Critical Thought And Thinking For Yourself

We’re often told to think for ourselves and that it’s important that we all form our own opinions on things. Express yourself!  Think for yourself!  Stand for what you believe in!  But I’d like to tell you that it’s not necessarily a good thing to have your own opinions unless they’re well thought out and reasoned.

I most often see this in politics.  Say we’re discussing universal healthcare. Conservatives will tell you that the government can’t do anything right and that everything they touch explodes and burns to ashes. Liberals oftentimes think everything can be solved by starting another social program of some sort. So what is the truth? Are we wasting as much money as claimed? Are these programs effective? Are they having their intended effects?

Our discourse needs informed people willing to break down how things actually work, explaining exactly what’s going on to us in detail, pointing out anything that’s wrong with the system.  We  need facts. We need real numbers. We need evidence. I don’t care for empty, emotionally charged diatribes.  Our leaders in Congress can’t seem to get anything done, and politics these days is so polarized.  If people would more deeply understand the issues, I think they’d see that many of these things are not so black and white, and many issues exist in a gray zone.  We should be able to find some agreement somewhere in there.  A blind faith or distrust in the government, character assassinations,  and the like, all without giving good reasons for how things work, stops the debate and creates a world where compromise is impossible.

But even when people are completely uninformed, that doesn’t seem to stop them from having opinions.  If you ask them about an issue, they’ll make things up if they have to.  Jimmy Kimmel has this hilarious skit where he walks down the street to ask passerby’s how feel about events which never actually took place. In this case, he’s asking them what they thought of the “First Lady Debate” (back during the presidential election).  They will go on and on and on, totally B.S.’ing, even when Ann Romney and Michelle Obama never had a debate.

Knowledge of important things often takes a lot of time and careful consideration.  Each issue has to be independently thought out, books have to be read, and you may have to spend some serious time studying with experts.  Real knowledge takes a lot of time to develop.  It’s not something you “believe”.  It’s something that you’ve deeply thought about, examined, and sorted out, rooted in observations in the world.

It’s not something you pray about and then God tells you the answer.  It’s not based on some vague ideological principle which you always “know” to be right, without even needing to consider the evidence.  It doesn’t make you “principled” to be like that.  It’s actually the opposite.  It makes you ignorant and close-minded, incapable of critical thought.

In my own experience, it is very hard to have well thought out opinions on any important issue.  It takes a lot of effort and requires a lot of time — time that most people don’t have.   Misleading statistics are everywhere.  We live in a sea of lies.  The truth is difficult to find.  Also, many people live in self-reinforcing bubbles, where everyone around them is constantly reaffirming what they already believe.  You need to let some new information in sometimes!

And not all opinions are equal.  Evolution is a fact.  The Big Bang really did happen.  The Earth really is 4.5 billion years old.  And we know these things are true.  Just because you don’t personally understand the science does not mean these things are untrue.  It does not mean we need to “teach the other side” in our schools.  There is no other side and scientists are not fascists for demanding real science be taught in textbooks.  If you’re not open to objective facts, I’m not interested in having a discussion with you.  If you don’t take scientific observations and facts as evidence, we have no room to even debate.

Many issues involving science oftentimes become difficult to debate because the material oftentimes gets very complex.  A debate turns into teaching the other side about the studies and research which they’ve often never considered.  People go to a university and study for six to eight years to master biology, genetics, physics, and other sciences.  Just because an expert can’t explain to you how the universe came into being in a simple ten minute blurb, that does not mean they don’t understand the cosmology of the big bang, or that you’ve somehow “won” the argument with your religious theology.

The type of critical thought I respect in others is one where they deeply understand all sides of the issue, are familiar with the arguments and evidence, and have a well thought out reason for why they believe like they do.  I enjoy talking with people like that, especially when they have a worldview very different from my own.  I can learn from people like that.

Take the physicist Freeman Dyson.  I’m undecided as to what I think of “objective reality”, and I don’t have any strong opinions on what quantum mechanics may or may not mean, but Dyson seems to have a slightly “spiritual” interpretation of quantum mechanics and feels there may be a mind running things, which he tentatively refers to as God.

That’s the kind of religion I respect.  He doesn’t deny any scientific facts.  He understands the different positions.  He’s respectful of other people’s viewpoints and  isn’t 100% sure of any of the issues he’s speculating about.  He simply finds the ideas plausible and entertains them.  He explains himself in the video above, so please check that out.  I like him a lot.  He considers himself a Christian without the theology.  An interesting man.

