Active or Open?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, makes a thought-provoking observation regarding the thought processes of people who are usually correct vis-a-vis those who usually aren't. As relayed by Jason Fried of 37signals:

[Bezos has] observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.
By contrast:
What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can't climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they're often wrong most of the time.
Regarding people who are "right a lot", Fried adds that, "This doesn't mean you shouldn't have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary."

I don't know enough about the philsophical views of Bezos or Fried -- or the full context of Bezos's remarks to be able to say I agree with Bezos (or Fried's interpretation of what he said). That would depend on whether they view such statements as, "A is A," or "Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses," as mere points of view -- or as truths the human mind can grasp.

Assuming that the two agree that men can discover truth with their minds, I would have to agree with the above. In any event, I am reminded of the following passage by Ayn Rand regarding a commonly-held false dichotomy, that between "open" and "closed" minds:
[There is a] dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an "open mind." This is a very ambiguous term--as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having "a wide open mind." That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A "closed mind" is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices--and emotions. But this is not a "closed" mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an "open mind," but an active mind--a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants--a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.
Do Bezos and Fried advocate open minds or active ones? I suspect the latter, but whether their remarks want correction or clarification, I found the thinking they evoked profitable.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

I've found that probably the easiest way to be consistently correct is to look things up when you can't remember *where* you learned it. I have a good-ish memory, so I have a bad habit of relying on it rather than checking simple facts through sheer laziness.

Kyle Haight said...

I was intrigued by the other comment, about how the inability to climb out of the details to see the bigger picture correlated with being wrong a lot. That made me think immediately of integration. That 'bigger picture' view consists of taking the details and cross-checking them, relating them to other more distant items and trying to build a coherent whole. Integration is a valuable cognitive check -- too much focus on details in a limited area leads to compartmentalization and the dismissal of potential contradictions.

Gus Van Horn said...


That does indeed help with simple facts, assuming your source is right or easy to check. Hand-in-hand is integrating one's knowledge. I have found mental connections have helped me remember things or at least be able to come up with decent approximations when I haven't been able/had time to look something up.


Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for making that excellent point: You put into words something my mind had merely been grasping at.


Steve D said...

Well, it depends whether we're talking about natural selection or string theory. I have my doubts about the second; I'm convinced about the first. You can't check everything. At some point you have to decide that even though the knowledge you have might not be complete in an absolute sense; it is in the context enough that you need. Then you must act. If you retain that so-called perpetually open mind and never make conclusions you will end up paralyzed and unable to act and unable to live.
And if you did decide to accept Newton’s gravity theory even though it is only approximate, at least you can send spacecraft to Mars with no chance of error – although GPS might be beyond your grasp. Integrate new knowledge as you receive it.

Gus Van Horn said...


Also a good point. For some non-philosophical things, such as evolution, there reaches a point beyond which retaining the stance of, "But I could be wrong about that," is absurd. As a biology professor appropriately stated in the beginning of a series of lectures on evolution when I was in college, "Biologists regard evolution as a fact."

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

During college I had the catchprase "Remember, a mind, like a parachute, only works when it is open" used as a clincher to a debate.

Since I dislike arguments from analogy used as definitive rather than illustrative, I responded, "And what do you think happens when you jump out of a plane with your parachute already open?"

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


That's a good comeback, not to mention a nice blueprint for making snappy comebacks to similar facile analogies.