Guard Your Mind: Be Critical Of What You Let Inside

This article was originally posted at LiveLongTerm.com
“No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
- Albert Einstein
“If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.”
- Karl Popper

One of my favorite pastimes is having a great discussion with other people about a topic I’m interested in. It stimulates the mind. It helps me grow. And it can lead to fascinating conversations.

It’s something I greatly enjoy and think is very healthy for anyone to do.

But not all people love having a discussion with me.

Many of my friends know me as a skeptic. Some would call me a pessimist. I’m critical of most new theories or conclusions people share with me.

Part of that is probably my personality.

But I’m not being critical to be an asshole or a smart-ass (or at least, not consciously). I think there’s great value in being critical of what people tell you — especially the information they try to pass on to you as truth.

Your Worldview Has A Massive Influence On Your Life

The ideas you accept into your mind massively influence the trajectory of your live. Your worldview functions as the mental map of what’s important in life, what works in life, and how we should tackle or organize it.

At the center of this worldview lie the ideas you’ve let into our mind, and accepted as truth. They become the basis you build your life around.

Once taken root into your core operating system, they can be hard to remove.

Just think of the millions of people who have been influenced, indoctrinated or brainwashed by an ideology, cult or even religion.

They weren’t born believing in it. They were raised to do so. As they grew up, at some point they accepted these ideas into their mind as truth, and they took hold. Over time, as they mature, these ideas become more firmly entrenched in their mind, until they’re interconnected with their entire worldview. Wait long enough, and they become a central part of the person’s identity.

That’s how powerful the ideas are that you accept in your mind as true.

Bad Ideas Can Be Hard To Eliminate

The same thing goes for more practical matters. People can spend their entire lives thinking that one way of doing things is the “right way” to do it — even if it’s not effective or just plain wrong.

Many unhappy people believe that a relationship will magically make them live happily ever after. But if they don’t fix their deeper problems that make them unhappy, no relationship will magically make all those problems disappear.

When the novelty of the relationship wears off and they notice they’re still unhappy, they blame their choice of partner, break it off, and look for a better one — instead of working on their deeper issues.

Their belief that a relationship is a panacea to every problem dooms them to repeat this unhealthy cycle over and over again.

It’s like the movie Inception.

Once an idea is planted, it’s hard to remove.

Some people never develop the awareness that their worldview or certain idea they hold as true is wrong. They find those ideas to be so self-evident and have thought along those lines for so long, that they’ve developed a blind spot to it. They can’t even look at it objectively anymore, or imagine a worldview without it.

Those ideas have become the core of their being, and they can no longer separate themselves from it.

Such is the nature of ideas.

Once we accept them to be true, they have the power to profoundly influence everything else we do in life from that point onwards — for better or worse.

They become your new worldview, your morals, and guide you throughout life — every step of the way.

Not ALL Ideas Are Good Ideas

There are many great ideas and knowledge we should search out and actively grant access to our brain.

They’ll help us learn more about the world and become smarter and stronger human beings.

But unfortunately, not ALL ideas are good or correct.

In fact — there’s a whole lot of misinformation, ignorance, lies and deceit out there.

Some of it spreads accidentally. People genuinely think they’re right about something, and are trying to teach you a valuable lesson. But unbeknownst to them, they actually have it wrong — and following their advice is not an effective way to live your life.

But some of it is purposefully misleading. It’s information that sounds logical enough and seems like it would help you out, but it’s actually intended to benefit someone else more than it helps you. Before you know it, you’ll be doing someone else’s bidding.

It’s in the interest of many institutions and people to influence the way you think and what you hold to be true — for their own gain.

They’ll either purposefully or accidentally spread information you’ll accept as true, and which can influence they way you think and live your life for decades to come.

If you use these ideas to guide you through life, you’ll either not reach the goals you’d like to reach because they’re plain ineffective. Or even worse — you’ll end up spending your life doing someone else’s dirty work, without your knowledge.

You’re Exposed To More Information And Misinformation Than Ever Before

In this day and age, we’re exposed to more of these ideas than ever before.

