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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.