New Testament scholar N. T. Wright wrote,
“The purpose of an open mind… is like the purpose of an open mouth: that it might be shut again on something solid. Yes, we must be free to ask questions. But when we hear a good answer we must be prepared to recognize it as such, and not be so keen on keeping all the questions open that we shy away from an answer because we so like having an open mind. That is the way to intellectual, as well as spiritual, starvation.”
So much for the Cult of the Open Mind, which in its purest essence is nothing more than the admission that one has lived a life without learning a thing or arriving at a conclusion.
In one form or another, I hear people suggest that an “open mind” is somehow superior to possessing an opinion or embracing a principle. The only times that’s true, in my view, are when an opinion or a principle is knee-jerk, poorly-considered, illogical, untrue or unfounded.
Does the sun come up in the east or in the west? It’s not a sign of wisdom to claim your mind is open on the matter and then wait around to see what happens each morning.
Opinions and principles are connected, or at least they ought to be. Principles are foundational and opinions are based at least in part upon them. Principles are rule sets, guidelines, fundamental truths. They include axioms, morals, ideals, laws of nature and human behavior, and even the bedrock, physical principles of the universe. Another word for principle is conviction.
This doesn’t mean that one’s principles must necessarily never change. When truth or new evidence suggest it strongly enough, we should change them. In that sense, our minds should always be “open,” but that’s no reason to sit on the fence in the meantime.
In the physical sciences, evidence and proof seem to be objective and indisputable, at least for the moment. It’s in the social sciences that things get fuzzier and more subjective. But even there, a thinking person seeks principles to lead him logically to opinions as well as conclusions.
Though some might view principles negatively as a sign of rigidity, ideology or close-mindedness, that’s often just a way of dismissing another person’s principles while holding fast to our own. Most people instinctively admire someone who seems to believe in something.
The comedian Groucho Marx once facetiously declared, “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them (pause), I have others!” We may chuckle at that, but we don’t admire it. It’s just a funny way of saying, “I really don’t have any principles” or “I’ll have whatever principles you want me to have and I’ll dump them the moment somebody else wants me to have different ones.”
Whoever said it should get a medal for observing that “if you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything.” If you dodge and weave to avoid principles so you can claim to have an “open mind,” you’ve simply demonstrated how empty your mind really is. And perhaps your soul as well.
Your principles, or lack thereof, may be what the world remembers you for more than anything else.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at email@example.com .