Our modern communication methods help both information and misinformation spread faster than any time in the past.

You’re bombarded with a constant flow of ideas, claims, “truths”, warnings, lessons or other so-called “important” and urgent information begging you to accept it immediately and radically change your worldview.

If you don’t change your life with this new information, the sender warns you that you’ll pay the price: impending doom, poverty, loneliness, unhappiness or even death.

It’s mathematically impossible that all of that information is correct.

Each of those ideas is trying to get access to your brain.

You need to protect yourself against these mental intruders.

Your mind is a castle, and you’re guarding the gates to one of your greatest treasures: your worldview and the way you decide to live your life.

Whatever information you choose to let in has a chance to blend in with your own worldview, and alter the blueprint of how you live your life.

It’s your duty to be vigilant of what ideas and theories you grant access to your mind, and let form the basis of your worldview.

So, how do you decide which ideas you’ll grant access to your mind (and will accept as true)?

You do that by being critical.

Trust, But Verify

Obviously, you don’t want your worldview to stay the way it is right now forever.

You’d like to grow as a person. Learn more about the topics you’re interested in. Learn how to better deal with the problems and opportunities you’re facing in life.

To do that, you’ll continue to search out new knowledge, and learn from the people you encounter.

I’m not telling you you shouldn’t.

In fact — you SHOULD do this as much as possible to help you grow.

But when you do, don’t accept any new ideas blindly, no matter how trustworthy the source seems.

So, how do you decide which ideas you’ll grant access to your mind (and will accept as true)?

Trust, but verify.

Trust that peoples intentions are good, and they’d like to teach you something, help you solve a problem, or help you grow.

But verify that the ideas and theories they’re advocating are actually correct, based on the knowledge and tools that are available to you.

It doesn’t really matter how trustworthy the source seems.

Apparent untrustworthy sources of information will more likely be wrong about the ideas they’re trying to convince you off.

But smart and successful people have bad ideas, too. They might have a blind spot, be led down the wrong path, were lucky in their success, or misattribute it to the incorrect principles and ideas whose validity they’re now trying to convince you of.

Steve Jobs was by all accounts a very successful and smart person who did great things with companies like Apple and Pixar.

Yet he (unfortunately) died from a treatable type of cancer, because he refused recommended medical treatments for too long, believing that his alternative medicine and diet of fruit would cure him instead.

Copy his business ideas, not his health ideas.

Still — you should trust people as much as possible.

Most people actually have good intentions. Unless you’re participating in a debate, or dealing with advertising, sales, or organizations and people who have their own dubious agenda, the average person will try and give you advice they actually believe in themselves.

Don’t automatically doubt their intentions. Trust that they have your best interests at heart.

But that doesn’t mean that they’re right.

You shouldn’t blindly accept their reasoning, conclusions or ideas.

Instead, you should verify them.

Test Theories Through Falsification

Claims require evidence. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

But evidence alone isn’t enough. They also should hold up against conflicting evidence and theories.

So — how exactly do you verify new ideas?

Simple. You put them to the test.

Karl Popper was one of the greatest philosophers of science that ever lived. And his ideas have had a profound influence on the methodology of science.

His theory of falsifiability serves as a practical method for us to absorb new knowledge as well.

Before Popper, science largely operated by trying to prove new hypotheses or inducing them from observational data.

To prove the theory: “All swans are white,” scientists merely had to examine all swans, and see whether they were white.

If so, the theory was accepted as true.

Popper’s method of falsification proposed a different solution.

Instead of looking for all white swans, confirming the hypotheses, falsification tells you to do something else:

Look for a single black swan.

Once you find one single black swan, logic dictates that the entire hypothesis “all swans are white” is false.

Falsification strives for questioning hypotheses instead of proving them.

Be Wary Of The Confirmation Bias

Sadly, our brains aren’t wired for falsification.

It just isn’t as sexy as the good old confirmation bias we’re all born with.

Most people only look for evidence that confirms or proves their deeply-held beliefs and ideas, but hardly ever look for arguments that might disprove them.

