What is a perfect day for you?
My wife asked me that question on a wine tasting trip. I thought about it for a second and asked her to answer for me: “What do you think my perfect day is?”
She’s known me for over a decade, so I thought it’d be fun to get her perspective. She guessed 75% of my perfect day, and the other 25% looked like her own version of the perfect day. I realized that for over a decade we had been saying things to each other without fully defining what those things meant, including the definition of a perfect day.
The rest of the weekend, we enjoyed talking about what some other definitions meant to us, like empathy, love and learning.
Just like defining things with my wife, it is helpful to have a definition of free thinker: A free thinker is committed to knowing and understanding what is true.
To understand what this definition means, you first need to understand commitment.
What Does Commitment to Free Thinking Mean?
A commitment sets constraints on future actions. When you commit to doing something, you say that in the future you are going to do it. You are constraining your future actions in a certain way.
A promise is a prototypical commitment. As a husband, I made a promise to my wife to be truthful, supportive and caring. In saying this, I started a commitment. That commitment constrained my future actions: I was telling my wife that in the future I would act in ways that were truthful, supportive, and caring, and I wouldn’t act in ways contrary to this.
Just like marriage, when you decide to be a free thinker, you’re starting a commitment. That commitment constrains your future actions. You are telling yourself that in the future you are going to do things that promote knowledge and understanding. Here are some of the commitments:
- Free thinkers reject the tribe over truth;
- They question authority;
- They accept mistakes;
- They accept that their circle of competence is limited;
- They understand and fight against cognitive bias;
- They adopt slow thinking;
- They use logic and reason to evaluate things.
I’ll talk about each of these commitments in future posts. For the time being, let’s continue to focus on the definition of a free thinker. We have to consider what knowledge and understanding are. Let’s start by distinguishing knowledge from mere belief.
What is Belief Versus Knowledge?
Every person has a web of claims that they believe to be true. Most of your beliefs come from repeating what your family, school and people around you believe. Believing the claim that the climate is changing is an example. That claim might be true, or it might not be. Free thinkers are open to examining all their beliefs because they’re committed to knowing, not merely believing. So if you challenge a free thinker’s claim that the climate is changing, he or she will be open to hearing your basis of reasons.
There’s a difference between knowledge and belief. You can believe things that are false, but you can’t know things that are false. To qualify as knowledge, the claim you believe has to be true. You can believe that 2+2=5, but you can’t know that 2+2=5.
For a claim to be true, it needs to match how the actual world is. Let’s say you claim, “Apples from a tree fall to the ground.” To examine this claim, you would see what the claim says and compare it to how the actual world is. Since the claim matches how the world is, the claim “Apples from a tree fall to the ground” is true.
Contrary to that, if someone claims “Apples from a tree go into the sky” then you would ask yourself, “Does the actual world match the claim?” Since in the actual world, the apple will fall to the ground, the claim “Apples from a tree go into the sky” is false. The actual world does not match what the claim says. If you believe that apples from a tree go into the sky, then your belief is false.
With any claim a free thinker believes, the free thinker is committed to asking, “Does the actual world match this claim?” What if you don’t have an answer? What if you can’t tell whether the world matches what the claim says?
In that case, you don’t know whether the claim is true. If you’re committed to knowing and not merely believing, then you have to withhold judgement about the claim and continue looking for reasons to think that it’s true or false. If the reasons you continue to come across are insufficient, then you continue to withhold judgement. If they are sufficient—if they give you a decisive reason to think the claim is true or false—then maybe you finally come to know that the claim is true or false.
Knowledge Versus Understanding
Knowing goes beyond merely believing, and likewise understanding goes beyond merely knowing. It involves knowing not just that something is true, but why or how it’s true.
You can know things you don’t understand and understand things you don’t know. For example, you can know that the sun rises from the east but not understand why it rises from the east. Conversely, General Relativity predicted black holes. No one thought to look for such things, and apparently Einstein himself was skeptic that any actually existed. He nevertheless had a framework that enabled him to understand both why and how they might exist. He understood the existence of black holes, then, before he knew that they existed.
From an early age, schools train you to know things, but they largely ignore understanding. They encourage you to read and memorize facts, dates and stories, but don’t encourage you to ask “Why?” or “How?” about the things you’re memorizing. This is a shortcoming of the educational system. You can take directions from your teacher to solve a math problem, but the ability to apply these principles to other problems comes only with understanding. It’s not enough to vomit back the words or symbols you’ve been fed. You have to grasp the principles those words and symbols express, and use them for yourself.
Can you have true knowledge without understanding? Absolutely. But your understanding will be shallow or non-existent. Believing an expert for everything is a common phenomenon. People listen to experts in a particular field and repeat what those experts say. The experts could be religious leaders, politicians or teachers, and they could be a great source for knowledge. But it is the free thinker’s responsibility to understand and evaluate the expert’s knowledge. An expert can be right about one fact and wrong about others, and the scope of any expert’s knowledge is limited. If you don’t expand your understanding, you are at the experts’ mercy.
Here is a prompt that helps you go from knowing to understanding: Suppose I know that the sun rises from the east. I ask: why does the sun rise from the east?
Asking why or how moves you from knowing that something is the case to understanding why or how it’s the case. In ‘the sun rises from the east’ example, knowing would mean that you can see the sun coming from the east every morning, and understanding would mean that you know that the earth rotates.
Roadblocks to Free Thinker Commitment
A free thinker, then, is committed to knowing and understanding what’s true. Free thinkers constrain their actions in ways that bring about knowledge and understanding, not merely belief. They question why they have the belief systems they do, and ask why the true beliefs are true.
Do religious dogma get in the way of free thinking? Not necessarily. You don’t need to buy into atheism or be agnostic or libertarian to have free thoughts. A free thinker, withhold judgment when needed, use an expert opinion, use their own thoughts to come up with their own conclusion. Now that we understand what a free thinker is, we can consider the things that interfere with the free thinker commitment.
Just like marriage, a commitment to free thinking is easy to say, but hard to do. Married people regularly encounter things that challenge their marital commitment. Something similar is true for free thinkers. They encounter things in daily life that can interfere with their commitment to knowing and understanding what’s true. One of those things is the human tendency to join a tribe.
A tribe is a group that you join consciously or subconsciously. Group membership could be based on almost anything: blood ties, religious beliefs, political affiliation, where you are born—the list goes on. Tribe members draw their beliefs from the tribe. They are persuaded by other tribe members and accept the popular tribal beliefs to fit in. A tribe member cares more about belonging to the tribe than the truth.
A free thinker is committed to seeing things for what they are, but the tribe asks its members to see things through the tribal lens.
If you live in a conservative area, it is hard for you to have a liberal view. You naturally want to fit in with the people around you. You are wired to seek membership in a tribe. Consequently, a commitment to truth can go against your social instincts. It can force you to think in ways that are opposed to your tribe, family, or nation.
Commitment to knowledge and understanding implies that the truth supersedes your allegiance to the tribe. A free thinker is willing to reject their own tribe to know and understand what’s true.
If knowing and understanding what’s true came in a pill, free thinkers would take it like a daily vitamin. But knowing and understanding what’s true isn’t that easy. Instead, it involves cultivating the right habits of mind—habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that enable us to achieve knowledge and understanding and to avoid error and ignorance.
A commitment to free thinking promises to make your mind the most powerful tool you have.