Let us dare to know; Why to pledge our intellectual autonomy?

During the summer of 2008, I met Mr. Thompson, a Professor from Pittsburg teaching Philosophy. I was on my official trip to Philadelphia to visit our headquarters. It was a very interesting experience to travel with this person who is well read about East and Eastern culture. He travelled across the Indian subcontinent multiple times. It was a long flight from London to Philadelphia and we started discussing a lot of topics and were enjoying each others company. Thompson was reading a book by Christopher Hitchens titled “God is not Great”.  The title aroused curiosity in me. In this book Hitchens makes a case against organized religion. Hitchens posited that organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” and sectarian, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience”. He supports his position with a mixture of personal stories, documented historical anecdotes and critical analysis of religious texts. His commentary focuses mainly on the Abrahamic religions, although it also touches on other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The book received mixed reviews, but apparently sold well.

Hitchens argues that the human race no longer needs religion to the extent it has in the past. He says the time has come for science and reason to take a more prominent role in the life of individuals and larger cultures; that de-emphasizing religion will improve the quality of life of individuals, and assist the progress of civilization. It is in effect a rallying call to atheists to fight the theocratic encroachment on free society. After reading this book, the topic of intellectual autonomy was an appealing topic to me for quite sometime and the curiosity lead me to many other articles and research papers.

Every organized religion demands order, promotes exclusivity not diversity. But it knows human behaviour very well; it knows the ways of the living; hence the overarching warnings of sin, immorality, depravity, debauchery, hell, and how to avoid it.  Religion, as a demarcated system of practices, beliefs and doctrines, is largely an early modern European invention and developed during 16th or 17th centuries. The social environment prevalent during that time was very conducive for spreading such belief systems – when large numbers of people were illiterate, knowledge was produced and stored by a few and the social compulsion to obey people with power and authority.

Intellectual autonomy is a willingness and ability to think for oneself. People with this virtue is not overly dependent on others when it comes to forming their beliefs. They are not mere receptacle for information and ideas deposited by others. In other words, their thought life is not primarily passive. It is active. The intellectually autonomous people are capable of forming their own judgments, initiating reflection, and asking probing questions. It is also a rational control of one’s beliefs, values, and inferences, The ideal of critical thinking is to learn to think for oneself, to gain command over one’s thought processes. It entails a commitment to analyzing and evaluating beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence, to question when it is rational to question, to believe when it is rational to believe, and to conform when it is rational to conform.

Of course, intellectual autonomy needs to be balanced and tempered by other virtues like intellectual humility and intellectual trust. We need to be aware and accepting of our intellectual limits. And we need to be able to recognize and give due respect to genuine intellectual experts and authorities. Intellectual humility is a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.

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Why we need to lead a life prompted by an old stupid thought process? Thought need not have anything to do with life. It can be induced into you. We can say some rubbish to you, and that rubbish can go on endlessly in your mind. It has nothing to do with the reality of the existence.

Thought can come to you simply as gossip, the most harmless form of thought. Or it can come to you as an ideology, which is a little stronger. Or it can come to you as a philosophy, which is much stronger. It can come to you as religion, or the worst form, as the word of God. Now you are fully corrupted because you cannot deny even the silliest thought. You have lost the discriminatory process so that you cannot even see this is stupid. Once you are corrupted by thought, you have no sense of life; your own psychological process becomes more important than the whole cosmic dimension of the existence.

Unfortunately, what we know as religion today is someone’s belief system. All war mongers are talking about God. As long as someone think that their belief system is superior to others, conflict is bound to happen.  The funny logics in all belief systems, if you look closely it is only up to a point of their convenience. If defining one’s identity or community in terms of an exclusive religion is a vexed notion proposed by organized religions, what is the Eastern philosophy around this? Eastern Philosophies train you to think independently. It helps you probe into the essence of the human personality, directs you to study, reflect and realize the fundamental truth of life.