A few weeks ago in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Tobin took issue with Judge Sotomayor’s assertion that as a judge she would keep an “open mind.” He writes, “when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, one can scarcely imagine a worse qualification than an open mind. The issues are difficult and profound and require a lifetime of study to master, and one would hope that Justices arrive with heads full of firm ideas about the document they are charged with understanding.”

Granted, there’s a difference between an open and an empty mind, and Tobin seems to object more to the latter. Still, how do minds become empty? Simplifying a lot, I’d say in two ways — by not taking anything new in, and by not holding onto anything new. The first is being absolutely closed-minded, the second is being absolutely open-minded.

You might say an absolutely closed mind isn’t empty. It’s full of inalterable stuff. I’d argue that a closed mind isn’t really a mind any more than a computer is a mind. It’s a machine, a set of predetermined habits playing out. Minds by definition change. Some people think minds are like elaborate computers, but I’m from a school of thought that says that minds are more like computer programmers. Their openness enables them to evolve new computer-program-like habits. So an absolutely closed mind isn’t really a mind.

Given what my mind has closed in upon, I welcome it whenever someone reminds us that open minds are not always a good thing. I was glad Toobin wrote that for a Supreme Court Justice, one can scarcely imagine a “worst qualification” than open-mindedness. Indeed, one can imagine as bad a qualification than open-mindedness: absolute closed-mindedness, something some of us have worried about with some of the more dogmatic supreme court justices.

It’s a balancing act. We must live between the two extremes of absolute open- and closedness captured well by the line, “I like to keep an open mind but I don’t want my brains to spill out.”

This balancing act is well represented by the yin yang symbol, with its black and white areas in balance. Many people think the black and white represent good and bad. They don’t. They represent yin, or open and yang, or closed mindedness, receptivity and assertiveness, non-judgmental and judgmental, loose and firm. The swirled line of contact between the black and white symbolize the way yin and yang intertwine and thereby depend upon each other. The implication is that give and take of open and closedness is what makes the world go round.

But as I’ve written about elsewhere, yin and yang aren’t the only categories. There’s a third, which could be called absolute yin or yang. Yesterday a student suggested a new way to think about the relationship between the Tao’s two categories and this third category of absolute open-, or absolute closed-mindedness.

The black dot in the white region and the white dot in the black region symbolize the ways that yin contains a bit of yang and yang contains a bit of yin. The student pointed out that removing the dots from either regions you end up with absolutism. To be 100% open or 100% closed means being entirely impenetrably unchangeable. Be 100% assertive and you become headless (heedless?) because you’ll take nothing in. Be 100% receptive and you become empty headed because you keep nothing in.

So Yin:


and Absolutely Stubborn:




I must sound like a symbolist here, playing philosophical games with shapes. In my defense I’ll say that in science there are no constraints on where one gets inspiration. They can come from dreams, student’s comments, aphorisms, folk psychology anywhere. No, it’s not psychological research, but it could be insightful nonetheless.

I don’t pretend to have demonstrated anything scientific about the dots, but I will tie this idea off to some current ideas in complexity theory and cognitive science.

Complexity theorists talk about life being lived on the edge of chaos, or one could say on the border between chaos and order. Chaos at the extreme represents a free-for-all–anything goes, total receptivity, like leaving your mind so open that your brains spill out. You’re un-moveable precisely because nothing sticks. You’re so open you never settle. You never learn. You’d make a terrible Supreme Court Justice.

Order at the extreme represents absolute closure, reliable formulaic certainty. You’re un-moveable because you let nothing in. You never learn. You’d make a terrible Supreme Court Justice. Complexity theory suggests that without the balance there’s no life.

It has taken years, but finally cognitive scientists, the researchers who have been exploring the hypothesis that a mind is just a very complex computer, have begun to realize it can’t be. Computers are pure order. Computers by themselves are entirely “closed minded.” Think of what they’re constructed to do. They only run well when they run absolutely reliably and formulaically, closed to all extraneous influences but the input of variables that their algorithms process. If minds were computers then the future would be entirely determined and knowable.

Life is lived on the edge because we balance between closed and open minded, formulaic and flexible. You need a little receptivity even while you’re asserting yourself, and you need a little assertiveness even while you’re being receptive. A policy of strict closed mindedness or strict open-mindedness isn’t live, it’s deadly.