Jonathan Matheson explores the tension between intellectual autonomy and love of truth.
Several years ago, a collection of scholars from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale banded together to write an open letter of advice to incoming students. In brief, the message was this: think for yourself. This advice echoes the motto of the enlightenment: Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding. The letter warned of the vice of conformism and the problems related to groupthink and echo chambers. It’s the advice most educators would offer their students. We want to develop autonomous thinkers that are able to adapt to new information, new challenges, and to be life-long learners. We want our students to be intellectually autonomous.
But we also want our students to believe the truth. In fact, the authors mentioned above cite the love for truth as a reason to think for yourself. Thinking for yourself offers a way to sort through distorting factors that occlude the truth, such as “the tyranny of public opinion.” The point of taking on an inquiry is to discover the answer. So, a love of the truth is a guiding value to our intellectual lives.
However, the values of intellectual autonomy and a love of truth sometimes pull in different directions. For nearly anything you want to think about, there is someone else who is better positioned to determine the truth than you. Even if you are an expert about some things, for most topics there are people who are more informed or more skilled than you. So, for most questions that we want to answer, the best available route to the truth is not thinking about it for ourselves. Rather, a love of truth seems to call for deference to the relevant experts.
For instance, suppose that you are confronted with a needed home repair – a leaky pipe, a broken dishwasher, or some faulty electrical wiring. You could try and make the repairs yourself, or you could call on a professional. The professional repair might be a more costly option, but insofar as you value getting the repairs made correctly (and safely), that’s the option to go with. Calling the professional is the most reliable available route for you to solve your problem. When it comes to a leaky pipe, the plumber knows best.
The same is true of many of our intellectual projects as well. If we want to figure out the answer to one of our questions, we could think about it for ourselves, or we could outsource the project to an expert. Insofar as we are after the truth, outsourcing is often the most reliable way to go in inquiry. Expert opinion is more reliable than layperson opinion since the experts have more information relevant to the matter at hand and are better equipped at evaluating that information. This is an intellectual division of labour that parallels the division of labour more broadly. When it comes to truth, the experts about such matters know best.
The tension between these values is on clear display in people’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, there are calls to follow the science and listen to experts. These calls emphasise the love of truth. On the other hand, there are calls to think for yourself, do your own research, and not merely be a sheep. These calls emphasise intellectual autonomy.
Who is right? This much is obvious: the costs of relying on your own thinking about this disease have led to an increased endorsement of conspiracy theories, renegade “treatments” for COVID-19, and a distrust in advice from the medical and scientific communities.
What does all of this mean for intellectual autonomy? Was it a mistake to value it in the first place? I don’t think so. There is also something deficient and unhealthy about an intellectual life that merely outsources all of its projects, even if this is done out of a love for the truth.
Instead, part of the problem here is a misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual autonomy. Many people conflate intellectual autonomy with intellectual individualism and a rugged self-reliance. However, the intellectually autonomous individual is not the intellectual maverick who insists on trying to figure everything out for himself. Rather, proper intellectual autonomy appreciates the fact that we are social creatures. Things go best when we work together. It takes a village. After all, we are all limited in our time, energy, and cognitive resources.
Our intellectual reliance on others is inescapable. We wouldn’t even be equipped to think for ourselves if it wasn’t for others. We rely on others for language, ideas, and information, as well the needed skills to utilise these tools in inquiry. No one is an intellectual island and we all owe a debt of gratitude to our intellectual communities. As Heidi Grasswick has argued, without the right kind of personal relations and a nurturing epistemic environment, the development of one’s intellectual autonomy is actually significantly threatened.
In addition to relying on others to develop our intellectual autonomy, we also rely others to exercise our intellectual autonomy. In order to think for ourselves well, we need to think with others. Thinking for yourself well requires considering other viewpoints and seeing yourself as answerable to other inquiring individuals for your opinions. However, rather than detracting from our intellectual autonomy, relying on others to both develop and exercise our autonomy actually bolsters it. This conception of autonomy is known as relational autonomy, and was first developed by feminist moral theorists. On this understanding of intellectual autonomy, autonomous thinkers think for themselves, but they do so by thinking with others and acknowledging their intellectual interdependence. The individualistic conception of intellectual autonomy is best seen as a remnant from a dated Cartesian epistemological picture.
