Grounded Thinking in a Crazy World
We've all heard how important critical thinking is for a healthy mind. I agree with that. But it is just as essential to have the right attitude. How we approach the world intellectually determines how effectively we can engage in critical thinking. Arrogance and an over-estimation of our mental abilities can turn critical thinking into a blunt object used for bludgeoning opponents with confident arguments posing as certainties.
On the contrary, I will argue that any approach to understanding our world must be grounded in intellectual humility and a willingness to engage the social world around us. We are not isolated brains in jars, but sentient beings living and acting in a world filled with other sentient beings. We all live in the same reality, but interpretations of that reality vary wildly. Not all of them are equally valid.
So how do we ground ourselves on such a shaky foundation?
I've tried to develop a few simple guidelines to keep me intellectually grounded in our crazy, fast-paced world where I'm constantly bombarded by contradictory information. What's true and false? What's manipulative? What's genuinely informative and enlightening? When it comes to untangling everything we experience, we need first principles. Those who don't have them risk becoming defenseless against the ever-shifting winds of today's popular culture.
More humility, doubt, mental agility, along with a healthy dose of introspection, are needed today. Some of these I've had to learn the hard way. I've been arrogant, overconfident, and dogmatic more times than I can count. I've also been dismissive of things that, upon further reflection, turned out to be true. That said, this isn't a recipe for anything-goes relativism. Once I am convinced of something, I adjust my beliefs accordingly to align practice with theory. Yet even when provisional conclusions are reached, the process of doubt and questioning never stops.
The trick is to find the right balance between doubt and certainty, knowing when to embrace truth and when to discard error.
So, first off,
Be a gentle skeptic about what others believe
But be a discriminating one. Sometimes the beliefs and values society takes for granted rest on shaky moral ground, held together only by habit, tradition, and consensus. Ancient Greece was the home of democracy, but it also viewed slavery as a natural part of the social order. The equality women enjoy today is also a relatively recent phenomenon, more a historical anomaly than anything. Caste and race had long constricted the social possibilities of a person’s life. For most, this meant no social possibilities at all. Today, we consider these practices hostile to human flourishing.
Few people questioned slavery in ancient Athens or the status of women just about everywhere else. These practices seemed natural, normal, and necessary for the stability of society.
Accordingly, question the moral certainties of your own social world. We are no doubt blindly doing things today that posterity will condemn us for tomorrow. Perhaps how we treat the animals that end up on our dinner plates? Or maybe how we treat the environment? Identify those invisible evils of today and then adjust your moral compass accordingly.
Yet be careful that skepticism about what others believe does not become a kind of cranky contrarianism. A person who questions everything and only questions everything believes in nothing. Don’t be the lazy skeptic who dismisses everything out of hand without ever taking the time to look into it. Objective facts and truths do exist. Sometimes what others believe is actually right. Uninterrogated skepticism merely poses as intellectually rigorous. It’s not.
And be wary of ideology, especially when you see those hypnotized by it scoff at otherwise compelling evidence to the contrary. Ideology seeks to bend reality toward certain beliefs, not facts, to create a world as we would wish it to be, not as it actually is. Respect expertise, especially scientific, but not slavishly so. As we've seen with the COVID pandemic, science doesn't get everything right, but it's the best tool we have
So always be a gentle skeptic, for you are wrong more often than you would like to admit.
That’s why you should…
Be a harsh critic about what you believe
If you should question what others think, then do the same for yourself. This is more difficult because we want to believe our opinions are all correct. However, we’re made of the same flawed material, prone to bias and motivated reasoning. We more passively accept the claims of those we agree with while ignoring any inconvenient facts that threaten our precious worldview.
Be on the lookout for evidence of your own tribal thinking. Doubt your ability to reach any final truths, but pursue them as if you can. I am confident that the world outside my head could be understood if only I rolled up my sleeves and tried to understand it. Still, I question my ability ever to achieve any full and final understanding.
The universe is over thirteen billion years old. I may live for 80.
Here is the perspective of time.
The universe is tens of billions of light-years across. I will occupy a tiny part on a small planet in an average galaxy, one among billions.
Here is the perspective of space.
That’s how you need to think about your ability to grasp everything. Zoom out until you appear like an insignificant ant, and you’ll have some idea how silly our intellectual pretensions are.
This brings to mind the humble and grounded thinker's paradox: we provisionally believe and then act on those beliefs while still admitting doubts that could someday overthrow those same beliefs. This requires engaging in a never-ending dialectic between belief and doubt. Doing so moves us toward a better understanding, though always still a flawed and incomplete one.
Belief should come from solidly-reasoned interpretations of the world we live in. Cleansing doubt results from an awareness of our universal smallness and the hard-to-see inconsistencies of our ideas. Any understanding, no matter how thorough, will be incomplete.
Therefore, strive to know and experience more while recognizing the impossibility of reaching any final answers. We must climb this mountain of insight, not to attain a peak that remains forever out of sight, but for the sheer joy of occasionally turning around to bask in the view from a higher vantage.
When you uncover an error in your thinking, view it as like finding a malignant tumor. You don't want it to metastasize, do you? No, cut it out as soon as possible.
The same goes for error. Trust me, nothing is more difficult than admitting you are wrong about something. This is even more the case after loudly, proudly, and publicly proclaiming otherwise for so long. I've been there. But doing so is necessary for any evolution to take place. Think of every error eliminated as another step up the zig-zagging path on that mountain of insight.
