Critical Thinking

22 09 2008

A criticism I often receive when I refuse to believe in the validity of such things as astrology, alternative medicine, religion, extrasensory perception, magic and a number of other commonly held beliefs, is that I am narrow-minded, that I should be more open to the possibility of things existing beyond current scientific understanding, maybe even contrary to the laws of nature as we now know them. 

Let me show you why I think this criticism is completely without substance. First of all, openness is not a virtue unto itself: ideally, we should be open to believe things that are true, while we should be closed whenever lies knock on our door. Or, as Richard Dawkins has put it: “we should be open-minded, but not so much that our brain falls out”.

The virtue, therefore, lies in applying the appropriate filters to the information we receive, and that is what critical thinking is all about. In other words, we should be open to critically consider anything we are told (in this sense openness is a good thing), but we should only believe claims that are supported by evidence (believing anything else is not a virtue, but a serious defect). 

A useful way to think about it, I think, is in juridical terms. Thus, when a claim to reality is presented to us, we should judge it in court. Inside our brain, we should listen to the cases of both the prosecution and the defense, we should hear what experts and witnesses have to say, and we should look at the evidence from both sides. Once this has been completed, our inner jury, doing its best to be fair and impartial, will need to issue a verdict, which can be one of three: (1) the claim is true, (2) the claim is false, or (3) the available evidence is not enough to decide, so judgement is deferred until new evidence is made available.

This is what we all ought to be doing, but we don’t. In fact, we tend to believe things in the absence of evidence and, sadly, some of us are even proud of this kind of stupidity. Why do people do this? The reasons are complex: in the case of religion, for instance, keeping believers in line usually requires threats of punishment (if you don’t believe in god, you will go to hell…), something that would of course be superfluous if the existence of god could be demonstrated. Apart from fear and children indoctrination, many of our societal myths are rooted in ignorance: we do a very poor job when it comes to scientific education, which includes critical thinking. Therefore, given that most people know almost nothing about how the world actually works (at least in physical, astronomical, chemical, geological and biological terms), it should come as no surprise that many of us still believe in Bronze Age myths (e.g. astrology or the Judeochristian god) that have long been superseded by rational scientific inquiry.

Whatever their causes, all these myths have very serious consequences for society, and they are negative. Generally speaking, if people believe lies, they are bound to make stupid decisions (or, as Voltaire said: “if we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities”). Additionally, the prevalence of gullible people makes it easy for unscrupulous individuals to manipulate the population for their own gain, which inexorably leads to abuses of power. Finally, there is the self-perpetuating nature of delusions. For instance, one of the reasons why many people dismiss science as irrelevant is that they are still mired in the platonic doctrine of the soul, later embraced and brought to us by christianity, according to which there is no point in studying the laws of the world we live in, since this is only a temporary, imperfect world which our soul will abandon after death to go back to where it came from: the perfect world of the Ideas. The fact that the whole thing started as a figment of Plato’s imagination and as a result of his preconceptions on what a perfect world should be like, with no evidence whatsoever to support any of it, and the fact that there is plenty of proof to the contrary, does not seem to matter for the vast number of people who still believe that our mental life, our soul as they call it, survives the death of our bodies.     

In summary, we should be good critical thinkers if we want to (1) get a deeper understanding of our world, (2) make intelligent decisions, and (3) live in a better, more just society. The historical times and places where unrestrained critical thinking has prevailed over imposed dogmas have also been the ones in which human beings have had more freedom and societies have been more just. And this is not a random coincidence: freedom and critical thinking need each other. Let us embrace both!

baal

Late Bronze age statue of Baal, from Ugarit, in modern-day Siria.

For more regarding critical thinking, you can also read my entry “baloney-detection kit“.

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