- Think for yourself. Most people accept the ideas they’re taught by their parents, school, peers, and culture. Independent thought is discouraged in our early lives. We are frequently punished for disagreeing with others (even if only with scorn) and rewarded for towing the line. This is how bad ideas perpetuate through the centuries. The older ideas are, the harder they are to question, challenge, or oppose. An independent thinker, however, is oriented toward truth rather than pleasing others or society. Independent thought is freethinking–they are synonymous.
- Declare your independence from identity groups. ISMs (or identity groups) are the opposite of freethinking. They are intended as a substitute for thinking. These are exactly what freethinkers are trying to be free of. It is certainly easier to identify with a group on the basis of race, language, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, philosophy, income class, political party, or occupation than it is to think about issues for oneself, but gets one no closer to truth. Identity groups are inherently hierarchical: they have authorities who speak on the group’s behalf and unquestioning followers, who are not meant to concern themselves with matters of truth and falsity. In fact, independent adherence to truth is seen as a threat to the far greater value of “loyalty” to the cause.
- Be ruthlessly on guard against authority. Authority is the opposite of thinking. By it’s nature, it makes free inquiry into truth impossible. To believe something based on someone’s supposed authority is to turn your mind off and accept their say-so on the matter. This is why acceptance of authority (codenamed “faith”) is the basis for all religions. But it is also the basis for any secular belief you are encouraged to accept blindly without questioning for yourself. In our culture, this is nearly every knowledge claim, from every source. Authority-worship is so ingrained into our thinking that people default to it. Anyone in a position of power has a built-in interest in demanding your unthinking acceptance. The reality is we all have the same nervous systems– there are no humans who have privileged access to knowledge, unknowable to you and I.
- Embrace your inner skeptic. Skepticism has been associated with negativity for centuries, probably by those who don’t want you thinking too hard about things. Being skeptical does not mean being inherently negative, nor does it mean dismissing things out of hand. A skeptic is simply a complete egalitarian toward all knowledge claims, regardless of the source. A skeptic applies the same litmus test to everything they see, hear, or read: does it make sense to my reasoning mind, and is it supported by evidence? A skeptic gives no one a pass on this, based on any supposed authority. Media (including social media), corporations, and governments are engaged in a nearly constant propaganda war for your assent. Do not give it blindly. A freethinker’s attitude toward them all is the same: “Convince me.”
- Acknowledge just how much of human thinking is based on fictions. E.g., nearly all of it. Everything humans do, beyond basic physical survival, is based on stories about what they think is right. Much of what we think of as “necessary” is nothing more than the prevailing cultural preferences of our time. Thousands of other cultures have existed which did not value the things we value, and certainly did not regard them as “necessary”, or even important. A freethinker ruthlessly questions the things their society calls “important”, as well as the thin veneer of fiction holding them up.
- Acknowledge the inadequacy of language. We are minds trying to communicate with one another via little spoken or written symbols (words). The symbols are almost always inadequate to convey what we’re truly thinking. There is much confusion over the symbols: we often disagree what they mean, waste great deals of time arguing over them, build up entire institutions, and even wage wars to defend them. Disagreement over symbol-meaning is the source of most human conflict. If we were able to communicate telepathically we might be surprised to find that much of us are in agreement about things, even though we disagree vehemently about the symbols. A freethinker acknowledges this inadequacy and strives to never confuse the symbol with the truth.
Anyone who calls themselves a “freethinker”, I think, would happily acknowledge these six principles.
Now let’s look at some applications of these principles to some specific human problems. You might consider yourself a freethinker and disagree with these next conclusions, and that’s okay. (Accept nothing on anyone’s say-so, including mine.) I offer them for your consideration, since they are, in every case, contrary to the prevailing beliefs of our time.
Also, let’s just clarify something: the point of freethinking is not to be a contrarian. It is to maintain adherence to one’s own thinking, regardless of (and often, in spite of) the prevailing philosophies of one’s time. This, of course, makes you look like a contrarian to anyone being swept along by the current. But so does anyone who makes it to the riverbank, climbs out, and refuses to drown.
Human society is young. We are steeped in the irrationality of childhood. If we ever want to graduate to adulthood, it will be owing to freethinkers who defied the prevalent ideas.
In other words, we need more people swimming for the riverbank so they can start throwing lines!
Examples (Freethinking Applied to Specific Issues):
Health: You are the highest authority when it comes to all matters pertaining to your health–not your doctor, pharmaceutical company, or favorite health guru. Research is coming out constantly which contradicts long-held dogmas of the health establishment. Do the research, craft a diet and exercise regime which makes sense for you, given your life requirements and context. Don’t fall into the too-common trap of just buying whatever food corporations are selling, and then spending the latter half of your life in doctor’s offices and hospitals fixing all the damage. Our deadliest diseases (cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, etc.) are diseases of lifestyle. Being sick as we age is not “normal”. Get your lifestyle under your own control, get yourself off the meds, and strive to never see the inside of a doctor’s office again.
History: History is not a series of discovered truths. It is a series of trying to make certain stories true and being corrected by failure. When you read history, remember you are not reading facts. You are reading a story (it’s in the name…), as interpreted by someone who was not there, who is viewing that story through a particular lens, and has an interest in making you accept their story as the truth. Learn the facts, but also question the lens, the story, the interpretation, and the motivation of the storyteller.
News: Same deal. Much like “history”, it’s a mistake to think that the news is a basic presentation of the facts. You are not “staying abreast” of current events when you watch the news. You are watching a heavily-biased, cherry-picked fictionalization of the events, which is designed with entertainment and advertising dollars in mind. The purpose of news is to titillate you into buying the things they’re selling in between stories (which, more often than not, is some kind of pharmaceutical or antidepressant). Turn off the network news and find reliable information from sources you trust, who don’t have an interest in selling you the antidote.
Religion: If religion were nothing but private speculations on the origin and nature of the universe, there would be no problem. You and I might have long, fruitful, and interesting discussions on such metaphysical matters. But the freethinker and religion part ways when we are told we must accept your speculation (and those of people thousands of years dead) as the one and only unquestionable truth. And matters become particularly repulsive when you will go as far as raising a legal prohibition, or even an army, to prevent me thinking or behaving differently from you. Being old doesn’t make an idea right. Nor does being written down. Imagine I tried to impose punishments of heresy upon you if you didn’t believe every word of The Lord of the Rings as the literal, Gospel truth, for example.
Science: Many people make science into a religion, simply substituting the authority of scientists with the authority of priests. This is not how science works. Scientists are supposed to disagree with, and challenge, one another. Science is not a fixed body of knowledge—it is a method of rigorously testing knowledge claims. A given knowledge claim, or hypothesis, must stand against any and all criticisms, including those of non-scientists, and it welcomes such criticisms. And even if it does stand, it is not immune to future corrections or even total upheavals. Science is not an ever-growing body of knowledge. As with every other area of human life, paradigms shift, revolutions occur, and old ways are overturned. Science welcomes upheavals if they get us closer to the truth.
Politics: The way to think clearly about political and social issues is emphatically NOT to pick sides… which is what nearly everyone does. This is a reptile-brain level of analysis, characterized by the highest degree of “certainty”, wherein issues are decided by tribal belonging, Us vs. Them thinking, and leader worship. What’s required is the level of analysis applied by skeptics and visionaries, characterized by reading, learning, listening, considering long-term implications, considering implications for everyone (not just a select group), and rejecting any notion of authority. Forget about bickering parties, the sweet words of politicians, and artificial dichotomies such as “Left and Right” or “conservative and liberal” and think about what YOU regard as true.
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