5 Challenges of Freethought

Keeping an open mind may be one of the hardest things a human being can do. Our brains are wired to categorize and seek out patterns. As social animals, we learn from our peers and are more comfortable around people who share similar points of view. Our senses are less reliable than we realize, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, our deepest held beliefs are often solidified through confirmation bias and the backfire effect.

Yet many, if not most, people consider themselves to be "open-minded." So let's start by pinning this down and—for the purposes of this post—discussing open-mindedness in the way it applies to freethinkers.

Freethought requires a search for truth and knowledge that goes beyond dogma or conventional wisdom. It is typically based in science and logic, valuing facts that can be proven through evidence and independent testing.

Being a freethinker is hard, particularly when living in a society where religion and spirituality (which rely on dogma or faith without evidence) is the norm. Here are some of the most common challenges I've run into, particularly when considering or discussing hot-button topics like politics, religion, science, or health (vaccines, diet, etc.).

1. Education takes time

The Internet has made education more accessible, but first you have to sift through the misinformation. And separating fact from fiction can be a difficult undertaking.

For example, if you want to know what a scientific study or a proposed law says, you may have to read the actual document instead of relying on a press release. That's easier said than done when the document is written in specialized language or relies on unfamiliar references.

In lieu of pursuing multiple degrees, you often have to rely on experts—but that means finding appropriate authorities on a given subject and holding their explanations in higher regard than the opinions of your best friend or your really smart cousin or that oh-so-dreamy favorite celebrity.

At a minimum, choosing the appropriate authorities requires vetting their credentials, checking their facts against multiple sources, and keeping an eye out for any updated corrections that may come out at a later date. All of that takes time, which is often in short supply.

2. Logic can be slippery

Even the most logical, skeptical, Vulcan-like freethinker can fall into logical fallacies, particularly during a heated debate. That's largely because logic is not necessarily intuitive. Critical thinking requires education and practice. Becoming familiar with common fallacies can make it easier to spot errors in reasoning, but you can still stumble.

One of the most common problems I come across in arguments is simply keeping the focus on one point at a time. Heated discussions often feel like boxing matches, full of bobbing and weaving as new arguments are tossed into the ring before the previous one has been fully discussed. Even trying to agree on the definitions of terms in a debate can be enough to send the conversation dancing in circles.

Once multiple arguments get into the mix, it's entirely too easy to lose track of the logic and start seeing false equivalencies or correlations that aren't really sound—in both your opponent's points and in your own.

3. Being decisive is hard, sometimes

As in science, freethinking requires constant reassessment against new information. Having an open mind means that you are willing to change your point of view. The trouble comes with deciding when you have enough valid information to change your stance on a given issue.

Because I question everything, I question my own assessment of everything. When I'm presented with a new idea, my instinct is to try it on and weigh it against my current point of view. I don't want to reject anything out of hand, which leads to entertaining some odd ideas from time to time.

This constant assessing and reassessing leads to frequent decision fatigue. Just as I have to work at recognizing and avoiding confirmation bias, I also have to work hard at recognizing which decisions deserve deep contemplation (e.g. choosing a political candidate, accepting a new job) and which can be made more easily (e.g. buying a lamp, planning what to wear).

4. Confrontation is scary

I like having my outlook challenged; I like being presented with an opposing point of view. Weighing various outcomes and scenarios ultimately makes me feel more secure in my convictions. However, the process of having an idea confronted can be uncomfortable, or even scary, especially when it involves a core belief. Questioning deeply held views is unsettling because it often puts other dependent ideas on trial as well.

It makes me question past decisions or behaviors as well, and—if the confrontation leads to a change in my outlook—it may bring up feelings of regret or embarrassment about things I thought or did in the past. No one likes regret or embarrassment.

Confrontation can also be scary when it comes in the form of an accusation or attack. This usually happens when the person that I am talking with makes assumptions or judgments about my thoughts or beliefs. It feels bad to be attacked, and it feels worse when my own brain has been conditioned to resist its instinctual defenses and look for any truth in the attack.

At times, having an open-mind feels like there is no one on "my side."

5. Emotion trumps logic

No matter how great a value I put on logic and critical thinking, it will never win out over the emotional beliefs held by many people. Beyond religion, people often hold irrational beliefs when it comes to superstitions, medical treatments (old wives' tales), politics, etc. They don't want to have a logical debate because they ultimately believe that the answer is a matter of faith or instinct.

That can be fine when it comes to opinions or behaviors that only affect themselves, but it's a concern when those beliefs are used to push for laws that affect the way the rest of us live our lives. It's also frustrating to talk to someone who equates science with faith, or who thinks that their own intuition or observation is just as reliable as empirical evidence.

While I try to strike a balance between my emotional and rational cognition, emotions often color the way I think—just as they do for anyone else. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as a visceral response to stimuli often occurs faster than the mind can rationalize what's happening, but it's important to recognize when (and why) that is happening, and that can be a real challenge.

Keeping an open mind, and approaching life as a freethinker, isn't easy. There's no set of dogmatic rules to guide the way. Instead, morality comes from principles and your general outlook may change with each new experience. Yet the challenges are worth the effort, as they let you develop an ever-evolving understanding of the world around you.



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