Open-mindedness, What is it really?

Societies have become amalgamations of miscellaneous ideas and beliefs; thanks to the multifarious advances of science, people have become more willing to discuss topics that had once been taboo. And after coming so far, the scientific community stands now before the greatest of all red-lines: religion. Religion has long vexed science with its appeals to authority and its ‘shifting of the burden of proof’, but one of the main reasons why religion is scarcely put to scientific standards is the term open-mindedness. The term open-minded has been hijacked and misused by those claiming faith. Because it has been used so loosely (and mainly as a defense for zealots to hide behind), the term has become misconstrued by many. It is imperative however, if we are to build a community based on reason, to accentuate the true definition of the word.

To clear up these misconceptions of the word, we must start by defining open-mindedness as it is colloquially intended today. The informal and widely accepted definition alludes to a combination of respect and self-suppression. According to this definition an open-minded person is one who respects all people’s beliefs and keeps his/her beliefs to her/himself (usually the latter part only applies if the person is part of the minority). Now, prima facie there is nothing wrong with this interpretation – it seems benign enough – but take a closer look and one finds that this definition is at its best a hindrance, and at its worst an utter obstruction to scientific progress.

When people are taught to respect thoughts and ideas even, and in some cases especially, without evidence this not only relegates the community to one of neanderthalic-nature but desecrates the rigorous and demanding scientific method. It grabs the high standards that people are required to put their claims up to and makes them meaningless. If we look at society today we see that because rational thought is not properly implemented censoring is often done under the guise of respect for “decorum” or “etiquette”. And while science teaches people to attempt to refute all claims and consider the possibility of fallibility even with 99% evidence to support otherwise, this attitude teaches people to respect all ideas and be quiet even when the ideas have no evidence to back them up.

Respecting all beliefs equally means that we stop valuing what is most reasonable and start valuing what is the most accepted. If a proven theory like that of evolution is put on the same level as a theory that says Elvis is still alive, and I use the term theory very loosely here, then how can science advance? If Elvis being alive were to become accepted by everyone then it would vitiate academic discussions, and evolution would end up being nothing but a suppressed “belief”. As people who know better than to believe in an unsupported idea, telling us to sit back and respect an idea like that would be absurd. It would be the same as trying to respect a member of the flat-earth cult or trying to respect the belief that murder is the path to spiritual fulfillment. Now, the refusal of a society to respect all opinions/beliefs/theories/hypotheses equally is by no means a refusal to give all of them a chance. Giving all theories/beliefs a chance is the essence of science, however as it has been noted by the late Christopher Hitchens, “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Let us take the dictionary definition of open-minded: willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced: notice, that nowhere does it say anything to do with respect. It does not even state that respect is required for the person, let alone the person’s ideas. This is an open-mindedness where all ideas are open to be expressed, all ideas are open to be weighed and all are equally open to fallibility; there are no authorities, no experts, no Orwellian big-brothers, there is only evidence and reason. A community where all ideas are open to both destructive and constructive criticism and the evidence is followed not led, a community where all ideas have equal opportunity to be weighed…a community based on reason and argumentation: that is a scientific community, and the best thing about it is that in it, “we do not respect people’s beliefs. We evaluate their reason. If my reasons are good enough for believing what I believe, you will helplessly believe what I believe. I will give you my reasons and reasons are contagious. That is what it means to be a rational human being.” – Sam Harris

-Ahmed Abdelmaksoud