The art of independent thinking is the art of individual inquiry, and individual inquiry is rooted in observation.
When a child learns through personal experience, by bouncing it on a concrete surface, that a properly filled basketball can be dribbled, but then after testing the same basketball on a different sort of surface (lush grass or the liquid surface of a swimming pool or perhaps a muddy road), or upon attempting to bounce the same ball on the same concrete court though this time when the basketball is not properly filled with air — her new observations and this new information do not falsify the things she’s already discovered and learned about dribbling a properly filled basketball on a concrete court.
Rather, her new observations expand her knowledge. They add information which she then integrates into her preexisting information, enlarging her context thereby. This new information, she then synthesizes or blends with data she’s already stored inside her mind, broadening the scope of her knowledge by broadening her context.
All knowledge is contextual.
Learning is largely a process of context expansion.
In this way, the scope of the child’s learning grows as her context grows. The exact same process is at work when she experiments with a leather basketball, versus a rubber or vinyl basketball, on a wooden court, versus an asphalt or a clay court.
Through direct observation and experience — and not upon faith or upon another’s say-so — the child learns where and how to dribble.
Later, through this same basic process, she perhaps learns why.
New knowledge, if it’s accurately observed — which is to say, if it’s true (“true” meaning “accurate”) — does not falsify the previously known. It elaborates it by elaborating the context. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this principle.
The independent thinker does not keep an “open mind” with regard to all questions — if, that is, an “open mind” means she does not come to definite conclusions or form definite convictions about things she’s observed, or about the new things she will observe. Nor does she keep a “closed mind,” believing that no actual knowledge can ever be gotten because contexts always change, and because observations, like memories, are irremediably flawed, anyway, since the senses are not nor can ever be considered reliable. These are popular fallacies, and we would all do well to look a little suspiciously upon the open-minded-close-minded concepts.
What, then, in the final analysis, determines if knowledge is actual and reliable?
The results in reality.
The results in reality are the full and final measure by which all knowledge is evaluated and gauged. Does the ball bounce? Does the structure stand? Does the wheel roll without breaking? Does the vehicle get us from point A to point B? Does the matchstick spark a fire? Does the hunter get her prey? Does the Space Shuttle fly into orbit? Does the liquid properly pour when the strainer is placed over the mixing glass? Does whiskey lose its potency when it’s heated to a boil? Does the vessel float even when loaded with heavy cargo?
If truth is the accurate identification of reality — and it is — then knowledge equals truth.
Thus the independent mind is neither the “open mind” nor the “closed mind” but the inquisitive, vigorous mind: it is a critical-thinking mind, one for whom little is self-evident, except ultimately the material provided by the senses from which, beginning at birth or even before, all subsequent learning flows and is, at least in theory, continually growing — and please, reader, never doubt this: it is a liquid life, forever flowing.
A fundamental or foundational fact is a fact which cannot be broken down into smaller parts or pieces, nor be derived from previous facts.
Why can’t it?
Precisely because it’s fundamental.
It’s fundamental and therefore “axiomatic” — which means that any attempt to refute these fundamental facts must nevertheless rely upon and use these very same facts, even in the most succinct or clever attempts to refute them. They are inescapable in the literal sense. (The attempt to prove that proof is invalid is an example of this: “proof” by definition means the preponderance of evidence which admits no alternative. Any attempt to prove that this is invalid requires the very thing you’re trying to invalidate: a preponderance of evidence.)
There are phenomena which cannot be analyzed and traced back to other phenomena. They are the ultimate given. The progress of scientific research may succeed in demonstrating that something previously considered as an ultimate given can be reduced to components. But there will always be some irreducible and unanalyzable phenomena, some ultimate given.
Wrote Ludwig von Mises.
The independent thinker is the thinker who takes responsibility for the content of her own mind.
The art of independent thought is, I’ll say it again (and again), the art of individual inquiry, and individual inquiry is rooted in observation, which includes introspection. The realities of the soul, though intangible, are realities nonetheless.
Incontrovertibly, the independent thinker depends, like everybody, upon the knowledge of experts and specialists, whether medical, legal, mechanical, scientific, or anything else, and yet the thing that separates the independent thinker from the passive thinker is this:
The independent thinker is always willing to reinvestigate theories generally accepted or deemed true — to retrace, if need be, and to follow every idea down to its foundation, its irreducible fundamental.
The willingness and even the insistence to reinvestigate theories decreed as true — especially when matters of life and personal freedom are at issue — is the one and only legitimate meaning of the term “open-mind.”
If any theory or ideology contradicts a fundamental fact, it is false.
Human freedom is fundamental. It is grounded in the human quiddity: the rational faculty, which can operate fully and optimally only when left free, and the results of which when it is unshackled and untrammeled are human flourishing.
The error many make when thinking about questions that are ultimately philosophical is the tendency to accept outcomes and results — i.e. ends — while at the same time not paying attention to or understanding the causes: to take as a given the end result of a long sequence of thought or chain of reasoning, or to regard it as a self-evidency, while neither paying attention to nor grasping all that’s presupposed in this process.
It is a serious error to regard ideological contradictions as harmless or even, as is often the case, healthy, beneficial, or good.
Ideological contradictions and inconsistencies may, at times, be masked by adding to an already faulty sequence of reasoning — thus postponing the emergence of a manifest conflict — but they will also, in this process, exacerbate the bad things that they mask, and in so doing, they will render any true and final solution much more difficult to obtain. They compound the agonies and amplify the hatreds — making peaceful, cooperative settlements impossible. They increase vitriol and violence. Unfortunately, the vast majority of politico-economic ideologies accepted by public opinion — worldwide — are infected down to their core with contradictions and inconsistencies: contradictions and inconsistencies caused by the volitional nature of the human mind, which because of its volitional nature render it fallible, subject to errors.
We are all fallible. We all make errors, all of us, all the time. Correcting them (or not) is what separates the wheat from the chaff, the baby from the bath, the serpent from the staff.
Errors uncorrected are the root cause of ideological infection.
These infections consist mostly of an eclectic collocation of ideas incompatible with one another and the contents of which, therefore, because they’re incompatible, cannot withstand logical scrutiny. Their inconsistencies are irreparable and as such defy any attempts to integrate their various parts into a system of ideas compatible with one another.
Some try to justify the contradictions within their accepted ideologies by attempting to name the supposed advantages of compromising among them all — so that a more “dynamic” view of human relations can develop: “a more dynamic and smoother functioning of inter-human relations,” as it has been described to me. Frequently, these same people fall back upon the common fallacy that life and reality are “not logical or reasonable,” and they will often also maintain that a contradictory system will prove its “dynamic expediency and worth” and even its truth by “working satisfactorily,” whereas a logically consistent ideological system would, they say, result in disaster.
There is no need now to rebut these popular errors — insofar as these popular errors at all times rebut themselves.
Reason does not follow some separate sluice from real life. Reason and real life are symmetrical and harmonious. They follow the same sluice. Reason is human consciousness, which is the human faculty of awareness. Real life is existence, which is that which exists: that of which awareness is aware. Contradictions cannot exist in reality, apart from human consciousness, because reality is as it must be: perfectly symmetrical and harmonious. For homo-sapiens, reason is the only means by which to grasp and master the problems of reality. What is contradictory in theory constitutes an error — an error in the attempted apprehension of real life as it actually is — and for this reason, ideological inconsistencies, which should be corrected, cannot provide satisfactory, working solutions for the problems offered by the facts of the world and the universe, including the universe within each. The only thing that can result from holding contradictory ideologies is the concealment of the real problems and thus the prevention of finding in time solutions which are sound and satisfying.