This is our first takeaway: intellectual autonomy is inherently relational, not an individualistic intellectual self-reliance. We think well for ourselves when we think well with others.
So, intellectual autonomy is not incompatible with relying on the thinking of others. However, even with this clarification in hand, one might still wonder what good thinking for yourself can do when there are experts that can simply be deferred to instead. If you can afford the professional repair, then why would you ever take on a house project on your own? Recognising intellectual autonomy as inherently relational doesn’t entirely dissolve the tension between it and the love of the truth. Before the tension can be removed, we need to stop and think about why thinking for yourself can be epistemically valuable.
There are good reasons to think for yourself. Sometimes simply deferring to an expert isn’t an option. In some situations, you might be pressed for time or unable to determine who the relevant experts are. In such cases, thinking for yourself might be the only way forward. But what about cases where deferring to an expert is a live option? Here too, thinking for yourself can be valuable. For one thing, thinking for yourself is the only way to come to understand the answer to your question. While you can know an answer simply by deferring to an expert, you cannot grasp the answer, or see it for yourself, without thinking for yourself. As Linda Zagzebski has argued, understanding isn’t something that can simply be given to you. To understand, you need to do the intellectual work for yourself. You need to see the evidence and make your own evaluation of it. There’s a familiar saying that, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The same is true of understanding; you can give someone the answer to their question, but you can’t make them understand it. Understanding is something that must be accomplished by the individual themself. So, one reason to think for yourself is that doing so is the only way to come to understand the answer and understanding has a value over and above knowledge – it’s better to understand. So, there are epistemic goods that can only be obtained by thinking for yourself.
There’s a parallel here with our home project analogy. In taking on a home project for yourself, you can come to figure out how to do it on your own. You can gain an ability and accomplish a task, neither of which are options if you simply outsourced the repair. So, there are reasons to take on the repair project for yourself. That said, there are limits that need to be appreciated. The way you tackle changing a light fixture should differ from attempting to fix some faulty electrical wiring. Somethings you are reliable enough to figure out on your own, and sometimes it’s worth testing and stretching your abilities. After all, that’s how we grow. However, when the stakes are high (like in the case of the faulty wiring or with COVID-19), it is far more important to get it right, than to take an opportunity to come to understand how to do something for yourself. Teachable moments are better saved for when lives are not at stake.
In addition, coming to understand the answer isn’t always a given. You can think for yourself and fail to figure it out, just like you can take on a repair project and fail despite your best efforts. Even the most genuine of efforts does not guarantee success in either inquiry or home repair. Further, when the question at hand involves synthesising information across multiple disciplines, the likelihood of a layperson coming to understand the answer might be quite low. This puts pressure on the idea that thinking for yourself is a promising way to come to understanding. However, even when you fail to understand the answer, there remains some reason to think for yourself. In thinking for yourself, you can come to understand the issue, or the debate, even if you fail to come to understand the answer to your question. Put differently, you can come to understand the different positions in the debate and the types of considerations that get put forward in favour of each position, even if putting it all together to determine the answer is beyond your ken. So, even when you can’t figure out the answer, you can still come to understand the intellectual lay of the land, and that is something valuable in and of itself. We have another reason to think for ourselves.
This is our second takeaway: some intellectual goods can only be acquired by thinking for yourself. You can only come to understand an answer, or understand a debate, by getting the relevant information before your mind and evaluating it for yourself.
So, autonomous thinking is the only way to get some intellectual goods. However, while thinking for yourself can provide these epistemic benefits, it appears to come at the cost of doing your best to get the truth, since the best way to get at the truth is often to defer to the experts. Some of our initial tension between intellectual autonomy and the love of truth still remains. Here it is important to note that thinking for yourself and relying on experts are not exclusive options. Doing one need not come at the expense of eschewing the other. Perhaps this is where our intellectual projects are unlike home repairs. Regarding home repair, you are either going to try it yourself or call an expert, not both, or, at least not both at the same time. But what if you could do both together? This would be like relying on an expert to oversee your own repair efforts. You would be deferring to their expertise while trying to gain something valuable for yourself at the same time. In some ways, this is what our intellectual projects can be like. We can think through issues for ourselves, and do our own research, while relying on the expertise of others as a guiding force in our inquiry. If the results of our own efforts are in line with expert opinion, then it is likely that we have come to have understanding, or at least not bungled things too badly. If the results of our own intellectual efforts differ from expert opinion, then that’s some reason to think we’ve made a mistake. After all, the experts are still much better positioned to determine answers relevant to their expertise. Nevertheless, in thinking for ourselves about the issue, we can still come to understand the debate and become a better-informed citizen as a result.