Compare Dyson to another religious man, say a deeply devout fundamentalist family member.  You’ll be at a family dinner for the holidays and they’ll start preaching to you.  You’re told you’re going to hell, that all who refuse to believe in Jesus’ divinity are fools, and that evolution and the big bang are lies from the pit of hell.  You don’t even bring these issues up, yet they’re all thrown at you, unprovoked.  No mutual respect.  You’re just assaulted.  You’re told that you’re incapable of morality.  That the judgement of the Lord is coming.  That mankind is arrogant.  That the end times are around the corner, and they go on and on and on.  I don’t have any respect for that.

There’s no room for discussion.  They’ve got all the answers yet spend no time at all even studying the universe.  They know it all.  The meaning of life, what happens when we die, what God is, what God wants, the reason for the universe’s existence — they have no problem throwing every sort of scripture at you.  If you’re a younger man or woman, even if you try to bring up a counter argument, the environment is so hostile, you almost feel as if they think you’re “rebelling” and not respecting your elders.  At these events, things are not open for discussion.  They’re there to tell you what’s true, to warn you, in the harshest possible tone, that you’re on your way to hell and need to repent.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

People have many ideas and opinions, but very few people explore, meticulously examine the evidence, and carefully sift out the truth of this world.

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6 Responses to Critical Thought And Thinking For Yourself

  1. Steve Zeller says:

    You state “If you’re not open to objective facts, I’m not interested in having a discussion with you. If you don’t take scientific observations and facts as evidence, we have no room to even debate.”

    If you are really open-minded, why not listen to those who have a different opinion with regard to how to seek the truth. Must the other person embrace the scientific method that you embrace? I’m not suggesting that you need to agree with anyone. But, why not listen when someone is sincerely expressing what they believe? I think that sometimes being very “knowledgeable” can result in a rigid mindset, even if that mindset is based on the “scientific method”.

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
    – Hamlet (1.5.166-7), Hamlet to Horatio

  2. What sorts of truths do you have in mind?

  3. Steve Zeller says:

    I don’t have any particular belief or purported truth in mind. But let’s take an example. I assume that you do not believe in creationism, based on the accepted facts available to support evolution. I have friends, however, who believe that God created mankind as well as other animals, and that we did not evolve in any significant manner from other species. I personally don’t believe this, but might this be possible? I say, sure, just about anything is possible. I can say, yes, there is solid scientific evidence that evolution is a fact, but does that absolutely disprove the claims of creationists?

    Sometimes, I ponder what is true, questioning the base foundations of our assumptions. If we cannot absolutely validate the base, then all bets are off. Do you accept, that given the likely progression of technology, one’s experience of virtual reality will, at some point, be indistinguishable from what most people take to be actual reality “out there”. Do you agree that we have no way to test whether all of our perceptions are really being generated by some sort of virtual reality mechanism (think “The Matrix”). Going even further, might the source of our perceptions be something we cannot even conceive of? If that can be true, how can we be sure of anything. Is anything we see, are any of the laws of physics, or anything else, what they appear to be? Now, I know that given this point of view, one might say that I might as well throw up my hands, and say “why bother with anything”, as we can never really know reality. I am not advocating that, as it does not seem like it would be much fun. However, if I really want to be honest with myself, I have to admit that there is nothing that I really know for sure (except maybe “I am”). Anything is possible.

  4. I can understand your desire to be open-minded and tolerant. I think most enlightened people feel that way. We don’t want to force things on people, and we want everyone to develop on their own, in their own way. But at the same time, think about some other examples where we might need to push stupidity back. Imagine your child is in a psychology class where they’re told invisible demons possess anyone with an evil heart. When a person is angry, the demons fly into their body and make them do bad things. Not only will this traumatize a young child, but we know from neuroscience that that isn’t the case, and it’s just downright stupid. What about all the violence and deception in the animal kingdom? Are demons responsible for all that too? Do demons possess ants and termites when they’re fighting with one another? You may say, “Nobody believes that…” But yes, they do. I have had Jehovah’s witnesses telling me that sort baloney and if they had their way, I’m sure it’d be in our school textbooks. To them, when we all die, we get our own planet in the solar system. You confront them with the conservation of energy and tell them that stars eventually burn up and die, but they stick their fingers in their ears and say, “La la la. Devil be gone! Lies of this world!” Creationists want us to teach the controversy, but how many wrong ideas do we allow in our textbooks? Why don’t we teach them that world was created by Shiva or the Gnostic demiurge? Put that in there too. Put some ancient Indian folklore in there was well. Where does it end?

