Limitations of Open Mindedness 

We all should be open-minded. When we allow the possibility that we don’t have the answers, that better answers exist, that our information may be incomplete or incorrect, or that others bring new and valuable perspectives, then we can change our minds and make better decisions.

When I was a younger man (like from the time I was an undergraduate student until I was a PhD in my mid-40’s), I was adamant with my open-mindedness. If we look at religious sensibilities, I identified as an agnostic. I reasoned, we can never really know the answer to this question, so the responsible thing to do was admit we cannot know. I followed similar reason in other areas. I wanted to avoid drawing conclusions as I might appear to not be open-minded.

I have come to see some open-mindedness or agnosticism (towards religion or any other question) as a weak intellectual position, however. Not all open-mindedness mind you, but some open-mindedness. Let me explain: 

First, open-mindedness is always good. Whenever it appears that your position is wrong or incomplete, then you have an intellectual responsibility to investigate it and change your mind if evidence and logic support it.  

Second, if you are an expert, then you have the intellectual responsibility to reject “evidence” or arguments that have been rejected previously. (It is difficult to define, expertise, but recognizing quackery is a good predictor.) Basically, if you see weak evidence, you have no obligation to take it seriously. I am coming to the conclusion this arises from one’s mortality. I don’t want to contemplate bad ideas and I don’t want to promogulate them, so I have a responsibility to reject bad ideas and to tell folks why I am rejecting them.  

Third, the number of fields in which any individual can claim enough expertise to reject bad ideas is limited. Very limited. To be a true expert, one must also be able to accurately self-assess the limits and boundaries of your expertise. 

In this post, I mentioned my own position as an agnostic, and this does serve as an example of how the model I propose here as influenced my own thinking. For a long time, I did identify as an agnostic. One of the main reasons I did was my belief that religion and science are non-overlapping magesteria (in Stephen Jay Gould’s terminology) or at leas that they are different cultures (to use C. P. Snow’s terminology). As I read more and though more, I realized I finally have enough evidence to conclude there is no supernatural forces affecting events in our universe.

Folks have asked me about how the knowledge of indigenous people can be reconciled with my position. I do believe this knowledge is vast and unexplored from a Western perspective. We do have a responsibility to understand that knowledge of the the natural world and preserve it. As an empiricist (I believe we must be able to document and observe reality) and a uniformitarian (I believe the events we see now are the same events we would have seen millions or billions of years ago–biological systems excepted), I believe we can learn from indigenous people with out accepting the literal truth of their myths.