How to think freely

by George Hatjoullis

Freethinking is really a simple idea. It requires only that you accept that whatever you believe to be true may not be and yet still manage to continue on the assumption that it is true. It is a simple idea but quite difficult to practice. Human beings like certainty and proceed as if it is available to them. Human beings like to be in control and proceed as if they are in control. In practice nothing is certain and rarely do we have much,let alone complete, control. Much of human culture has emerged from these psychological needs for certainty and control.

The origin of beliefs is the authoritative voice within society. Individual citizens cannot check everything for themselves. They rely on such voices to guide their beliefs. Society is very dependent on these voices and very vulnerable to abuse by such voices. If they choose to tell people what makes them feel good about themselves, rather than make any attempt at objective truth, they can manipulate society for their own ends. People have a great need to feel good about themselves so this is a powerful tool in the box for authoritative voices.

The function of free thinking is to stop such manipulation. It is to recognise when one is hearing what one wants to hear and not what is in any sense objectively verifiable. It is to recognise that what once was believed may now be in question and to think beyond. Only then can individuals in society remain free and still be part of the society. It is also clear what free thinking is not.

It is not replacing one set of fixed truths for another and not recognising this is what you have done. It is not about violently rejecting as heretical anything you have decided is not true. Keeping an open mind and seeing what others are thinking, feeling, and trying to communicate is vital. You can still keep your own view but an appreciation of others enables development of what is always a local fixed point, a temporary truth. Free thinking is acceptance that all truth is temporary  and still believing for that moment.

It is also incumbent on writers (of even meaningless blogs) and speakers to think carefully not just about what they intend to communicate but also what they have communicated. Each reader may take something quite different from the same text. Debate is vital to iterate towards a common understanding, if not agreement. Debate however requires free thinking and it is dangerous to debate with non-free thinkers (especially if they do not realise they are not free thinkers and believe themselves to be so). Sometimes it is best to say nothing.