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Open for Debate

The Potential Pitfalls of Thinking for Yourself

24 January 2022

In the previous two posts (here and here) we’ve looked at how we should think of epistemic autonomy as well as why it is valuable. In this post we’ll examine some potential pitfalls of thinking for yourself. While thinking for yourself can be valuable, it can also come with costs. Fortunately, there are also ways to mitigate these costs.

Sometimes thinking for yourself can lead you away from the truth. Sometimes the answers are there for us. That is, sometimes the relevant experts have determined the answer to our question and it’s not too hard to determine their answer. In those situations, deferring to the experts would give us the truth. In such cases, thinking for yourself can get in the way. By ‘thinking for yourself’ we don’t mean ‘thinking all on your own’ but rather ‘acquiring and evaluating the evidence.’ You think for yourself to see why something is true. You want to see the reasons and appreciate them for yourself. However, gathering the relevant evidence and evaluating it for yourself create unnecessary confusion and in doing so it can lead you away from the truth.  For instance, consider a patient who receives a diagnosis from their physician. When they get home, they decide to do some research of their own. Armed with near limitless information on the internet, our subject comes away confused and doubting their diagnosis. Of course, there is nothing wrong with getting a second opinion or trying to better understand a diagnosis, but it is the opinions of medical professionals that matter here. When a layperson tries to self-diagnose it can be easy for them to come away in a worse intellectual state. Self-diagnosis can be dangerous. We all know someone who convinced themselves that they had weeks to live after googling their symptoms. The experts are experts for a reason. Their ability to carefully assess complex bodies of evidence in their domain of expertise is something that requires a great deal of training and experience. It is often not something a layperson can just take up for a weekend.

What this shows is the importance of coupling epistemic autonomy with intellectual humility. Thinking for yourself needs to happen while we are sensitive to our intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Intellectually humble people acknowledge their own limitations. They appreciate what they know and what they don’t know. Intellectually humble people don’t place greater weight on an opinion simply because it is their own. They also don’t need to be the one to figure things out. Intellectually humble people are comfortable with relying on others, particularly when others have the relevant expertise.  To help see this, think about math texts with the answers in the back of the book. When intellectually humble people attempt a problem and find their answer differing from the one in the back of the book, they don’t stick with their answer or automatically come to the conclusion that the book is mistaken. Rather, humble people appreciate that the opinions of experts are to be weighed more heavily than the opinion of a novice. In this way, being intellectually humble can help avoid the first potential downside of thinking for yourself. When you don’t weigh your own opinions too heavily, you are less in danger of being led away from the truth by thinking for yourself.

Sometimes thinking for yourself can be disrespectful to others. That is, sometimes an insistence on seeing it for yourself shows a problematic and undeserved lack of trust in others. If my wife tells me that the recycling has been taken out, and instead of taking her at her word I look for myself to see that it has been done, something has gone wrong. Insisting on seeing it for myself shows an undeserved lack of trust in my wife. This is a kind of insult to her. It is as if I do not consider her capable of gathering and appreciating the relevant evidence, even when I have plenty of reason to do so, so I feel the need to do it myself. In doing so I am disrespecting her as a knower. This is not to say that it’s never ok to double check or gather more information, sometimes the stakes are high and even more evidence is needed. However, if you have good reason to trust someone, then failing to trust them is a kind of intellectual wrong even if done under the guise of being an autonomous thinker. Failing to trust such a speaker is like refusing to accept a promise. In such cases, the speaker has asked you to trust them, and you have refused to do so without any good reason. That’s a kind of disrespect, or insult, that can happen as a result of an insistence to think for yourself.

The epistemically autonomous person wants to see the reasons for themselves, but they need not require the relevant reasons as a precondition for trusting a trustworthy speaker. As we saw in the last post, thinking for yourself offers the possibility of understanding – an intellectually valuable state. Only in seeing it for yourself can you come to understand the answer to your question. It is in this spirit that the autonomous inquirer should seek out the relevant reasons. Hearing another’s reasons with desire to understand is importantly different than requiring their reasons as a precondition for trust. It isn’t disrespectful to want to understand. What this shows is that the motivation behind autonomous thinking is important. When motivated by an unwarranted lack of trust, thinking for yourself can be disrespectful to others. However, when motivated by a desire to understand, thinking for yourself avoids this potential pitfall.

While thinking for yourself can be valuable, it isn’t always the way to go. Sometimes thinking for yourself can lead you away from the truth and create unnecessary confusion. In other situations, thinking for yourself can exhibit a kind of disrespect toward someone who has invited you to trust them. However, these potential pitfalls can be avoided.  When you are intellectually humble, and acknowledge your own intellectual limitations, you are less likely to have your own thinking take you away from the truth. It is also important to consider your motivations for seeing the evidence and evaluating it for yourself. If done out of an unwarranted lack of trust in someone else, then it can be disrespectful. If clearly done out of a desire to understand, this problem can be avoided.

Picture @psycchic1 Pinyon of the Past