Recently I was chatting with someone about nutrition and I noted how factory farmed meats pose health hazards. He was skeptical and asked, “Is there any scientific evidence for that?” I replied that there are many studies which confirm this and told him that I was willing to direct him to some of these publications. But my friend smiled and shook his head, saying “You can’t trust scientific studies. You can use them to prove just about anything.” I was dumbfounded. First he demands scientific evidence for my claim, but when I oblige he tells me that he can’t accept it because science can’t be trusted! At this point I realized that I was dealing with a closed mind, so we went on to discuss other things.

I once heard someone say that aging academicians often suffer from “hardening of the categories.” After graduate school, they become locked in their theoretical paradigms and are less and less likely to explore new ideas and engage new perspectives in an open-minded way. I would say this is a universal human tendency, not just a pitfall for scholars. But it certainly is more disturbing to observe this in people who are supposed to be serious about the quest for knowledge and understanding.

I have had some colleagues over the years whose views on major issues—from ethics to politics to theology—changed very little since their college days. It occurred to me that for such a person the “wisdom of their years” is partly a sham, at least as this applies to their supposed exploration of ideas. They might be in their fifties and appear to be the mature product of decades of academic growth. But since they haven’t changed their views in thirty years, how can we call them models of serious inquiry? Their students might as well be listening to a peer.

Have you changed your view on some important issue in the last few years? I’m not talking about beliefs as basic as the existence of God or even whether you are a political liberal or conservative. But if you are a genuinely teachable person, committed to the quest for understanding and willing to consider fresh perspectives, then your mind should change from time to time on various issues. If this is not true of you, then perhaps you are experiencing “hardening of the categories” yourself.

It is understandable that those who are older should change their views less frequently than the young. After all, in most cases those who are older have already reviewed more ideas and are familiar with arguments on both sides of many issues. However, even experienced folks who are very well-travelled in the realm of ideas have not been exposed to every idea or argument. So if they are truly teachable and open-minded, there should be evidence of this in the form of a conversion to a different belief every once in a while, even concerning important issues. Otherwise, I can only conclude that they are not really open to new ideas. And this is sad. A mind is a terrible thing to close.

5 Responses to “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Close”

  1. Aaron Harrison


    Hi Dr. S. What a good thing this was to read the week before entering graduate school. Another respected friend gave me three pieces of advice that go along quite well with this.
    1. Don’t be afraid of new ideas. Ideas and concepts are finite human creations, and can be taken apart with equal creativity. But Christ our Lord is not a concept, and he is our final authority. Human authorities can set themselves up for a time, but true authority comes from the Holy Spirit.
    2. If you can truly see your brother, you can see God the Father himself.
    3. If you find yourself particularly fascinated by an idea, turn and take a look at the other side of the idea. All concepts are like coins, having two sides.

    From my own experience, I would add that if our concepts cannot be turned to creative and practical advancement of the good life, then they are not worth having. Some treat concepts like a collectible, paying a high price for them, and then letting them sit and appriciate in ‘value’ and in dust. This calcifies the human soul. Instead, concepts should be like seeds, planted, tested to prove their worth, and finally harvested if they bare good fruit. With detachment, we must bury our own ideas by considering their oppositions, letting them prove for themselves their own worth.

    It is a sorrowful thing to see those who have given up their freedom of rationality to an ideology loose the fundamental privileged of rationality: changing the mind.

  2. Marc


    Dr. Spiegel:

    Allow me to echo the introductory remarks of both Andrew and Aaron. And in so doing, I also wish to mention that I continually find myself sharpened by your provocative thinking. It’s somehow impossible for me to resist engaging your ideas. Thanks for the delicious fodder.

    Ideally, intellectual honesty stands among the eminent principles governing rational inquiry. A significant component of being intellectually honest, I think, is assuming a posture which your above entry strongly endorses: with respect to new ideas, remain open-minded and receptive, even cordial at times. The mettle of an intellectually honest mind might–and most likely will–one day be challenged by a new, compelling idea sufficient in the currency of justification to warrant a belief change. As you suggest, it’s imprudent and unattractively unreasonable to be dismissive of new intellectual territory, be it populated by several new ideas or just one. Thus, one ought to endeavor to achieve a disposition tempered by teachability, thereby militating against the hardening of the categories.

    I’m curious, though, whether your denial of doxastic voluntarism prepares you to countenance what you discuss about being open to new ideas and beliefs. You stated in “Gum, Geckoes, and God,” and in an e-mail dialogue we shared when I took Epistemology, that we’re predominantly, if not wholly, unable to exercise volitional control over our beliefs, even if bribed, threatened, or coerced. In different words, it’s not within our power to choose our beliefs as a simple act of will. And you proceeded further to state that beliefs are, more or less, something which happens to us. (As a brief side note, I’m uncertain I’m interpreting your view correctly, but I take you to be objecting to direct voluntarism as opposed to indirect voluntarism. Feel free to revise any misinterpretation as extensively as you see fit.) So, if we’re doxastically (or cognitively) such that we’re passive recipients of beliefs, in what sense is it possible to be open-minded with respect to any given belief? If it’s not within my power to exercise any volitional control over my beliefs, is the admonition to be open-minded misplaced? I recognize–well, contend–that it’s within our power to subject ourselves to situations whereby we’re exposed to new ideas and beliefs, sometimes ideas and beliefs diametrically opposed to our own. Perhaps circumstances of that genre cohere more closely with what you have in mind.

    Implicit in my questions is an affirmation of indirect doxastic voluntarism, toward which you may be more sympathetic than toward direct doxastic voluntarism. If that’s the case, much and probably all of what I’ve written can be immediately consigned to the Humean flames. But I’m not for one second willing to believe that that could be even remotely possible! =)


    — Marc

  3. Jim Spiegel


    Marc and Aaron, thanks for those thoughtful and insightful comments. As for your query, Marc, about my doxastic involuntarism (the view that our beliefs are generally not under our control), I can see why there might appear to be tension between this and my strong advocacy of open-mindedness in this post. You correctly anticipate my response by referring to our indirect control over our beliefs, in so far as we are all responsible for exposing ourselves to new ideas and beliefs. But I would add that we can also strive for epistemological humility, whereby we acknowledge the limits of our understanding and the need to avoid dogma regarding beliefs about speculative matters. This is an intellectual virtue, and it can be intentionally nurtured, again by exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives on certain issues but also by simply paying attention to the fact that many wise and intelligent people disagree with us on many different issues. (And, if possible, taking a course in epistemology is very helpful here as well!)

  4. layla


    With Lauren Winner’s voice still in my head (Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath) I am currently making changes in my daily life. She clearly outlines her need for community and ritual. I was raised to avoid ritual at all costs; however, as I strive for purposefulness and intentionality in all aspects of my daily life, there is an urge to take stock of the small choices and the reality that over time they add up to a large sum.
    Maybe I am not ready to be specific tonight.
    Possibly another day.


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