I have recently encountered several people in the media, in discussions on the web and in person who label themselves as “free thinkers”.
Traditionally “freethought” or “free thinking” had a meaning. Wikipedia tells us that “Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or any dogma.
It’s ironic that the term “traditionally” might be appropriate when refering to a definition of “freethought”. Perhaps “historically” would rest more easily on the ears? But I think there’s a case for it’s use. In western thought the idea of “freethought” has its origins in the period of The Enlightenment with thinkers like Voltaire in Europe and in the new world, Jefferson and Adams, who rejected the ideas of the past, specifically ideas like the divine right of kings and formulated the ideas of self determination to replace them. In a conservative society predicated on a hierarchy of aristocrats, clergy and commoners with traditions that had a place for everyone and kept everyone in their place, they imagined a world in which “all men are created equal” and where ideas survived on the basis of their merit rather than the presumed pedigree or inherited power of their proponent. They were the liberals of their time, embracing change to the extent that they actively mapped out how it could happen. They placed themselves in direct opposition to those who fought to maintain the status quo.
There are those among us now who consider themselves “free thinkers.” I don’t claim that status for myself. I only claim to be a thinker at best. It seems to me that to add a modifier to anything generally limits it. For example, if I use the word “apple”, one could anticipate that the picture balloons that appear in the heads of our readers could range from “red apple” to “yellow apple” to “candied apple” and “caramel apple”. If I modify the word “apple” to read “Granny Smith apple”, how many of those picture balloons instantly pop, replaced by a totally different image of a “green apple”? The word “apple” has been modified (and limited) by the words “Granny Smith”. I believe now the same principle functions when we modify “thought” to “freethought”.
We are told that things evolve over time. Is it possible that historical free thinking has evolved into something we might not recognize by reading the “traditional” definition of the term?
So, lets ask ourselves (if we are capable of questioning ourselves and our assumptions), just what is the meaning of “free thinking” these days? Is it freedom from something? Or is it the freedom to do something?
Perhaps it is the freedom from something. Is it the freedom from the culture in which we were raised? I don’t think that’s possible. The background of our culture, brought to us by our parents and by our religion (or lack of religious belief) or by our education all provide our tools for thought and the measures by which we judge our thoughts and the ideas of others.
As an example of how one can go terribly wrong by ignoring their cultural background, I offer a statement made by Kathleen Parker, a Caucasian, conservative, newspaper columnist and TV opinion show host, retained presumably for her ability to “think freely”; to analyze how things are in reality and to comment accordingly in order to provide perspective to her readers.
In a recent column dealing with racial issues Parker said, “I don’ t see things through a racial filter.” This blithely ignores the fact that we are all of one race or another. Her presumption here is that only people of races other than hers see things through a racial filter and that somehow, presumably because she’s white, she does not. I’m sure that, without realizing it, Ms. Parker called into question the validity of any opinion she had on the topic of race with such a statement. The fact of the matter is that Ms. Parker most certainly sees things through a racial filter … the filter that is part and parcel of being a Caucasian and, more specifically, a Caucasian in America. As much as Ms. Parker imagines her thinking is “free”, in this case free of prejudice … the reality does not pass even the most casual examination.
Does being a “free thinker” mean that we have freed our imagination to think about anything in any way that we can imagine? Does it mean that we are free to imagine our own facts. Or does it mean that, because we have freed our imagination, we are free to pick our facts and ignore that facts that don’t fit with what we imagine to be true? It would be contrary to the historical definition of “freethought” but evidence suggests that selective reality is perfectly consistent with contemporary interpretations of the term
Does “free thinking” mean the freedom from preconceived notions? Perhaps it does, but that is true only if we continually question our assumptions and our sense of being right. If we do not continually question what we believe and consider the possibility that we might be wrong then we run the risk of going a long way down the proverbial garden path. If we cannot admit to ourselves that our opinions might be wrong, it becomes doubly difficult for us when someone else provides evidence that we are, in fact, wrong. If we do not continually question what we believe, we run the risk of painting ourselves into a corner.
In a 2006 interview, Chalmers Johnson, author of “Blowback”, a long time CIA consultant and historian of the post-cold war era defended himself against the assertion that he had changed his position from the time when he was considered the consummate “cold warrior”. “When I get new information, I change my position.” he said. “What do you do?”
If the primary objective of thought is to find truth, then the process must be to gather the evidence and allow the evidence available to determine our conclusions. To pursue a conclusion by seeking only evidence that supports our opinion while ignoring the evidence that does not only serves to promote an agenda but at best it can only provide a half truth. Beyond that, if the evidence we have can be demonstrated to be false, we must remove it from our consideration and recalculate all of our conclusions that depend on it. All evidence must be tested for truth.
Or perhaps the contemporary term “free thinker” is simply used by some as a self serving means to distinguish themselves from others who are merely “thinkers”, implying that somehow “free thought” is of a better quality than just plain old thought. But that begs a question. How is “free thinking” better than “thinking”? What is it about “free thinking” that provides a greater guard against logical fallacies, the dread faulty premise and preconceived notions? What quality does “free thinking” possess that is a defense against prejudice and bigotry, doctrine and dogma? What is it about modifying that idea of “thinker” that liberates thought rather than restricts it?
It's presumptuous to adopt an appellation that has historically referred to giants of liberal though while promoting conservative agendas. To label ourselves “free thinking” while cutting and pasting conservative orthodoxy, foisting it on our readers as our own thinking, is to create an oxymoron on par with a “giant shrimp”. And when we betray the title by abandoning the evidence and the rules of logic by being dogmatic and doctrinaire, we render “freethought” the punchline of a joke that we wear on our sleeves.
Or to summarize, using a quote from “The Princess Bride”; “That word you used? I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
(If anyone is interested in precedents for this particular abuse of language; using a word for a thing that is in total conflict with the reality of the thing, I would recommend Googling the Orwellian term “newspeak”.)