from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

An Active Mind

The first of two psychological fountainheads necessary for a free society to occur and sustain itself is an active mind. This is distinguished from an “open” mind, which sometimes is interpreted as being receptive to nearly any idea or behavior.80 Indeed, capitalism would erase most impediments to clear, logical thinking, as well as weaken incentives to pursue irrational values. A whole new social system of active-minded people would uphold truth and rational values. People would search for the answers to questions they could not resolve that were important to them, be they extrospective or introspective. Consequently, they would have developed the invaluable habit of using their minds beneficially through logical identification.

An active mind is a crucial determinant of psychological health because it is the trait that inspires a person to think rather than remain complacent. At any point, a person is free to understand and remedy troublesome issues, or free to turn away and repeat errors. An active method of dealing with reality includes responsible awareness and full use of one’s volition. It also entails finding the truth in the face of opposition and conflict. Instead of following the debilitating values and stale thinking of others or one’s culture, one finds the strength to stand alone, if need be.

Frequently, we have discussed the need for the application of noncontradictory identification to solve any seemingly insurmountable conflict or unsettling paradox. While the nature of human consciousness does not endow us with an infallible cognitive and hence emotional system, it does bestow the ability to understand our limitations. The answer to the biological question “Why have not humans evolved so that they conceptualize reality always in a noncontradictory fashion?” is quite clear. A correct conclusion relies on many factors, and many conceptual and emotional paths can lead us astray. We are sometimes fortunate to arrive at the truth in certain situations.

As noted previously, the context of present knowledge bears on the ability to reach the truth. For instance, the search for truth in empirical study entails often meticulous scientific work that involves replication of experimental procedures and outcomes. How much logical knowledge we acquire depends on how much information we can gather (or are given) in the process. Additionally, our emotional disposition can affect the way we look at and approach an issue or situation.

In many cases, though, the decision to not reach the truth—about metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political issues in particular—occurs when one is sidetracked by a personal context that disvalues the search for truth. Problems may arise when conscious or subconscious beliefs do not correspond to reality. Because beliefs help maintain a sense of control in one’s life, they can provide reassurance and security—a sense of normalcy. Sundry evaluations have been tied to thought patterns and actions, and an emotional system quickly detects whether one’s belief system is in jeopardy.

At any time, an individual (or someone else) can question his or her beliefs and evaluations. Now comes an ultimate test of self-esteem: to have the self-trust and self-value to actively search for the truth and renounce the false, whatever it may concern—and whatever the effects. Although it may seem natural to fear what we have avoided, only when we face problem areas in our psyche can our fears in any way subside. When we face irrationally-based fears, we discover that we had nothing to fear but our former self-induced blindness.

An active mind is a particular conscious mental activity or attitude. Yet the supremely important characteristic of an active mind is its ability to observe and deal with subconscious processes—namely, feelings. The subconscious naturally serves as a computer-like, albeit fallible, memory for experiences (and the conclusions and interpretations formed about them). It can be resistant to any mental or physical actions not in sync with its embedded structures; too many parts of consciousness can be left to their own devices (or put on auto-pilot) for too long.

Yet, to an active mind, feelings emanating from the subconscious are neither the prime signals of right and wrong nor unchangeable absolutes. Although sometimes we can carelessly allow them to direct our thought processes and actions, feelings do not serve us very well as guideposts of the intellect. They can be useful information, however, in the search for clearness in identifications.

To repudiate feelings is really to repudiate aspects of ourselves. Feelings, particularly ones that are disturbing, need to be felt and understood, not dismissed or willed away. For instance, repeated exhibitions of anger, hostility, abrasiveness, brashness, boastfulness, manipulation, guilt, shame, humility, nervousness, indifference, and so on, have definite significance. By genuinely accepting and owning feelings, we use them advantageously. By repudiating them, we tend to strengthen that which we felt powerless (or maybe powerful) over in the first place. If we superficially view certain emotional aspects of ourselves as “the given,” we thereby distract ourselves from integrating them on a deeper level and promoting any needed change.

An active minded person develops a habit of sorting out fact from fiction, the correct from the incorrect. Consequently, he or she does not settle for being mired in emotional turmoil or conflict. In any bad psychological (or physical) situation, he or she desires to ask “Why?” and “How?”. Nonetheless, at any point an active mind too can lapse in judgment of particular areas of self and reality. This can happen for a variety of reasons: the nature of free will; the tenacity of past mistaken subconscious assumptions and former psychological inertia; inadequate focus on emotional conflicts; or just plain stubbornness. The task for the active mind, then, is to acknowledge its mistakes and difficulties and move on to new dimensions of mental and emotional evolution.


