“All humans by nature desire to know. And indication of this is found in the delight we take in our senses — for even apart from their usefulness, our senses are loved for themselves. It is this desire that is responsible for your reading and my writing this book.” — Aristotle (384bc – 322bc)
What is Independent Thinking?
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. Then, after handing the auto-mechanic your car keys and 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.”
Please take a moment and observe yourself sincerely in that hypothetical 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: because individual evaluation and the importance that each individual assigns to a given piece of information determines, more often than not, the degree of independent thought.
The primary factors are each individual context-of-knowledge and each value-structure contained within each individual person.
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 of 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 that doesn’t even occur to me here. This is only meant to analogize — to concretize the nature of independent thinking and how it operates for all individual human beings.
One of the first things that needs to be said is that independent thinking is not necessarily synonymous with original thinking, nor is it necessarily synonymous with contrary thinking, nor is it at all a question of brilliance or intelligence-quotient (so-called) or anything of that nature.
It is a fact, as well, and important to note, 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 bit of information that comes our way, moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, year-in-year-out.
The primary principle involved is in individually processing — or not — any information presented, and this, in turn, is primarily determined by one’s context and one’s value-hierarchy (i.e. what each individual person regards as important).
The independent thinker is nothing more or less than the person who assumes responsibility for the ultimate contents of her or his own mind. It is entirely possible for someone who is a genuinely thoughtful and independent-thinking person to nonetheless take you at your word if you tell her some fact she’s not particularly interested in: a new song by a musician she doesn’t know or care about, for example.
So: after considering how you’d process the information the auto-mechanic gives you about an oil-change, imagine that next, 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 will only take me about 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, or perhaps not.
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 — possibly to watch a video about 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 as well — or perhaps you decided upon the very opposite of that: you barely think about what the mechanic said, barely paying 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.
If, however, 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 blind faith.
Now imagine that 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 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. Ask yourself: what determines how much thought and effort you’re willing to put in? Is it your interest level?
And what, in turn, determines that?
Now use this same analogy but with your physical health: a doctor at your annual health check-up tells you several things which need looking into. Observe 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 the things you’re being told. But once you’ve decided, ask yourself this: how do you investigate and evaluate? How exactly do you check and re-check? What determines which issues you’ll investigate more critically and with greater scrutiny?
If 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 to the utmost 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 but sincerely. Such a serious condition would almost surely, at the very least, by the majority of people, be investigated with greater depth and urgency than something diagnosed as “probably nothing.”
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 the degree of seriousness and importance?
Command and control?
The abrogation of politico-economic rights?
In the realm of human cognition, all knowledge is shaped and conditioned by the structure of the human mind, which operates by means of reason, which, to quote Mr. Spinoza, is “a faculty for the integration of knowledge that 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 may more thoroughly research it later. On the other hand, you may not.
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? What if this same professor then told you that under Mexico’s highest mountain is one of the only remaining oil reserves left in North America, and that the entire planet’s reserves of oil are barely enough to last five more years? Do you think about and remember what this professor said in this case? Or not? Do you merely take her at her word? Or do you begin investigating this issue for yourself? Do you learn that there is no technology anywhere in the world which can measure oil reserves beneath the earth’s surface?
Different people, I reiterate, respond differently to different things. There is no problem with this — that is, until it leads to decisions of serious politico-economic policies which violate individual sanctity. At which point it becomes a matter of grave concern for all of us.
The beauty of the transmission of knowledge, which is fostered by the division of labor, is that so many diverse ideas and facts from so many diverse people has created an exponential amplification of human knowledge: different people 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 of learning that surpasses what any of these different people possessed individually.
This is the essence of civilization and human progress.
Knowledge forms a unity.
Knowledge is deeply interwoven and interconnected, as it is also hierarchical. As such, not all knowledge is equal in its hierarchical importance.
The main issue of present-day societal conflicts is not rightwing or leftwing, which in the scope of things is meaningless partisan quibbling. The main issue is whether humans should give away freedom, private initiative, and individual responsibility, and surrender it to the guardianship of a gigantic apparatus of compulsion, which is also known as the state.
There are three foolproof methods and measures by which to gauge the importance and necessity of independent thought for any given issue:
First: matters of command and control over individual thought. I mean specifically, the effort or desire of anyone or any institution to shutoff or subvert the process that independent thinking requires.
Second: matters of command and control over individual autonomy and the freedom to exchange.
Third: catastrophizing, which should always be looked upon suspiciously.
The art of independent thinking is the art of independently processing — processing, I emphasize, as distinguished from parroting without the mental effort and exertion of focus required to grasp 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 then choose to do with the information presented to you.