Excerpted from Chapter 3 of my forthcoming.
Independent thinking is you, your car, and an auto-mechanic you don’t really know.
Independent thinking is you taking your car in for a biannual tune-up, strictly routine. After handing the auto-mechanic your car keys and then waiting in the lobby for approximately five minutes, this same mechanic comes into the lobby and says to you:
“Your oil is pretty dirty and it’s also getting low. I recommend an oil-change, which I can and will do right now for $25.00. It will take me about ten minutes.”
In order to perhaps see better by analogy of what stuff independent thinking consists, observe yourself sincerely in this scenario. Consider what you personally would be thinking in that situation. Not everybody would process this information the same, of course, and that’s part of the point. Not everybody would think about things in the same way. And the primary things that determines the differences, as well as the similarities, is each individual context of knowledge and each value structure contained within each individual person.
To think means to deliberate ahead of time upon future action, and to reflect afterward upon past action.
So: you may or may not check the dipstick yourself — to observe the oil-level firsthand and to see how dirty it looks to you, depending, perhaps, on how much you know about cars and dipsticks and oil-levels and the look of new oil versus old oil, and depending also on how much you care about your time and a “measly” — or precious — $25.00.
Or perhaps you’ve already deliberated over this particular thing, before you even got here, because you already assumed you needed an oil-change, based strictly upon the amount time that’s passed since your last oil change. Perhaps you even have a soft little sticker on the top-left inside of your windshield telling you when you need an oil change, and perhaps you’ve been paying close attention to that little sticker.
Or perhaps you’ve noticed that the exhaust coming out of your tailpipe is whiter in color than it used to be. Or perhaps you think of a specific thing that your mother or father (or your brother or sister or your roommate or your boyfriend or your girlfriend) said to you about your car and your oil. Or perhaps you think of something else entirely which doesn’t even occur to me here.
This is only meant to analogize, of course, to concretize the nature and reality of independent thinking and how it operates for all individual human beings. The issue, I realize now more than ever in thinking about it for this book, is more complex than some people would have it – yet, at the same time, it’s not as intractable as others make it out to be.
Independent thinking is not necessarily synonymous with original thinking, nor is it necessarily synonymous with contrary thinking, nor is it a question of brilliance or intelligence-quotient (so-called). It is also a fact that we all rely on people with specialized knowledge – everyday – and we all take plenty of people at their words, without questioning every single piece of every single thing that comes our way, moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, year-in-year-out. And yet there’s a crucial principle underlying the whole issue about independent thought, which principle can perhaps be more clearly seen in this car-and-auto-mechanic analogy — a principle that I believe gets overlooked: that principle is the principle of the individual brain processing information, or not, depending largely upon one’s context and the closely related value hierarchy (by which I mean: what each individual person regards as important).
I emphasizing the word processing in order to also emphasize and reiterate the fact that we’re not necessarily talking about acts of original thinking or brilliance. That’s not a requirement of independent thinking, as people sometimes suppose. The independent thinker is simply the person who assumes responsibility for the ultimate content of her or his own mind, and who does so by independently processing information. It is entirely possible and even likely for someone who is a genuinely thoughtful and independent thinking person to nonetheless take you at your word if you tell her, for instance, that Lady Gaga has a new song out — because perhaps she doesn’t care about Lady Gaga one way or the other.
So. After considering how you’d think about and how you’d process the information the auto-mechanic gives you about an oil-change, imagine that, for whatever personal reasons, you tell the mechanic to proceed with the oil change.
“You need an air-filter change,” the mechanic then says to you, halfway through the oil-change. “This will cost you another $25.00. But I have in the shop here the exact kind of air-filter your car requires, and it won’t take me but sixty seconds to remove the old one and install the new one.”
The mechanic then shows you your old air-filter, which perhaps you take a moment to look at and observe.
You may or may not know how dirty the air-filter actually is, depending upon your past experiences and your context of knowledge concerning air-filters – specifically, I mean, in whether you have a gauge or standard of measurement by which to determine if an air-filter is very dirty, versus moderately dirty, versus barely dirty, versus clean. And so what do you do?
You may or may not call a friend or a family member, or you may or may not ask the mechanic questions, or you may or may not do a quick search on your phone – perhaps to watch a video on when to change your air-filter, or to pull up an image of what a dirty air-filter actually looks like.
