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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Are the Conservatives right on the Defense budget?

I’m changing my mind again. Watching PBS, which I think is the fair and inclusive US network, reporting on the longest war in American history, i.e. Afghanistan, I realize that maybe the billions and billions of dollars we are spending to protect people, especially girls who want an education, from the Taliban who are right wing, true believing, anti-progressive, distorters of Islam may be necessary.

I have been against the inflation of the Defense budget which most Republicans and some conservative Democrats support. I thought that those dollars would be better spent here on our own people in need, on infrastructure and local jobs. But after reading reports from Brookings and Foreign Affairs, I realize that perhaps the best help for those in poverty around the world, the best way to pursue social justice is to support the US military in the Middle East.

I do think that the invasion of Iraq was stupid and that once done the dismissal of the Iraqi Army when they were ready to serve under the US military was a big mistake. I believe that we should have focused on Afghanistan and Al Qaida as a police, not war, action. We didn’t and made a mess. But now what?

I have no illusions that the U.S. could lead some coalition to invade the Middle East and win control of it to make the region safe for democracy.  Bush tried that and it was an abysmal failure. Those who are advocating this or calling the administration weak for not pursuing a larger war must be resisted. The recent Atlantc article on "The Art of Avoiding War," I hope is read widely by the administration and Congress and citizens.

However I think we should do everything short of invasion to support those parts of the Middle East that are trying to stop the right wing forces of Islam or any other culture who seek to deny personal, political, and cultural freedom in the name of religion or capitalism, socialism, or any other ideology.

Violence, while never justifiable, is necessary to stop immediate violence or any sort of coercion that does not allow persons or their communities to progress educationally, economically, and politically. Now I find myself agreeing with those conservatives who want to spend much more American money in safeguarding the people of other countries around the world, probably for much different reasons.

But right action over right intentions!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Neuroscience of Thinking 3

The main purpose of VI Rakmachandran's Brief Tour of Consciousness is to show that "the study of patients with neurological orders has implications far beyond the confines of medical neurology, implications even for the humanities, for philosophy, maybe even for aesthetics, and art." He proposes a new discipline--"evolutionary neuro-psychiatry." Neuroscience he proclaims is the new philosophy.

While I think that the last statement may claim too much, I do not see how an adequate philosophy that includes the study of human existence, of human knowing and actions, of ethics and politics, can not include the findings of neuroscience.

Consciousness is an essential element of human thinking. And so are unconscious memories and habits. For Ramachandran there are two facets of consciousness: qualia which are the perceived subjective sensations, e.g. color, taste, feel, and the sense of self where are the qualia are lumped together. The self has five characteristics:
1) continuity--a sense of the unbroken thread from past into present towards future.
2) unity--a coherence, sense of individuality and uniqueness.
3) embodiment or ownership--a sense that the perceptions and my body belong to me or even are me.
4) agency--a sense of being in charge of my actions, i.e. free will.
5) awareness--i.e. the "sense" in all the above, i.e. sense of existing as a unity, continuity, agency, owner.

He also points out how each of these characteristics can be disturbed through injury or experiment in the brain. The brain, he says, is a "model-making machine." It constructs "useful, virtual reality, simulations of the world that we can act on." It also constructs models of other peoples minds, i.e. "theory of mind." Through these models, the brain pulls together all the perceptions into the unity of the self aware of itself, of others, and of things in the world.

He describes the activity of thinking as both a representation, e.g. a model of the sensory stimuli from  the environment and a meta-representation, a representation of the representation through which new juxtapositions can be made among the representations and this ability is linked to language comprehension and meaning. He indicates the importance of culture in this activity of model making which he calls gene/cultural co-dependence. The brain is inextricably bound to its cultural milieu, languages, art forms, and other symbols, in its own development and in the development of its activity.

