Be open-minded, not empty-minded

by Chaitanya CharanSeptember 7, 2017

“Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

– G K Chesterton



Contemporary ethos exhorts us to be open-minded and excoriates the follies and perils of close-mindedness. Given that many people with narrow-minded, black-and-white view of things are intolerant and even violent, we do need reminders to be open-minded.

And yet overemphasizing the danger of one extreme can push us to the other extreme, whose dangers we overlook because of our paranoia about the other extreme. That’s why we need to remember the dangers not just of narrow-mindedness but also of extreme open-mindedness. We need to guard against being so open-minded that our brains fall out, of becoming utterly uncritical in evaluating things, of sentimentally assuming to be subjective things that have an objective reality, especially when such a wrong assessment can have objective harmful consequences.

For example, when doctors diagnose a patient, they need to be open-minded about what the patient might be suffering from. If they go in with a preconceived notion that the patient is a hypochondriac or that the patient, having come from a drug user’s social stratum, must be suffering from a drug-induced complication, that bias can skew their objectivity.

And yet, doctors can’t diagnose with an entirely empty mind. If they refuse to use the knowledge they have acquired during their medical education and experience, equating such knowledge with close-mindedness, they can’t assess the symptoms and the implication of those symptoms. A doctor who stays inconclusive about the diagnosis can’t help the patient. Worse still are the doctors who consider such inconclusiveness a virtue. Similar are those extreme relativists who claim subjectivity to be the ultimate virtue in the pursuit of knowledge.

To better understand this, let’s analyze the mouth metaphor used in this quote. If we are to be nourished, we need to open our mouth to take in food. And taking in food requires not just opening the mouth at the right time, but also closing it at the right time. Otherwise, if our mouth stays open, the food can’t nourish us just as it couldn’t have nourished us if our mouth were closed.

Similarly, our mind needs to stay open to take in the world, to receive the information coming in through our sensory channels. If we don’t objectively take in the sensory information, that is, if we don’t hear what others are saying as they are saying it, then we will simply read our own biases into their statements. While striving for objectivity, we need to simultaneously strive for comprehension. We need to arrive at some tangible understanding of the situation – our mind needs to wrap itself around the information taken in and process it properly using our God-given intelligence. Just as opening our mind to receive information is critical for comprehension, so too is closing the mind around that information in the sense of processing that information.

Overemphasis on open-mindedness leads ultimately to extreme relativism, wherein everything is considered subjective and nothing objective. But then, even relativism makes the absolute, non-subjective claim that everything is relative. By spotlighting this self-contradictory presumption lying at the foundation of relativism, its fallaciousness can be exposed.

Unfortunately, such relativism is used nowadays to denigrate or even deny the presence of any big picture – a holistic worldview that provides answers to life’s big questions. Challenging the hegemony of relativism is essential to prevent open-mindedness from degenerating into a free fall to empty-mindedness. We can most effectively challenge relativism’s absolutism by opening ourselves to time-honored sources of wisdom that offer objective parameters and processes for determining the nature of reality.

By using our intelligence to navigate the balance between bigotry caused by unthinking close-mindedness and vacuity caused by unthinking open-mindedness, we can arrive at a thoughtful understanding of reality. Then, we will be equipped with the humility to stay open to better understanding while also having the confidence to function effectively with our present understanding.

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Chaitanya Charan

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