Our foundational beliefs, whether they come from tradition, meaningful experiences, or unquestioned theories, shape our perceptions of reality to the extent that we cannot easily conceive of them as separate from reality. This is exemplified by our deep convictions about the relative size, shape, and movement of the Earth and the other heavenly bodies; convictions we rarely feel the need to prove to ourselves or others. Similarly, most of us have ready answers concerning the existence or non-existence of God, the truth of a religion, or of the basic principles of social and political organization: answers that may exist only at the mercy of better, alternative answers that remain unknown to us. Ultimately, these are examples of beliefs that, in our eyes, are indistinguishable from the way that the world actually is. Perhaps they do, in fact, reflect the way the world actually is. Even so, if you maintain, consciously or unconsciously, a conflation between your beliefs and objective knowledge, this can lead to intellectual stagnation. Perhaps such a stagnation is comfortable for many, but, as students at a liberal arts college dedicated to the love and pursuit of truth, it is a problem that we should strive to address. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways; two of the most prominent being either a reductionist close-mindedness or an excessive tendency to make light of deep intellectual disagreements. When we can move beyond these forms of intellectual stagnation, we can become intellectually aware, both of others and ourselves.
Consider “reductionist close-mindedness” to be the implicit belief that you know everything. This is a comfortable position that can be difficult to detect when you do, in fact, know a lot. With this mindset, you risk hastily dismissing new ideas that may otherwise be helpful or interesting, reducing mental stimulation and causing intellectual stagnation. Under this mindset, ideas can be dismissed because they appear to be imitations of something you already believe, and thus seem intellectually redundant. This occurs when one is too quick to equate a newly encountered, familiar sounding idea with a current belief, a practice that ultimately shaves off any distinctions and subtleties of a new idea and thereby absorbs it completely into the close-minded person’s prior knowledge. I often selfishly appreciate when professors do a form of this, that is, linking my poorly constructed or incomplete ideas to good ideas of their own in order to save my intellectual reputation. Even so, this can manifest itself in an opposite, less gratifying way: when my poorly constructed or incomplete points are linked to bad ideas and are rebutted accordingly, not even receiving the dignity of their admittedly uninspiring independent existence. Either way, the learner’s thoughts do frequently follow paths that have been traveled before, so such linking is not always illegitimate. Notwithstanding the legitimate exceptions to this rule, humility cautions against conceiving of every newly encountered idea as an imprecise replication of one’s own thought. When you grow and mature in learning, you may be able to press out into new intellectual territory, and there can be a tragic loss of truth and opportunity if you look upon another’s discovery of the New World and believe that it is the Orient.
A second reason for close-minded dismissal of an idea may be that it seems to conflict with something you already believe to be indisputable. In this situation, it is easier to dismiss the idea as preposterous and unworthy of your attention than to seriously consider it. Although it is good to honestly acknowledge when ideas are in conflict, and, ultimately, that you disagree with something or someone, it is not good to do so without humility and interest. If you maintain that others must be wrong simply because they disagree—or appear to disagree—with you, then discussion becomes impossible. If the conflict is not even clearly defined, then progress toward any resolution becomes impossible. When discussion becomes impossible, the only recourses are either mute tolerance or persecution, both of which ultimately stall intellectual discourse.
Another reason for dismissing new ideas is that an idea introduces you to new domains of knowledge that would require substantial work to seriously explore and consider, work that you deem unnecessary because your life was good enough before you accessed these new domains of knowledge. This form of stagnation is partially supported by the fact that different areas of knowledge and inquiry have large amounts of overlap in their magisteria. An adherent of a religion with definite, effective sociopolitical teachings may feel no inclination to educate himself in the field of political philosophy. An adherent of a religion with definite teachings on the origins of the universe may feel no need to explore that question through science. Experts tend to be laymen outside their fields, and experts in successful fields can certainly be tempted to over-prioritize their own fields.
One way to fight the stagnation of close-mindedness is to acknowledge, at least in principle, that you do not know everything. You probably don’t even know everything about your own positions, especially if you maintain connections to epistemologically authoritative institutions or persons such as church denominations or political philosophers. In light of this humility, perhaps other people, even other people who disagree with you, may be more intelligent or knowledgeable than you think. Ultimately, this is a warning to avoid despising those with powerful intellectual friends. Be on guard for the ways that newly encountered ideas are unique from your beliefs, contradict your beliefs, or expose frameworks that transcend your beliefs. Don’t be afraid to ask people to clarify their ideas. Imagine that the person you are talking to knows something you don’t, for even small and seemingly insignificant facts can lead to great intellectual breakthroughs.
