This post was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation, PTIH Project, or Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“Always think for yourself.” You may have heard this advice before or given it. We are often encouraged to think independently, to avoid following the herd. Indeed, many people defend the humanities by claiming that they develop our abilities to think critically, to question common opinions. The implicit assumption is that we are best able to discover the truth when we do it on our own, when we set aside what others have thought and believed. Unfortunately, on examination, the dictum, “always think for yourself,” does not hold up. In fact, it is terrible advice. We do not think best by judging everything for ourselves.
What does it mean to think for yourself? In one sense, this simply means that you are responsible for what you think and believe, that no external agent can compel you to think otherwise than you do. This may well be true. In this sense, however, we cannot fail to think for ourselves, since we are always the ones doing our own thinking. Thus the usual sense in which this advice is given is that you should think for yourself as opposed to relying on the thoughts and beliefs of others, and, in particular, without relying on authority. Critical thinking classes often present the appeal to authority as a type of fallacy. In this second sense, we are encouraged to question and be skeptical of the consensus view or the view of experts. Unsurprisingly, we usually encourage others to “think for themselves,” when we disagree with the authority our interlocutor is appealing to. Such advice sounds good when applied to authorities we disagree with, but not when it comes to issues where we are in firm agreement with the experts. If you are concerned about anthropogenic climate change and trust the consensus view of climate scientists, hearing someone encouraging others to “think for themselves about climate change,” will sound like dangerous and misleading advice. On some subjects, asking people to think for themselves is even morally repugnant. “Think for yourself about the Holocaust,” with its implicit suggestion that we should question the conventional opinion, is just a bad thing to say.
So, when is “think for yourself” good advice? Only if 1) the authority you would otherwise rely on is wrong or seriously unreliable and 2) you are likely to be better off thinking things through on your own. Consider a simple example: “Think for yourself about welding.” Is this good advice? No, because neither conditions are met. There are experts in welding who have a wealth of experience and knowledge about how to shape metal. You are unlikely to be able to think through metalwork well on your own and any progress you make would be more easily achieved by taking advantage of the truths about welding that have already been discovered, besides which, you might maim yourself. Even in cases where condition 1) may not be satisfied, you should not think on your own unless you satisfy condition 2). “Think for yourself about this weekend’s temperature” is bad advice. Even if meteorologists are somewhat unreliable, listening to them is better than trying to form my own temperature prediction model or picking my favorite temperature.
We should be willing to let others think for us when we recognize that they can do a better job. This is not to say that we should trust everyone, no matter the evidence. Philosophers such as Linda Zagzebski have worked to present principled ways of deciding whom to trust and part of my own work on the Intellectual Humility project involves trying to articulate the relevant criteria.
Recognizing the role trust plays in forming our beliefs will also help us know if we are forming our beliefs well. If I say to you, “Think for yourself about vaccines. I’ve seen evidence that they may compromise your child’s immune system and that vaccine recommendations come straight from big pharmaceutical companies,” you may find the prospect of coming to your own conclusions about the value and importance of vaccines attractive. When, however, I do not appeal to you as an arbiter and offer something for you to chew on, but simply ask for your trust, things look different. If I say, “trust me, vaccines are no good. I clicked on the links to three different webpages this morning and they all said something bad about vaccines,” the prospect of believing me instead of your children’s pediatrician probably sounds less attractive. This is precisely because I am now directing your attention to whether you should trust me over your doctor, instead of appealing to your desire to think of yourself as an autonomous judge. We should often focus on whom to trust, not whether to trust.
Trust is also important for figuring out how to respond to challenges to your beliefs. Thinkers who do not give a role to trust often present each of us as agents who are fully responsible for all of our beliefs. On this picture, you need to respond personally to every challenge you are presented with. On my view, by contrast, when you realize that your belief is formed on trust and you take your trust to be appropriate, you can defer challenges to the authority you are relying on. You can hold onto your beliefs in the efficacy and safety of vaccines without having to personally address every one of my attacks. You trust your pediatrician and defer challenges to her.
Even in cases where you ultimately disagree with the consensus or the expert view, thinking for yourself should not be an excuse for simply dismissing it. When I conceive of what I’m doing as thinking for myself, I am in danger of just picking the evidence and beliefs I like and calling it a day. Thinking for yourself in this sense is easy. Thinking with others is hard, but it’s how we develop. Carefully examining what authorities or experts on the subject in question say forces me to be more careful in my own thoughts. When I do come to my own conclusions, it should only be when I have understood why the expert view is what it is and why I am entitled to reject it. I should recognize the heavy epistemic weight that thinking for myself requires before I try to adjudicate things on my own.
Now you might respond to the criticisms I have raised by restricting the scope of the injunction to think for yourself. Perhaps I should let others think for me in some cases, but I myself should be the arbiter of when that should be. Our new dictum would be “think for yourself about whom to trust.” This is a definite improvement, because it acknowledges our epistemic dependence on others and the role of trust. I think, however, that it is still problematic.
Why? Because it still presents us as autonomous epistemic agents, just exercising our function at a higher remove. This doesn’t capture the social character of human knowing. I don’t think for myself about whom to trust, I think together with those people and communities I already trust. In fact, I often defer to others in forming my trust. If my friend who is a doctor says that Dr. Helena is the best pediatrician in my neighborhood, I will trust Dr. Helena and happily defer to her recommendations for my children, without gathering any evidence for myself. We are responsible for deciding whom to trust, but this responsibility can appropriately be shared.
From our first moments of knowing onwards, there have always been people and communities whom we trusted and relied on in developing and evaluating what we believe. This trust can be modified or lost in the course of our development, but the verdicts of people and communities we trust always are and ought to be a part of the process of continuing self-reflection on our beliefs. Given this, we should be willing to share responsibility both in forming the contents of our beliefs and in deciding whom to trust. So, don’t think for yourself. Think together with others, with those you trust.