Sunday Salon #10: Critical Thinking

What's up y'all?


I have been posting a bunch of long-ish videos on Instagram that have been helping me develop the work I'm here to do and I've boiled it down to, effectively: helping people understand how to think more critically and using that critical thinking to make the world a better place. And I'm not talking conscious capitalism and more social policies. I'm talking huge transformative shifts in the structure of our global society. It is Utopianism after all.


So, what is the ability to think critically and how do we cultivate it?


I've noticed a trend recently of unconscious ignorance. So many people think they are thinking critically, when they aren't. What's most frustrating about it is that they lack the ability to understand their logical errors, even when these are pointed out. This is a plague. Thinking critically should be at the core of our education system. Instead, we have a population of people who don't understand how to discern and analyze their thoughts and emotions. They don't know the basics of argumentation and fallacy. They don't fully understand the difference between opinion and fact. My experience is that the vast majority of conversations I witness about vitally important topics are utterly impotent. The thinking is dismal. The articulation is soggy. The nuance is nil.


We've gotta talk about this, guys.


So, I've started working on a little breakdown of critical thinking, as I see it.


Step one:

Humility about what we think we know.

The very first step in thinking critically is getting a clear handle on the nature of knowledge, including what kinds of knowledge there are, and being able to differentiate between them and understand their limitations. In Philosophy, the study of the nature of knowledge is called Epistemology, and we should be learning this concept in the fifth grade instead of memorizing the capitals of the states. The core, practical school of Epistemology, in my opinion, is the near-universally misunderstood school of skepticism. Effectively: we don't know shit. We can't even understand the objective truth of the nature of reality because our senses are fallible. Our entire experience of reality is subjective. To really boil this down for the sake of this brief newsletter: what you think you "know" is relative. You should be able to discern the nature of the various things you think you know and have a healthy understanding of their relative certainty and the contexts within which the things-you-think-you-know apply. The topic of Epistemology and skepticism is too deep and broad for the scope of this newsletter, so I'm just here to say that understanding it is imperative to critical thinking. I'll write more about this in the future.


Step two:

Open-mindedness.

If you think well about it, humility of certainty inevitably leads to open-mindedness. When we have healthy skepticism about what we think we know, we realize that almost anything is possible. Yes, some things will seem more likely than others, and that's a fair assessment, but we stop speaking with so much certainty and start to be less rigid in our ideas. We start to consider more possibilities and nuanced interpretations, which are vital to thinking well.


Step three:

Self-awareness.

Each of these steps is a skill that must be cultivated. Self-awareness is a rich skillset that is difficult for me to effectively summarize here, but it includes the ability to recognize our own thoughts (surprisingly difficult for many people) as well as our emotions. It involves noticing our own cognitive dissonance (the short circuiting that comes with new information that challenges one of our closely held beliefs). You should be able to notice your thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions, as well as your emotional relationship to them and your biases based on your personal experiences, including what information you've been exposed to. You should have a healthy understanding of what you do and don't understand and the nature and context of that understanding.


Step four:

Deconstruction.

This skill informs the previous one. You should be able to break a concept down into its basic components. That includes the assumptions underlying whatever beliefs you hold. I think that effective deconstruction likely involves a solid understanding of the natures of logic, reason, and argumentation. You should be able to recognize the "premises" of an argument or belief (the assumptions it is based on) and then examine their relative truthfulness (I prefer the word "veracity" here, but I'm tryna be for the people.)


For instance, a man on Instagram argued to me that he had a scientific basis for his Pro-Life stance. His argument was that scientists have determined that life begins at x (I don't remember what stage of fetal development he specified) and that, since everyone has a right to life, fetuses have a right to life based on science, so: the argument is purely scientific. Except that it isn't. Leaving aside the fact that science exists on a broad spectrum of subjectivity and that scientific classification and definition, such as what constitutes "life" are highly subjective and subject to change: "everyone has a right to life," is not a scientific claim. It is an ethical one. Rights are a social construct, not a law of nature. What they are and how they should apply is a topic we must discuss and determine as a society. That's the exact subject that is up for debate when discussing the issue this man thought he had an irrefutable scientific argument for. Being able to understand and classify the various components of an argument is extremely important. It's important to notice when something we think is a "fact" is actually underpinned by a variety of assumptions we forgot to unpack and question.


Step five:

Questioning.

With that open mind and healthy skepticism, you are intellectually available to question absolutely any assumption. This ultimately circles you back to the skill of being able to break down a belief into its components and assess what kinds of knowledge or assumptions underlie them and how they function. There are many examples of assumptions that commonly go unquestioned: compulsive monogamy, the "right to life," the ubiquity of war-like behavior in humans, etc. It's important to be able and willing to question and meaningfully analyze any assumption, even if you feel a strong emotional attachment to it.


Step six:

Constructive Uncertainty.

I'm coining this. This effectively refers to the ability to stitch these deconstructed and thoroughly analyzed statements into conclusions, with a detailed understanding of what they're based on and their level of certainty within different contexts. It includes being open-minded to new information and maintaining a healthy level of skepticism. It includes regularly deciding, "we don't know." It isn't always necessary to have an answer. Believing anything is a choice, and it should be an informed one. If you're going to have an opinion or express a belief, you should be able to detail why and how you formed it and speak with lucidity and clarity about its relative truthfulness. But we also need to get more comfortable discussing things as open-ended exploration, instead of feeling the need to choose a "right" answer and advocate for it. More often than not, we really don't have enough information to "know" the answer, and we simply have to make a practical choice based on the information we have. We should do that, and we should know that that is what we are doing. We must stop deluding ourselves into false senses of certainty and righteousness.


High-quality thinking is the path to a better world. We cannot meaningfully discuss important issues if we don't fully understand their nature. This is where Philosophy comes in. Neglecting the importance of critical thinking, and thinking about thinking, is one of the most catastrophic failures of our education system. It is important to discuss the natures of ideas in order to properly apply them. We need a world that thinks better. Let it start with you, with us, here. Now.


That's what I got for ya folks. I know the tone of this newsletter is a bit more serious, but I'm tired y'all. People gotta think better.


Love ya.


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