Do you think you’re an original, rational, objective thinker? These three aren’t synonymous; nor is a person one because they’re the other. Moreover, we can be rational on one topic but emotional on another, or objective about one topic but allow our bias to sway us on another.

George Bernard Shaw acidly remarked, “Most people think they are thinking when they are merely changing their prejudices.” People generally swap the opinions of their parents to those of their friends, of their professors, of other authorities, each time and each time, perhaps, believing they are thinking, because they have been given a more convincing rationale: although what convinces one person may not convince another.

Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself, to test whether you tend to swim in the river of thought or drift with the current.

1. How many of your beliefs make you uncomfortable? If there’s a concept in your worldview that you believe is correct but you still don’t really like, you’re more of a thinker. The greater impact the topic you’re considering has on people, the more aspects of it there are to consider, and a comprehensive theory is more difficult to form. This also means there will be parts of that theory we don’t like. But if we’re able to hold to what we believe is true, despite aspects that we don’t like, we’re more interested in truth than comfort; and this means we’re more likely to think than just follow the flow of popular belief.

2. How many of your beliefs are the same as those of most people around you? In The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Charles Darwin noted, “When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science.” In other words, a proposition isn’t true just because everyone believes it’s true.

If you believe the same as almost everyone else about a topic, your beliefs have been obtained from similar sources, or sources that teach the same fact. We rarely hold unique opinions (ones that none of our social, academic, or filial circles hold) unless we are genuinely seeking the true answer to a topic; however, believing what everyone else does doesn’t mean your beliefs are wrong. Everyone believes 2 + 2 = 4; this doesn’t mean we are crowd thinkers, primarily because it is a concept that is easy to objectively demonstrate and is universally true. I suppose everyone believes that murder is wrong, but giving an objective reason for this is more difficult than demonstrating a mathematical equation. If we consider murder absolutely wrong, we need to give a reason why that holds true absolutely: at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance.

But neither does standing alone on a position – for example, that lizard people have infiltrated governments at the highest levels – mean we’re right, but at least it shows you either think more or less originally, or at least that you have the courage to stand for your beliefs.

Once slavery was considered normal. So was offering your dinner guests the use of your slaves – including pre-adolescents – for sex. Once it was also normal for a man to have a wife and a mistress. Also considered normal was allowing unwanted children to die, by exposing them to the elements or by starvation. (Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World relates several instances of such culture clashes – and not all of them a long time ago. One of the most stomach-twisting events told in the book is about a baby girl named Sheela.) Most of us, those who are able to read this blog, would be horrified by these. So why are our ethics different?

Naturally we like to think if we lived in those societies we’d still think the same as we do now. Would we though? Social change always starts out as a counter-cultural movement, with a few people who think differently, until that way of thinking becomes normal. This fact seems to agree with Shaw’s assessment; that change of opinion results merely from (social) prejudice, and not really through thinking.

3. How well do you understand the pros and cons of all positions on the issue? Come to that, how well do we understand each position? What do the other position(s) believe, and why? If you are aware of the weaknesses of your position and the strengths of the opposite position, you are probably a more objective thinker. Charles Darwin was such a thinker. He set out failure standards for his hypothesis (the lack of fossils showing gradual transitions from one animal kind to another), and also its weaknesses: in Origin of Species, in a section titled “Organs of Extreme Perfection and Complication”, he cites the eye as evidence for the implausibility of natural selection. However, as a good thinker does, he plays devil’s advocate, arguing, from the lesser to the greater, that as lower forms could sense light, there also might be the possibility for the eye to have developed (the good professor adduces several “if”s to his argument but the essential point remains).

4. What would convince you to change your mind? Some people would say, “scientific proof.” But can every issue be proved scientifically? What is scientific proof? Think of contentious topics: climate change; theism versus atheism; the death penalty; same sex marriage. Can all of these topics be proved, one way or another, scientifically? (I say “prove” or “proof” in the sense of “irrefragably demonstrated to be so”.) There is a difference between a scientifically proven fact and a scientifically proven fact being used to support a hypothesis. The fact stands on its own as true, and may be used as evidence for the second, but the fact doesn’t necessarily make the hypothesis true.

Look at those four topics again: climate change; theism versus atheism; the death penalty; same sex marriage. The first two topics are factual; the second two are ethical, although all involve facts and their interpretation (testing hypotheses to develop working theories). The former two can reach an answer that can be considered right or wrong in the factual sense; although the answer particularly to the non-/existence of the supernatural must be based on the principle of “inference to the most probable cause”. That is, even if we can’t prove the non-/existence of the supernatural in (what I call) the purely scientific sense – obtaining a tangible and direct cause-and-effect result: we can obtain this in physics and chemistry but other scientific fields require the inference principle – we can consider a hypothesis as proven or not. If the results of testing contradict the expectations of the hypothesis, the hypothesis cannot be true.