Or perhaps you don’t bother with any of that at all, and you just barely process what the mechanic said to you and you tell him to go ahead with the air-filter change — or perhaps you decided upon the very opposite of that: you barely think about what the mechanic said, barely pay attention to your air-filter when the mechanic shows it to you, and yet, even so, you tell the mechanic not to change it, because no matter how dirty it may or may not actually be, you simply don’t regard it as important.
Or if you do nothing at all – not even glance at the air filter when the mechanic attempts to show it to you – but then nod in acquiescence and tell the mechanic to change it and charge you for it, observe what you’re doing in that instance:
You’re taking the auto-mechanic on faith.
Now imagine, in the context of independent thinking, many, many more things are presented to you by this mechanic: you might want to consider your transmission fluid, this mechanic says, and your power-steering fluid, brake fluid, anti-freeze. Then imagine the mechanic bringing up other issues – things which are even more serious: Your muffler is about to fall off. Your battery is nearly dead. Your spark plugs are shot. Your fuel pump is going. Your transmission seems as though it might be about to die. Your electrical system is full of bad wiring. Your engine even sounds off and may need to be rebuilt. And so on.
Consider your personal reaction to all these hypothetical things, how you’d think about them, how you’d address them, one way or another — specifically, how much independent thought you’d put into each of them, and what does independent thought mean in this context? And what, furthermore, determines how much independent thought you’re willing to give it? Your interest level, perhaps? And what determines that?
Use this same sort of analogy but with your physical health: a doctor at your annual health check-up telling you one thing after another which needs looking into. Consider how with your physical well-being you’re almost certainly more motivated to deliberate in your own mind and then decide for yourself how much you’ll investigate any, all, some, or none of it. And then once you’ve decided, how do you investigate? How do you check and re-check? What determines which issues you’ll investigate more critically and with greater scrutiny?
If, heaven forbid, your condition is diagnosed as an urgent stage-three condition, which left untreated could kill you, would you go for a second or even third opinion? Would you research it and learn as much as you possibly could? Would you choose a naturopathic practitioner for something like this, or would you choose, for instance, a world-class oncologist? Those questions are not put forth snidely or judgmentally but sincerely.
In any case, such a condition would surely, by the vast majority of people, be investigated with greater depth and urgency than a condition diagnosed as “probably nothing.”
Now transfer this same basic process into the realm of politico-economic claims.
Transfer it into the realm of historic claims.
Transfer it into the realm of religious or philosophical claims.
What determines seriousness and importance? The abrogation of politico-economic rights? Governments assuming control of private industry in a weekend, shutting down a multi-trillion dollar economy in the process, and destroying millions and millions of businesses and livelihoods and life-savings almost overnight, based upon incomplete data — since before you can calculate lethality rates of (for instance) a coronavirus or flu virus, you’d first need to have an accurate idea of infection rates, which would require widespread testing which has not yet been done? And do the proposed or instituted measures, the benefits gained, warrant such draconian action, as against voluntary, non-state action? What about the immediate and contrary opinions of over 800 medical specialists, warning against such draconian measures? Do they count enough to warrant longer deliberation under such a scenario?
It is my conviction and thesis that in order to be truly informed on societal issues, every individual must undertake the responsibility of sifting through data from the experts — as much as humanly possible — and to always bear in mind that truth is not nor ever was determined by consensus, scientific or otherwise. It is my conviction also that each individual, person and property alike, are sacrosanct and inviolate.
In the realm of human understanding, all knowledge is shaped and conditioned by the structure of the human mind, which operates by means of reason, and which, as Spinoza well defined it, is “a faculty for the integration of knowledge, which human beings possess.”
Different people care about different things, to be sure. If, for example, a bartender says to you that the word “gin” is a shortened version of the word “genever” which comes from the Latin “juniperus” which refers to juniper, and this, the bartender says, goes far in explaining why the predominant flavor of gin is juniper berry – you may or may not take this bartender at her word, and you may or may not care, one way or the other. You may, on the one hand, be interested enough in this subject-matter to store that information in your mind (or perhaps even write it down), and then you research it more deeply later. On the other hand, you may not.
