Throughout history, humans have repeatedly attempted to understand the nature of their existence. For some, it is a personal quest to understand the roots of human behavior. For others, the motivation stems from a dream to change the world. But, no matter the motivation, his pursuit would be limited without a crucial skill: intellectual independence.
Individualism is the recognition of man as an independent subject and as owner of his own life.
This quality is implicit in human nature; we can discern it through observation. From a biological perspective, man is born as a unique subject. Our organic system is designed as an independent entity. We live by and for ourselves.
For proof, we needn't look any further than a person's involuntary body movements (such as breathing) - controlled by the medulla - and through man's voluntary actions - controlled by the conscious brain. For example, a man does not decide consciously when he should digest his food after a meal, but his body does it instinctively, directed by his own mind. However, a man may voluntarily choose to eat or not. By contrast, a man's body cannot instinctively digest the food that another man has eaten, just as a man cannot eat for another man.
The human mind is his ultimate personal attribute, responsible for coordinating and enabling all man's thoughts and actions. Its main outstanding feature is intelligence - the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. It is man's most powerful attribute and solely individual. A man has a basic choice: to think or not to think. From there, he can choose what to think and how to do it. He may voluntarily communicate his ideas to other men. But what he cannot do is think with another's brain.
Intellectual independence simply means choosing to think for yourself
Man's capacity to think is unique in that he has the ability to comprehend, infer, explain, and integrate knowledge. In short, he has the ability to reason. It is this reason that gives him the capability to decide over his own life. Therefore, rational thinking is specific to an individual. This does not imply that a man will choose to think rationally - only that he is capable of doing so. The origin of his choice lies in an attempt of self-complacency. However, it does not mean that the results of his decision will be satisfactory according to reality. For example, imagine that a man believes that humans can naturally breathe under water. This idea pleases him. So he ties his own hands and feet and jumps from a boat into the deep ocean. This man has voluntarily chosen to refuse his rational capacity and, consequently, he has drowned.
Intellectual independence simply means choosing to think for yourself. The primary requirement for doing so is being honest with oneself. (Imagine the impossibility of trying to think rationally when you are intentionally deceiving yourself.) By definition, the word "intellectual" means that man's thought must be guided by his intellect; that is, it must be rational. This means that man must be honest with himself when recognizing reality because using rationality implies a logical understanding of the facts of reality. For example, you can discern that birds fly by using your senses, understanding the nature of both birds and flying, and honestly integrating all of that knowledge. However, if you dishonestly claim that the action "to fly" actually means to crawl on the earth, obviously you will misinterpret reality and irrationally believe that birds can't fly.
This isn't to suggest that simply by being honest with yourself will you have intellectual independence. Intellectual independence also requires development of our perceptual and cognitive skills. For example, a one-day old baby cannot be intellectually independent because his knowledge of reality and his ability to discern it are not properly developed.
What happens without intellectual independence
I think that society makes more progress overall when intellectual independence is allowed to flourish. By contrast, rejecting or restraining intellectual independence increases misery and destruction. Progress results from the application of acquired knowledge through man's perceptual abilities, his individual will, his rational thought, and his selfish desire to improve his quality of life. It is from this progress that brings to man self-confidence and security.
Although the challenges to progress may be great, allowing the ideas of the intellectually independent thinker to flow freely can yield great insights into how to prosper within reality. This is the individual mind elevated over the core beliefs of an era. Albert Einstein, Issac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus, et al. are examples of intellectually independent thinkers.
Contrast this with what happens when you stifle intellectual independence. For example, groupthink "is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas." Groupthink is commonly identified through eight symptoms. When groupthink occurs, group members choose to sacrifice their individual thinking in order to obtain conformity with the decision of the majority. While this type of thought might increase group cohesion and social conformity, it tends to muffle if not outright reject rational thought. Consequently, logic-based alternatives are reduced, facts are less likely to be honestly and properly evaluated, and intellectual independence is negated.
Constantly used as a case study, the space shuttle Challenger disaster is one of the most infamous examples of the terrible consequences that occur when you stifle intellectual independence. In 1986, the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The investigation revealed that NASA managers knew of the flaw that led to the catastrophe, disregarded warnings from the engineers to scrub the launch and, because of the desire to meet the timeline of the scheduled launch, threatened to expel dissenting engineers from the program if they didn't change their opinion. In other words, NASA created an environment that stifled intellectual independence, instead pushing everyone to think the same. The results of stifling intellectual independence? Death. Sadly, groupthink is common, especially in government, and has led to other similar disasters (e.g., the Bay of Pigs, which led to the Cuban missile crisis, the invasion of Iraq for non-existent weapons of mass destruction). War, death, destruction, and terror are common consequences of an environment that rejects intellectual independence.
I believe that the nature of human existence is based upon life, knowledge, achievement, self-love, and self-accomplishment. I consider intellectual independence a basic axiom of the proper philosophy for living life well.
The man who thinks for himself, who proclaims himself as an individual worthy of being self-sufficient, and who takes responsibility of his own actions is a man who advances his own life and brings progress. I think individuals in our current society generally lack intellectual independence. If we want to build a better world, we must remedy this philosophical shortcoming. If you agree, I am interested to hear from you what steps you think we should take to encourage such a shift.