As many teachers and parents exhort their students and children, there’s no more valuable skill than learning to think for yourself. Or is there?
Several years ago, a group of Ivy League scholars published an open letter to incoming students, exhorting them to avoid echo chambers and think for themselves. “Something seemed obviously right and correct about that [letter],” says Dr. Jonathan Matheson, a philosopher at the University of North Florida who studies epistemology. “But something also felt wrong. That was what started the puzzle that gripped me.”
This inner discord set Matheson on a quest to understand the benefits and the limits of thinking for ourselves. “On the one hand, it seems totally obvious that thinking for yourself is good, important, something that we want to encourage,” he says. “But on the other hand, we should care about getting it right. And when it comes to getting it right, that’s usually not best accomplished by thinking for ourselves.”
In other words, for almost anything that you want to think about—how to fix a leaky pipe, what the weather will be tomorrow, the chemical compounds that form caffeine—someone else is going to be better at thinking about it than you.
Which begs the question: What happens when the love of truth and the desire to think independently are at odds?
The problem with rugged individualism
Matheson couldn’t have predicted at the outset of his quest that American society was barreling toward a pandemic-fueled battle over whose word to trust and what evidence to believe. It was a rare opportunity in which philosophy—“which is usually more theoretical and less real-world headlines”—became the subject of front-page news. As Covid-19 raged, intellectual authority was questioned and pioneer learning was celebrated. The call to do your own research led, at times, to consequences ranging from conspiracy theories to unnecessary deaths. Watching his question play out in the public square propelled Matheson to publish his research in a book titled Why It’s OK Not to Think for Yourself.
Matheson argues that it’s almost always better not to rely solely on our own judgment. Our lives benefit from the fact that we rely on mechanics to fix a car engine and dentists to fill a cavity. Even though most of us imagine ourselves to be independent thinkers, we are nearly always leaning on the findings, advice, and expertise of more knowledgeable people. Just consider your habit of checking the weather forecast before leaving home. It’s one thing to open a weather app; it’s quite another to engage in your own meteorological inquiry about pressure systems. This kind of intellectual self-reliance isn’t something we should strive for, says Matheson. “If we had to expend all of our intellectual efforts to figure out everything on our own, it’d be an impossible project. We couldn’t even get started.”
One of the knots that Matheson tried to pick apart in his research was the difference between intellectual individualism and individual autonomy. He describes intellectual individualism as a rugged, self-reliant, by-your-own-bootstraps approach to understanding an issue. It tends to take place in isolation, without a willingness to learn from expert opinion. Intellectual autonomy, on the other hand, values critical thinking but also recognizes the interconnectedness and social nature of our thinking.
As humans with limited time, energy, and cognitive resources, our intellectual reliance on others is a great gift. Thinking about problems and finding solutions is nearly always a group effort, whether we realize it or not.
The danger is when we prize intellectual individualism and try to go at it alone, trusting our own efforts above all.
What about intellectual virtues?
In many cases, such as the pandemic, a love of truth calls for reliance on expert knowledge. And yet, as Matheson writes, “There is also something deficient and unhealthy about an intellectual life that merely outsources all of its projects, even if this is done out of a love for the truth.”
When it comes to most questions in life, you can arrive at an answer by relying on someone else. But there are certain “intellectual goods,” he says, that you can only get by thinking for yourself—such as understanding. Deferring to an expert may lead to knowledge, but thinking for yourself leads to understanding. This is the difference between writing down the teacher’s answer to a math equation and actually engaging in the work of solving the equation. Or to put it another way, you don’t learn to speak Spanish by parroting back the correct vocabulary words. You have to understand how to create meaning from the vocabulary words, how the elements of grammar and syntax fit together, and how certain letters are pronounced when they appear side-by-side. In situations where you seek to understand an issue and not just know the correct answer, thinking for yourself is critical.
Another benefit of thinking for yourself is that the process helps build intellectual character. Our capacity to think critically atrophies without use, Matheson says. “If you were fluent in a second language and then stopped using it, you’d lose that ability pretty quickly. And if we were outsourcing all of our beliefs, there’s a chance that we would lose intellectual virtues.” In this case, practicing intellectual perseverance is a way to sharpen your thinking skills. If you rely solely on authority sources without flexing your own mind muscles, you may lose the ability to think for yourself.
But he’s quick to add that the benefits of thinking for yourself, whether to gain understanding or to strengthen intellectual virtues, doesn’t mean that you should rest solely on your own findings. “In both those cases, the goodness of thinking for yourself doesn’t entail that you believe whatever conclusion you come to,” he says.
In other words, it’s better to have knowledge than to constantly seek understanding in every capacity of our lives. If you want to learn how to repair a leaky faucet, you’ll gain understanding by attempting to fix it yourself. But if the faucet continues to leak, maybe it’s time to call a plumber.
A winning formula
If this all sounds like a philosophical conundrum, take heart. There’s a winning formula to apply to our intellectual lives, one that balances a love for truth with thinking for ourselves. It goes like this: intellectual autonomy plus intellectual humility equals a critical thinker who understands when to defer to experts.
“The way I think about intellectual autonomy is not as this individualism where you do it all yourself, but as being a good executive manager of your inquiry,”
Matheson explains. “The humble person is going to better navigate inquiry because they’re not going to overly rely on themselves—but they’re also not going to overly defer.” Intellectual humility gives someone a sense of their own limitations and an understanding that there are others who are better positioned to answer certain questions. More often than not, humility leads us to realize that, in fact, most questions are better answered by experts.
One frequent objection Matheson encounters is the argument that weighty questions—about morality or the existence of God, for example—shouldn’t be outsourced to experts. But he believes that life’s biggest questions actually require us to lean on others. “If [a question] is really important, then that’s all the more reason to rely on the people who are going to be better at [answering] it than you are. If it was up to you to defuse a bomb, [the fact that] it’s a really big deal is not a reason to think for yourself about it.”
The higher the stakes, Matheson argues, the more reason to pursue understanding alongside those with intellectual authority. A question’s importance isn’t a reason to tackle the inquiry alone. Maybe it’s actually a reason to rely on others. By pairing intellectual autonomy with intellectual humility, we’ll find ourselves better equipped to tackle big questions in community, and arrive at truth in the process.