In Defense of Brave Souls: The Importance of Individual Thought in a World That Values Conformity
“We remember those who prepared the way — seeing for them also.”
— Carl Sagan
For the first time in the history of humankind, we can fully control what we think and feel. We have unlimited access to the world’s repository of knowledge. And for the first time in human history, those that have catapulted humankind to the next level can continue to do so without the fear of reprisal. No longer do they have to fear kings and autocrats with a monopoly on violence and economics.
The saying goes that “history is written by the victors.” But I choose not to let these victors write the history of humanity. Instead, I celebrate those brave souls that risked everything for the future of our world. They are the true authors of history.
Those who died poor and in obscurity.
Those who died in brutal fashion from people who feared their ideas.
These are the people whose ideas live on. A part of them lives on in every one of us.
And today, for the first time in our history, we the people have the power to let these people thrive.
In defense of brave souls
At the center of every dystopian novel or movie sits a tyrannical government with absolute control over information. It summons images of books being burnt. And this fits in nicely with the story of humanity. From the kings of old, who jealously wielded the knowledge of the wisest men of the land, to the Chinese Great Firewall of today, knowledge has been the enemy of any state. And the state has used force, or propaganda, to keep it away from us. So humanity, all over the world and all through time, has been in a constant battle with those in power to spread powerful or radical ideas. Ideas that have the potential to catapult us into a new era.
But it’s not just governments that pose danger to new ideas. Whether it was Socrates, whose ideas got him the death sentence, or our own founders who wrote under pseudonyms in the federalist papers, other humans have always been the greatest danger. To stand up against your fellow humans is an act of bravery.
And who were these souls whose books were burned by the German Student Union in 1933? Or who were killed by Christian zealots as they burned the Library of Alexandria in 415? They were individuals. People like Hypatia, who sacrificed her life to save the Library of Alexandria. It was not the government. It was not professional organizations. It was not the senators. Instead, the protectors and disseminators of knowledge have always been courageous individuals.
The voices of the past beckon us to remember their sacrifices. To stand up to those in authority. To ask skeptical questions.
“Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask is an idea Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” — V for Vendetta
The Folly of Collective and Institutional Knowledge
Yet, how easily we forget that we are not descended from fearful humans. How we forgot the lessons these humans thought us — the sacrifices they made to create our world today.
In our attempts to create authoritative sources of knowledge, in our attempts to fight misinformation, in our attempts to protect against ‘evil’ forces, we have made the fundamental mistake that braver souls before us fought so hard against. We have made it harder, and more dangerous, for individuals to spread their ideas.
We’ve forgotten that only individuals, through their ability to debate and disseminate ideas freely, can protect us from those who wish to use knowledge as a weapon against us. Instead, we’ve given this power to suppress knowledge and ideas to institutions, whether private for-profit ones or public “non-partisan” ones.
We’ve forgotten an important lesson from those before us who risked life and limb to stand up for the truth. Only individuals, through their ability to debate and disseminate ideas freely, can protect us from those who wish to wield knowledge as a thought control mechanism.
Smart people can and do disagree on important things. You can have highly educated, thoughtful, and kind people who believe things that you disagree with. Sadly, our historical precedents and media tend to paint the world as black and white. They make us think that the ‘other’ only holds their position because they profit from it, are evil, or are morally bankrupt. But as one expands their horizons to hear different perspectives it doesn’t take long to realize the world isn’t so simple.
Sadly, this model of seeing the world as a struggle between good and evil is prominent in our culture. It’s especially prominent in institutions. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a feature of collective institutional thinking, not a bug. Institutions inherently discount nuance and outside perspectives. In an attempt to create a sense of expert consensus, they push away anyone that doesn’t fall in line in order to maintain their status. As a result, this collectively created knowledge tends to align with mainstream or organizational beliefs (easy wins), which aren’t always tied to the truth.
This is why empowering individuals to be mavericks is so vital for truthful discourse, similar to how the process of mutation in biological evolution eventually gives rise to an advantageous mutation that pushes the species forward.
Of course, expert consensus matters. But that expert consensus should come from individuals making individual decisions, not from coercive forces. Forces that threaten your career, your reputation, and your future. It should not come from collectives that discount certain truthful, yet unpopular, perspectives.
We as a society need to empower experts to express their individuality. To speak the truth even if it’s unpopular. To stand up to institutional bodies suffering from groupthink regardless of how powerful they are. To share their ideas free from the confines of cultural and institutional forces that aim to inhibit them, so that through debate and conversation we come closer to the truth.