Ultimately, an active mind provides hope for the human race instead of worn-out cynicism or dismal bromides. It constantly questions happenings in life and seeks fruitful answers. A person with this attitude remains attentive, even amidst an atmosphere of intellectual stagnation (in which many others have decided that they have thought enough). This attitude is frequently applied in science.

Conscientious pursuit of the truth, as well as flaws in thinking, represents the essence of any scientific work. In broad terms, anyone who discovers something new or develops something innovative can be considered a scientist (and entrepreneur) in his or her own right. A tribute needs to be given to those who have participated in such undertakings—and to any child who dreams of one day including him or herself in this discovery process.

Through science, we can understand and utilize nature in ways that past generations could not even imagine. Science not only provides for us in the present; it outlines and prevents future problems, be they individual or global. Discoveries such as new medical treatments and better, less polluting methods of energy production are ultimately scientific quests.

Yet the diligent work of the scientist might be overlooked or unappreciated at times. Science can sometimes be treated as a cultural side note. Those of us who sleep on an innerspring mattress, store food in a refrigerator, flip on a light switch to read a book, drive a car to work, and so on, are intimately connected to the achievements of science. Yet to take such conveniences for granted can be easy. They have become part of our lifestyle. However, none of our lives would have near the pleasure—or the safety and security—if it were not for the results of the thinking, active mind—the mind that wanted to know why and how and then proceeded to answer those timeless queries.

Even though science is the great safeguard for human existence, science can be used also for ill purposes (just like most other things). Some scientific achievements invoke warranted criticism: particular advances in industries or technologies that seem to cause more problems than they were designed to solve—or that solve problems for some, only to create difficulties or disasters for others. But science, per se, is assuredly not the villain in these matters. Actually, science and the free market put checks on detrimental ideas and products. Corrupt philosophical systems, namely political ones (and the individuals who uphold them), are the usual villains. So, it is vital to know what values are required for the beneficial and benevolent utilization of science.

All the plights of our non-objective civilization (e.g., nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction) may foster a desire for “the simple life.” On occasion, we may hear the remark that science is unnecessary, because people in primitive societies lived harmoniously with nature and were happy to be without science. Life was indeed less complicated. And without philosophically analyzing the so-called civilized world, it can be quite confounding. However, if one were to venture into the wilderness for a few months (with no items from civilization), survival undoubtedly would become the major concern. One might not even be able to escape starvation and death.

Not only do we need interaction with others for complete psychological well-being. But also individuals can achieve more in large groups than alone or in small numbers. Larger populations yield synergistic effects. Even small tribes greatly reduce the time spent on survival through cooperation and division of tasks. However, in the transition from tribal populations to the populations found in civilization, humanity overlooked the need for a civilized code of ethics and a logically advanced politics.

Ayn Rand noted that people have basically two values to offer each other in society: knowledge and trade.76 Passage of knowledge from one mind to another is an essential part of human life, and trade of values—be they spiritual or material—is necessary for any degree of happiness. That a person can attain a certain degree of happiness in any context of knowledge is true. But the highest potentials of enjoyment involve constant discovery and relishing its products. It follows that this is only totally attainable in a free society—and, preferably, a highly advanced one.

Even the primitive design of bows and arrows, fishing tackle, long-lasting shelters, cooking utensils, as well as the discovery of herbal remedies, must originate from a thinking mind. The scientific inventor, however, sets no limits upon ingenuity or creativity. He or she seeks new ideas and easier, more productive methods. Such innovators prior to a few hundred years ago were frequently denounced, spurned, stoned to death, or burned at the stake. Now they and their accomplishments are regularly embraced.

Free markets facilitate such active mindedness. The creation of a liberated environment certainly is the great task ahead for our species. The tremendous wealth of information and communication ability now available, for example, via computers and the Internet, offer definite advantages in this task. Clearly, to sort through the ever-increasing amounts of material and glean the essentials, requires an active mind. People must be able to discriminate fact from fiction, and the important from the not so important.

Life is an event that unfolds before us, forever challenging us to venture forth. The choice for us is whether or not to turn this event into something productive—something that reflects our rational values about what life ought to be. By representing our highest values, we gain both pride and happiness, which includes a passion for this planet and the universe. Since an active mind places supreme value in thought and judgment, this mindset allows all glorious achievements to take place in any age. And since the present period concerns us the most, active-minded individuals are now most needed.

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