Archive for the ‘critical thinking’ Category

Trying not to think with my gut

September 30, 2011

The Thursday afternoon tutorial on William James I’ve been doing with a couple of students got cancelled yesterday, so I was able to attend the weekly meeting of the new undergraduate Philosophy Club from the beginning. It’s a small but passionate bunch, excited about ideas and eclectic in conversational range. If you like that sort of thing, drop in at 5 pm on Thursdays (James Union Building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, roon 304).

Yesterday’s discussion began with the perennial free will debate but quickly moved on to the nature and existence of souls, the untapped potential of brains, Cartesian dualism, the possibility that we might be living in a “matrix,” collective dreaming, and on and on. Just a bit undisciplined, but what else would be the point and pleasure of an undergraduate philosophy club?

I would only remind them of Carl Sagan’s cautionary wisdom in Demon-haunted World. Asked for his gut feeling about UFOs and aliens he always responded:

I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.  Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

The gut has its place. It’s what I was “thinking” with all day yesterday under my “StL” hat, as if the latest fortunes of a professional sports franchise in my long-ago hometown should have anything at all to do with my outlook on the value of existence. It was my gut that felt annoyed when my colleague (a long-ago East Coaster), fully informed of the Red Sox collapse, admitted not knowing about the Cards’ historic comeback.

Gut-level emotive “thinking” is what childhood indoctrination is especially good at engendering and reinforcing. Baseball is St. Louis’s civic religion, at least since the St. Louis Hegelians folded their tent. They got me early. (I attended my first Cardinals game in about 1966, just before they opened the new stadium that they tore down in 2005.)

Baloney has its place, too. And so has critical thinking. As skeptic Michael Shermer notes, “when we’re growing up we tend to be pretty credulous.” We should all read his magazine.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a world of wonders we’re living in. Our existence is a natural miracle.  Here we are, in the face of “stupefying odds.” That’s worth talking about, every Thursday afternoon. And I’m even luckier, I get paid to do it every single day.

Dawkins’ SpiritualityRainbow Warrior

Reserve your right to think

September 2, 2011

It was 7th grade parents’ night last night at our school. Seems like we just did that, and we did… four years ago. The scripts haven’t changed much, nor have the personalities. The English teacher is even more manic and hyper than I remembered.

What did catch my attention as positively different this time was a quote on the wall in the math teacher’s room. It’s from one of the greatest philosophers most people have never heard of, the tragic 5th century martyr Hypatia. Her words belong in every classroom, mine included:

Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

She also said

You don’t question what you believe. I must.

Plenty of philosophers have been targets of religious persecution. Not that many have been featured in full-length films. Hypatia has:

honesty w/kids

May 12, 2010

And then there’s the indoctrination angle…

Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief is chock-full of sensible ideas about childhood and responsible parenting. For instance, Julia Sweeney on her little daughter’s requests for reassurance about “what we believe”:

I hated the whole word “believe” and I also hated that she was just taking what I said as absolute truth, because in the perfect world of my head, she wouldn’t be indoctrinated with anything. She would come up with her own answers.

But it’s not that simple.

Our job is to socialize our kids, and they have evolved to look to us for answers. Not providing those answers is wrong.

Right. But which answers are those? Parenting’s a huge responsibility, and a huge field of mines to wade through and try not to blow up. Julia seems to have a knack for it. For instance, she told her five-year old about Grandpa:

Lots of people believe that after someone dies, they live on. But I think that is just their way of not feeling as sad as they might… I think that when people die, they die. And we should feel really sad and also feel happy that the flower of that person ever got to live at all.

Her little girl “got it.”

Imagine no religion, it’s easy if you try…

evolution of childhood

May 11, 2010

So… what book shall I write?

I’ve been threatening forever to write something about childhood. Melvin Konner has finally come out with his Evolution of Childhood. Maybe “play” needs more attention.

Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

How does play give way, in our development, to critical acuity and rational maturity? How do Red & Rover rise from their crate-box spaceship to face real questions about the cosmos? How do any of us learn to distinguish fantasy from reality, and replace the will to believe with the will to find out? What are parents’ and teachers’ obligations in this regard? And what about the moral lives of babies? Or philosophical babies?

There’s at least another book or two in those questions.

all fools

April 1, 2010

Would you believe (as Maxwell Smart would’ve put it) I designed our A&S syllabus to bring us to Dawkins’ discussion of “All Fools Day” precisely today?

If so, I’d be flattered. And you’d be gullible, in just the sense he’s about to explain.