The Hubris of the Institutionally Educated
Our entrepreneurs, media moguls, and tech companies need to set out on an ambitious (some might say ‘impossible’) goal: to bring nuanced, thoughtful content to people. Humans have demonstrated a deep lust for nuance and capital T “Truth” — one of the most famous historical examples being the Western Renaissance (but by far not the only one). We are currently witnessing the beginnings of our institutions losing their way, despite them being run largely by graduates of elite institutions. They are ironically failing to think critically and scientifically, or with an open mind at all, instead choosing to reward internal growth obligations or perpetuate ambiguous notions of credibility and expertise, at great risk to the public’s physical and spiritual health.
It’s easy for those in my socioeconomic class to disagree with the above statement. From up above, it may seem as if all the hatred, violence, and bigotry is a cultural failure of those “less educated” — those pitiful souls who weren’t fortunate enough to get a contemporary education. Those who never received the amazing educational and societal opportunities we did. And you’ll see us proudly proclaim on social media some form of: “I care about the truth, nuance, and cooperation. But the others don’t! If only they’d listen to us.”
I reject this notion. Having immigrated to the U.S. from Iran, grown up in Kentucky, and gone to a liberal arts college in New York, I’ve seen firsthand how much our environments play a role in our beliefs. It’s easy to look down on Kentucky Trump supporters when you’re a member of the upper class. To think that you are superior to them. Inherently smarter. But how little do these same people realize they are also playing their roles as members of the upper class. Seeing themselves as morally righteous, and the other as morally corrupt. One of the most pertinent examples of this is that journalism used to be a blue-collar profession back in the day — but it has now obviously been overtaken by the graduates of elite, insular institutions who never have to spend much meaningful time with those in the lower classes. And this has put them far out of touch with reality.
But I believe that with the right technologies and right incentives, we can help everyone free themselves from the bounds of their environments. To free themselves from the tribalism that dominates our world. To free themselves from being victims of their social or economic class — upper or lower.
I’m proof of this.
Had I stayed in Iran I would have remained a radical Muslim but I was lucky enough to immigrate to the U.S. However, as the son of a single mother in Kentucky, I was on a dark path filled with crime, drug use, and antisocial behavior starting at the age of 13. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to discover the power of science through the internet, I would have been another lost soul stuck in the rat race of a meaningless life.
But it must all start with the recognition that higher education is woefully inadequate for this task.
Modern higher education was created for a world where educational institutions had a monopoly on knowledge. Where you had to go to a class, or a library, to tap into the thousands of years of human knowledge that exists.
This is no longer the world we live in. This old model of education has not adapted to the modern world; nor is it based on our modern understandings of human needs. Those seeking education no longer need to go to a class to gain knowledge. The internet has created unparalleled access to knowledge. I firmly believe that the fate of our future rests on the extent to which we can successfully educate our populations.
This necessitates allowing our geniuses to put their voices out there for all to hear. To enable a modern-day Agora or Forum, in which leading thinkers can debate and express their ideas. The internet should make this possible but our incentive structures do not. The internet promised unadulterated access to the greatest minds in our world. Sadly, the monopolization of information dissemination and fear of reprisals have neutered this promise.
Instead, our leading thinkers have to worry about keeping their careers and reputations at their universities intact. To publish the next paper and get the next grant. And to feel like their voices and hard work would be lost in the increasingly noisy and monopolized information ecosystem of the internet.
We need to free them from this burden so that they can spend their time doing what they do best: Learning about the world and sharing that with the rest of us.
The Need for Insider/Outsider
“Verified facts can be used to support erroneous conclusions… Facts become weapons for use in politically charged discourses in which winning is more important than accurately representing larger and more complex truths.” — The Consilience Project
In an increasingly complex world, we need our experts (Insiders) to help us understand the truth. Instead, we’ve lost trust in our institutions and those in authority. The mere mention of the term “expert” produces feelings of unease and mistrust in the majority of people. So we find ourselves ever so quickly drifting towards finding alternate voices we can trust more: Outsiders, who promise to uncover the truth but also, unfortunately, play into the same tribalism and oversimplification that plagued the Insiders.
The result is a vicious cycle in which we distrust the experts, turn to outsiders, and then distrust them when they fail to meet our expectations. We need to break this cycle by learning to trust the experts again. But we need to support a new class of experts. What Seth Roberts called the Insider/Outsider.
We need to empower a new generation of these Insider/outsiders. People who have the expertise to produce deep and nuanced analysis and the distance to be independent and objective. The time is now. Substack, Patreon, and others have proven this.
Now let’s take it to the next level