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Fearless Thinking: A Manifesto for Intellectually Dark Times

In a time when we’re obsessed with gaining knowledge, we must not forget a more vital part of being intelligent.

After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, much has been made of bubbles. No, not the glorious soap and water creations that my 3 year-old loves to play with, but rather the intellectual and social shelters that we build for ourselves, in order to keep away from ideas that don’t conform to our point of view.

Some pundits argued that if experts in various fields had ventured outside of their respective bubbles, they could have (would have?) predicted what was regarded by many as a surprise outcome. But even after the dust of the election settled, a discussion commenced about intellectual bubbles —the self-imposed constraints on what media we consume, who we speak to, and what ideas we entertain. As the argument goes, the bubbles we live in become echo chambers, which merely multiply the frequency and amplify the volume of the same old ideas and messages over and over. No one’s mind is open, and everyone thinks in roughly the same way.

On one hand, I’m surprised that it took this long for a discussion about bubbles and echo chambers to emerge in wiser social circles, but the other hand, I’m not. And it’s not because I think that there’s anything wrong with society or people in general. It’s simply that in my years of being a hopeless polymath, I have come to notice a tendency that we humans have. We tend to gravitate toward the comfortable and the familiar. And while there are numerous writers and pundits out there pushing us to step out of our comfort zone when it comes to trying new activities, I don’t see nearly as many suggesting we do the same when it comes to new ideas.

Help Wanted: Devil’s Advocate (Part Time)

One of my favorite things to do since I was an adolescent has been to play devil’s advocate. I had one friend in particular who had very strong opinions about various issues, and he was not afraid to voice them. This put me in the position of being a defense attorney for the opposing viewpoint — whether I actually agreed with it or not.

We would literally walk around my neighborhood for hours on end, discussing and debating issues and ideologies. And when my home got its first dial-up connection when I was beginning high school, the debates would amplify as we began to fact-check each other. The debates would take twists and turns, with each of us changing our positions slightly based on new revelations or arguments brought up by the other side.

Though we argued passionately, and got angry at times, we stayed conscious of the purpose of the debate: it was about exploring the ideas. We stayed respectful of each other, and we retained the goal of understanding all the views expressed.

For me, I am certain that my time as the devil’s advocate gave me an appreciation of a very simple, but often overlooked fact. The practice of suspending disbelief and disapproval of ideas and opinions is one of the most valuable intellectual tools a person can have. I call it radical receptivity.

Radical Receptivity

Being radically receptive is open-mindedness but to the extreme. It’s not just about being open to new ideas — it’s more than that. You have to be willing to remain open to ideas that directly challenge your strongly held beliefs. And (so long as your physical safety is not in danger), you have to be willing to fully absorb those challenging ideas from others.

What’s even more — and where most people fall short — you have to suppress your urges to retort with your own dismissals of the challenging ideas. Rather, you have to do the opposite, and ask questions — with the goal of trying to piece together this other point of view in the most sensible way possible.

Am I saying that you can’t take a stand? No. In fact, this practice of staying radically receptive can actually make you more able to defend your own views because it allows you to construct the strongest possible (i.e., the most coherent) version of the opposing view against which to argue. In other words, you’re allowing your opponent to be strong and healthy, so there are no complaints about unfair play in the realm of debate.

The key to being radically receptive is what I call fearless thinking. It has been my approach to exploring the realm of ideas ever since my initial taking of the post of devil’s advocate. From where I stand, it has served me well, and I’ve seen it serve so man others well.

When I was teaching at a community college for several years, I advocated fearless thinking to my students as we debated deep philosophical issues (I taught philosophy — mostly ethics). The approach enabled me to help cultivate much richer conversations among a diverse group of students (ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds) — and kept intact respect between opposing sides in some heated debates.

Thinking Fearlessly

To think fearlessly is to think long, deep, and wide. What do I mean by those adjectives?

To think long means to focus not on the gossip or the current goings on — or on who is right or wrong about immediate facts. Rather, it’s about keeping with you a sense of history — its impact on what many view as novel and important current skirmishes — and an openness to the radical change that may take place in the longer future.

To think deep is to think beyond the initial explanations of things — to not simply take the short summaries of experts and pundits as either accurate or sufficient. It is to toss aside the vain and superficial day trip in search of knowledge in favor of the deeper and more arduous journey toward understanding. It is to ask why? more than once, because the first answer is so rarely either correct or complete.

To think wide is to acknowledge and search after the interconnectedness of things, people, and ideas. It is to refuse to accept the narrow categories of expertise, education, and intellectual training. It is to shrug off the suffocating walls of given ideologies, inherited spiritualities, and provided modes of learning. It is to expend the energy necessary to keep the fire of curiosity raging through the dark nights of shallow practical concerns. It is to retain and nurture the heart of an explorer — willing to venture into the unknown and uncomfortable landscape of ideas — and sit with that discomfort and uncertainty for a while.

In short, fearless thinking acknowledges that ideas are valuable and powerful. We cannot afford to discard ones that we are not immediately attracted to. We must leave room for considering them — even if it is to prove them wrong. We must take pains to entertain the ideas that repulse us — especially those ideas — because if we don’t make an effort to understand the views of those who make us feel strong emotions, we become that much easier to manipulate. And no one wants to be manipulated.

Go Forth and Seek

One of my favorite principles from any self-improvement book comes from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. In every conversation I have — no matter how benign — I try to check myself, and make sure I’m doing that. It forces me to ask questions — not so that I can reply with some thought of my own, but so that I can understand what I’m being told. It continues to amaze me how effective it is.

Is it easy to remain mostly dispassionate about ideas and points of view, seeking to understand and explore uncomfortable ideas? Of course not! But my oh my are the rewards ever worth it! Every time I practice fearless thinking, I fortify my body of knowledge, and I strengthen my position in the marketplace of ideas.

So my advice — especially in these ideologically challenging times — is this: go forth and seek. Seek to understand each other, seek to — as fully as possible — understand the most oppositional views to your own. Be charitable in your interpretation of others’ arguments — at least at first, as you explore them. And when you state your case, which should be after significant discussion, do so eloquently, respectfully, and with a persevering openness to new and challenging ideas.

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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