The reasonable man accommodates himself to the world as it is. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. G. B. Shaw.

The beginning of wisdom starts with asking two questions: Why do we believe what we believe? and How do we know what we know?

These should be stamped on every school book, in every home where independence of mind and free thinking are advocated.

The children’s game where a child asks ‘Why?’ to every answer that an adult offers often ends with the adult becoming exasperated and perhaps even dismissive of the child’s quest for enlightenment (or attention). We only progress by learning things we don’t know. If we wish to learn more we need to take comfort from questions rather than fearing them. Ignorance is not dangerous if we admit to it. What a great message to convey to our children.

Without questions we can’t discover the hidden constrictions imposed upon us in order for us to fit in.

To be a free thinker means forever challenging assumptions; whether it’s those we’ve made or have been given to us, and to work towards beliefs and ideas of our own choosing. Freedom of thought means a perennial willingness to discover better ideas, smarter opinions, more worthy faiths, more honest feelings, a willingness not only to abandon ideas we’ve held dearly, but to actively seek moments of discovery, moments when we’ve learnt that we’ve adhered to a belief for the wrong reasons. Many rules and customs we preserve are arbitrary and nonsensical.

 One inhibition to free thinking is the fear of being wrong.

But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back — fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.

 ~ Bertrand Russell (Principles of Social Reconstruction)

However, we are wrong. We are wrong much of the time. Much of what I write here will be wrong (except for this sentence). Even if we are brilliant, successful, happy and loved, we are wrong and uninformed much of the time. This is not our fault. None of our theories about the world are entirely true and that’s okay. If we had perfect answers for things, progress would be impossible, as to believe in the idea of progress requires belief in the many misunderstandings of the present.

It’s okay to be wrong if we learn something and grow from it. In fact, there’s no way to learn without making mistakes.

We must ‘cast a cold eye’ (as Yeats wrote) on everything we read and hear. Question it and look for other sources that can authenticate or corroborate what we find. We must learn to be sceptical and then learn to trust our instincts.

Other people can also hinder the development of independent minds.

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, to who has said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your reason and your own common sense.

Buddha’s saying is the opposite of what children are told by most adults in their lives. Schools often teach them specific answers, many teachers test and judge them on their ability to memorise and internalise those answers, and parents define rules that control children’s lives in spite of their clear desires. We treat children as if they have no common sense – and sometimes for good reason. They need protection; they don’t understanding what is safe and what is not.

 Children survive only through conformity. It’s by recognising the behaviour of adults and adjusting to it, fitting in, that they’re able to survive. We are designed from birth for survival more than for freedom.

But unless and until they test the boundaries, both physical and intellectual, then they will not become autonomous.

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