I have come to believe that foundational, metaphysical questions and beliefs should be taken seriously and treated with reverence. Even so, I encountered some disagreement about this point during conversations about the pervasive culture of theological debate on Hillsdale’s campus. I said that it is good to approach such discussions with an attitude of serious sincerity and reverence, that truth may be imparted in a loving way, and that every interlocutor in the discussion may benefit and have something to ponder and treasure. One friend critiqued my conviction, expressing an idea that had unconsciously possessed my thinking and manifested in my behavior before the underlying belief found clear expression in my mind. My friend thought that insincere, lighthearted ribbing was a good form of theological discussion, as it would avoid seriously challenging people’s beliefs and thus stave off hurt feelings or intellectual crises.
Looking into the depths of the mind and heart to fairly evaluate our defining beliefs is a frightening thing, and perhaps we should not fault someone too much for avoiding such an encounter, through humor or otherwise. Perhaps a great portion of the happiest people in this world have scarcely thought to chip away at the constructions at the core of their personalities, cultures, and beliefs to see what crumbles and what remains. Even so, this sort of deep thought is so integral to our mission as college students that we would do well to take these questions and concerns very seriously, although it doesn’t hurt to lighten the mood sometimes. Even though humor can present a welcome relief, we are here to seek the truth sincerely, and if we reduce important, or even sacred, thoughts to “hot takes” or shallow ribbing then we are forfeiting our chance—however slight it was to begin with—of seeing the ultimate truth and the beautiful reconciliation and community that flows from that vision. The dearth of sincerity caused by excessive humor in serious intellectual or theological discussion can also fail to achieve one of its implicitly desired ends. A semi-serious theological point, made in the form of a biting joke, actually can raise serious questions and challenges to a belief. Perhaps the one who is challenged will ultimately respond with good-natured grace, or even thankfulness. Even so, it would be more fitting—and far less likely to result in justifiably hurt feelings—if such challenges and growth were to arise from a sincere conversation based in respect both the conversants as well as the deepest questions we consider in our lives.
One of the terrifying realities of our pursuit of truth is that the truth does not necessarily line up with what we currently believe. The truth is a massive thing, and we are always expanding our ever-deficient grasp of its totality. If we are very fortunate or blessed, the additional aspects of truth we uncover will be consistent with beliefs we currently hold. Unfortunately, most of us are not so fortunate, and there is a strong temptation to maintain epistemological comfort by hastily integrating or downplaying new information that could otherwise reveal gaps or flaws in our beliefs. When we are all seeking to harmonize the new bits of reality that we encounter every day at this college with our fundamental constellations of beliefs, beliefs which are more diverse and disparate from person to person than we would think, disagreements about what is true are bound to arise among the students and faculty. We can choose to laugh off these disagreements about the most serious matters in the world, or we could take them seriously and, perhaps, learn something, even if that learning amounts to nothing but an identification of areas of knowledge we don’t know or understand.
This invitation to serious intellectual discussion with acknowledged stakes is not an invitation to vicious debate and exasperation when your friends don’t change their minds immediately after a debate with you. Truth is a large thing, and caution in rearranging the large mental structures through which you perceive it is wise. Ideas that have been important enough to form the bedrock of your worldview should not go down without a fight. Perhaps honesty will ultimately call you to change your mind, and devotion to the truth will require such terrifying honesty. Even so, an attitude of humility is vital whether you are winning or losing debates. When we consider the vast totality of truth, we realize that we are all operating with limited information, and that there is enough mutually unknown territory that winning or losing a debate may not mean that you are ultimately right or wrong. Ultimately, make your points clearly, sincerely, and skillfully during intellectual discussions. Also, listen while your discussion partners do the same. You, as an intellectual, will not regret it.
Think twice before you take the easy way out of a deep conversation, whether that is through close-mindedness or through ineffectually protectionist, shallow humor. Our worldviews and core beliefs—beliefs that we hold so deeply that they appear to be objective realities—are so important to our relationship with the truth that we should be eager to understand them more sharply whenever we can, not mistake them for the totality of truth or hide them in the shadows of insincerity. Letting your bedrock beliefs hide in darkness could, in fact, undermine critical conversations in your college education. Your worldview, shaped by the deeply held beliefs that you may not even consciously realize, is a light that you shine on everything you learn here, and I hope that it is a bright, clear light that you will not leave in the gloomy depths of a mental maelstrom. If even the light in you is darkness, how great, then, is the darkness?
Jonathan Schulz is a junior English major who greatly enjoys music, poetry, and distracting people from their studies.