“So, by the damned, I mean the excluded.
But by the excluded I mean that
which will some day be the excluding.
Or everything that is,
And everything that isn’t,
But, of course,
will be that which won’t be”
– Charles Fort
I’ve written before about ‘anomalist’ Charles Fort as a required reading for thinking people. He was a ground-breaking writer about the paranomal, who also had a very interesting philosophy of how the world works. I don’t agree at all with either, but he’s still very interesting to read. What also can be said about him is that his work does not align with any tradition (let alone the dominant paradigm of his time and culture). So if such a thing as a free thinker exists, Charles Fort is one of the best examples I have ever encountered.
Some people right now do seem to have a very weird idea of what a ‘free thinker’ is. Basically for them its just someone who agrees with everything they believe and aligns with a very strict line of rigid enlightenment thought that denies all the supernatural and treats ‘science’ in the same way as some religious fundamentalists treat their holy book. (Which is completely the wrong way anyway and a modern phenomenon…)
But let’s not even get into this kind of freethinkerism. Anything who puts a lot of rules rules up to define what ‘free thought’ and what is not is lost in Orwellian Newspeak at best… A lot of things can be said about ‘new atheism’, but calling them and their very strict tradition ‘free thinkers’ is just a tragic illusion…
A free thinker (if the term has any meaning at all) is an original thinker that is not at all invested in affirming any existing line of thought. A real free thinker is not bound by any tradition, and will most probably come up with ideas that shock everyone. He or she will say things that no-one wants to hear, and he or she will not be listened to by most people.
A real free thinker is often a lone heretic.
In some times and cultures people like that get executed, because they can be considered dangerous and become persecuted, since they do question every basic assumption. They show that there is no reason to take the dominant paradigm for granted, whatever it is that the majority believes. Which is always risky…
So, there is a role for free thinkers that makes them incredible important. They are heretics like I said. They are the ones that plant seeds to break with the traditions that have hardened and might be completely beyond criticism sometimes. Even if we can’t follow them, they still should help us to see that our certainties are very relative. And they are ironically the only possible starting point of new movements, new traditions. They bring on renewal and reformation, and are agents of change…
Does this mean that ‘free thinkers’ will be right all the time? Not at all. A lot of them will be completely wrong, while a lot of the people inside of certain traditions will often be much closer to being right. Some of them will just be full of wacko nonsense even. Some others do have the gift of seeing what’s wrong but not really a clue about a more valid alternative. But even those freethinkers should not be ignored. Questions should be allowed, answers should be questioned.
To use Forts terminology, the ‘damned’ should be acknowledged and their existence affirmed.
There is an interesting paradox here though: a real free thinker will remain alone. A follower of a free thinker is just a follower of someone elses though, and will never be a free thinker. From the moment people start following him you get a second generation of thinkers that build a tradition around him, and the real freethinkerism is lost already. People will build a system around the ‘free thinker’, which will end up having walls, and some kind of orthodoxy that decides who does and dos not follow the original guy. And in this stage even schism can come up, and other interpretations, and so on… You can even get a reversal, in which the original consensus becomes ‘damned’ and excluded, and what once was an alternative proposed by a freethinker is now the rigid orthodoxy, which in most cases means that there’s progress in certain ways, but in other ways things have been lost too in the new dogma…
The stage of a free thinker can only last for one generation, for one single individual even. A group of agreeing freethinkers is an oxymoron (or at least a statistical improbability as they should come separately to the same conclusions) and a tradition of freethinkerism is even more a contradictio in terminis… Or like I said, delusional Orwellian newspeak…
The view that by definition free thinkers are right while the ‘bad’ traditions are wrong is very naive and not very realistic. (Are there really people who believe that you can say ‘follow your own reason’ to everybody and then have everybody come to the same conclusions as they do themselves? Are people so delusional?) It is as nonsensical as the opposite idea that the traditions are right and the freethinkers are always wrong. Every tradition has good and bad points, and the free thinkers often (in the positive cases) are the ones who see the bad points, the blind spots, or the unintended consequences of a line of thought that end up somewhere horrible…
Let’s take Charles Fort for example. His thoughts are completely out of the box sometimes. He does not seem to follow any dogma of his culture (including the ridid rules of freethinkerism) and sometimes comes to conclusions that make one genuinely scratch his head… But their originality alone shows us how much our way of thinking is pigeonholed into very rigid paths.
That’s why we need free thinkers
(And why we need to read people from other times, other cultures, and expose ourselves to as much diverse views as possible! The dominant paradigm is always way too narrow to give us a balanced outlook on reality…)