Critical Thinking as Productive Questions
1. Of the several ways to substantiate our beliefs, why do so many of us tout reasons?
2. When we proudly provide reasons for our behavior or beliefs, what blind spots cause us to exaggerate the prowess of "being reasonable"?
3. What additives to thinking can enhance the using of reasons?
Many of us embrace reason as the basis or warrant for our decisions because we see such severe problems with the alternatives. The standard list of alternative ways of knowing is honeycombed with problems that become transparent with very little study. Just where would medical technology or engineering accomplishments be had these areas of knowledge depended primarily on tradition, faith, family, prevailing expert wisdom, authorities of diverse and suspect kinds, hunches, testimonials, and pronouncements from dominant socioeconomic voices?
But using reason as a default seems too easy and dangerously premature. SO what does reason possess to deserve its status elevation as a basis for belief? Reliability, transparency, time-tested and broad experiential validation, and democratic ethos--all provide strength to those of us looking for a solid basis for urging others to be reasonable.
But reason is a flexible tool, capable of taking us to many destinations. Without appealing to others with a narrative that makes sense to the listener, your reasonableness not only fails to deliver what it promises, it may lead you in directions you would never go if only you had checked out a different array of narratives. Here I am using "narrative" to mean what in other contexts I might call "reasoning", the glue of assumptions that attaches a reason to a conclusion. Those varied narratives may all be reasonable in the sense that a critical thinker cannot say baldly about any of the reasonable alternatives---No, your reasons cannot sustain your conclusion.
Let me illustrate with a controversy that fascinates me. Thanks to Nassim Taleb for first agitating me to think about this question: SHOULD A THOUGHTFUL PERSON READ A DAILY NEWSPAPER? As someone who reads on-line versions of the BBC, NY Times, the Guardian, and Al Jajeera every day, I already had a horse in the race when Taleb made a persuasive case that we should NOT read a daily newspaper. I found his reasons compelling and startling. I thought and still think he is right in the sense of having good evidence and a credible story for his conclusion, but I also think he is wrong.
Here is his reasoning, followed by my reasoning for disobeying his reasons and the package in which he places them:
- Taleb, plus my embellishments of his position: Humans tend to exaggerate the most recent instances or images that enter their minds. Newspapers in their understandable rush to publish are taking a photograph; they are not reflecting, nor carefully analyzing. When humans obtain information, they often think fast. They form conclusions and then hold tightly to them. So when a person reads a newspaper, he or she thinks she possesses a basis for understanding, a platform from which to form conclusions. Consider the person who knows almost zero about the history of the Middle East, but who shapes his attitude about Hamas and how the Israelis should react to Hamas by repeating the mantra from the newspaper "Hamas sent over 1000 rockets into Israel." Taleb's point is that reading the newspaper creates a greater distortion in ones thinking than had one not read the newspaper at all. He makes sense to me.
- My reasoning for not following his advice: The essence of our lives is relational. We grow, flounder or flourish, in a network of people, limited by and benefiting from environmental factors over which we have only limited control. If we are to gain as much as possible from others we have to struggle to get outside ourselves. Empathy is not available in huge surpluses. If we are to connect with the needs of one another, we have to be persistently aware of the life conditions and aspirations of others. Doing so requires work; left to our own devices we will surely concern ourselves almost exclusively with "me and my tribe." Reading newspapers, if they accomplish no other task at all, reminds us of our place in the world and how limited our binoculars are. The result should be inter alia, humility when issuing the many generalizations that we mutter every day. But they do so much more. Unless we just skim the pages they connect us to one another. They can lead us to wonder how recruits to ISIL can do acts that are unimaginable to us. Reflecting about an issue like that one can protect us from the disappointing and relatively empty claims that they are simply "evil." In short, newspapers can enlarge our appreciation of humanity. Nothing I am saying here should be construed as urging "Read only daily newspapers." or "If it is in the newspaper, you can count on its veracity." Newspapers are windows to the great outdoors; they serve their purpose when they push you into the outdoors.
Notice in what just occurred here that there is much more than a battle of reasons occurring. Our needs, aspirations, priorities, value preferences and personalities are all in play here. Objects need subjects. The person processing any given set of reasons is hugely important in selecting which reasons become the basis for action.