I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen suggestions that people should be open-minded responded to with the cliché “don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out”. In this article I want to accomplish three things: first, clarify what I mean by open-mindedness, second, respond to this cliché and third, give an argument in favour of open mindedness.
This is what I mean by “open-minded” when I suggest that it is a virtuous thing: being open-minded about a view is being open to considering evidence in favour of that view in an unbiased way. I don’t think that acting in the way I just described suggests that the actor is someone who’s brain has fallen out. If I’m correct in that assumption, then the response “don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” has a major flaw. Open-mindedness, as used in the cliché, has a different meaning than the one I use when I suggest that open-mindedness is a virtuous thing. To illustrate this issue we can consider the following example: Jill claimed that Bobs diamond studded steering wheel was about two pounds. Bob responds by saying “that’s ridiculous, because two pounds is only about $3.35 and diamonds cost considerably more than that”. Bobs response is faulty because when Jill used the word “pounds” she was referring to the a unit of weight and Bob responded by using the word “pounds” to refer to a unit of currency. I think that when people say “don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” they are warning against accepting claims either without any evidence, or without evaluating the evidence critically. While this is certainly good counsel, this meaning of open-mindedness is quite different from the one I endorsed above. Being open to considering evidence is different from accepting things without evidence and evaluating evidence in an unbiased way is also different from not evaluating evidence critically.
So, now that we’ve established that our brains aren’t going to fall out, what reasons are there to be open minded? Well, if we can agree that the truth is most likely to be on the side with the most powerful evidence then it follows that open-mindedness would be essential if you want to have true beliefs and also want to avoid having false beliefs. If you aren’t open to hearing the evidence that the other side has to offer then there’s no way for you to be able to weigh the evidence in favour of your view against the evidence in favour of your opponents view and if you are examining the evidence in a biased fashion then you aren’t going to be able to accurately gauge who has the most powerful evidence. So, if you even want to have a hope of eliminating your false beliefs and adopting true beliefs, then open-mindedness is something you should seek to cultivate.
There’s also a pragmatic reason for being open-minded. If you endeavor to persuade those who disagree with you to adopt your view and abandon their own, open-mindedness is either extremely helpful or essential for two reasons. First, you are expecting them to be open-minded to your view. It is much more difficult to be open-minded to the views that someone you disagree with is expressing if it is clear that they are not open-minded themselves. Because of this, it is really helpful to lead by example. If you are relaxed and truly listening to and understanding your opponent, then they are more likely to do the same for you. Second, if you aren’t open to hearing their evidence and evaluating it in an unbiased way then there’s not a chance that you will be able to respond to their view well. How can you respond to evidence that you aren’t even open to hearing? How are you going to respond with intuitively powerful arguments when you aren’t unbiased enough to recognize the intuitive power of the arguments you’re responding to? I don’t think you can.
Assuming that you’ve been persuaded by my case for open-mindedness I want to finish by giving some helpful tips for being open-minded. If you are open-minded about abortion, try and find other open-minded people who disagree with you to discuss abortion with. It is very difficult to have meaningful dialogues with people who aren’t willing to hear you out and it can get very
frustrating very quickly. So, while I think that talking to people, even closed-
minded people, is a virtuous thing, I also think it can very easily get discouraging.
Another thing that I have found helpful, is reading scholarly work written by those who disagree with me. Pieces written by journalists and pundits and activists are probably much more entertaining than pieces published in peer reviewed ethics journals, but the articles in the ethics journals are written by experts. And experts, while not infallible, will probably have smarter things to say than your average journalist or pundit or activist.
I think there are good reasons to think that being open-minded is a pragmatically wise thing to do and it almost certainly is essential if you endeavour to be a rational person. But most importantly, there’s no reason to fear that opening your mind will cause your brain to fall out. I’ll leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein,“The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.”