As one who values critical thinking, however spotty I sometimes am about it, there is a time for discussing it, and a time not for that as well. As both an atheist and a skeptic, most of the time I don’t care about any given position on the god-question, or my current positions on some questionable claims of alleged scientific fact.
Most of these claims don’t directly impact me, nor do their implications, those depending on the nature and consequences of the claim, and I don’t waste much thought on how much I do or don’t believe them, especially the claims of religion and of pseudoscience.
I just don’t care unless specifically looking up arguments online or in a book, to analyze or deconstruct. I rarely think of certain topics unless someone thinks to mention it or it’s part of a research project, like reading up on Indian religious philosophies and mythologies.
I can see how theists and paranormalists often suppose that we nonbelievers are just as concerned about the same topics as they. It’s easy and common to project one’s own attitude onto others, to think that other believers and nonbelievers are just as concerned about it as yourself.
When I once believed in a god, and in the paranormal, the seeming reality of the both made a big impression on my daily consciousness, so much that scarcely an hour went by without my thoughts turning to them.
But as a nonbeliever, that’s no longer the case, and atheism aside, I rarely wear my skeptic hat either unless posting on this blog, or the occasional scientific claim is brought up in a live discussion with others.
By scientific, here I mean any testable claim about reality with a knowable answer, not just the claims investigated by lab-coated academics looking very wise and thoughtful while tweaking their instruments carefully. It does one little good to obsess about how much one doubts certain claims, so I don’t do it much.
Here’s an example:
After much pondering and thoughtful consideration, I’ve decided that I’m an aUnicronist — I lack belief in planet-sized, world-eating monstrosities that transform into gigantic robotic humanoids….just as I lack belief in leprechauns, pixies, unicorns, and untold trillions of other things I can’t believe to be or not be because I’ve never even heard of them.
Being an aUnicronist has absolutely no impact on my life, and I tend not to give it much thought, though the subject matter does make for cool toys and passable 1980s animated feature films. I don’t have to believe it’s real to enjoy it.
Fantasy and fiction have real value even to nonbelievers.
Science is not the only part of my reality-equation, of course — All areas of human endeavor are — Science just happens to be the most rigorous and effective way of thinking we have of reliably gaining knowledge of things natural and human.
Science can say nothing of anything not part of nature, not part of the knowable, though its general methods of inquiry can very nicely apply to normative as well as descriptive human claims.
I’ll change my position on the existence or lack thereof of gods and paranormal forces when presented with credible evidence to soundly support my accepting them as real, and no sooner. Right now, I’ve simply no reason to, but someday some such reason may perhaps make itself apparent. I don’t know yet.
When it does, then it does. And only then. The burden of proof lies as always with the one making the claims, and only through meeting that burden will the reasons be not proven, not proven absolutely, but justified enough to make me to change my mind. Absolute proof is too tall an order for me.
Either way, things should be interesting.
I self-identify as a skeptic, and now and then fall short of the ideal — we all do — but like better and certainly more accomplished skeptics, I believe that, yes, Agent Mulder, the truth is out there…
…But also that the best way to the truth is through skilled, careful reasoning and systematically gathered evidence.
Skeptics tend to value logic and evidence as ways of knowing the natural and social worlds. Without claiming that skeptics “own” logical thinking, I can confidently say that some mix of solid reasoning and sound data evaluation have been very reliable throughout human history, in any profession involving occupational competence, whether a good mechanic, police detective, soldier, electrical engineer, landscaper, lab technician or astrophysicist.
It’s all a matter of using effective knowledge that one can reliably use in situations in the real world — without the universe thumbing its nose and saying “Nope, that just won’t fly.”
It could even be said that there is a set of principles, ideas and values that while not identical with modern skepticism and its use of critical thinking skills underlies both, as with the process of science.
Let me get something straight: skepticism is a set of methods, not a doctrine, belief nor a system of belief advocating any particular position on the nature of reality, so it can’t possibly be true or false.
It’s a method of finding out what’s true or false, or likely to be, and of reliably showing it to be when there’s enough data to come to a reasonable conclusion.
When skeptics are generally agreed that such-and-such a claim is false, likely to be false, or at least highly suspect, it’s because a commonly shared set of methods was used to reach that conclusion, not a taboo about or disinterest in the paranormal or the unconventional.
And conclusions are tentative — good skeptics are willing to change their minds upon the satisfaction of a level of proof appropriate to the claim.
Is there any other, at least as reliable, even superior way of knowing the truth besides reason and empirical data collection? If there are any, I don’t know of them, and I don’t know of anyone else who does and has been able to demonstrate it.
But there are many pretenders to “other ways of knowing.”
Faith, in the sense of belief not resting on sufficient reason or evidence, is out.
The reason for this is that faith in that sense denies reason and evidence to support belief, especially when those may falsify the belief in question. For every unsupported faith-claim, there are countless others just as groundless that contradict it and with no objective way to know which is correct. They certainly cannot all be correct, though they could well all be false. Strength of conviction proves nothing when the argument and data are against you.
The same applies to intuitive revelation as private, non-repeatable experiences with hosts of rival experiences from other mystics, almost all mutually inconsistent, and most unsupported by other facts of the very claims they are said to pertain to.