As a neurologist he shows how illness, injury, and experiment can disassociate different centers of the brain that connected make up the unified self-consciousness we discover in normal, well-adjusted, human minds. For example, Capgras Syndrome is a severing of the visual areas and emotional core of the brain so that when a patient sees his mother, he sees her as an imposter. Or blindsight when a patient says that he cannot see an object yet reacts to it because the visual information travels two paths of the brain which when severed makes the patient unable to see the object but still be aware of its presence. Certain experiments can induce a person to seemingly leave his body and see it from above. And there is an experiment that demonstrates that the brain makes the decision to an act before the person has any conscious intention to do so. And autism may be a deficiency in the mirror neuron system by which a person is incapable of constructing a "theory of other minds" and so lacks empathy.

But for my purposes his treatment of schizophrenia in which the representation and the meta-representation are disassociated. In other words, "schizophrenics cannot tell the difference between their own internally generated images and thoughts and perceptions that are evoked by real things outside." For example if I visualize a clown, I expect to see it but not confuse it with reality. However, if the expectation mechanism in my brain is faulty, I could not tell the difference.

And so when the schizophrenic imagines Napoleon or develop a theory of his mind, he become Napoleon.  Or a schizophrenic's mind is abducted by aliens because he is not in control. The schizophrenic is "unable to differentiate between internally generated actions and externally generated sensory stimuli." What he images and intends becomes real for him.

Because only humans among all the animals seem to have the ability to do symbolic thinking (or, in Ramachandran's terminology, make metarepresentations), only humans suffer from schizophrenia. I suggest therefore that those who confuse reality with their intentions and images, as do persons in a cult where beliefs are absolute, where what they are told is reality without question, where want they want or intend is the truth suffer from a kind of schizophrenia.

Clearly John Nash proves that schizophrenia can occur in people of very high intelligence. But I would hardly classify Michelle Bachmann and her followers as people of high intelligence. Persons who cannot or will not distinguish between what they believe and reality, whether they are right wing Tea Partiers, fundamentalist Christians, radical Islam jihadists, or devout American exceptionalists suffer from disturbance in their brains and in their thinking.

Are they responsible and culpable for this madness depends on whether we consider the self is an entity and has free will? We will come back to that.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Neuroscience of Thinking 2

Here is the route Ramachandran takes to explain thinking employing neuroscience:

1.  He begins by analyzing synesthesia--the cross activation in the brain between color and number in some of his patients and other persons sometimes considered abnormal and indeed extraordinary.  He identifies the centers of the brain that are the best candidates for this phenomenon and why it is much more than a hallucination.

2.  He demonstrates that all humans have the ability to make connections across the senses like sound and shape and touch and smell and taste that is present in our use of metaphors and maps and "cross modal abstraction." He maps the parts of the human brain that are responsible for making these connections even beyond synesthesia. He conjectures why and how the brain developed in humans through natural selection to do this.

3.  He indicates the role of bodily gesture culminating in verbal gesture or language to link sense perceptions through categories (including metaphors, maps, and models) in order to communicate and plan ahead. He points out that in the development towards homo sapiens "there is a pre-existing, non-arbitrary translation between the visual appearance of an object represented in the fusiform gyrus and the auditory representation in the auditory cortex." He demonstrates a "non-arbitrary cross activation between the visual area of the fusiform and the Broca's area in the front of the brain that generates program which control the muscles of vocalization, phonation, and articulation.

4.  He discusses the role of "mirror neurons," those corresponding neurons that can be seen firing when watching other persons gesture and articulate. In other words, he discusses the embrained body's ability to not only imitate, but to actively re-experience the intentions of others who gesture manually to point out things and actions in the environment and who gesture by sounds becoming words in a world through language and story.

Through evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Ramachandran explains the brains development and functioning to do what is a signature capacity for our species to use language and other forms for communication, i.e. the capacity for symbolic thinking.

But symbolic thinking is not merely related to things and other bodies in the world. It also is a relation to one's self and other selves. In the developing capacity of homo, the naked ape, thinking symbolically is the emergence of consciousness, the inner direct experience of that acting with others in the world.

That's next.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Neuroscience of Thinking

I just keep thinking about thinking. Can't stop.

I've been reading V.I. Ramachandran A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. Just excellent. So I want to grasp by writing the neuroscience of thinking. You see I don't really grasp it until I express it. And even then not until I express it in different ways over again.

