Taking Responsibility For Your Mind


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    2-22

ABSTRACT:  Examines the relation of our belief that people can think what they want to the corresponding duty to take individual responsibility for your thoughts and for the consequences of your thoughts.

KEY WORDS:  belief, thought, mind, idea, responsibility, social responsibility

It is a cherished, bedrock assumption in our society (and presumably in all “free” societies) that individuals should have the freedom to think whatever they wish to think.  This protects us from having beliefs and thoughts imposed on us that may not be in our best interest, as they have been at times by religious groups or governments.  The question of what duties individuals should have in order to preserve this right of free thought has not been discussed.

Our society is experiencing a negative consequence of this right of free thought at the current time, through the growth of serious and open disagreements in society about key issues (immigration, taxation, racial prejudice, globalization).  The depth and the visibility of these disagreements has been created in part by use of the internet, which, since it is free and anonymous, offers great opportunities for people to express their beliefs and thoughts.  The problem with this arises because often these beliefs and thoughts cannot be said to be “true,” because they are based on no facts at all or on distorted facts provided on the internet by those who wish to influence what others think and who care little about the truth or the accuracy of what they promote.  Before the internet, the same things happened but to a much smaller degree, since the thoughts of most people did not reach as many other people, and it took longer for them to reach anyone.

Another factor in this quagmire is that people are more likely to believe something they see in print as opposed to something they hear from another individual.  The assumption is that for it to be in print, it must have first been vetted by someone with superior knowledge, an assumption that was to a greater degree true in the past when the ordinary citizen could only with great difficulty publish his own thoughts, but one that is no longer true at all.  People determined to promote ideas can easily create professional-looking posts and books that seem appealing but have no foundation in fact. 

This brings into play the infamous “confirmation bias”—a technical name for our strong tendency to believe information that supports what we ourselves already believe and to reject without serious consideration any information that conflicts with what we already believe or want to believe.  Even oral (video) posts on the internet are given greater weight by most viewers (compared to hearing a friend say the same thing) simply because they are presented in a context that we assume to be a higher authority than our own thinking or the thinking in our own locale.

Adding to the problem is the ad-supported nature of the “free” internet, in which developers have found ways to keep track of everything you do on the internet and to use this information to feed the fire of disagreement and confirmation bias by giving people things that they seem to want to see more of, based on their prior choices on the internet.  This is exploitable because most people are attracted more to the sensational (crime, disasters, scandal, etc.) than they are to positive activities, so that making a big noise or promising juicy gossip or something shocking (“secrets of….,” “You won’t believe this…”) will reliably attract more viewers than things that are valuable because they are true or things that are positive but less sensational.  (This extends even to the tendency of most users to automatically look at something that moves on their screen rather than something that does not move.)  Thus, controllers of web pages can produce more ad responses from viewers by giving them what they prefer, even if it has the additional consequence of causing them to believe things that are untrue.  (All we see on the news is crime and terrible things happening, so we think it must be a dangerous world—which is an inappropriate generalization that ignores what the actual frequencies of crimes and other terrible things are and ignores the actual balance of positive things versus negative things in the world.)

The ability on the internet to reach very large numbers of people easily has made it possible for people to group together with those who think similarly to themselves, so they can share thoughts which are guaranteed to be believed because those involved already believe the same things.  This makes you feel like you have support for your beliefs and thoughts, when in fact you may have only a large number of people who don’t know any more than you do about the matter at hand but think the same things as you.  Several thousand people can’t possibly be wrong, can they?—of course they can (Hitler, flat earth, racism).  This exposes another of our unconscious vetting efforts–to go with the crowd, since it is safer, regardless of whether the crowd is right.

In order to reduce the amount of rancor among our citizens who disagree about issues, it may be critical to develop the concept that each of us has responsibility for what we put in our minds and for the conclusions that we come to as a result of what we allow into our minds.  It is a principle of our legal system that we are responsible for how we affect others by our behavior (which results from what we think ands believe), but we have not explicitly promoted the idea that it makes a difference what we put into our minds and what we conclude.  This is an easy logical extension from the individual’s responsibility for his behavior, because it is clear to everyone that we act on what we think to be reality, but it is a new concept for most people to say that we are not passive recipients of whatever those around us want to put into our minds but active sifters of what we allow in.  If you allow in a mix of things that are true and things that are not, you will act just like a computer for which we say “garbage in, garbage out.”  To promote discussion that is closer to reality (closer to the truth) we should start holding people responsible (morally) for what they think and what they let into their minds.  Our society is suffering currently from too much misinformation (too much that is asserted to be truth when it is only opinion).  This confusion is upsetting to people, and the greater the confusion and uncertainty, the more likely it is that eventually someone will grab the authority to say what is right and wrong (and prohibit you from saying what he/she considers to be wrong), just to calm down the confusion and uncertainty.

This is not an argument for denying reality by limiting what we take in (for instance, refusing to take in any sexual content so that we won’t violate what we assume to be our moral standards, refusing to believe anything negative about Mr. Trump, or refusing to acknowledge the evil in the world so we won’t have to do anything about it).  This is an argument for making what we take in and conclude as accurate (as close to reality) as we can make it.  It is unlikely that we will or should make having certain thoughts illegal, as our minds are too active and diverse to have a standard like that.  (How could you decide to reject a certain idea unless you first had it in your mind to examine it?) 