    Most all of those ideas are ridiculous and we need people to stand firm and say, “No, you’re wrong.” It’s a duty, because if we don’t stand up to these ignorant people, our society will be thrown back into the dark ages. I suppose we can be nice and listen, but scientists and other intelligent people need to stand just as firm as religious people do, standing for the truth, because if we don’t, the dumbest and most vocal among us will have the loudest voice and work tirelessly to plunge our society into darkness and stupidity. They have to be confronted and challenged. They’re always working to push all of us into a repressive religious theocracy and technological progress will end.

    Maybe we can’t be sure of anything with “absolute” certainty, but it seems absurd to throw our hands in the air and say, ‘any belief is fine with me’, when we know they’re wrong. Would you want people teaching your children 2+2=12 in school? “We can’t be certain…”

    We live in a democratic, technologically advanced society. Mankind is gaining control over the Earth and its entire biosphere. We have the power now to not only kill ourselves but also all the other life on this planet. If people hold uninformed beliefs, we’re all held back and we’re all in danger. Your friend may believe in creationism and quote scriptures from Genesis, but the consequences of that are very real. They hold back stem cell research, genetics research, and other medical science. They want to cut important scientific research which cures diseases. If you come down with cancer twenty years from now, just think whether it was more important to be open-minded to a bunch of uninformed people, or whether you should have stood for what was almost certainly the truth. If you’d stood, we’d have a cure and you wouldn’t have to die.

    As for the Matrix idea, we may well live inside of a simulation, but we may not. I don’t know one way or the other. We do know some things though, and we should focus on what we can understand and what we can do to improve the human condition. I’ve wondered about that Matrix idea myself. It’s interesting, but in my own life, I’ve noticed that when you search for the truth, any time you learn a new “truth” about the world, more mysteries are unlocked. You move forward but new roads appear which you didn’t see before. The “Matrix” idea makes you think for a moment but then you’re quickly stuck, unable to move forward. I don’t see any new roads opening. It makes me question the whole concept. It’s a very deep and profound idea though. I don’t know what to think of it.

  5. Steve Zeller says:

    Actually I feel very similar to the way you do. I don’t want to teach kids things that I consider to be evil or useless. However, my conviction (about truth, justice and everything else) does seem to be driven by thoughts and feelings.

    However, very powerful thoughts and feelings, even when tied to what we hold be be “right” or “wrong”, and upheld by our view of what is “rational” or scientifically valid, are none the less thoughts and feelings. We experience them, much in the same way as we experience any sight or sound.

    Although, I do not live my everyday life this way, all I can say about reality is that it is a passing show. Any explanation I give is pretty much a rationalization, based on assumptions, and essentially also just part of the passing show.

  6. I sometimes like to think of ideas and systems of thought as “operating systems” for the mind, similar to an operating system on a computer. Different belief and thought systems have their own sets of features and set backs. They use the society’s resources in different ways, similar to how different software uses the computer’s memory and processor(s) in different ways.

    For example, in Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest, he identifies six ‘apps’ which the western mind ‘runs’ which built our current world: competition, science, the rule of law, medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. That’s our current operating system. In the past, humans have ran different mental OS’s, and each produced a different society.

    Modern ways of thought offer a much freer world with more opportunities and things to do. There’s less sickness, less violence, and less suffering. Our resources are put to more constructive uses, and so on. There’s lots of room for improvement, but we use science and free discourse to update the operate system with new features. We learn more, perform more testing on reality, learn even more, and what we’re capable of stays on the move. We evolve and grow. I believe in critical thought, always questioning things. Just like in software development, you have to constantly test your code to dig out bugs and memory leaks.

    Maybe there are infinite possibilities all around us, and different belief systems are ways of getting us to those possibilities at different speeds. Ideas are sort of like incomplete realizations of something. I entertain the idea from time to time. But infinite possibilities are like someone handing you a C++ compiler for a computer and then they tell you, “Just think, you could write a computer program which can do anything!” But nobody would want to go to the store and buy a computer with no software on it. All it has is a simple text editor and everyone has to write their own programs from scratch. That’s not waht you want. It’s often better to work with a finite system, like Windows or Mac OS, which allows you to at least do something (though it can’t do everything). Then using that, you get new ideas, and you start navigating the infinite tree of possibilities. You get the snowball rolling. (If that makes sense).

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