Or perhaps a professor tells you that the highest mountain in Mexico is a dormant volcano called Pico de Orizaba, and what do you personally do with that information? How much does it matter to you? Do you remember it? Do you integrate it with what you already know about any number of other things? Or does that particular piece of information go in one ear and out the — you know — other? But what if this same professor — a geology professor, let us say — told you that the entire planet’s reserves of oil are only enough to last five more years? Do you think about and remember what this professor said in this case? Or not? And do you take her at her word? Or do you you begin investigating this issue for yourself, eventually coming upon, among other things, my article about Peak Oil and the long list of failed predictions, which sound suspiciously like the prediction this professor just gave?
Different people respond differently to different things. There is no doubt about this, and there is no problem with this — until it leads to decisions of policy which infringe upon freedom of pursuit and property.
It is my conviction that there are certain things — politico-economic things, most commonly and controversially — which all humans must assume responsibility for understanding, and which in turns means independently, critically processing the relevant data, which I know requires a great deal of time and effort. It asks a lot.
Ultimately, the independent thinker is the thinker who assumes responsibility for the contents of her of his own mind.
The art of independent thinking is the art of independently cogitating and processing — processing, I emphasize again, as against parroting without the mental effort and exertion of focus required to grasp and apprehend and comprehend the meaning of the words one is parroting.
To be sure, different people are interested in different facts and fields-of-study, any one of which when synthesized by the mind of another human being leads to a more profound understanding and depth and scope of knowledge surpassing what any of these different people possessed individually. This is the beauty and elegance of the transmission of knowledge fostered by the division of labor: many diverse ideas and facts from many diverse people creating something like the exponential growth of knowledge.
It is also true that knowledge forms a unity:deeply interwoven and interconnected, knowledge is also hierarchical.
Not all knowledge is equal in its hierarchical importance.
The main issue of present-day societal conflicts is not right or left: it’s whether humans should give away freedom, private initiative, and individual responsibility, and surrender it to the guardianship of a gigantic apparatus of compulsion and force: the state.
Here are two foolproof measures and guideposts by which to gauge the importance and necessity of independent thought:
Matters of human freedom and government force, questions of state power and laws and regulations which determine each individual’s freedom of action in a societal context — these are issues and subjects about which all proposed measures and policies, without exception (and this includes the data that goes into determining the proposed measures and policies) must be scrutinized and questioned pitilessly, and always with the understanding that real answers to them exist and can be determined.
Catastrophizing should always be looked upon suspiciously.
All look suspiciously, as well, upon anyone who justifies — for any reason — force and authoritarian control of you or any other individual.
In all questions of government manipulation and intrusion, all matters of governmental compulsion and coercion, all questions of state takeover of private industry or property — e.g. for “climate change” or SARS-CoV2 — every shred of relevant data must be combed through, and the onus of proof is always on the one making the claims. And if someone is caught in prevarication or manipulation — all the scientists involved in the climate-gate scandal, for example, or Al Gore’s outrageous “twenty feet seal-level rise” claim or his proven polar bear prevarications or his infuriating “I-believe-an-over-representation-of-factual-information-is-appropriate-as-a-pretext” statement — you treat this as a credibility issue, just as you would in a court of law (or, for the matter, a quart of slaw), and for the same exact reasons. You factor it in to your deliberations, as you factor in as well conflicts of interest and other biases which may in any way, large or small, affect a proposed solution.
You seek the knowledge of other experts. You seek to know.
Most of all, you always ask yourself and never cease asking yourself the following about any given politico-economic and moral claim: what would these proposed solutions do? And would they be done just as well or better by informed individuals acting voluntarily — taking into account, of course, as one must, the inherent inefficiency of any and all bureaucracy?
When the power to force people is handed, unchecked, to the state — no matter how benevolent that state may (or may not) be, no matter how purportedly necessary or virtuous the goals — the individual in both person and property is not nor ever can be fully secure.
I say again: the art of independent thinking is the art of critical thinking, as it is by extension the art of individual inquiry. The independent thinker is the thinker who assumes responsibility for the contents of her of his own mind.
The art of independent thinking is the art of independently cogitating and processing — processing as against parroting without the mental effort and exertion of focus required to grasp and apprehend and comprehend the meaning of the words one is using.
That and that alone is the stuff of which independent thought consists.
Independent thinking is you, your car, and an auto-mechanic you don’t really know, and it is what you choose to do with the information presented to you.