Everybody thinks it’s good to be open-minded. But we don’t often think critically about just what it means to be open-minded. We might think that being open-minded means allowing that others’ opinions might be true and that your own opinions might be false. Certainly open-mindedness involves a kind of intellectual humility, but I’m not sure this view gets it quite right. For this view has it that people who actually know what they are talking about aren’t open-minded. In fact, this view of open-mindedness is often invoked as a kind of fallacious objection to genuine expertise. For instance, evolutionary biologists are sometimes accused of not being very open-minded because they won’t grant much credence to creationism or intelligent design or because they are firmly opposed to these views being taught in science classes. More generally, the problem is this: suppose that on some matter the available evidence and good argument clearly and compellingly supports one view, and the arguments for opposing views are seriously flawed. According to our proposed view of open-mindedness, the people who have carefully thought through the available evidence and argument won’t be open-minded. They’ve reached a firm conclusion and rejected opposing views, and this is all it takes to have a closed mind on the account we gave above. But these are the experts, the people who most know what they are talking about. If they aren’t open-minded, then perhaps open-mindedness isn’t such a great thing. Or perhaps we’ve been considering a mistaken view of open-mindedness.
If open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue, a quality that directs us towards knowledge, then we need a way to understand what open-mindedness is that doesn’t make people who know close-minded. Here’s a suggestion. Open-mindedness isn’t really about beliefs; it’s about our reasons for holding them. The open-minded person is the person who is open to clarifying and evaluating arguments and evidence. When these clearly favor a particular view, then firm belief in that view is well justified. The open-minded person doesn’t shut the door to new argument on the matter. But firm belief is justified to the degree that it is supported by fair evaluation of the reasons and evidence and remains so unless there are good ground to reassess the reasons and arguments. The close-minded person is the person who won’t consider and fairly address opposing argument.
So the person who understands the strength of the scientific case for evolution by natural selection and who has also considered the arguments for creationism or intelligent design and found the flaws in these is justified in firmly holding evolution by natural selection to be true and in rejecting opposing theories as not credible. Doing so is not opposed to being open-minded. The difference between being open-minded and close-minded isn’t a question of how firmly belief is held or how decisively opposing views are rejected. It has to do with how belief is held. The open-minded person’s belief is supported through a commitment to critical thinking. The close-minded person’s belief is a matter of dogmatic conviction where reason only enters for the purpose of rationalizing foregone conclusions.
Thinking of open-mindedness in terms of being open to reason looks much better. There is a practical downside, I suppose. Being open-minded requires critical thinking. So, it might not be as easy as we’d like to think.
November 4, 2013