetical actions and ask them which they see as more moral. Some comparisons will elicit an almost universal consensus (for example, almost everyone will say that it is more moral to save a drowning child than to torture animals for fun), and others will not elicit consensus (for example, people may differ on whether it is more moral to save two drowning children than five drowning adults). The comparisons that most people agree on can help us identify what must be included in the definition of a particular concept, like morality, while the comparisons that people tend to differ on can help us to refine the definition.
When Might We Need Open-Mindedness?
A similar approach can be used to refine the definition of open-mindedness. In general, people tend to agree that open-mindedness is valuable when making judgments about how things should be (for example, whether the government’s policy on a certain issue should be changed), and also in making judgments about whether something has aesthetic value—that is, whether one should appreciate the skill that went into creating a particular work of art, regardless of whether it is to one’s taste or not.
People also seem to consider open-mindedness important when the emotional stakes are high, which raises the likelihood that people’s judgments will be biased. For example, a political activist who identifies strongly with certain views could have a hard time being open-minded towards evidence that her views are naive or misguided, because realizing this would be painful. Or let’s say a father feels good because he thinks his daughter is the best dancer in her class: he may ignore evidence to the contrary because it would make him feel bad. As a result, when she loses her balance, he may be quick to blame her shoes; when she struggles while learning a new technique, he may be quick to blame her teacher’s instructions. Being open-minded in such situations can require biting some bullets—it may require humility and courage, among other virtues.
Another obstacle to open-mindedness is our natural tendency to make many of our decisions based on heuristics and other mental shortcuts, simply for efficiency’s sake. This is a mostly useful evolutionary adaptation, but it can sometimes hinder us from seeing things clearly as they are—not because of some emotional pull, but because of the pull of cognitive expediency. Of course, being misguided by heuristics doesn’t always indicate closed-mindedness: for example, if I can usually find my keys quickly because I’ve made a habit of leaving them on my bedside table, but if, on one occasion, I happen to leave them somewhere else, and I’m left rummaging hurriedly through bags and pockets, I wouldn’t attribute this to closed-mindedness.
But relying on heuristics can, seemingly, cause closed-mindedness in some circumstances. The philosopher Jason Baehr, in The Inquiring Mind, asks us to imagine a perfectly impartial judge presiding at a trial. He says that it seems reasonable to ask her to maintain a certain amount of cognitive openness. As she hears the evidence mount in favour of a guilty verdict, she may become increasingly convinced that the defendant is guilty, and thus fail to pick up on subtle evidence to the contrary presented later in the trial. Our brains are pattern-finding machines and tend to favour beliefs that fit well-established patterns. So, if we can remain open to conclusions that don’t fit those patterns, this raises our chances of acquiring accurate beliefs.
Baehr also suggests that understanding Einstein’s theory of relativity may require open-mindedness: the willingness to think in ways that are deeply counterintuitive, to loosen our preconceived ideas about how the world works and open our minds to new ways of seeing reality.
As these examples show, open-mindedness requires us to resist a conclusion that is unreasonable and yet compelling—because it is privileged in some way. A privileged conclusion is any belief that it is relatively easy to have—whether because it suits us emotionally or because it takes less cognitive effort, or because it fits in with a pattern that is familiar to us. And this suggests that open-mindedness might be defined as the capacity to reject a privileged conclusion in favour of a more reasonable one.
Many things can hinder our ability to resist the pull of a privileged conclusion, some of which are beyond our control. For example, we wouldn’t want to call a four-year-old, or an intellectually disabled adult closed-minded because they are unable to resist the pull of a privileged conclusion. We might give similar leeway to someone who grew up in a cult. On the other hand, if they joined the cult willingly at age 35, we might be tempted to call them closed-minded. And yet, if that suggests they are somehow to blame for the inaccuracy of their worldview, perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps we should not call people closed-minded when their level of education or access to information affects how well their beliefs accord with reality—but rather call them unlucky: victims of circumstances that make it harder for them to acquire accurate beliefs.
How Can We Be More Open-Minded?
Of course, if, ultimately, everyone’s thought processes are governed by a combination of genes and experiences, on some level we are all victims of our circumstances. But we are nevertheless capable of learning to be more open-minded—that is, we can learn to be sceptical of our privileged conclusions and consider whether reason and evidence dictate a different conclusion.
In considering how open-mindedness can be learned, I find the concept of intellectual virtues helpful. It’s not enough to be good at solving intellectual problems and thinking logically. One must also have a degree of humility, and a degree of courage—and be motivated to find the truth. No matter how much brainpower a person has, she is unlikely to be open-minded if she is primarily concerned with appeasing those around her, showing off or avoiding the pain of admitting a mistake—or if she simply doesn’t care about truth and knowledge.
The more a person cares about truth, the more she will be motivated to work past a privileged conclusion—indeed the fewer and weaker her privileged conclusions are likely to be in the first place. This suggests that any attempt to become more open-minded should begin with a reflection on why you want to know what the truth is—what it is worth to you.
That said, skill and cognitive processing power are also important. If we take Einstein as an exemplar of open-mindedness, at least when it comes to thinking about the structure of the universe, then being open-minded can require creative and lateral thinking that enables us to expand our minds and develop new ways of thinking. This comes more naturally to some than others, but those who are motivated can improve those skills, through practice and self-awareness.
As the philosopher Robert Audi has suggested, it’s not enough to respond to new information in an open-minded way: we must also actively pursue new information and look for ways to test the truth of our beliefs.
To that end, it can help us, as individuals, to become familiar with the way we think. This can help us recognise the patterns or tendencies of thought that indicate that we are defaulting to our privileged conclusions. For example, you may come to realise that you find it especially difficult to reason impartially about particular topics, or when particular emotions are triggered—or that you are especially quick to deploy mental shortcuts in certain situations. This process of identifying and improving how you tend to form beliefs is what we might call metacognitive maintenance.
This will come more naturally to some than to others, because of inherited differences in our tendency to think flexibly, and in other traits such as humility, courage and how much we care about finding out what’s true. But the important thing to recognise is that open-mindedness is a skill: it can be learned and strengthened through practice.
Decisiveness with an Open Mind
Open-mindedness need not paralyse. It is possible to remain open-minded while having strong beliefs and acting in accordance with them. This is, of course, necessary for normal human functioning. I need to believe that the shops will be open before I set off to buy groceries. I need to believe that my girlfriend will want to spend time with me next weekend before I make plans for us. And I need to believe that one political party is more likely than the others to make the world a better place before I cast what I hope will be a morally wise vote.
There is no practical conflict between holding beliefs and remaining open-minded. Every field of inquiry—such as philosophy, science, politics, maths, psychology, love or art—is unfathomably complex, and yet there seem to be right and wrong answers to many questions—whether or not we can know what they are.
This should inspire in us both humility about the limits of our knowledge, and a staunch commitment to acquiring knowledge through reason. We need, not so much a set of convictions about what is, but a set of convictions about what seems to be. It seems to be true that the shops are open, that my girlfriend wants to spend time with me and that a particular political party will make the world a better place—and that level of conviction is good enough to enable me to feel comfortable setting off to buy groceries, booking movie tickets for next weekend and casting a vote in an election.
All the while, hopefully, one nurtures within oneself the intellectual virtues that one will need to be able to accept a contrary—and perhaps more difficult—conclusion should reason one day illuminate it.