Having an Open Mind – The Pursuit of Intellectual Honesty

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Three quotes for you regarding intellectual honesty and theology. The first is from Randy Harris and the last two were quoted in Jim’s sermon on Sunday from C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton:

“If I am going to have a conversation with a serious intellectual atheist, for instance, I will ask, “Tell me what it will take to change your view.” If the atheist’s answer is, “Nothing could change my view,” I must next ask, “Why are we having this conversation?” However, it is perfectly fair to turn this around and have the atheist ask me the same question. If I can specify what it would take to change my view, questions arise, “Do I have a humble enough stance toward the truth?” and, “Am I playing a game or involved in a real search for truth?” – Randy Harris God Work – Confessions of a Standup Theologian, 16

“Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” – G.K. Chesterton

“An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful.  But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical reason is idiocy.  If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” – C.S. Lewis in Credenda Agenda Vol:4, No.5 p.16

I am curious to hear your feedback on comparing and contrasting these.

8 Responses

  1. I think Lewis was being hypocritical when he said that. It is because his mind was open to the fundamental truths that he came to faith. I have said it this way: how can we expect anyone to consider that we might be right if we aren’t willing to admit that we might be wrong?

    To put it another way, epistemic certitude is impossible for a limited mind. Therefore, claiming certainty is blind hubris and tantamount to ignoring any other point of view.

    1. : o He has similar quotes like this one concerning Christianity and I do believe it is slightly unfair to attack the quote out of context. It is not that he feels being open is exactly foolish, but when such things can endanger your life it is down right idiotic. Which I can’t help but agree with him on, as an atheist such questions such as “Whether God exists” fit in the first category, after he because a Christian he realized it was in the second. This isn’t exactly hypocritical at all, the question just changed weight.

    2. Cross out the second such and turn because at the end to became*. (Forgive me for the typos x.x)

  2. i’ve thought about this same issue with respect to another question: Is my certainty of God’s existence or the veridicality of Christianity based on any of the various arguments used in apologetics?

    In other words, if i found out tomorrow that the cosmological argument had been thoroughly refuted, would it effect my degree of belief in God and His word? i have to answer “no.”

    What does that mean? i have a hard time thinking that reason or logic have *nothing* to do with my adherence to Christianity. Yet i must say that a great many pro-christian arguments could be refuted, and i would still remain a committed Christian. It seems then that there is some mixture between reason and loyalty which make up my adherence to Christianity. Which one is more important? Which one should be more important? Can either be completely done away with? Is it necessary or at least an important goal for a Christian to have both? i don’t think i have good answers for any of those questions.


    1. Put those words into the mouth of another man with another religion and you will have your answer.

  3. I find myself in strong disagreement with the latter two (with the reservation that they may be taken out of context, e.g. that Chesterton just wants to point to hypocrisy in people who claim to have an open mind, not attack those who actually do try to have an open mind).

    The quote by Harris is more to my taste, but I find the bar unnecessarily high: Specifying in advance want it would take is a very hard, possibly futile, task. Possibly, one or two examples could be given, but even then a great depency on detail may be present. Assume e.g. that I (as an atheist/agnostic) put the bar at “A burning bush should address me in person and proclaim to be a manifestation of God.”: This may seem like a solid criterion on a casual glance, but looking closer, it is not. Consider e.g. the possibility of an ordinary bush on fire with a loudspeaker behind it, a sickness-induced hallucination, or another supernatural being trying to lead me astray.

    In the end, the issue can seldom be reduced to a single piece of evidence or even a limited amount of evidence, but instead we have to look at an entire body of evidence and go with the balance of probabilities. Looking similarly at scientific theories, it is typically the case that we have twenty pieces of evidence that, taken one at a time, prove nothing, but when viewed together make a convincing case.

  4. Nothing in these three quotes is contradictory. I have read G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis widely. They are both deep thinkers. They are not objecting to an open mind, just ruling it out as an end in itself. In our relativistic culture many seem to think that one can only be intellectually honest by forever reserving judgment and never coming to any conclusion. That is what they mean when they rhapsodize about an open mind. But that is worthless in and of itself. As Chesterton points out, the good thing about an open mind is that you can use it to find truth. If you leave your mind open forever and never come to any conclusions about truth, then your open mind is a curse instead of a help in your search for truth. C.S. Lewis didn’t say that our mind shouldn’t be open. He just said that we should shut our mouths until we discover truth and have something worth saying. For Lewis (and I agree with him), faith is holding on to our beliefs in spite of our emotional ups and downs, not in spite of the evidence. He explains in Mere Christianity that we should settle the idea of our faith in God and tell our emotions where to get off. He explicitly says that it is a different matter if evidence crops up that goes against our beliefs. We have to deal with that. There is nothing wrong with loving God with our minds–using them to come to a reasonable faith.

  5. The Lewis quote may have been cited in Credenda/Agenda, but it’s from Abolition of Man. He’s not talking about fundamental questions like the existence of God, which he explicitly brackets for the duration of the book: he’s talking about matters even more fundamental (in a sense) to the practice of thinking at all. Examples would be (in Theoretical reason) the law of non-contradiction and (in Practical reason) the existence of right and wrong external to one’s own opinion. The Chesterton quote is applicable to most discussions in which someone invokes the idea of an open mind; the Lewis quote is applicable only where the possibility of reasoning at all is threatened by ‘openness’.

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