Letters to a concerned Free-Thinker, Letter #13: The Principles of Freethought

Dear Thinker.

If I were to set out the principles of freethought, principles that represented the ideals of the freethinker, would others who called themselves such agree with me? It would appear that freethought by its very essence cannot be represented by any one collection of principles, or ‘doctrines’ for that matter. Freethought is by its nature free. However, to take freethought to literally mean, “To be free from all external influences” is to misunderstand the concept entirely. Freethought does not advocate for the literal separation from all external factors, but rather it casts a sceptical eye on all external factors that wish to lay claim to truth, or which wish to advocate authority and tradition over individual inquiry. It is not the mere advocacy for an anarchist mindset; rather it is the advocacy for a mindset that uses logical analysis, reasoned argumentation and critical thought when assessing reality. Freethought may not adhere to doctrines, but it can be said that freethought is represented by certain principles. It is these basic principles that underline the philosophy behind freethought, and establish what it means to be a freethinker. It is because of the existence of this philosophy that the principles of freethought can be laid out. It is for this reason that I now attempt to do just that: to lay out the principles by which most, if not all, freethinkers align themselves to.

The following six principles create the foundation for freethought. They are listed below in numerical order; after each of these principles has been listed, they will then be expressed separately in the subsequent paragraphs that follow. Without further ado, here are the principles:

1. Question anything that relies upon authority, novelty or tradition for its foundation; for humanity is a fallible species.

2. Base all conclusions upon logic, reason and evidence; all conclusions that depart from this process, depart from reality.

3. Never fall prey to self-conceit or assumptive reasoning, for both lead to confirmation bias; one must assess thought constantly.

4. Seek out knowledge for its own sake; learning is an ongoing process, act accordingly.

5. Reject all forms of totalitarianism; for totalitarianism is thought control.

6. Beliefs motivate actions; unjustified beliefs lead to negative actions.

In regards to the first Principle:

Positions that rely upon their mere longevity, power or novelty have at their basis a superficial foundation that is easily replaced when the razor of doubt is applied to them. Authorities of any sort acquire their authority through public grant; for without support of any kind there would be no acknowledgement of their positions, hence no acknowledgement of their power. Public opinion is susceptible, most times, to error; for consensus is no guarantee of validity. Humanity is a fallible species that is capable of making mistakes in its own judgement – which it rarely admits to before damage can be done. There have been many instances in history where these mistakes in judgement have kept humanity ignorant, but one example will suffice for this piece. This example is of course the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism:

The public consensus in western civilisations for nearly two millennia held that the Earth was the centre of the universe. This belief is known as ‘Geocentrism’: the belief that the celestial bodies orbit the Earth. Though the ancient Greeks originally held this belief, it was only given its status by the works of the Egyptian scientist Ptolemy.  Ptolemy’s model had, for centuries prior to the Copernican model, dominated western thought about the place of humanity in the universe. For centuries, establishments centred education, ideologies and other systems of thought on the notion that Earth is a privileged planet amongst the stars, hence humanity is somehow privileged because of this. It was not until this system, for its length of time, was finally challenged by individuals such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei that the reformation of thought could finally take place. The synthesis of Copernicus’ model of ‘Heliocentrism’ and Kepler’s ‘laws of planetary motion’, gave rise to a new understanding of the universe. Galileo’s additions to the synthesis, and his support for the theorem, gave rise to a flurry of dissenters who wished to hold onto Ptolemy’s model.  The Roman Catholic Church denied the Copernican model of the universe on religious grounds, but it was only until the trial of Galileo by the inquisition that this changed. This trial represented a turning point in humanity, as it would only be decades after this trial that humanity would realise its mistake in judgement.

The message that can be taken from this example should be obvious and is as follows:

What is considered valid today can be considered invalid tomorrow and as a precaution it is always imperative that the acknowledgement of this fact be recognised; for it is only when the recognition of fallibility is understood that real honest investigation can begin. In the debate over facts, no amount of individual acknowledgement ensures the validity of a proposition; only the evidence in support of that proposition ensures its validity. And though change comes gradually with the chipping away of past ideas, it is only with the persistence of new ideas and the alignment of those ideas with reality, that reformation is possible. Reformation is fuelled by questioning, which is at the heart of scepticism. For the foundation of freethought rests upon scepticism and the only way to exercise this scepticism is through constant questioning; questioning that is interested in truth.