This responsibility concept challenges such notions as that we should believe and act on everything our parents tell us, or everything our nation tells us.  Every human being and human institution can be wrong and can promote false ideas (viz., the furor over including in our nation’s history an accurate description of slavery).  You as an individual are the ultimate guardian against that, but only if you consciously decide what is right and what is wrong consistent with reality.

Similar to the recent idea that “you are what you eat,” we can promote the idea that “you are what you think” in an overall sense.  Schools could teach children how to think and how to conceptualize having things coming into and being considered by their minds (making conscious what is for most people a completely unconscious process).  Knowing that this process is going on would allow the individual to take more conscious control of it.

A person could, of course, take responsibility for his thoughts and conclusions by acknowledging that they are not aligned with reality, saying something like “I know conclusions X, Y, and Z are not in accord with accepted notions of reality, but I am asserting and living by them because my parents taught me these things, and I am not inclined to change them.”  Most people taking this position would change over to a more reality-congruent approach if there were serious consequences to not being aligned with reality, such as earning only half as much money or being arrested for crimes that one’s parents said were OK to do, but a few would insist on loyalty to parents (or other sources) as their primary goal and consideration.

There are several critical elements in this overall process, if you are to align what you believe to be true with what is as close to the truth as human beings can get.  (1) You have to value the truth, and in order to do this, you must believe that understanding and acting on the truth (as best you can) will result in a better life for you than not doing so.  This is contrary to going along with whatever various authority sources want you to think, so it would mean asserting that you have the ultimate say and not them.  Of course, you taking on the power makes you then responsible for your outcomes—for what happens to you because of your decisions and actions.

(2) You have to know how to think.  This skill can be developed by learning some basic principles and then applying them ruthlessly, regardless of the results—such skills as recognizing the illogical, verifying your information, taking in information broadly rather than narrowly, filtering out how you want reality to be from how it actually is, and understanding the impact on others of your beliefs.  See my essays “Truth,” “Telling Truth from Lies,” and “Key Skills for Living” (on www.livewiselydeeply.com) for details about figuring out the truth.

(3) You must have an independent mind.  You must think for yourself.  This is scary for many people because they don’t trust themselves to think well, and they fear going against what others around them think, but you can get much better at thinking if you apply yourself over time to testing out everything you hear and see (and everything you believe as well)!

(4) Because you value the truth, you must be willing to put up with some difficulty or suffering that may arise from knowing the truth.  You may not like coming to the realization that your parents weren’t such good people after all, and it won’t feel good for some of your friends to shun you for coming to more accurate conclusions about their favorite misinformation issues.  If you value the truth, you will change your attitudes or practices to be consistent with your ongoing learning about what is true, even though we don’t like to change our habits, and you will tolerate the anxiety of not knowing something when you know that you don’t know it (e.g., waiting to conclude something until you have enough trustable information instead of taking a wild stab at it just to have a conclusion).

(5) You have the power to decide whether new information is worthy of inclusion in your mind.  Much of it will not be worthy.  You must filter what you allow to affect your conclusions by examining and questioning everything you hear and see.  This includes what you hear from your family and friends as well as what you learn in school and what you see on the internet.  Anything you hear could be wrong, and the internet is a great place for people to get you to believe things that are not in accord with reality, to your detriment.  No source can be completely trusted.  Many people will not like hearing this, because they don’t want to have to question and determine truth for themselves and because they don’t want to endanger some of their relationships by thinking differently than those other people.

In regard to every new piece of information that comes your way, consciously decide whether it is worthy of becoming a part of your mind.  Keep out the riffraff.  Don’t automatically take in anything, and when you do take something in, label it in your mind as to its probable truth or accuracy.  Things are not simply “true” or “false,” but they each have a likelihood of being true.  It is true that barring celestial cataclysm the sun will come up in the east tomorrow morning, but if a large asteroid hit the earth in just the right way, it could stop the rotation of the earth, and the sun would never come up again.  Vaccinations for COVID-19 “don’t work” in the sense that they don’t stop every infection by COVID-19, but they “do work” in the sense that they present a quite large percentage of what would without vaccination be hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.  Consider how each piece of information fits or doesn’t fit with what you already believe to be true.  Consider, if it does not fit, whether you need to change what you already believed to be true!  A fair amount of new information may deserve the label of “potentially useful but unconfirmed,” and you shouldn’t use it to support your beliefs until it is confirmed.  Be fair about whether to take new information in or not, and don’t use these admonitions to check everything out to justify rejecting information just because you don’t like it.  When you recognize that something is unconfirmed, it makes it easier to talk to others about it, because you don’t have to defend something as true that you really know is not necessarily true.  This would help to make our discussions of difficult issues more civil and calm.

(6)  You must be willing to know when you don’t know, even though all of us must make some decisions without having a sufficient amount of accurate information.  This is life—we do often have to make decisions based on inadequate information, but at least you can know that your decision is a shaky one.

The bottom line here is that the closer what you have in your mind is to the truth, the more successful will be your decisions and your actions.  If you want the best life possible for yourself, take responsibility for what you have in your mind!  If you want to be fair to others about what you represent to them as true, take responsibility for what you have in your mind!