Critical Thinking as Productive Questions




1. Why do we work so hard to find simple descriptions and explanations?

2. What do we lose when we dichotomize?

3. What does the Pope mean when he criticizes "capitalism"? 

Simple is potentially efficient. Thus, I mean no disrespect for the simple. But despite our lust for the simple, few things of any significant are simple. 

We often hear relatively thoughtful people say "I want to hear both sides." But which important human question has only 2 potential answers? Consider the Roshomon Effect.  Kurosawa forces us to experience the frustration we sense when we realize that perspectives differ, often dramatically, when multiple parties tell us "what really happened." Or consider the cultural ethnographic work of Richard Nisbet and his many collaborators, who have demonstrated again and again that culture imprints on perception such that we should not even expect an Asian visitor to an art museum to see the same "picture" as westerners see when staring at exactly the same assemblage of paint.

Then there is the huge impact of context that immediately alters any ability we ever had to reduce our answer space to only 2 points: "pro and con," "yes or no,"  "for and against", or most troublesome to those with a desire to reduce the world to Platonistic universals, "true or false." 

So why is our discourse so dichomizing? First, we have a distinct preference for the quick and easy. Second, a related point is that we like our answers precise. Any other kind of answer leaves us with compelling unanswered questions. Answering questions for many of us is supposed to be like a race.  You run a particular distance, cross the finish line. RACE OVER.  Or like eating  grilled cheese. You chomp on the sandwich. Soon there is nothing left.  LUNCH IS OVER. 

I am certain that evolutionary theorists and other practitioners of grand narratives would have many more reasons why we prefer the simple answers.

I was first motivated to write this post by a newspaper headline mentioning that the Pope criticized "capitalism." I could not even imagine which of the variants of capitalism or which of its various impacts on the human community the Pope had singled out for rebuke. I read the article, but the author felt no obligation to comprehend or analyze the complexity of the assertion made in the headline.  I am trying to picture anyone who would be categorically supportive of or categorically critical of each element of a capitalist mode of thinking or a capitalist approach to resource allocation or a capitalist attitude toward the distribution of wealth or ___________, or ______________.  

The dichotomization implicit in labels like "capitalist" can often be seen in full view in American politics when some bloviator  warns us that the very next effort to assist someone in need using tax money will definitely make us a "socialist" country.


1. What benefits can be derived from dichotomization?

2. Is it possible to respect simplification and complexity, but to do so selectively dependent on the question being addressed?

3. Are there New Testament verses that could be stretched and kneaded to praise growing inequality?

AuthorM Neil Browne