With no universally agreed-upon way to tell the true from the false, short of using other forms of evidence to corroborate them, some of claims based on these may occasionally turn out to be true or partly true as a lucky guess, but most have shown themselves highly unreliable as effective knowledge-gathering techniques despite their frequency of use by many cultures. If you put out enough random claims, some of them are bound to come true by chance alone, via the Law of Large numbers.
The problem is that most claims to knowledge based on unproven means of gaining input from esoteric sources (themselves unproven or even unprovable to exist) are unreliable, often true by chance alone, and sometimes even fraudulent, so care must be taken in evaluating them.
But care must be taken with any extraordinary claim to knowledge no matter the source and set of methods, any claim inconsistent with a well-supported body of established findings, and the more inconsistent the better and more copious the evidence needed to support it.
After all, claiming that I’ve read a book by a certain author is trivial when both book and author are well-known to exist and I can intelligently discuss the contents of the book with another, but to claim I had a twenty-foot tall eight-limbed radiation breathing alien dinosaur in my bedroom closet would be a claim requiring an enormous burden of proof on my part, since there is no proven knowledge that such beings exist, that any are on Earth if they do, much less the fact that the known dimensions of my closet are too small to contain such a being, and the fact that I show no signs of radiation exposure despite my claimed proximity to the alien.
And no ad hoc hypotheses would or should be permitted. Every link in my claim must hold and be capable of disproof if it is to be acceptable — no excuses!
At the very least, my obstinately persisting in that claim despite disproof would and rightly should raise questions of my honesty or my sanity, or perhaps what sort of joke I’m attempting to play and what the punchline is.
It would be interesting if there really were rival or even superior ways to the truth, but I know of none which currently exist. I suspect that any existing at a future date will most likely be a evolution, vastly improved, of current scientific methodology or something else like it and serving the same function, only better.
That, I think, may be something to look forward to, if not in my lifetime, then the lifetimes of those yet to come. Good or bad, we are living in interesting times indeed.
…and preferable to uncritically accepting the absurdities I’m faced with daily by far.
One of the first things I’ve noticed in contentious discussions is that often, those most eager to point out the skewed views of their opponents show a pronounced bias and certainty in their own views, the quicker to so point out, the more fallacies committed, in all of their arguments on that topic, especially on politics and religion…
…especially when they know the terminology of critical thinking without understanding what it actually means. Knowing what to call something does not entail comprehending it in an effective manner. Those are different things.
You can know the name of something and still know nothing about it, to paraphrase the late Richard Feynman.
We’re all biased to a degree, but not to the same degree equally and not on the same topic, specious arguments from false equivalence by apologists and talk-show hosts notwithstanding.
To be biased is to be human…
…and objectivity to the extent we can achieve it is a virtue, whether actually sought or merely presumed, but total objectivity is humanly impossible.
Hence the need to sidestep and at least reduce if not eliminate our endemic individual and subjectively generated errors.
So why not just bite the bullet and accept that we can rarely if ever know anything outside of formal logic and mathematics absolutely, with complete, unmitigated certainty, when all we really need is for our knowledge to be useful, reliable and effective…
…that we can be reasonably confident in what we know without also needing it to be perfect and eternal?
Reach for what we can achieve, without wishing for the impossible. It’s the only way that’s really been shown to work.
- What cognitive biases should everyone know? (ask.metafilter.com)
- Take Risk of Thinking (dranilj1.wordpress.com)
- Connecting Critical Thinking to Online Learning (nancy-rubin.com)
- Not All Good Arguments Are Logically Sound (ethicalrealism.wordpress.com)
- Standards of Critical Thinking (psychologytoday.com)
Independent thinking is much claimed by many, and much misunderstood as to what it really is. Unconventionality in thought amounts to much more than just saying “no” to someone else’s “yes.”
Believing that independent thought involves only contrarianism toward a perceived establishment or norm and little more than that commits the fallacy of believing that “I’m a non-conformist — along with all my like-minded friends.”
Few of us are as good at it as we think.
Human beings have a tendency for self-deception on a variety of things — we tend to think flattering things about ourselves, and it is more likely that we are just as conformist as those people we deride as “sheeple,” just with a different set of biases by which our own objectivity is clouded, biases that we ourselves note with difficulty and recognize only reluctantly.
Genuine independent thought amounts to both original and creative thought, and in thinking, listening and reading critically and reflectively while trying best to account for our own biases — we will get nowhere thinking we have none, since to learn of and know our biases is the first step to overcoming them.
Remember that the establishment is not evil just because it’s not someone you helped vote into office, and repeatedly priding ourselves for our freethinking amounts to nothing if we just robotically parrot party-line dogmas and conspiracy-thinking or the standard oppositional talking points of our favorite radio talk-show hosts or allegedly fair and balanced news outlets.
Independent thinking involves suspicion of dogma, including one’s own, and a willingness to challenge our own fixed beliefs when they can be shown erroneous, and our presumptions. It involves wandering along new lines of thought, following them to their logical conclusion, even if we don’t like it, even if it’s not what our particular ingroup or political party doctrine considers acceptable.
It involves much more than uncritical acceptance of what agrees with our prejudices, or knee-jerk rejection of the contrary, and involves in no small part the capacity and willingness to see and venture into new territories of understanding with the tough-mindedness of a pioneer and the insight of a visionary — without just going on in public about what great thinkers we are while plainly wearing our biases on our sleeves.