In regards to the second Principle:

A house that is built upon mud will not withstand the mightiest of storms; for the rains that come will wash the foundations away, leaving nothing but the remains of a house that attempted to flee its own destruction. A house, however, that is built upon concrete foundations and is supported by strong materials, is able to resist any storm that is thrown at it; for its foundations will pass nature’s tests. The analogy of the two houses should be evident in meaning: the first house represents an unjustified conclusion; well the second house represents a justified conclusion. In addition to this, the storms represent reality and the challenge it poses to conclusions. If a conclusion is unable to meet with reality and treat reality as its master, then that conclusion is ultimately debased. A conclusion, for it to be considered one, needs to have its components justified. Justification for a proposition must come in the form of evidence, which is simply a means of recording the connection a proposition has with the world around it; the state of the world a proposition claims, must align with the actual state of the world. If a proposition is not justified (in other words is ‘unjustified’), then that means the proposition is unable to find a means of linking its main components with reality, thus making it false.

The role of reason, logic and evidence are the means by which the rational mind makes sense of reality. The process of understanding the world can only come through its analysis, and it is only through the analysis of reality that humanity knows itself. Logic is a means of mapping out the functions of objects, propositions, ideas and so forth within reality; it is the blueprint that allows humanity to make sense of reality and the processes and functions that occur within it. Reason is a thought process that is applied to the relationships of functions within reality, hence is the means of demonstrating how these relationships and functions work. When one is able to demonstrate these relationships and functions with logical principles, then they are reasoning their way through reality. Both logic and reason are means of understanding and analysing reality; and with their aid has come the development of societies.

The rational mind uses reason to dictate what conclusions it draws, as reason is the foundation that gives rise to the alignment of one’s thoughts with the world around them. Reason is a means by which humanity makes sense of the world and the recognition of it as a guiding force in one’s life is something that cannot be ignored; for when one engages in a discussion, they are unwittingly surrendering their faculties to the presumption that reason is useful. Reason is a huge step forward in the cognitive evolution of Homo sapiens, as it distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. It gives humanity the cognitive ability to think and act in a manner that is beneficial, as opposed to a manner that leads to the negation of survival. The adoption of reason has led to the development of society and it continues to remain an important element in the evolution of humanity. Without the ability to reason, there would be no humanity. Freethought owes its existence to logic, reason and the process of justification for beliefs, as these tools have forged the identity of what it means to be a freethinker.

In regards to the third Principle:

Confidence is not a bad attribute to have, especially in circumstances that require it, but overconfidence can be detrimental to intellectual integrity. When one is overconfident of their ability to think, they are likely to overlook their own faults in their assessment of others. This overconfidence leads to self-conceit, which elevates the individual to a status that is non-existent to their peers. The intellectual landscape positions everyone as equals, all have to play by the same rules of logic and reason; the only way an individual proves himself or herself on this landscape is through their own merit and thought. Self-conceit is a handicap to the individual on this landscape, as it makes the individual feel superior to these rules. When individuals feel cocksure of themselves, they will find their method of thought superior to others, hence will favour all lines of thought that confirm to their own. In this respect, self-conceit leads to confirmation bias: where the individual seeks out information that is preferable to their preconceptions, rather than assessing multiple sources of information that may be counter to their preconceptions.

For one to be wise they need to have intellectual humility and integrity, both are quintessential elements of a healthy intellectual mind. In order to have these elements one must be constantly vigilant of their own thought processes and constantly assess their thoughts through reflection. The acknowledgement of one’s own failings and the regard to judge oneself by the standards they put on others, is the characteristic of a freethinker; and if these characteristics are not evident in one who labels himself or herself as a ‘freethinker’, then what are they but pretenders? Be critical of every position, whether the majority or the minority supports that position, because – and you will realise this in time – the mere fact that one person raises their hand and vouches for a position, does not in any way strengthen the validity of that position. Yes, the position may have more support, but even that support can be misplaced. In all circumstances, take the position on its own merit and see if that position agrees with reason, the facts and so forth. Whether there be a crowd of a thousand or just one overbearing individual, never be intimidated by numbers. If the forces of the entire world stand against the truth and link hands to raise flags in error, then it would be one’s obligation – regardless of the opposition – to see that the truth is upheld.

In regards to the fourth Principle:

The acquisition of knowledge brings humanity closer to itself, as every instance of newfound knowledge allows humanity to see itself in the mirror of life. There is never a moment when one is done learning something new; everyone is constantly learning something different every day. Learning is a never-ending process, with rewards that are as varied as the very things being learned. To deny this fact is to deny what it is to be a human with the capability of thought: an individual who values knowledge for its own sake. Being able to know how to think as opposed to what to think, is the deciding factor that separates an autonomous mind from an enslaved one. An autonomous mind that knows how to think will not require the need for an ‘arbiter of knowledge’, as it will be instead independent on its own ability to identify problems and solve them, whereas an enslaved mind will be constantly dependent on an arbiter for its knowledge.

Freethought is the epitome of an autonomous mind – it is what education seeks to deliver. The result of education, in the sense of learning how to think, is to grant the individual freethought. A freethinker owe their position to the education they received, either taught to them or learned independently. Freethinkers agree unanimously on the value of education and the role that the acquisition of knowledge has in the emancipation of the mind. It is for this reason that it is included as a principle.

