Wide Open and Out in the Open

Monday, February 23, 2015

John Cook provokes both amusement and thought with a post that concludes as follows:

An idiot lives only in his own world; the opposite of an idiot has no world of his own. Both are foolish, but I think the Internet encourages more of the latter kind of foolishness. It's not turning people into idiots, it's turning them into the opposite.
Cook is on to something, but I think it would be more accurate to say that he is describing two sides of the same coin, rather than opposites. I say this because his observation reminds me of the comments of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand regarding the similar false dichotomy of open- and closed- mindedness:
[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...
Cook and Rand describe two kinds of mental passivity. Lots of people out there seek to hide from the responsibility of thinking; that is nothing new. What is new is that the Internet makes it easier for them to do so -- and for everyone else to see them doing it. (I wouldn't say it makes them do so.) That said, I think that, by conferring more visibility to the flip side of idiocy, the Internet both shows the extent of its prevalence and makes it seem much more typical than it is.

-- CAV

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