by Jonathan Matheson
Several years ago, a collection of scholars from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale banded together to write an open letter of advice to incoming students. In brief, the message was this: think for yourself. This advice echoes the motto of the enlightenment: Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding. The letter warned of the vice of conformism and the problems related to groupthink and echo chambers. It’s the advice most educators would offer their students. We want to develop autonomous thinkers that are able to adapt to new information, new challenges, and to be life-long learners. We want our students to be intellectually autonomous.
But we also want our students to believe the truth. In fact, the authors mentioned above cite the love for truth as a reason to think for yourself. Thinking for yourself offers a way to sort through distorting factors that occlude the truth, such as “the tyranny of public opinion.” The point of taking on an inquiry is to discover the answer. So, a love of the truth is a guiding value to our intellectual lives.
However, the values of intellectual autonomy and a love of truth sometimes pull in different directions. For nearly anything you want to think about, there is someone else who is better positioned to determine the truth than you. Even if you are an expert about some things, for most topics there are people who are more informed or more skilled than you. So, for most questions that we want to answer, the best available route to the truth is not thinking about it for ourselves. Rather, a love of truth seems to call for deference to the relevant experts. … (continue at The Philosophers’ Magazine)