VI Ramachandran explains the neuroscience of thinking using insights gathered in his treatment of patients with brain problems. Like Kurt Goldstein whom I read avidly as a college student, Ramachandran studies persons with brain lesions, stokes, and other injuries to the brain and compares their behavior to others with normal or healthy functioning to determine the parts of the brain that relate to certain effects in behavior. He backs up his conclusions with experiments that he and others carry out in brain imaging as well as by studies in the evolution of the brain in mammals and especially the genus homo to better understand the peculiarities of homo sapiens behavior.

In other words, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology can answer questions that were formerly the provenance of religion or religious oriented philosophy: What is mind, soul, spirit? How are we responsible and do we have free will? where does good and evil come from? How does our capacity to abstract, to think symbolically, to speak, and to communicate come about? Who are we and where are we going? Is there or can there be an immortal self?

But this inquiry is not to dismiss the function of religion or to disparage my religionist friends. But it does demonstrate that while religion may be useful to some to keep them going and to provide metaphorical motivations and guides to living, religion does not explain nature and should not pretend to take the place of science nor block further scientific inquiry.

In a wonderful passage, Ramachandran says he indeed agrees with Huxley that humans are not angels, but merely sophisticated apes. Yet he points out that in the evolution of the mind, "we feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence, trying to spread our wings and take off."

 Next: how Rakmachandran explains the evolution of thinking and consciousness.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thinking and Information

Social observers say we live in the age of information. Physicists suggest that information theory may be the unifying theory of everything.

Identifying historical ages is a way to get a handle on changing knowledge and behavior in human development. We use distinctive categories to understand what really cannot be confined to categories because history flows between and beyond the categories we use. With that caution on the limits of "age analysis," let us try to see what it might mean to be inhabiting the "information age" and how that might call for different understandings and actions.

But I remind you that I am not trying to make a case for a certain theory, narrative, belief, politics, or position. My objective, again, is to promote thinking. It is built on my conviction that evil in me and in you and others and in our world is thoughtlessness--a product of our capacity or choice to avoid thinking. I do not say evil is ignorance. I say it is accepted and willful ignorance--the kind that turns categories into stereotypes, doctrines into dogmas, gods into idols, forms into absolutes.

To achieve this objective I explore with you what it means to think and the various modes, styles, and conditions of thinking. And here in this information age, I explore the relation of thinking to information and to information theory.

With social observers, we might identify the ages before our present age to set forth the peculiarities of our own. We start with the Age of Reason stemming from the Enlightenment of the mid 17th and early 18th centuries that transcended the Age of Myth and the Age of Faith and on to the scientific revolution. The human is considered a "rational animal" with reason being the highest of properties. Doubting, questioning, and rebelling in this age led to the Age of (Classical) Science.

The roots of the scientific revolution can be seen much earlier, but the Age of Science is usually reserved for the 18th and 19th when observation and experimentation, used by Newton in discovering the laws of motion, led to the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of electromagnetism that were formulated in the 19th century and on to the Industrial Age of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Industrial Age is that of coal, steel, and manufacturing in factories building machines to aid human work, productivity, and consumption. The universe and humankind are considered as machines with parts that move deterministically according to scientific laws. It is also the age of invention where humanity, personally and collectively, has consciousness or mind or soul in that machine. And so countering mindless factories were new religious revival, spiritualism, psychiatry, and rational inquiry into bodies constituted by atoms, molecules, and evolving organisms towards the Atomic Age.

The early 20th century saw the development of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics culminating in the Space and Nuclear Age. The smallest particles of matter were measured and the characteristics of light were defined. But in the transcendence of classical physics, a paradox was discovered in the laws governing the micro and the macro elements of the universe. And there seems to be an irresolvable tension in nature, in culture, and our lives between determinism and randomness, order and chaos, justice and freedom.

The Information Age is characterized by a movement away from mass by adding information to all our machines, transportation vehicles, health care instruments, military equipment, and many other devices. The computer is the machine of machines and is reproducing itself and its product exponentially. Information becomes the new currency and even currency is becomes information as you realize when you pay your bills and receive your income online.

