Thinking for Myself Seems Like Terrible Advice

Oftentimes, particularly within the context of political, ethical and religious discussions when people are discussing how they concluded upon their own views, I come across some form of the expression of “you need to think for yourself”, or “make up your own mind”. Whilst these are not necessarily bad statements (I mean, after all, who else other than you can make up your mind for you?) What I often find troubling behind these sorts of sentiments is tacit the tacit recognition that it is a manifest good for you to be an individual thinker, coming to your own determinations, particularly regarding large-scale and important matters relating to life, death, heaven, hell, God, and eternal destinies. I can’t help but feel that with particularly big issues, oftentimes of a metaphysical nature, this idea of “thinking for yourself” is a vice rather than a virtue. I have a few reasons why:

1. Knowing inherently requires trust

Knowledge is mediated foremostly by trust; trust in community, in traditions, in your peers, in your teachers, in “the experts”, or whomever else. The dualistic Cartesian view of the human mind and body is simply inadequate. We are not detached observers who view the world around us based on the principles of pure reason and then come to determinations as such. Virtually all that we know is externally and socially mediated these interactions necessarily presuppose trust in the objects or people that are being interacted with. There is no such thing as a person who is an island – an individual is only an individual insofar as they are an individual in relationship.

Whether we realise it or not, we find ourselves trusting so that we may know. A lack of trust is merely a sign of dysfunction within a person rather than a sign of intellectual and social liberation. It’s difficult to enter a marriage with one’s prospective husband or wife when one proposes a prenuptial agreement. If trusting is necessary, then we may as well put this trust in the open and recognise it for what it is rather than deceiving ourselves about its lack of existence.

2. It is incredibly hard to really know things

On a more practical level, the level of analysis and understanding required to know something for oneself is incredibly difficult. In an era of highspeed internet, the horizon on the sea of knowledge is virtually endless, for all intents and purposes. If I wish to know about beer, for instance, I can quite easily go online and find an endless number of forums on homebrewing; I could buy myself many copies of mass printed texts from Amazon; I could look at YouTube and see people’s recipes and the brewing process; I could read reviews on Google at certain craft microbreweries; the list goes on. The issue becomes obvious – at what point can I make a determination that I know? There is always more out there to read and, after all, I can perform a test 60 times, gain the same result, and perform another one which disproves the conclusions of the first 60. When do I call it quits? To dedicate oneself to knowing everything about one very narrow topic takes an inordinate amount of time and effort (if pursuing a PhD is a good indicator of this, it takes somewhere in the order of 10 years of full-time study. Mind you, there are plenty of incredibly dumb people with PhDs out there, of which I’m sure I’ll become someday). The amount that I have to know is in some sense both enabling and entirely paralysing, only exacerbated by the scope of the tools we have to aid us in this task. It seems obvious that the best way into this task is through the presupposition of trust.

There are even further questions: If I know nothing at all, how can I know which sources are the best to learn from? How do I know that the pursuit that I am interested in learning about is even worthwhile and not based on some false premise, either in my motivations or in the body of knowledge I am pursuing itself? It seems that I have to entrust myself to others before I can even enter into the process.

3. Trusting myself, in light of who I am, is a bad idea

From personal experience, I know that am manifestly bad at being able to think for myself. I’m very aware of my own flawed existence as Anthony, and based on what I know about myself, if I were in the position of being told to “think for myself” by myself, I would be incredibly sceptical. Anybody who repeats a mantra which refuses to turn the spotlight on one’s self as the starting point, seems insufficient. At the best of times I think I’m quite intelligent. At the most realistic of times I understand that I lack the appropriate ability and cognitive frameworks to understand that which I  pretend to know. I struggle to keep track of my bills, to remember birthdays, to engage in meaningful relationships, to read undistractedly, to reflect abstractly, to evaluate and assess various bits of data and synthesise them into new ways of looking at the world; so why in the world should I place primary trust in myself?

This is only exacerbated when questions of ultimate value and meaning are brought into the equation. How the hell could I know what it means to live a good life? How the hell could I know what justice and righteousness are? How the hell could I make determinations on whether there’s a heaven or hell, nirvana or nothingness? Furthermore, it seems supremely arrogant to think that I can come up with this knowledge solely from the source of my experience. I need to place trust in others before I can do come up with an answer that will merely be my subjective musings outside of a transcendent source.

4. The most meaningful knowledge is particularly dependent on trust

That knowledge which often seems so real and meaningful to us, comes in the form of our relationships, of the ones we personally know and love. Knowing “objective” knowledge of the world seems to be of a lesser order than being in love. That which gives us true meaning and understanding seems to come from an interface between known and knower, where the known reflexively and simultaneously acts as knower (and the knower as known). What fulfils us comes from relationship with the other who can relate back. This seems to be empirically true in the fact that, in this sense, rocks are less meaningful than dogs, who are less meaningful than other humans. There is a direct proportionality with relationality and being whole. If we compare this to, say, our knowledge of cognitive psychology, Maxwell’s equations, or evolution, these seem, frankly, brighter and warmer. I can’t imagine that we would be likely to put the things that we know on the inscription of our headstones – if that were the case, I think we would rightly see ourselves (and be seen) as failures. Rather, we put those whom we know as memorial of who we were; the meaningful relationships we have.

To clarify, this is not to say that evolution, electromagnetism or the human mind are unimportant or uninteresting – this is absolutely not the case! I find all of these fascinating and I hope to learn more (well, I do now at least, just not when I was at uni). The truth about the universe and that which is in it is supremely important. The issue is that these only seem to fulfil us and give us meaning when they open up horizons of wonder into the nature of the universe. That is, when we learn about the universe around us and come to see it (in some sense) as if it were a person to be known which relates back to us. The magnificence of nature comes from its mystery, and in solving this mystery, in much the same way that (to belabour a metaphor) knowing your spouse is satisfying in how they are unknown to you and yet disclose themselves to you. It is about stepping back and trusting that they will reveal themselves to you.

It is simply less lively, less colourful, when we are only given a view of the world as presented in “objective facts”, and not a subjective exploration into the reality of the world behind those facts, where personal investment and involvement is made, with the world seemingly relating back. This is not to say that the world is actually doing so, only that it has a peculiar quality to appear to be so, and that only in doing so is our knowledge of this reality completed. [1] In other words, it seems that the best kind of knowing isn’t the kind that requires a self-reliance, but one that requires the vulnerability of self-deference, both in the case of knowing people and knowing the world around us.

I forsee that there will be a few rebuttals to my line of thought. I will tackle the ones that I can think of in the next post.



[1] This is why, in theology, scholasticism or academic theology for the sake of academic theology is dangerous, because by virtue of its method and goal, it abstracts knowledge of God from knowing God. It pursues knowledge of God, the very God who is inherently relational in his Being, who has made us to know Him and be known by Him, separated from knowing Him.

2 thoughts on “Thinking for Myself Seems Like Terrible Advice

  1. I’ve had similar thoughts. One thing I’d add from Haidt is that “thinking for myself” usually just means rationalizing my moral sentiments. So I think it’s much more interesting to ask Why I think what I think.


    1. That certainly is a much more interesting question, though it still raises the question of why should I even trust that I’ve giving myself a fair and even analysis? I’m generally biased in my own favour.

      Mind you, it’s a weird idea, self critique, because somehow you distinguish yourself into the you that “is” you and the you that “isn’t” you, and somehow you have to trust both and neither.


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