But here we are in chapter six (“Hoodwink’d With Faery Fancy”) of Unweaving the Rainbow, back on one of his and one of my favorite themes, childhood indoctrination. I’ll bring baseball into it, if I get half a chance. [A prayer from Dawkins (!) for his daughterGod Delusion on ch’hd indoctrination]

On All Fools‘ Day one year, when my sister and I were children, our parents and our uncle and aunt played a simple trick on us…

The short version of this delightful recollection is that young Richard and his sister went for a blindfolded “aeroplane” flight, much as Red and Rover regularly do with eyes wide open. (American kids are more credulous, naturally.) Their father & uncle provided the sound-and-motion simulation to create a virtual experience they wouldn’t question, at that age. “We had simply been sitting on a garden seat… the tree branches brushing against us had been wielded by our mother and aunt… It had been fun while it lasted.”

Childhood is of course a time of natural credulity, hence vulnerability to nonsense. That’s good, because lots of childish nonsense is great fun. And it’s bad, because lots of childish nonsense paves the way for intransigent adult nonsense. “It never occurred to us to wonder why we must be blindfolded. Wouldn’t it have been natural to ask what was the point of going for a joyride if you couldn’t see anything?” No, not really. “We just didn’t have the sceptic’s turn of mind… such was our faith in our parents.”

That flight was on all fours with Santa, the tooth-fairy, angels, heaven, and so much more nonsense that adults in America don’t know how to question.

But there was a time in our species history when “an experimental and sceptical turn of mind” was more likely to get you get you dead. (Remember Douglas Adams’ whale?) Maybe that’s why so many of us continue to shun it, at our peril. But let’s admit: shunning skepticism is still more likely to get you invited to church and other modern forms of safe-haven inclusion. There’s a risk factor grown-ups (another name for skeptics) must swallow, to affirm their incredulity. Growing up is no bowl of petunias, as not only Dawkins’ pal Adams but also the author of Childhood’s End tried to tell us, but it’s crucial.  Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) won’t make the crate fly.

But there comes a time when we ought to notice, here on our pale blue dot (threw that in for you, James), that “the universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant,” less magical and far more wondrous. A spiritually-mature worldview (let’s say) “that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern sciednce might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Meanwhile, “human children have wide open ears and eyes, and gaping, trusting minds for sucking up language” and folk wisdom. “It must be so because Mummy and Daddy said it was.” How sobering is that, parents! “Trusting credulity may be normal and healthy in a child but it can become an unhealthy and reprehensible gullibility in an adult. Growing up… should include the cultivation of a healthy scepticism.”

Also worth noting in today’s reading: all that talk of barcodes, by which Dawkins means to symbolize “precise analysis” rooted in a pervasively-digitized information environment, brings us closer to what Michael Shermer has called the “soul of science” and an echo of the claim Sam Harris has been trumpeting lately that scientific precision should also help clarify our values. Shermer:

Morality and purpose are inextricably interdigitated — you cannot have one without the other. Fortunately, nature grants us the capacity for both morality and purpose, culture affords us the liberty to reach for higher moral purposes, and history brings us to a place where we can employ both for the enrichment of all.Through natural evolution and man-made culture, we have inherited the mantle of life’s caretaker on earth. Rather than crushing our spirits, the realization that we exist together for a narrow slice of time and space elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility: a proud, albeit passing, act in the drama of the cosmos.

This suggests the next step on our evolutionary walk (or our next flight-destination), doesn’t it? Humility should make us more skeptical, less obstinately gullible, and a lot less stubbornly persistent in the delusions of childhood. But we’re going to have to stop giving our children away those first seven years.

100 monkeys

December 22, 2009

You know the ubiquitous legend (not sure it’s particularly urban) about the hundredth monkey who tips the critical mass and creates a shared attribute of consciousness for all monkeys ever-after? Or something like that. Weird, as I learned in logic class years ago.

The implication is that a collective consciousness can be created by a cadre of initiates who transform their myth into our reality simply by believing. Reality is just that up for grabs, supposedly, for all us primates. This is another of Carl Sagan’s “demons,” and an invitation to philosophical skepticism. Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping points” may be real enough, but they’re incrementally viral– not magical.

But beware, holiday revelers. You can get in big trouble for calling the emperor out and naming this as the nonsense that it is. Better to let people at Christmas parties have their tipping, typing, believing, reality-manifesting monkeys and save the critical thinking for class. Alas.

Will I ever learn? Probably not. But if I do, I want personal credit for my educability. I’m already catching the blame.