Why Do You Think What You Think?

by Peter Saint-Andre


Most people seem to believe that their thoughts are right, and that this is so because they are righteous people. Those who disagree with them are wrong and have bad intentions; those who agree with them have the truth on their side and have good intentions.

Sadly, this attitude is incredibly naïve.

I've held some strange and unpopular opinions, and I continue to do so. However, I've also changed my mind on certain topics.

For instance, once upon a time I was a virulent defender of intellectual property rights, but over the course of many years I became a strong advocate for the public domain. This change of heart was caused by my experience in the open-source / free software community, as well as significant reading in the history of copyright.

I was once quite opposed to religion of any kind (I suppose I was a militant atheist), but over the years I have become much more tolerant of other people's religious commitments.

Politically, although I've always been quite libertarian, I've bounced around from right-libertarian to left-libertarian, and to some extent I appreciate some of the criticisms and concerns of both the left and the right. These days, I'm pretty much anti-political and I actively doubt if government even exists (speaking of strange and unpopular opinions!).

Above I said that I've changed my mind. Yet sometimes I wonder if it's possible to change my mind: from the inside, it feels like my mind changes on its own. It's not that I actively, rationally decide to change my mind - it's something that bubbles up over time.

When I trace my intellectual history, much of it derives from my early immersion in Ayn Rand, whose books I started to read when I was 12 years old. Yet I was primed for her worldview because I had experienced a crisis of faith and had stopped believing in god when I was 9 years old. The more I reflect on this, the crazier it seems. Was I consciously choosing any kind of intellectual framework at the age of 9? Depending on your point of view, was I right/good or wrong/bad at such a young age? It seems more likely that because various synapses just happened to fire in my brain so early in life, I came to the conclusion that we live in a godless universe. But it's not as if I really chose that thought. (Indeed, it caused me much anguish at the time and for years afterward.)

So I wonder: to what extent are people responsible for the contents of their minds?

It feels to me as if much of what people think comes from habit, tradition, peer pressure, personal advantage, and the general environment in which they live. Sometimes those environments can be quite localized: the nation or religion or family you grow up in, where you go to school, the friends you make, the jobs you take, the books you read, etc. Because of in-group psychology, it can be difficult to break out of the bounds within which your mind operates.

For myself, I know that I have had to deliberately expose myself to viewpoints I would not otherwise encounter; I have done this especially in the field of philosophy (where I'm currently learning about both the Stoics and Vedic/Yogic ideas). Yet even here my explorations began as curiosity about secular philosophies that bear a family resemblance to Rand's ideas in the sense that they respect rationality, individuality, and human liberty. I suppose we all need to start somewhere, but even now I don't deeply challenge many of my mental assumptions or seek out encounters with intellectual traditions that I don't find congenial (say, existentialism, Marxism, skepticism, or hermeneutics). In part this is because life is short and I'd rather spend my time and energy on viewpoints that I'm more likely to apply in my own life and write about in a compelling way (I'll let others write about what they find congenial). However, I try to be aware that my philosophical explorations, although fairly wide-ranging, are also limited - and I try to not assert that I'm more right and righteous because I seem to have a bit more self-discipline (not to mention free time) for expanding my knowledge in a rather small field of intellectual endeavor.


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