We succumb to the confirmation bias, and only look for evidence that supports our point of view, while never looking for anything that disproves it.

Well, — especially in this day and age — that evidence is easy to come by.

If you think the moon landing was a hoax, just go online, and you’ll find plenty of books, movies, documentaries giving you compelling arguments “proving” your theory.

Similarly, if you think 9/11 was an inside job and the result of a planned detonation, you’ll find plenty of “proof” that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” backing up your theory.

But if you look at the most compelling arguments that disprove your theory, and compare them side-by-side….

…your theory suddenly doesn’t hold up as well.

You Could Be Wrong About Everything

This view of the world leaves us with a humble thought: we’re all fallible.

You could be wrong about your beliefs, expectations or your understanding of the world.

I could be wrong, too.

And most likely, I am wrong about many of these things.

But so is everyone else!

The important thing is to accept that and admit it.

You need to be open to new evidence that contradicts a previously held position or belief. And when you encounter that evidence, you should be willing to examine it and modify your ideas, worldview and beliefs.

That’s the true path of human growth.

All natural sciences now operate this way.

And if you want to grow smarter and learn, you should too.

No theory, idea, belief or worldview you hold is ever really proven as true or valid. ANY of the things you think you know right now, might possibly turn out to be false.

It just hasn’t been disproven yet.

Your model of the world isn’t fixed, static or finished. Instead, it’s constantly changing, evolving and improving as you learn new things.

And it’s not your goal to bless your own theories or ideas by only finding confirming evidence (although it can bolster it and disprove other theories).

It’s your goal to test, scrutinize and refine your theories and ideas. You want to eliminate the errors in them, or if you find enough conflicting evidence, throw them out altogether!

That’s the only way to truly become smarter, and develop a more accurate understanding of how the world works.

Make Sure You Can Falsify Your Theories

To apply this to your pursuit of knowledge, you need to make sure that you can falsify your theories and ideas.

That means that you should accept and build in the possibility that your precious idea can be proven false.

Your ideas are falsifiable when it’s possible to come up with an argument or observation that would disprove it, at which point you’re willing to revise or abandon them altogether.

You’re willing to put your deeply held beliefs to the test, and accept the consequences when the tests disprove them.

If your theories are falsifiable, they’re scientific.

If they’re not falsifiable, they’re not scientific. Instead, you’re using emotion and ignorance to justify your beliefs… just because they’re your beliefs and form a part of your identity.

That might make you feel better (and even win an argument or two) in the short run, but it won’t help you learn, grow smarter, and develop a more accurate and useful understanding of the people and world around you.

Your theories and ideas need to be open to severe criticism, and you should embrace that process — because it’ll only help you become smarter!

The way you get smarter (and develop a more accurate understanding of how the world works), is by successively rejecting falsified theories, and coming up with a new one that accounts for the reason why your last one was rejected.

Here’s an example of falsification in action.

I hold the belief that people can not communicate with the dead.

Actually — I’m pretty confident that I’m right on that one.

But I’m perfectly happy to reject that theory (or modify it), when I’m given sufficient evidence that disproves it.

If multiple supposed “psychics” would be able to tell me detailed, specific things only a deceased relative or friend would know — without someone informing them prior to that — I’d be open to changing my views.

Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed to use any guessing, cold reading or other trickery that could otherwise be explained.

Until that happens, I assume that every so-called “psychic” I see on TV supposedly “talking to the dead” is using trickery, and I will not alter my views.

As long as your theory or idea hasn’t encountered any evidence or arguments that would disprove it, you can accept it as true for the time being.

How To Apply Falsification In Your Life

The moral of the story is that you should be highly critical of ALL claims of knowledge you encounter.

Both the ideas and theories you hold yourself and the ones people you talk with advocate and try to convince you of.

All ideas and theories can and should be rationally criticized. You should put them to the test, and throw any argument at them which could falsify them.

So whenever you encounter a new piece of information or theory, be critical in a respectful way.

When someone makes a bold, authoritative or outrageous claim, challenge it — instead of just mindlessly copying it and accepting it as true.

