The first step in freeing your mind is to ask questions.

The moment we move from simply reading and ingesting the information that is given to us, accepting it word for word, and we start to ask, "is what I'm reading or hearing true? Is it correct?" we have taken a massive leap towards the goal of being a free and independent thinker.

But some people that think they are free thinkers may not be as critical as they believe. They may not know what they do not know. They may, instead, ask questions about some things, but not about others.

The person who questions one party in a conversation or debate and not the other has already chosen his side.

I'm personally resolving to ask more questions. To think more deeply. To seek more truth. Hopefully along the way, I'll find some answers, too. But even if I don't, it seems to me that the asking of questions is still intrinsically valuable and important.

Photo by Benjamin Reay via Flickr Creative Commons

If there is one thing that can be said that applies to the entire human race, it is that we are all different. We look different from one another, we act differently, we live differently, we make different choices, and we think differently.

If you are not willing to be wrong about your beliefs and preconceptions, you have failed as a thinker and, even worse, as a human being.

A key part of being human is to acknowledge your own fallibility, to acknowledge that we don't know everything, and that we are oftentimes, simply, wrong.

We don't know everything, and even when we do decide that we believe something, we must also consider the multitude of people that believe the opposite of what we do, and that many of those people are not unintelligent cattle simply following a charismatic leader. Many of them are also intelligent and critical thinkers who have happened to decide that the evidence points in a different direction than you think it does.

That said, it's difficult to live a life not mired in depression and inactivity if you are constantly in a state of questioning even the most basic of your beliefs. At some point, once you've examined the evidence (as much evidence as possible), you must make some decisions about the nature of the world around you. Personally, I also think you must arrive at a metaphysical framework for the world that you believe in, to keep your mind from spinning out of control

The stronger and more well-considered the position you hold is, of course the more difficult it would be for some outside source to change your mind at some point in the future. However, if you are not even willing to change your opinion no matter how convincing the argument to the contrary is, your failure as a human being is complete. Because we are all different.

Photo by Hansel and Regrettal, via Flickr Creative Commons

". . .and if it seems too hard to understand, it is because we are brainwashed by notions of causality and we think that it is smarter to accept because than to accept randomness." -Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
Perhaps it isn't as much that we think it is smarter to accept causality, but rather it is easier for our brains to process and deal with a causal link than just to say, "there was no damn reason for this horrific event that happened--it just happened."

We as humans want to think that there is a grand narrative, or that at the least, if we act in a certain way, that other things will necessarily happen in response.

Randomness is a tough pill to swallow.

I still am not 100% sure what I believe in this respect--if chaos reigns, or if the order and narrative is just so complex that our human minds can't process or make sense of it, or we just don't have the temporal perspective necessary to make sense of the world.

An even more difficult position to hold would be that there is a grand narrative at work, but acknowledging that perhaps some things are seemingly random. Try piecing those two viewpoints together in your head.

Your comfort zone is dangerous. Your comfort zone promotes conformity. It keeps you in line. It keeps you from trying something new that you might fail at.

The problem is, that which you might fail at could also be a massive success. It could be the key to a transformed life that you never conceived of before.

The key to getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is to shatter your comfort zone by doing something that you've never done before in your life. And then finding something else that's totally new, and doing that as well.

Check out my latest Over a Beer column for my full take.

I am a firm believer in absolute truth. But just because absolute truth exists doesn't mean that the statements that we make to each other, the words that we speak to each other, are absolutely true.

In fact, there is a long stretch of ground between the complete, unabridged, unedited, unrestrained truth... and a lie. In this middle ground is where (most) of our discourse happens. (As long as we aren't outright lying to each other.)

All truth that we share with another human is not the absolute and complete, unabridged truth. It is always, out of necessity and out of our human limitation, the filtered truth.

Voluntary Filtering

The main type of truth filtering that we naturally think of is voluntary filtering. This could be leaving out facts, or not saying anything at all.

The more common type of truth filtering is when we smooth out what we say to each other. If we actually told one other the first thing that pops into our heads when we're in the middle of conversation, we wouldn't have very many friends. And often times, the first things that pop into our heads aren't even what we believe. The brain is a funny and flawed machine.

Involuntary Filtering

But the most common type of truth filtering is the filtering that we do without even thinking about it. If we're relating an event, everything that we're relating is colored and influenced by our perspective of that event--where you were standing, what you were doing, what you noticed.

Our perspective is then sifted through the weight of our past experiences--our biases, our upbringing, our world view, and more.

Finally, when have you ever remembered anything--even something that happened yesterday--in 100% detail, with no error and with nothing omitted? Telling the details of the passing of a minute--one single, solitary minute--in such a way that the truth is unabridged and unaltered in any sense would occupy the course of a day, if it were possible at all!

Asking for Truth

If we ask for the truth and expect to get the unfiltered truth, we'll be sorely disappointed. And if we ask for that, we are fools for thinking that we'd receive otherwise in return.

Emily Dickinsen said, "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant."

I say, we can't tell all the truth.

And what truth we tell, we can't help but tell it slant.

I think the key to her famous quote is to simply help us realize the unavoidable slant of truth in all things.

Photo: Death Valley. Taken by yours truly.

"It is often said that, 'is wise he who can see things coming.' Perhaps the wise one is the one who knows that he cannot see things far away." -Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
The Black Swan, more than any other book I've read, has the ability to transform the way you think about planning and the future. As in, it seems to be utterly pointless in many ways.

We don't have any idea what will happen five years from now, much less what will happen tomorrow.

An injury, an accident, the loss of a job--these are all unexpected Black Swans that are still relatively minor on the scale of randomness, and yet each one of those things can massively change the  trajectory of your year, and even your life.

Another way to rephrase the quote above is:
"The wise man knows what he does not know."
A corollary to this statement would be:
"The foolish man thinks he knows what the future holds, but he actually knows nothing."
This realization is scary, but just because it's scary and uncomfortable doesn't make it untrue.

"Consider that two people can hold incompatible beliefs based on the exact same data. Does this mean that there are possible families of explanations and that each of these can be equally perfect and sound? Certainly not! One may have a million ways to explain things, but the true explanation is unique, whether or not it is within our reach." -Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
This is such a strong support for the existence of an absolute truth. Especially the final idea: that there is undoubtedly one true explanation, even if we don't have access to discovering what that explanation is.

Even if we ourselves don't know the explanation, that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. That lack of explanation isn't evidence for relativity and a plurality of explanations. And even if we do have a plurality of possible explanations from the available data, that doesn't mean that all those possibilities are equally valid (as Taleb has shown) or indeed that any of the options are valid.

Another quotation:
"Such insight should warn us that the mere absence of nonsense may not be sufficient to make something true."
So often it seems like we attempt to disprove a statement or an argument by pointing out the nonsense that it contains, but as Taleb points out, just because a statement is devoid of nonsense doesn't mean that it is right. There are even plenty of arguments that at first blush sound pleasing to the ear and attractive, yet they too turn out to be false.

The Moral: Judge the veracity of everything you hear with the utmost care and wisdom.

Photo: Filippo Minelli, via Flickr Creative Commons