Friday, August 14, 2015

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

"The Thinker," by Auguste Rodin. Photo in public domain.
One of the great self-applauded virtues of our modern society is "critical thinking." If you take any course at a university, whether undergraduate level or higher, you will find enshrined in one of the course goals the aim that students will be able to "think critically" about whatever the topic of the course might be. 

The idea behind this phrase, which sounds like a fit description for what crotchety misers and judgmental in-laws habitually do, is actually quite a good habit of the mind. "Critical thinking" refers to the practices of not jumping immediately to conclusions, of studying our own presuppositions, of finding and sifting through all the available evidence before making a decision on a given truth-claim.

On the whole, our world would do well to have more people who practice this habit of the mind. Our society, like every society before it, has a decent share of gullible people willing to believe, pass on, and even base their lives on some of the most mindless drivel humanity has ever proposed. Even people who are otherwise bright often make the common errors of only studying the evidence for one side of an argument (the side that most appeals to them) and of failing to discriminate between good sources and poor sources of evidence. So, on the whole, I'd like to see a bit more critical thinking in our world.

But there is a portion of our population--usually very smart people--who are good critical thinkers, and yet still fall into a tragic error. But wait: if they're good critical thinkers, won't the very methodology of critical thinking eventually fix any error they fall into? The answer, in short, is no. The error they fall into is to believe that critical thinking is the one and only habit of an intellectually healthy mind; that whatever problem might arise, critical thinking itself will be the path to discovering its solution. Along the way, this sort of exclusivist critical thinking engenders a certain attitude: a brash intellectual independence which finds itself always responding to any grand truth-claims, any all-encompassing system of metaphysics, with an instinctive impulse of cynicism.

This is the tragedy of critical thinking. We live in a world where the most worthwhile ideas of all, the ideas that give you a sense of what life is worth living for, the ideas that make sense of all other things in the world, are grand truth-claims, all-encompassing systems of metaphysics. Christianity itself is one of these great truth-claims, but a lot of people in today's world, when looking at Christianity, find themselves crippled in a wasteland of critical thinking because they've relied on an evidentiary quest alone. Now, it is certainly possible to come to the Christian faith primarily through evidence: the apologetic enterprise of Christianity is alive and well, buttressed by powerful claims from logic, philosophy, cosmology, history, and the current experience of the miraculous. But for many people, doubts will remain even in the face of this significant evidentiary basis, partly because the vast amount of evidence to be sifted through on all sides of such a debate is often beyond the intellectual reach of most seekers. Are such people then in a place where they must give up their quest?

This problem isn't only about religion. There are several other areas of knowledge in which critical thinking falls short--for instance, in plumbing the mysteries of consciousness, which many philosophers maintain is something that manifestly cannot be solved by the scientific enterprise, because the experience of qualia cannot, on logical grounds, be fully explained as a reductionistic effect of neural machinery; or in considering morality, where starting from a place of critical thinking, of a "blank slate" regarding presuppositions, actually seems to belie the very real innate sensibilities that all human cultures have about ethical issues.

I would encourage all my fellow critical thinkers out there to consider the possibility that we have forgotten about some other habits of the mind that are just as important as critical thinking. One is to remember that in those areas of life where black-and-white evidence is hard to find, or hidden amidst a vast amount of competing evidentiary claims, there is yet another signpost toward truth that may be more readily discernible: beauty. The great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome knew this well: the truth is something beautiful, something that speaks to the aesthetic sensibilities implanted in each of us. Even modern physicists follow this rule--when sifting through possible hypothetical equations, they've found it to be axiomatic that the best equations are also the most "beautiful." You'll often hear physicists and mathematicians expressing wonder at the fact that elegance seems to be enshrined in the very rules our universe follows. So allow the beauty of the evidence to speak to you, in addition to its simple historical or scientific content. Though the evidentiary power of Christianity is considerable, I would wager to bet that many more believers find their way to faith because of the sheer beauty of the story of Jesus Christ than through an exposure to Christian apologetics.

The second habit of the mind is something that can probably best be labelled "courage." I've written before how agnosticism, especially within the community of faith, can be an expression of courage. But the flip side is also true: for many people outside the faith, agnosticism can become a shell, a hideaway to keep them from running along the adventure of pursuing the beautiful (but dangerously life-changing) possibilities of eternal truth. For those people, I would remind them that the best things in life--like the experience of falling in love--often require us simply to take up the challenge and dare to follow the road of beauty and truth to its end. Don't get stuck in a worldview of gray cynicism. In addition to your intellectual endeavors--reading books and exchanging snide Internet comments with rude and ignorant Christian advocates--take up the challenge to actually attend some church services, to read the Gospels for yourself, to pray and ask God to reveal himself to you. It's about exploring the biggest question in the universe, so dare to exhaust all roads to an answer. Be willing, at least once in your life, to close your eyes, breathe deep, and jump out into the wild adventure of daring to consider the most astounding story in the world. 

(Paintings above: Right inset--"Cynic Philosopher," by Luca Giordano, 17th century; Left inset--"Faith, or the Church Triumphant," by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1665)