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Critical Thought And Thinking For Yourself

March 24, 2013

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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