Information theory is attributed to an engineer, Claude Shannon, who was trying to solve the problem of how many messages could fit on a telephone cable. He worked out a formula that many saw was  linked to the laws of thermodynamics and especially the second law of entropy. Atoms and molecules  are explained in terms of information transfers that can be communicated in bits, positive or negative charges, 1s or 0s. And now they are explained in quantum mechanics as qubits, which are positive and negative charges, 1s and 0s.

Information is ubiquitous. It travels on light from distant stars to the Hubble telescope. It travels our DNA to give the instructions that make up our genotypes and direct the evolution of life. It travels our nervous systems in negative and positive electric charges in and out of our brains which are organic processors of information. And so the whole Universe and its singularities can be understood as quantum information processors where all the bits and qubits are connected and the processors are part of the information itself.

I repeat that my purpose is not to proffer an understanding of a theory that explains reality, but rather to understand thinking in order to promote it. Information, like any concept, is a category and analogy. In-form implies the transfer of forms from mind to matter and matter to mind. It is sometimes defined as the answer to a question or as a message from a sender to a receiver. We indeed can conceive of thinking as processing information through a set of symbols or forms. We can conceive of knowledge as the information we receive when we decode those symbols. Knowledge is modeling reality and is true when we verify the models thus decoding the universe.

But as we have noticed in appreciating scientific method, there is a positive and negative in knowledge, a conjecture and a refutation, a positing and a criticizing towards a tentative final affirmation. And this knowledge is communicated and received through the negatives and positives of bits and qubits.

Reality including us is a combination of no and yes. There is no being without nonbeing. No-thing is where being emerges. The Universe (or God, to use the metaphor) creates being from nothingness. And indeed, created in the image of God, so do we. Our ability to say "no," our ability to critique, our ability to question and doubt all entities, all categories, is what makes it possible to say "yes." To being, to life, and to truth.


For further reading:

Charles Seife, Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes. Viking Penguin, 2006.

Vlatko Vedral, Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Knowing Evil

May I recommend a wonderful article on Hannah Arendt? Perhaps you saw the movie?

She has been my mentor since I went to U of Chicago in the 60s--a great political thinker. Her coverage of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, made into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem is a classic in the study of the meaning of evil.

And she was condemned for it. For many Jews, she seemed to be downplaying Eichmann's anti-Semitism. She seemed to be saying that he was not such a unique monster, that like him others even Jews went along with the Nazis, that her charge of "banality" was simply not enough to get at his diabolic evil. She seemed to be letting him off the hook and minimizing his crime.

Not so! In my reading she was showing evil in all its depth and breadth much more so than those who  attack her.

When we worked on Chicago's West Side, we learned that the racism, which divided the city black against white, screwing both upwardly mobile hard working new immigrant blacks and also former immigrant hard working Poles, Italians, Irish, and Jews, was not caused by the fearful lower class whites running away or the black families moving in the same way that the former immigrants did. They were both victims of real estate and banking practices supported, even financed, by government policies. These institutions were run by liberal minded officials who just made money off those practices and policies without questioning them. These liberals did not disdain either black people or white and would have welcomed them into their families. But they went along.

No, the racism in Chicago was (still is?) not as bad as Apartheid in South Africa or Nazism in Germany and these officials certainly were not overseeing the Final Solution the way Eichmann was. But they were just as responsible. And so are we if we do not question and oppose practices that make victims of people and rob them of their dignity.

The thoughtlessness that goes along with these practices and polices is not just an unfortunate condition, it is a choice that has consequences. It is the actions, not the intent, that should be judged and which Arendt was judging in Eichmann--not his anti-Semitism, but his following orders to brilliantly organize the extermination of thousands of innocent Jews.

But judgment requires critical thinking, the thinking that raises questions about what we have been told and that contradicts the commands of authority to avoid the knowledge of good and evil. That is why Eve is my mythic heroine. She chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge despite the consequences to her. St Augustine preached that Eve brought evil into the world. But, no, she brought the knowledge of evil into the world so we might do something about it.

And Hannah is Eve today.

Simple Thought (2)

(I'm working on a book that is taking time. Cousin Vinnie said to keep my blog short. So...)

Ever notice that:

  • what we dislike in others, is usually what we are?
  • when we most boast about our party or principle or nation, we are expressing the least confidence in them?
  • when we condemn another culture or religion or viewpoint, we show the pettiness of our own?

