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I don’t know if there is anyone who doesn’t think that they have an open mind. As far as I can tell, in matters of importance, everyone thinks that the belief they’ve come to is one they’ve come to voluntarily and with an open mind. No one thinks that they’ve chosen their beliefs because they’ve shut their ears to other options or because they’ve been tricked or deluded in some way. Everyone thinks that they would change their mind if solid evidence was given that they were wrong. Of course, we don’t find it difficult to say the opposite about other people. We all know of people who to us seem completely and entirely unable to just open their damn eyes and see what’s right in front of them. Open-mindedness is a very popular concept. It’s very pleasing to remind ourselves of how open-minded we are, of how well we listen and give the opposing argument equal consideration.
I would like to tell you about my closed mind, and why I think close-mindedness may not be such a bad thing after all.
In my view, close-mindedness is an essential function of the human mind. Close-mindedness is what makes it possible for us to understand and make sense of the world. The way that we store information in our mind is by enclosing it in categories, by constantly making associations between new data and our preconceived ideas about things. For example, most people have developed, over a period of time, a category in their mind named “cat” (or a different language equivalent). This category, and other categories relating to physical objects, is probably developed earlier in life when a child begins to realize that all these separate entities s/he’s seeing have this shared quality of “cat-ness.” In most people’s mind, the “cat” category remains fairly elemental, but someone who chooses later in life to study animal biology or become a veterinarian will gain more and more knowledge which will fit in their mental “cat” category, causing it to expand and become more precise.
What does this thing about cats have to do with anything? I’m basically trying to get at the basic mental function of “enclosing a concept” within a mental framework so as to make sense of it. A more relevant example could be the category “love.” Now love is not a physical object which can be easily observed and categorized according to its physical properties. Love could be categorized as an experience, a feeling, an emotion, a mind-set, etc. However different the mental “love” category from the mental “cat” category may be, I believe data is collected for both based on a similar concept. A person notices a trend in their reaction to certain experiences/ideas and begins to pin the word “love” to them and as time passes and they experience more things, more and more data is added to their mental “love” category and it becomes a fuller and more complete concept in their mind. Sometimes a person will be compelled to remove something from their mental “love” or “cat” category because new data has arisen that shows their previously acquired data was false. But at all times, the person is working to make their concept more coherent and accurate based on the data they’ve already collected and the new data they are continuously collecting. This is how the human mind makes sense of things. We have endless “categories” stored in our minds so that whenever someone says a familiar word (in our native language) we immediately reach into our minds to find the already existing folder containing our preconceived notions about that word. If we couldn’t do that, language would be useless and our understanding of the world around us would be almost nothing.
It is in this way that I believe each person builds up a system of understanding from the very moment they begin perceiving things. This is part of the normal process of stereotyping. Stereotyping is a basic and completely essential part of the human mind. The ability to look at a number of separate objects and quickly understand what they all have in common is an extremely important cognitive function. The fact that the human mind can make such sweeping generalizations is what makes it so incredibly amazing.
So what does this have to do with close-mindedness? I’d like to talk about frameworks of understanding. The categories of understanding (not to be confused with Kant’s categories of understanding) which I just described are a sub-category of frameworks of understanding. I believe every normally functioning human being has a framework of understanding which makes it possible for them to see and understand the world in a coherent way. This extremely useful thing is extremely expensive though, and costs, in each and every case, one open mind.
Your framework of understanding is the lens through which you see the world. It is the combination of all the most important beliefs and values that you hold. It is the machine through which all new perceptual and emotional data is processed, before it settles into its individual category. Your framework of understanding is what keeps you from switching world-views every 8 seconds when a new idea is brought to your attention. It is what regulates your mental activities so that you have a mostly constant and coherent picture of the world. Your framework of understanding is what allows you to walk down the street, peacefully refusing the pamphlets being handed to you at every corner. Not every new idea, new perspective on a new (or old) world-view will grab your attention every time, because you already have a coherent system, a system that makes the world make sense. You don’t need to worry when someone publishes a book saying that what you believe is a joke because their words already fit into your system. Having a framework of understanding is necessary for continuity. If we did not have a framework of understanding we would have to pause to analyse each and every perceptual and emotional experience each and every time we experienced them, which would mean we wouldn’t ever get anything done. Being close-minded is what makes us function effectively and efficiently as humans.
In my next post I would like to tell you about my experience with an open mind, which lasted only a few hours/days, and why I believe open-mindedness can only exist as a transitional mental mode of operation…
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