Sunday, June 25, 2017

In Praise of Thinking

Those of a certain age may remember Rodin's statute, The Thinker, primarily due to the appearance of its likeness on TV, looming over Dobie Gillis as he thought aloud; mostly regarding his many loves and their loss.  It was an effective narrative device, and one of the show's several charms, topped, of course, by Maynard G. Krebs.

I think much about thinking and its benefits.  I think most about what benefits it would have if it was more prevalent in our remarkably thoughtless times.

I think John Dewey was right, and that we only think when faced with a problem we wish to resolve, a situation we find undesirable and desire to "fix."  Dewey may have caused confusion in calling his theory of inquiry "Logic."  He certainly confused Bertrand Russell who, typically, could think of logic as nothing but the logic with which he was familiar and at which he excelled.  What I think Dewey had in mind was the description of what takes place when we think intelligently of problems we face and overcome.  Logic, insofar as it is instrumental, is a kind of inquiry devoted to that purpose.  It functions within the analysis of a question and in the consideration of a claim.

What seems striking about these times is that we have available to us a great deal of information, more information than has ever before been available and that information is easily accessed by almost all of us.  Yet, we seem less and less able to think about that information, or anything else, intelligently.  It may be that our ability to access information, almost instantly, has encouraged us not to think.  We need only employ our smart phones or tablets or personal computers to find answers.

The unfortunate thing about information is that it may be accurate or inaccurate.  It may be fact or fiction.  It may be mere opinion.  It may be dogma, doctrine, propaganda.  It may be anything at all and used for a number of undesirable purposes.

Sifting through information requires the ability to think clearly and critically, to assess and to judge intelligently.  Without that ability, we're subject to self-delusion or manipulation by others.  As Dewey noted, we only think when resolving problems.  The rest of the time, we're creatures of habit, or daydreamers.  We're at best observers, at worst believers in whatever information we access, uncritically, which we find satisfying.  We accept that information without bothering to confirm or question it in any sense.

This may account for the fact that we seem now more than ever to accept certain information and reject other information, unthinkingly and often it seems regardless of evidence.   For example, those who believe the world is about 6,000 years old do so regardless of evidence (information) establishing that it's much, much older.  They are instead convinced by other information issued by like believers which asserts that the evidence against their belief is incorrect or is motivated by a desire to confuse them.  They'll accept the belief they find most satisfying and reject evidence not only because they're already inclined to do so, but because they don't know how to make intelligent judgments.

The view that it is possible to judge intelligently and decide whether one claim or another is accurate or one course of conduct or another preferable has itself been subject to attack for some time, of course.  This attack has been all too successful, as there are those who believe the idea that we can make judgments or distinguish between right or wrong, correct or incorrect, to be absurd.  If that's the case, why bother to think at all?

The great problem to be solved to remedy these circumstances involves education.  How do we induce people to think critically?  That would seem to be something we should do as soon as possible during the process of education, but how do it?  How teach children to identify premises and assumptions and treat them with skepticism, require support for claims, test possible answers?  Would we even be allowed to do so?  Would parents object if the result would be that their children questioned their parents' cherished beliefs?

Probably not, unless it's possible to accomplish this without offending the sensibilities or sensitivities of parents by teaching a kind of elementary logic without reference to controversial or accepted beliefs.  Logic in the abstract, let's say.  True critical thinking may have to be deferred until college.

Unfortunately, though, it appears colleges have taken to purging certain unpopular views or prohibiting them even from being stated let alone criticized.   Left and Right, liberal and conservative seem to be united in the effort to encourage people not to think, not to consider.  To hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

Sometimes it seems, to this uninvolved spectator at least, that what we begin to see at colleges is a reversion to a kind of scholasticism, a tendency for learning to be based purely on dogma and doctrine and their extension or development subject to imposed limits enforced by faculty and students alike.  It would be appropriate, if this is true, that outside the Academy we see those features of a New Dark Age where thought and conduct is similarly narrow in focus.  But if so we can hope that history repeats itself and that another Renaissance awaits.

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