Probably not.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Thoughts (1)

Cousin says I need to limit my blog to four sentences.

I explained to him that these are not ads or editorials, not bumper stickers or opinion pieces, and not recitations of facts or pronouncements. They are thoughts and, as laborious or perverted as they may be, I want to portray the workings of my thinking so I can keep criticizing and advancing it.

But, since I am taking the time to write an essay on thinking and information theory, I will try to be much more brief in these next few blogs.


Simple Thought One:

Why are those of us who are most secure with God in heaven, with clear fixed principles, with patriotism and politics, are so insecure that we promote walled borders and gated communities, armed forces and ownership of arms, tough policing and more jails? Why are we so afraid?

Philosophers Are Scientists Too

Nice piece (Physicists Are Philosophers, Too) in Scientific American in which the late physicist Victor Stenger defends philosophy from the attacks of those who say that Physics is enough to explain reality.

I submitted my comments:

Philosophers are scientists too. To defend philosophy, it is important to demystify it. Richard Rorty makes philosophy "literary criticism." And I think he is on to something. 
Philosophy is critical thinking in and of all the disciplines of knowing--including art, myth, religion, common sense, and physical science. When the scientist reflects on her trade or another critical thinker like Karl Popper reflects on the scientist's way of doing science and how that fits with others ways of modeling the world, they are doing philosophy. Some call it secondary reflection, the reflection on the first mode of modeling your world. 
To do this I think good philosophers stay up to date on the latest practices and theories of science, and especially now, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience which are casting more light on our ways of thinking and consciousness. Philosophers need to be scientists too in using evidence that can be accessible to all whether in the laboratory or phenomenologically. In second reflection, the thinker reflects back on his/her previous enterprise from within, as it appears while doing it, and tries to communicate what she is doing and why. 
Philosophy may no longer be queen of the sciences, but she is a worthy handmaiden.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

To My Theist Friends

I have been pretty clear that I don't need "God" in my life or language. (click here) Besides being an unscientific and irrational proposition, I have concluded that belief in God often squanders opportunity and responsibility and that religions, especially those of the monotheistic brand, bring with them a lot of evil into the world.

Radical Islam, Fundamentalist Christianity, Righteous Judaism attack each other as infidels while requiring strict adherence to their immovable principles. They are paternalistic and hierarchical. They fear novelty, justify violence, and sacrifice the others on the altar of the Absolute. They eschew critical thinking because they are in unique possession of God's revelation. They claim infallibility because of their special relationship with the Almighty. They practice exclusion of aliens and make aliens of those who disagree with them. In doing so they feed fear, ignorance, and hate. While condemning idolatry by affirming that there is no god but God, they make idols of their God, their Prophets, their Scriptures, their Laws, their dogmas, and their institutions. And they are willing to sacrifice their perceived enemies to their idols.

However, I work closely with Christian, Jewish, Muslim congregations committed to social justice. I understand that historically each of these three religions of the Book were founded by advocates from and for the lower classes in society with visions of social equality, freedom, and justice which I share. I also have many friends and colleagues for whom God is an important part of their life, their stories, and their commitment to peace through justice. With them I see that God brings a lot of good into the world.

So when I hear my friends and colleagues talk "God," this is what I choose to hear. I hear them affirming Transcendence, i.e. their willingness to pass beyond idols by continued questioning and criticism. I hear them affirming the Worth of persons over things. I hear them committed to the Future of the world by acknowledging but letting go of the past. I hear them desiring to act with optimism out of Abundance, rather than with gloom out of scarcity, focusing on the possibility in nature and humanity rather than on its limitations and evil.

So when they talk "God," let me think not of a powerful entity over nature. Let me think of the Power that is being engendered in human concerted action. Let me think of the way the mystics experienced the Void: God is the Nothingness from which all things come--ex nihilo.  Neither matter, nor energy, God as the Universal Void is Cosmic Consciousness. God does not exist, but is the condition or context for all that does. Or let me think God as the Universe in all vastness united as a Whole with interacting parts. Or let me think of God as Universal Consciousness Becoming through matter's complexification and through our interaction with it, a sort of Omega point in the human experiment.