In regards to the fifth Principle:

The enemy of freethought is and has always been totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is the boot that wishes to stamp the white dove of liberty. Totalitarianism is characterised by the need of an entity, or an individual, to pursue absolute control of the mental state of an individual, and/or a group. (Thought control is what characterises totalitarianism; it is the desire of each totalitarian.) A totalitarian is the polar opposite of a freethinker in every single intellectual respect. What a totalitarian desires is in direct conflict to what a freethinker desires; well the latter pursues the autonomy of mind, it is the former that pursues the control of it. Every single totalitarian state that has ever existed has attempted to achieve control of the mental faculties of the population it governs. However, every time the attempt has been made to fully align the populace’s beliefs with the totalitarian’s beliefs, it has always been met with resistance. This resistance comes as a result of independent minds grouping together to resist forces that are against their own interests; every independent mind wishes to keep their own banner of mental autonomy. These independent minds reap the benefits of freethought and will likely fight tooth and nail to ensure its survival.

If a democratic society wishes to keep its democracy and ensure the prosperity of its future generations, then the population of that democracy needs to speak out against tyranny when it pokes out its ugly head. Freethought needs a democratic environment to flourish, because the liberties ensured by a democracy allow for the free expression of ideas between thinking individuals. Freethought depends upon this steady flow of ideas – it is the ‘part and parcel’ of freethought. Therefore, all freethinkers – in order to protect this steady flow of ideas – have to be enemies of totalitarianism (they have to be enemies of the totalitarian).

In regards to the final Principle:

Beliefs are what motivate actions; no action is made without a belief guiding it. With this said, beliefs that do not align with the way the world is (i.e. that is to say that are ‘unjustified in nature’), are likely to lead to negative effects on the subject holding the belief and to others around them as well. Take a simple example: If Alison believes in the proposition ‘Humans can fly’ and attempts to act upon this belief by jumping off a  skyscraper, then Alison will have to suffer the repercussions of her actions – this can come in the form of severe injuries or even death. In this example (though cliché), Alison was motivated by her belief in the proposition, however the belief was not justified which meant that the belief led to a negative action. If humans could indeed fly, then her belief would be justified and there would be no negative actions acting upon the belief alone. What is important to realise is that beliefs dictate the actions of the individual; what one believes will determine the life they lead. At first glance, this may not appear to be an important principle to note, however one could argue that this principle is the most important of all. If beliefs do indeed motivate actions and certain beliefs lead to negative actions, then it would follow that one should be cautious of what beliefs one holds to. To emphasise this, well at the same time using a more modern example of the negative effects of unjustified beliefs, let us take the most recent threat that has managed to emerge out of the Middle East: The Islamic State Of Iraq and Syria (aka ‘ISIS’).

Islamic state leaders announced in June of 2014, the desire for a global Islamic state (caliphate). The running of this caliphate will be done through sharia law – where the fusion of Wahhabi Islam and government is maintained. The purpose of this caliphate, as it is believed to be by those who wish to establish it, is to bring about judgement day, where the Monotheistic God of Islam will finally judge the people of the Earth. This belief is held by many Wahhabi Islamists, and has been one of the main driving forces behind the recruitment of ISIS fighters. These fighters will do anything to achieve that belief and anything to adhere to the edicts of their ideology, such as killing innocent civilians for the purpose of fear and the flexing of muscle. However, this belief supposes a number of assumptions, primarily being the assumption that a ‘Righteous God exists’. This belief has not been justified, because of the fact that it is a belief that relies on faith. Faith is one of the most dangerous components to a bad idea, as faith allows a belief to align with an idealistic reality as opposed to actual reality. The results of this poison cocktail have been overwhelming. The most recent of the horrors of ISIS has been the brutal shootings at a Tunisian beach and the beheading of a French factory worker. These are just some examples of the many atrocities that have happened in the wake of ISIS.

Freethought depends upon the healthy flow of ideas and the constant reassessment of beliefs to match with reality. It is for this very reason that freethinkers, those who wish to call themselves such, are unanimous on this very principle; for beliefs do motivate actions and it is what beliefs one has that will determine their course. Having a world of individuals who base their beliefs on reality and who help individuals align their beliefs, is a world that benefits all people. It is a principle that is the only thing separating a freethinker from a blind zealot, as a zealot dies for unjustified beliefs.

With all this said, these principles form the basic ‘definers’ of freethought. They may be broad and general in their scope, but they allow truly inquisitive minds to hone in their critical thinking skills. One may not have an authority on such principles, but one does have a mind that is capable of exercising thought. The only thing that remains for me to reiterate, is the question that I originally began with: If I were to set out the principles of freethought, principles that represented the ideals of the freethinker, would others who called themselves such agree with me? Only the freethinker can decide.

Knowledge is power.

Use it.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson