The Seven Liberal Arts

The Seven Liberal Arts

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Should We Question Everything? The Purpose of Open Mindedness, Part I

The problem of answering what exactly it means to have an open mind, and in what senses it can be a good or bad thing, is a vast and tricky one, and one I do not expect to be able to solve. There are many conflicting notions regarding it out there, all of which seem to make at least some sense. On one hand, most people (it seems) hold openness to new ideas a good thing, because without it, how else would one who is in error ever be able to come to knowledge of the truth? On the other hand, people may argue it is not a good thing, because if you already know the truth, having people tell you otherwise means you risk losing it. Indeed it is possible to know the truth, and in that case, having a mind open to error is foolish. Both sides acknowledge that the goal is knowing and keeping the truth. The problem lies in the fact that plenty of people think they know the truth when in reality they do not.

First, I find it necessary to define what Thomas Aquinas calls the three acts of reason.¹ The first act of reason is the "formation of the intellect," or the perception by the senses, wherein one understands what a thing is. It is in this act of reason that one can distinguish between a substance, a quality, a quantity, and so on. An example of this is noticing that your blanket and the color of your blanket are two different kinds of thing. The second act of reason, Aquinas says, is "the composition or division of things understood, in which there is now the true or the false." By this he means that you connect two things together, by thinking, "This blanket is beige." This can be either true or false now, depending on whether it corresponds to reality. The third act of reason is "to discourse from one thing to another, so that through what is known one may arrive at knowledge of what is unknown." This is where logical arguments make their entrance. By having two premises that you do know, a syllogism might be created to arrive to a conclusion which you did not previously realize. 

On this highest level, however, not all truths are easily broken down into syllogisms with premises from the second act of reason; another syllogism might be formed with two premises that were conclusions of previous syllogisms if they are related by a common term. Further, indeed I believe there are some truths beyond even the reaches of reason. Clearly the idea of truth as something corresponding to reality applies to ideas higher than whether or not the blanket is in fact beige.

Considering that humans have senses in order to perceive reality outside of us, and a mind to draw connections and make conclusions based on our experiences, let it be considered good, right and properly ordered when we perceive the truth, both sensibly and intellectually. When a person's senses are deceptive, such as when one perceives hallucinations that are not existent in any reality beyond the mind, it is considered wrong, false, and disordered. Likewise it should be considered bad or wrong when one intellectually believes what is false, that is, not correspondent to reality.

It may be helpful to go over the two sides mentioned in the first paragraph and see why each, taken in the extreme, is wrong.

It is evident that closed-mindedness in the extreme is not good, for one insists on believing an error forever. Most would consider a person today who believes that the earth is flat ignorant and closed-minded to the evidence of the contrary. Or, even if the thing insisted upon is not an error but a truth, it may be a more limited truth, and insisting upon it will amount to a refusal to grow in deeper understanding. Such people might believe, for example, that God created the universe, and while that may be true, they might ignore or even deny scientific explanations of natural phenomena, which seems limiting to say the least.

It is not as evident that the policy of unlimited open-mindedness is wrong. It is a common axiom, among those who like to philosophize, that "Everything must be open to be questioned." To say that some things ought not to be questioned reeks of tyranny and ignorance, the very enemy of free thought. But let us remember that the object and purpose of our mind is understanding reality, knowing the truth. And why else would one wish to question something, apart from testing it to see if it is true? Presumably, then, once one does see it is true, it should stop being questioned. Then it appears that the "question everything" mantra is false, for even by it there are some things that should no longer be questioned. However, if someone objects that even what is found to be true should still be up to question, then he has forfeited his own purpose. Having stated that questioning everything is the only way to knowledge, he has ended up saying that one should question everything but that there is no knowledge. Once the champion against ignorance, he has become the champion for it.

But this still does not seem satisfying. Surely there are countless times that scientists have thought something to be proven right, only for new evidence to be found years later that proves they were actually not right at first. Perhaps this is an important point. It seems that this principle should apply to natural science. But the principle itself is not scientific, rather, it is philosophical. Science began with it, rather than produced it. If "question everything" applies also to philosophical principles, and it is itself a philosophical principle, it too should be questioned. But "if it too is open to question, by what principle are we to justify our examination of it? Not by the principle of free inquiry, for it is presently under judgment and therefore in suspense."* Then it is necessary that there exist some philosophical principles that cannot be questioned. These indeed exist, and are found by syllogism, where at least two premises are arranged in such a way as to produce a necessary conclusion. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. It appears to follow that philosophy is more certain than the practice of natural science, for scientists are always adjusting their understandings of the truth by collecting more evidence, while something logically demonstrated is unassailable.

Now let us return to what exactly an open mind is. It is a willingness to consider ideas that differ from your own. Having had this preliminary discussion, I will attempt to write about how this applies in practice, in another post.

Read Part II

¹ Commentary on the Posterior Analytics of Aristotle - Foreword

*A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, Ch. III


  1. So philosophy uses demonstration (strictly speaking) and natural science uses induction. Perhaps?

    1. Yes, I think so. Now I need to figure my way out of this hole I've dug myself into.