None of these propositions are falsifiable and so not verifiable. However, the advance of science may lead to these propositions either by demonstrating that they are not incompatible with the laws of physics or through new testable theories. I especially mean quantum information theory that may surpass and unite both classical and quantum mechanics by understanding all of reality as information processed by a universal computing complex.

In this theory all information can be understood as made up of quantum bits--positive and negative matter/energy points all of which cannot be without being in relation to one another. God is that universal computing complex in which all information (including that of its processor) is contained and processed thus being the union of positive and negative energy/matter. But then, according to information theory, God as the sum total of information is Entropy. And God as the Whole of parts that exist only in relationship is Love or Empathy.

Entropy and Empathy, the Yin and the Yang, Negative and Positive.

Again, all that is pretty far out and seems fit more to science fiction than science. It is more suggestive poetry than true knowledge. We as yet have no way to test these speculations through experimentation and observation and so to give them usable meaning.

However what we can observe and test, at least phenomenologically and even neurologically, is human consciousness as transcending.

Human consciousness as observed in its varieties of religious experience, in its poetry and image making, and in its drive to know develops by passing beyond its products, its goods, its truths, its self. So while we can come up with no concept of God or Universal Consciousness or Great Void or Omega Point or Universal Information Processor, we can perhaps have a notion of God which is but the experience of our own transcending consciousness existence in the world.

Human consciousness is thus the stretching towards greater subjectivity through greater objectivity and so constituting space. Human consciousness is also temporality, a stretching to past and future and so constituting time. Human consciousness is the stretching between the individuality of the self
to the society of persons and so constituting community. Human consciousness is the "no-thing-ness," the void within, that is the ability to negate and so refute imagination's products: the idols to be transcended.

So can I affirm the existence of God? No. But I can understand the notion of God that my friends and colleagues use. I can affirm their openness and willingness to transcend, to put themselves with all other persons acting for a better world, for a future in which we all share, for a hope in universal love.

Can I affirm that such a love, future, transcendent truth does exist or is indeed coming? No. But here is where Pascal's wager makes sense for me. I choose to bet on it, not because of some game theory reward, but because the wager of faith itself makes such a transcendent future possible.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Even More on Critical Thinking

Karl Popper was the expert on scientific method. He observed and described the activity of scientists, the way that they achieved knowledge and the way that the world accumulated knowledge. "Science" is the Latin word for knowledge. So as one of my mentors, Bernard Lonergan SJ, pointed out, understanding the way of science is understanding the way of knowing even in art, history, philosophy, religion, and ordinary common sense.

Popper's insight is that negation is key to the scientific method. In fact a proposition or theory has no meaning unless it can be "falsified." The scientist uses imagination to first "conjecture" and then experiments for "refutation" and then revises the conjecture for continued refutation. When the probability of refuting the proposition dips towards zero, the more certainty there is for its verification.

This conforms to St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching that the way to truth is analogy and negation: the via negativa. Thomas, unlike Anselm, taught that humans use media, i.e. categories/analogies, what we now call models, to think and that we achieve the truth of those models through negation. John Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness) identified human consciousness as nothingness which applied to posited objects in the world achieves knowledge. No and yes and no and . . . . .

To know is to affirm and deny together. The affirmative is the symbol that is constructed to attend to and link many observations. It is the use of imagination to posit or conjecture. The negative is the refutation of the conjecture. It is also the limitation of the imagination. It is why knowing involves definition and distinction. Definition means putting limits or boundaries to a category or symbol. Distinction is clarifying what belongs in the category or model and what does not.

The "critical" in critical thinking is the use of doubt, question, skepticism, or negation in making or receiving propositions. When we affirm with certainty, when we hold absolutes, when we believe without question (or I say, without faith), we bask in and we show our ignorance. Likewise when we deny a position despite the evidence and despite the high probability of its verification by its inability to be refuted, we also bask in and show our ignorance.