What this shows is that intellectual humility is an important companion to intellectual autonomy. Intellectual humility consists in owning your intellectual limitations. This means that intellectually humble people are aware of what they know and what they don’t know; they are aware of which intellectual projects they can successfully take on and which projects they are doomed to fail. Intellectually humble people can fruitfully think for themselves since they won’t be tempted to think that their own evaluation of their limited evidence somehow supersedes the opinion of experts. Intellectually humble people stay in their lane. Intellectual humility lets us get the most out of intellectual autonomy without the danger of losing out on the truth.
It’s like the math textbooks that have the answers in the back. The thing to do is not just look at the back and simply believe those answers. That said, flipping to the back and believing the answers you find there will do you well in terms of getting you true beliefs. However, you need to try out the problems for yourself, because in doing so there are opportunities for further intellectual gains. Trying the problems out for yourself can help you understand the answers and understand how to do math. Here too, success isn’t guaranteed. If your best efforts deliver an answer that differs from the one given in the back of the book, you have good reason to think that you’ve made a mistake. This is because the textbook author has expertise that you lack; they are much more likely to be able to figure such things out. If you are intellectually humble, you won’t be tempted to think that you got it right and it is the book that is in error.
Let’s take these insights back into the context of COVID-19. The call to think for yourselves, and do your own research, is often made outside of the context of intellectual humility. Such prescriptions are often coupled with the idea that whatever conclusions you come to are the ones that you should adopt – that your own thinking is what you should always go with. The folly of such advice is quickly seen in our home repair analogy. Doing your own projects does not guarantee, or even make it likely, that your project will succeed. It’s fine to try out many repairs on your own, but that doesn’t mean you should stick with your efforts as the final product. Sometimes you still need to call in a professional.
Intellectually humble people don’t fall prey to the mistake of relying only on their own thinking. Humble people can think for themselves while appreciating their own intellectual limitations and recognising the expertise of others. As Nathan Ballantyne has argued, it is important that we know our limits and inquire appropriately. In doing so, we can harness the value of thinking for ourselves while holding firm in our love of the truth and doing what is best in terms of getting the answer correct. That is a winning formula.
This is our third takeaway: thinking for yourself is in line with loving the truth when you are intellectually humble. Thinking for yourself is a good way to pursue intellectual goods (like understanding) so long as it is done while acknowledging one’s own intellectual limitations as well as the cognitive resources of others.
The tricky thing is that our limitations in inquiry are not always as evident as our limitations in home repair. When it comes to fixing a leaky pipe, at the end of the day, either the pipe drips or not. While our abilities and limitations in home repair are fairly easy to diagnose, it is much easier to dispute or deny our intellectual limitations in inquiry. This is why intellectual humility is a virtue, and not one commonly found.
We started by looking at a tension between two values in inquiry: intellectual autonomy and the love of truth. On the one had people should think for themselves, but on the other hand people should recognise expertise and defer to those more likely to be correct. The tension here is removed once we appreciate a few things. First, we must distinguish intellectual autonomy from intellectual individualism. True intellectual autonomy consists of thinking with others. Second, some intellectual goods can only be obtained by thinking for yourself. Understanding an answer is even better than having the answer, and understanding can only come with autonomous thinking. Third, and finally, thinking for yourself and deferring to experts are not exclusive options. We can think for ourselves while still recognising our own intellectual limitations. While there are reasons to think for yourself, a love of truth requires that you do so while being intellectually humble and appreciating the limits of your understanding. As long as you are intellectually humble, thinking for yourself can bring about intellectual rewards without compromising your love of the truth.
Jonathan Matheson is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Florida and author of The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement (Palgrave, 2015) and co-editor (with Rico Vitz) of The Ethics of Belief: Individual and Social (Oxford, 2014) and Epistemic Autonomy (Routledge, 2022) with Kirk Lougheed. His research interests are in epistemology and, in particular, with issues concerning disagreement and autonomy.