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Keeping an open mind

September 12th, 2013

Thinking

Last post I looked at recent discoveries in neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to restructure itself under certain circumstances. If we focus on some particular way of thinking, our brain can restructure itself to facilitate that thinking, but make us less able to think differently. Thus it appears that both believers and non-believers may make themselves less able to retain an open mind.

Should we be concerned? And what might we do to ensure we remain open to new ideas, especially about God?

Why keep an open mind?

The answer seems pretty obvious. If we want to know the truth, we must be open to new ideas. End of story?

But it isn’t quite that simple in reality.

Evidence or intuition?

Most of us probably think keeping an open mind means considering all the evidence. But some psychologists believe most of us make decisions intuitively, and only use reason and evidence to justify our choice. I will be blogging more about this, but it complicates this question of an open mind.

Perhaps a broader definition of having an open mind is being willing to consider both different viewpoints and different ways of arriving at a valid viewpoint?

If we’re still deciding what’s true …..

If we’re still deciding what’s true about God, then it would be foolish not to begin with an open mind. To do this, we might need to:

  • examine our assumptions, to see if they are biasing our conclusions,
  • consider the various viewpoints on experience, evidence and arguments
  • check out the often-unstated assumptions of those we read and listen to, and
  • since God is generally thought to be personal, we should consider using personal approaches as well – such as asking God to show himself to us.

Once we have decided what we believe …..

GK Chesterton famously once wrote:

The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

So an open mind is only the means to an end, of knowing truth. So once we believe we know the truth, do we still need to keep an open mind?

I think so, at least to some degree.

  • We are not infallible, we could be wrong. As we continue in our view (whether this be believing in God, or not believing), our conclusion may be confirmed, and it may become less and less likely that we are wrong, but it would be arrogant to think we can be absolutely certain. After all, other thoughtful people think differently to us.
  • Even if we are totally convinced about our view, it is unlikely we’ll ever know everything there is to know about our belief or worldview, so keeping an open mind allows us to learn and grow.
  • Unless we are not interested in other people, we will probably want to understand how other people think.

Keeping an open mind

Neuroplasticity means we can easily create bad habits of thinking, so keeping an open mind will require some discipline. For example:

  • Talking mostly to like-minded people, and joking about those who think differently, gives us an in-group mentality that surely reinforces our thinking and brain processes. If we are right, this can be helpful in building confidence and learning to act on our beliefs, but if we are wrong it tends to immunise us from the truth.
  • There is an old saying about walking in another’s shoes to gain understanding. It helps to try to understand how other people see things, and why. We should learn to listen and ask questions, not just have a reflex response to certain words and ideas.
  • Sometimes writing out reasons for and against a certain choice or viewpoint, or a set of propositions that make up an argument, can help us more clearly evaluate.
  • Calling other people names or labelling them helps us dismiss what they say; insults or perjorative names tend to ‘demonise’ them, and make it even easier to disrespect them and their views. It also suggests to others that our viewpoint is not easily defensible. Open-minded people don’t generally behave that way.
  • Believing and repeating misinformation about those who think differently to us is dangerously counter-productive. It can help us feel secure in our beliefs, but makes it very difficult to understand another viewpoint.

It isn’t easy!

If we want our brains to stay open to alternative ideas and to people who think differently to us, we will need to work at it.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the comments. I was interested to see the video thanks Ken. It was saying some things similar to what I was saying – e.g. it said at the end that we need to carefully consider our assumptions, something I too think is very important. Thanks.

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