The Cousin Vinnie's of the world demonstrate their ignorance, their lack of thinking or refusal to think, when they affirm and pass on positions without taking the time to question them or when they deny positions that have been carefully verified. Examples include the stereotyping of women, Muslims, African Americans, the idolization of a political or economic system, and the denial of climate change or evolution. I regret ignorance in myself and reject it in others especially when it is fueled by the fear of change. The ignorant are either blindly optimistic or fatalistically pessimistic or often both. They conjecture without refutation. They believe without faith.  They blame, name, and shame without taking responsibility.

The problem for humanity and our world is not conservatism or liberalism, right or left, religion or atheism, science or arts, government or corporations, the East or the West. The problem is the inability or refusal to think critically.

Friday, May 1, 2015

More on Critical Thinking

For me education is learning the art and habit of critical thinking. It is the opposite of imposing a position. To educate (e-ducare) means to "lead out." Out of what? Out of the box.

We need boxes, i.e. categories, to think. Those categories are given to us by others, by our parents, teachers, and preachers. But we don't just take the boxes, we learn how those boxes were made. We learn the ways of coming up with those boxes--and how to refine, expand, interpret, integrate, and even reject the boxes we have been given. We develop in dialogue with others our own boxes that we might transcend them.

I think this requires a taste of creating boxes in many fields: language in everyday living, formulas in math, models in science, plans in urban development, forms in art, myths in religion, organizations in community building, constitutions in nation building--symbols in all our modes of thinking. We learn to be attentive to the history, style, and context of the construction of our boxes so we can interpret them across fields and cultures.

But I think education in critical thinking also requires a mastery in thinking in one or more fields. In a chosen field, we apprentice ourselves to masters to experience their style and approach in box-making, and we "pass" beyond the master when we create our own boxes.

Although I believe that education in critical thinking should be the primary mission of schools, education does not necessarily mean going to school or getting a degree. The classroom, the workshop, the sanctuary, the dining room table, the public forum, the think tank, the seminar and webinar should be places where teachers set the context and resources for students to become "eager ones" (studere) to follow their bliss in the quest for life.


If a child for whatever reason (poverty, abuse, nutrition, lack of healthcare and other resources) does not have this opportunity, a great injustice is being done. If an adult who has this opportunity does not take advantage of the opportunity to transcend her/his boxes, a great injustice is being done. If an organization or nation, does not encourage its leaders at all levels to have and take advantage of this opportunity to learn, a great injustice is being done. This injustice is not only to persons, but to society, to all of us.

Critical Thinking

Most people would agree that critical thinking is to be encouraged, don't they? Certainly over uncritical thinking or not thinking at all. Or is that just an assumption of elitist academics pushing "liberal" education which is what the just-follow-your-common-sense Cousin Vinnies of the world might assert?

What is critical thinking? Why is it important? How can it be fostered?

Here is a brief definition of critical thinking from the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness..."

The notion of "critical"  comes from the Greek kriticon (discerning judgment) and kriterion (standards)--both of which are indicated in the above definition.

Some of the elements in critical thinking are:
  • a fair and open mind; that is, able to change with new evidence, able to listen and enter into opposing viewpoints.
  • expression of the question for inquiry or problem to be solved with recognition of the limits of inquiry and solution.
  • continuous observation and exploration; that is, research and further inquiry.
  • expression of conclusions that are tentative and testable.
  • experimentation; that is trying out conclusions to see if they work objectively with others.
  • response to challenges by peers with noted adaptations and new questions and problems.
Critical thinking implies the questioning of all belief systems, all previously affirmed conclusions, all assumptions, all doctrines. It means ongoing inquiry based on the desire to know, not the desire to uphold some existing position.

Without critical thinking, we are hung up in the status quo. We are stuck in old thinking, in the habits that maintain what is, in keeping things the way they are insofar as they keep us in control. We are kept comfortable without tension, without contradiction, without thinking. Critical thinking makes us uncomfortable with where we are and what we know. Critical thinking prompts and excites us towards new possibilities.

Without critical thinking we are who we are, but not who we might be. Without critical thinking, we are caught in what is, and blocked from what could be.

What makes thinking critical is that it questions thinking itself and the products of that thinking whether it is in religion, science, philosophy, economics, politics, or day to day life. What makes thinking critical is that it is engaged in action to change the world and be changed by the world.