The Active Mind

 Posted by on 26 May 2010 at 7:00 am  Epistemology, Ethics, Food, Health, Philosophy
May 262010

[This post was originally written for Modern Paleo.]

In our modern culture, many people adopt a rigid, rule-bound approach to their lives: whatever they learned from their parents, their preacher, and their peers must be the right way, and that’s the end of the story. They’re unwilling to question their assumptions; they often can’t even see that alternatives to those assumptions exist. On the other hand, many people reject that kind of stagnation in favor of acting on the range-of-the-moment. They act based on their gut feelings, i.e. their raw emotions.

These two approaches to life are wrong, often disastrously so. Yet they’re not as different as you might think. Both approaches reject reason: they deny paramount importance to human life of rational identification and evaluation of the facts. The people who adopt them seek to coast through life without the effort of understanding the world in which they live. Those often pay a very steep price for that in the form of abandoned dreams, wrecked relationships, and emotional turmoil.

Two years ago, when I began peeking my nose into the uncharted waters of the paleosphere, I was impressed to find that a better approach was pretty common. By and large, people were willing to check their assumptions. They did not submit their judgment to the government and its lackeys, nor blindly follow the advice of their doctors. They were willing to test their theories against the facts of biochemistry, quality medical studies, and their own n=1 experiments. They wanted to know the truth, even if that meant rejecting seemingly universal beliefs about hearthealthywholegrains and arterycloggingsaturatedfat. They wanted to identify general principles, and then practice them, so as to live better.

Basically — although not universally, of course — I’ve been impressed with the “active minds” that I’ve found in the paleosphere. An active mind isn’t an “open mind,” nor a “closed mind,” as Ayn Rand explains:

[There is a] dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term–as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices–and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind,” but an active mind–a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants–a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear. (Philosophy: Who Needs It)

Personally, I’m always on the lookout for ways in which I might have a closed mind or an open mind rather than an active mind. I try to ask myself why I think and act as I do, particularly as concerns cultural norms. Is some practice just tradition — or does it make rational sense? I know that when I’ve been able to do that, I’ve reaped huge rewards. For example:

  • If I’d not been willing to question my assumptions about diet, I’d still be eating wheat, sugar, and other forms of junk food. I’d be bouncing between blood sugar highs and lows. I’d be obsessively thinking about the cookies in the pantry. I’d be slowly packing on the pounds, year after year. My liver would be getting ever-fattier, and I’d slowly ease my way into type 2 diabetes.
  • If I’d not been willing to question my assumptions about shampoo, I’d still be frustrated with my limp, dull hair. Instead, my hair is soft, well-bodied, and easy to manage. I’m unhappy with my haircut right now, but I’ve finally got my no-poo system working well. (I’ll post more on that later.)
  • If I’d not been willing to question the quasi-socialist political views of my youth, I’d be cheering on the government takeover of the economy initiated by Bush and hastened by Obama. (EEEK!)
  • If I’d not been willing to question my assumption that my friend Paul was just too old for me due to our 13-ear age gap, I’d not had the best eleven years of my life as his wife! (He looks the same age as me now; that’s a blessing and a curse!)

Life — in the fullest sense of that term — requires an active mind. There’s no way around it.

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