Don’t drink the Kool Aid until they convince you of its merits.

First, make sure their theory is falsifiable.

Ask them questions like:

  • “Interesting… what makes you think that?”
  • “What’s your reasoning behind that?”
  • “How does that fit with this conflicting theory?”
  • “When wouldn’t your idea apply?”
  • “Can you think of any situations where this wouldn’t apply?”
  • “What do you think are the weak spots of this?”
  • “What could happen that would make you no longer believe in that theory?”

Ask: “Is that really so?”

Criticize it. Try and poke holes in it.

Don’t get too sidetracked by the positive evidence they use to try and bolster their claim. There’s always some positive evidence to find to back a theory up (even if you believe that aliens walk among us, or the Earth is only 6,000 years old).

No amount of positive evidence can decisively prove that a theory is correct. It can add some more legitimacy to it, but never fully prove it.

But one single clear and objective counterexample could be enough to prove the theory false.

Throw all your intelligence, every rational argument or example you can think of against it, and see how well the underlying idea holds up.

That doesn’t mean you don’t believe them, or are trying to be negative for negativity’s sake.

You just want to make sure that their idea (or yours) actually holds up and passes the test.

If it doesn’t — you must be willing to abandon it.

Accepting New Ideas Into Your Worldview

After you’ve thrown everything you’ve got against a theory or idea, and all your counterarguments got disproven, you must admit defeat — for the time being.

The new idea holds merit, and is at least possible. It could very well be correct.

Interestingly enough, the more fruitless attempts you’ve made to falsify ideas or theories, the stronger they probably are.

The more resilient the idea or theory is, the more likely it is to be true.

The more ways you’ve unsuccessfully tried to criticize it, poke holes at it, and find flaws with it, the more robust the theory is, and the more willing you should be to accept it.

Until you come up with new arguments you can throw against it, new angles to look at it, you must temporary suspend your disbelief, and accept it into your worldview, or at least admit there’s a possibility that it’s true.

But still — even when you do accept some new theory, keep it quarantined for a while before you fully let it integrate with your worldview.

Stay critical.

Often, there are many different theories in your quarantined zone at the same time. Some of them are conflicting.

Any new information that comes in, match it up against your quarantined theories and see how it holds up.

If you find enough compelling evidence that disproves it, dismiss the theory and let it go.

But if you don’t — and it holds up against all new criticism you can think of for a prolonged period of time — then slowly start accepting it.

Congratulations! You’ve just learned something. You now better understand how the world around you works.

Following this method of criticism, you’ll slowly but steadily become smarter and gain a better understanding of the people and the world around you.

Remember: Don’t Be A Dick

Some people love me for my criticism. Other people hate me for it.

They think I’m an annoying (or selfish) conversation partner who’s just trying to stir the pot, and is contrarian for the sake of standing out.

One important thing to remember is that socializing mostly fulfills a social and emotional need — not a rational one.

Socializing usually is about connecting with other people as human beings: it’s not a rational endeavor to reach scientific truths.

While you might keep your guard up on the information you accept, don’t force everybody else to do the same.

If you’re in a conversation with people where you have a bond of intellectual trust, and you’re all open to learn from each other and become smarter together, then by all means be openly critical.

In those cases, openly challenge all ideas thrown out, and see whether they hold up against the evidence.

But many people in your life probably don’t care about that. And they don’t need to, either.

With those people: don’t be a dick.

Don’t be the asshole who constantly challenges everything out in the open.

Just criticize and falsify their theories in your own mind, or with friends who enjoy that process later.

Socializing with other people isn’t about being right. It’s about building a connection. Even if you are skeptical, other people might attach great value to their cherished beliefs or are easily fascinated by new theories they encounter.

Don’t force your belief system on them.

If they want to accept new ideas without questioning them, let them.

You’re trying to connect with them and build a relationship, not teach them how the world works.

You can warn them of the dangers. Guide them along the path of being critical. But do it subtly, and don’t push the point if you notice it’s not warmly received.

Be critical. But be gentle in your criticism and apply it with care.

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