A few weeks ago I was considering going to a dinner party called “Conscious Collective Gatherings: Non-Denominational Conversation”. It sounded pretty new age hippie-esque, which is totally not me, but I figured “hey, I might meet a few people there that are intellectually curious and not necessarily the left-wing equivalents of young earth creationists”.
Since the organizers didn’t know me – I knew one of the people they knew – one of the organizers wanted to chat with me first before formally inviting me. Perfectly sensible as it is at their house. So, in our Facebook chat conversation, she asked me why I was interested in attending. I responded something to the effect that I am very interested in philosophy, values, and mindfulness and such and I’d be interested in meeting others who may be similarly interested. What happened next was somewhat interesting. She told me that the people who would be attending would mostly be a bunch of “young namaste hippies”, and that as long as I can “keep an open mind” everything is good. I assume that she must have been tipped off to my strong orientation toward scientific rationalism by cues peppered throughout my Facebook profile, because I’m pretty sure that I didn’t say anything that would suggest that I’m a member of the Richard Dawkins fan club (I am, by the way).
I am quite confident that the person who wanted to make sure that I could keep an open mind wasn’t actually concerned about my openmindedness. Rather, she was concerned that I may stir the pot. Rock the boat. Challenge cherished beliefs of other attendees who just want to “go with the flow”, “connect with their spirit-soul”, and other such laid back ethereal activities. And really, I’m still somewhat new in town and I’d like to make some new friends, so I definitely wasn’t planning on attending with both rationalist barrels loaded. I figured there’d be a strong new age contingency at this event, and was ready to engage a good amount of tongue-biting in the hopes that maybe if I manage to go a sufficient length of time without alienating myself, perhaps I’d meet some other intellectually curious, not so dyed-in-the-wool-new-age people. After having this conversation, though, I’m no longer particularly interested in going. Holding your tongue out of “politeness” is one thing. But holding it because you’ve been told to be “openminded” is another. Plus, it sounds like I may have over-estimated the likelihood of meeting other intellectually curious rationalists…
This exchange brought to mind something that I have long felt passionate about: the true meaning of openmindedness.
What is an Open Mind?
An open mind is willing to look at and honestly assess the evidence for and against a claim. After thoughtful deliberation, an open mind is willing to follow the evidence where it leads. An open mind doesn’t pick its conclusion in advance or insist upon a particular conclusion. If it already has a belief, it is willing to admit to error. And while not every venue is the ideal venue for an ideological debate, an open mind wouldn’t view a dinner event entitled “Global Consciousness Gathering: Non-Denominational Conversation” as an uncouth place to question this or that new age mystical belief.
What an Open Mind is NOT
Obviously, it is not openminded to be unwilling to consider a particular belief. To shut your eyes and ears to that belief. But here’s another thing that an open mind is NOT: An open mind is not one that accepts or respects anything so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. An open mind is not a mind without standards. An open mind is not a mind that is unwilling to say “this idea is nonsense”. A mind that treats all beliefs as being equal and respectable is, at best, shallow, unthoughtful and/or unwilling to risk ruffling a few feathers. And is this really respecting our peers? To treat them with intellectual kid gloves? Is this what is best for society, to refrain from collaborating toward intellectual progress?
Just as it is closed-minded to be unwilling to consider an idea, it is equally closed minded to be unwilling to reject an idea.
Openmindedness, to me at least, is about openness to evidence and to reconsidering one’s beliefs. It’s not about nodding agreeably to every space-ball belief you are presented with. One can argue that it is sometimes more socially expedient to feign respect for a belief that you think is silly, but it is surely not an act of open mindedness.