Why You Shouldn't Think for Yourself
Relying on others is what makes us human.
Image: Brain autopsy; Jensflorian, CC.
We love independent thinking. Culture heroes like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are celebrated for their contrarian, innovative, genius; Hollywood heroes are encouraged to follow their dreams as the music swells, regardless of quibbling pragmatic detractors. And in politics, we sneer at partisan shills who take their cues from party talking points. Voters should be self-directed; they should carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each individual candidate, and make a determination on merit, regardless of R or D. Don't be a sheeple!
Everybody agrees—you should think for yourself. But do you really want to follow that herd insisting that you follow the herd? To be a truly independent thinker, maybe you have to think about the virtues of not thinking for yourself after all.
The ideal of thinking for yourself sounds appealing. Shouldn't you become informed about important issues, weigh the evidence, and make up your mind accordingly? In theory, maybe. But in practice, there are problems.
Each person is only one (1) person with one (1) brain. It's simply impossible to be an expert on everything, or even on a small portion of everything. If you're knowledgeable about Syria, you're not necessarily also going to be knowledgeable on women's health care. If you understand the ins and outs of NAFTA, you won't necessarily be deeply knowledgeable about net neutrality. Chances are that, like me, you are not an expert on any of these things. And if you work a 50 hour week or more, you probably don't have the time or energy to study up on all these issues. You probably don't even have time to keep up with the latest stupid thing Trump did.
Even if you could research every subject intensely, doing so wouldn't necessarily lead you to good conclusions. Dedicated anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, and Charles Murray fans are very well versed in their particular nice; they can cite you figures and statistics all day long. Yet, someone with minimal knowledge who simply accepts the scientific consensus and the word of experts is actually infinitely better informed about each of these topics.
When you insist on listening only to yourself, you as likely as not to end up listening to a fool or a conspiracy theorist or both. Most times, you're better off taking cues from people you trust and respect. Everyone I know who broadly agrees with me on political principles says getting rid of net neutrality is bad; I'm willing to accept that getting rid of net neutrality is bad. That's a perfectly reasonable way to make decisions.
In fact, this isn't just a reasonable way to make decisions; it's the only way to make decisions. Even experts rely on other experts; to be informed is to be informed by other people. Shakespeare listened to Marlowe; Einstein got ideas from Faraday; Bill Gates got money from his daddy. Humans are social creatures; we're apes that form nests like bees. Other humans teach us language and how to use the toilet and why it's good to share. Other people teach us how to be people—and then we turn around and declare that it's a weakness to be shaped by other people. It's not very gracious.
Everybody learns and takes moral guidance from others. When people tell you that you should form opinions independently, that's other people telling you to form opinions independently. Your friends, your neighbors, and even your enemies make your brain; you're formed of bits and pieces of other people. People wail about call-out culture as if it's some form of mob rule, but the only rule we have is the mob one. Sometimes the mob is evil, and shouldn't be listened to—but those standards are set by some other, better mob.
This isn't to say that all morality is relative. It's just to say that we learn how to be good from our communities and friends. So choose the folks you associate with wisely. By, for example, looking with skepticism on people who say that ideally you would associate with no one.
For the most part, people de facto recognize that you can't really think for yourself, even when they pretend otherwise. When someone says, "Think for yourself!" they usually mean, "Listen to me, and not that other person!" If we really thought everyone should think for themselves, though we'd all fall silent forever. So here's my (contrarian! daring! individual!) conclusion: we should admit that letting other people think for us is good, and that contrarian daring individualism is both impossible and undesirable.
This was published in Splice Today way back in 2014. I stumbled on it again and still think it’s good, so I thought I’d share it with followers here.
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