People who are unwilling to change their minds are often called bigots. So what would it take for you to change your mind about the capital punishment, marriage equality, global warming, or the supernatural?

5. Consistency. If we hold an ethical position – believing something as good or bad – we must have a basis for it. (The word “wrong” has an ethical connotation that “incorrect” or “false” don’t have. “Incorrect” or “false” carry a merely intellectual “true or false” meaning, while “good” and “bad” carry a purely ethical meaning, without reference to factual validity. So that’s how I’ll try to use these words.) If we believe we are just an accident, then it follows there is no absolute meaning to life, which means are no absolute ethics, so for the altruist there is no higher ethic than the survival of humanity. But this is a personal choice: on what basis should it be considered objectively, actually, really better to care about humanity as a whole than about my own pleasure? Nevertheless, on the basis of this foundational belief – we can say that murder is wrong/bad – based on the fact that if the survival of humanity requires the greatest amount of genetic variety, murder is a (very slight) reduction of that variety. On the other hand, if there is a moral-law giver, then there will be moral laws, which we should hold to. (This doesn’t mean that if there is a supreme being, that being will necessarily provide or enforce an ethical system.)

Smoking cigarettes is harmful but does this mean it is wrong – and if it is wrong, shouldn’t it be punished? Getting drunk is harmful but is a person who gets drunk a bad person? So also, the latter two topics – the death penalty, and same sex marriage – are ethical ones. Irrespective how an action or attitude affects individuals or society, saying they are good/right or bad/wrong – connecting physical wellbeing and moral benefit – is based on our worldview. Our worldview cannot be scientifically proven: the best we can do is examine the evidence for our worldview and come to a conclusion, based on inferring what the most probable cause is.

There’s an Italian (I think) proverb that says the secret to felicity in love is to take hold and let go lightly. To me it seems this is the secret to not being hurt – don’t invest much of yourself – but it’s solid advice when we’re talking about truth based on evidence. That’s what I think about it at the moment, anyway.

Whatever the basis of our worldview is, it should produce consistent ethical beliefs. If we believe we should tolerate other people’s right to a different opinion, isn’t it inconsistent to ridicule a person for their beliefs? If they are intolerant, that’s their issue. (Unhappily we might have to deal with the fallout!) If we claim to be tolerant, we have no right to condemn a person for their intolerance. However, if there are some beliefs and behaviours we should not tolerate – for example, that we should not tolerate abuse of any person – where is the exclusion clause in our worldview? Where is the dividing line between what we should and shouldn’t tolerate? And who determines where that line is drawn? We have to give some reason for our beliefs about this.

Consider consistency as it relates to eating meat. It may be beneficial and/or harmful to our body in different ways, but that’s completely different to saying that eating meat is bad. If eating meat is bad, people who eat meat should be punished – unless we are no more than animals. If we are no more than intellectually advanced animals, why not punish, train, and/or prohibit all other animals from eating meat? But we don’t expect other animals to hold to human ethics. Why? I think it was C.S. Lewis (when in doubt, cite Lewis!) who said something along the lines that when a man acts poorly, we say, “Come on now, be a man!” If a crocodile eats a person, we don’t respond in the same way, “Come on now, be a crocodile!” We expect people, but not animals, to act according to moral standards. We expect this if we believe people to be different than other animals, in some intangible aspect. If people are different than other animals, then by what standard should we treat animals with care? If we’re no more than animals, then why condemn us for eating meat? If we are animals, then by what standard should we treat other animals well: banning live export or at least having better standards of carriage; cruelty-free abattoirs (in as far as this isn’t a contradiction: consider euthanasia as a parallel)?

If our beliefs aren’t consistent, we either haven’t thought about the topic through the lens of our worldview, or perhaps our beliefs are changing our worldview.

6. Again taking up an issue from the previous point, how do you act towards people who hold a different position? (True, this is an issue of the milk of human kindness rather than of thoughtfulness.) I recently read a blog from a person who claimed to be highly moral, yet they mocked people who held different positions. Surely a person with a good morality would not mock others, even if they found their views deplorable.

Isn’t there a difference between a person and their beliefs? A person can change their beliefs but are they likely to if you ridicule and insult them? It depends on how rationally they think; whether they can separate the argument from the insult. I believe that Sam Harris said people usually don’t change their beliefs on the spot, but after the conversation, when they have time to think about what’s been said. They might change their beliefs to agree with ours but they will also develop their own beliefs about the sort of person we are.

None of these mean your beliefs are right or wrong, but as A. A. Milne is quoted as stating: “The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.”

P.S. There aren’t many books I think people should read, but Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: how the Bible created the soul of Western civilization is one of them. Also, a great, and brief, guide to thinking objectively – that is, to put aside your biases – is Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit.”