In short, keep your mind open and humble. For this to work, be ready to discard bad ideas for better ones, no matter how provisional those also turn out to be. True enough is good enough, as long as good enough is a little bit better than before. Believe to doubt, doubt to believe, but…
Embrace Inclusive Identities and Shun Divisive Ones
Who are you? No, really, who are you? As Hannah Arendt once noted, “The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him.” (1)
Arendt meant that who we are is in large part defined socially, by how we relate to others and the roles we play in society. Defining the core ‘who’ of someone’s being is almost impossible without also asking ‘in relation to what?’ Who am I? I am Paul. I am a man, a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a soldier, a citizen, and a human being. These are some of the broadly inclusive identities that define who I am in relation to my wider social world. They are inclusive because they more easily allow for complementary connections with other identities.
Even if we can't directly share another identity, we can complement it. A husband is in relation to a wife, and vice versa. A father is in relation to his children. A citizen is in relation to his nation or community.
Implied here is a reciprocal relationship bonded by a responsibility to others. Complementary identities are like puzzle pieces, each unique but fitting together perfectly to form a greater whole. These identities are healthy because they promote mutual social connections between individuals, which in turn nurture the community's well-being.
More narrowly-focused identities, in contrast, are attempts to distinguish ourselves from this wider social world. I am also an atheist, a vegetarian, a democratic socialist. Those are also my identities, but they are much more individual. They don't bond me to the community in the same way that more broad social identities do. No, they set me apart. They brand me as distinct from you. Yet that makes them divisive and self-limiting by definition. The more niche the identity, the more it will be set in opposition to everyone else. This can be appealing because it gives color and texture to one's personality; we get to stand out from the crowd by embracing these narrowly individual identities.
The ever-expanding alphabet soup of sex and gender identity (LGBTQQIAA is one extreme, though LGBTQ or LGBTQIA+ are more common) represents identity politics taken to self-contradicting extremes. The reasonable justification for this appropriation of the alphabet is that it brings together groups traditionally marginalized for sexual preferences or non-normative gender expression. I don't wish to downplay how such discrimination pushed people to embrace identity politics with such passion in the first place, but the fact remains that it did. Each letter carves out yet another niche for individual expression.
Thus the wonderfully diverse rainbow spectrum of human sexuality ends up reduced to a bar-code of fenced-off identities, each battling for recognition, awareness, and affirmation. In many ways, they define themselves in opposition to the rest of society. That's not to say such identities are wrong, only that too much emphasis on one all-consuming divisive identity at the expense of the others creates problems. It leads to a distorted view of the world. Sex and gender are parts of who we are, of course, but they should not be the loudest parts.
That's just one example. Race and gender theories sow divisiveness just as much as they celebrate diversity. Implied in these divisions is that age-old human urge to create ever more circumscribed 'Us vs. Them' distinctions.
However, when personal identities come to dominate, they threaten to atomize society. Avoid this. Put more emphasis on the communal bonds that make us part of a greater whole and less on the personal ones that sort us into warring tribes. Don't get trapped over-emphasizing identities that define themselves through the lens of victim-hood, egotism, ideology, and grievance. Those end up becoming small bands full of miserable zealots bent on imposing an orthodoxy on everyone else.
The healthy and balanced individual will be a mosaic of identities, none standing out radically from the others. Don't become the person whose life is dedicated to living just one identity. You’ll end up a tedious, one-dimensional bore (or boor) with a monochromatic personality. These are people who have forgotten how to laugh and smile. Be better than that, but remember to...
Listen more, talk less
A challenge today is that we are discouraged from having tough conversations. Without these, our beliefs end up shaped by the media we consume instead of the people we interact with. This nudges us toward more radical positions than we would otherwise hold.
An obvious antidote is more conversation. I sincerely believe that most people naturally tend toward moderation. Talking with real people rather than just listening to talking heads on television is a step in the right direction. Always have substantive conversations when you can. You probably have heard the old rule that we should avoid discussing politics, sex, and religion? What nonsense! Yet that's what we do for the most part. For the sake of social etiquette, we end up talking about the weather, our dinner, our pets, and whatever's on television.
Get others to open up and talk. Ask them questions and follow up questions. Find out what they believe. Probe their thoughts on politics, religion, and social issues. (But on second thought, leave sex out, except with the closest of friends, or else be ready to reap the whirlwind.)
Avoid debate, but promote discussion, and do that by listening more than talking. If any critiques are offered, make them gentle, oblique even, and not done in a way that comes across as cruel or humiliating. Remember, you will never convert anyone to anything in a single conversation, so don't get angry when your "amazing" arguments immediately fail to persuade. Yet if you listen to someone, they will tend to listen to you. And maybe, just maybe, a seed will be planted in that person's mind. My whole being is today a forest of those seeds planted by others.
And really, this is how minds are changed. We change them ourselves, or think we do, but only after we've had time to come to grips with new ideas and on our own terms. By focusing on listening, and especially to those we disagree with, we open ourselves up to other worldviews, some of which may enrich our own.
I can say that, more than once, as I’ve tried to express an opinion, I've become uncomfortably aware of how little I actually knew about the topic. And yet, there I was, acting as if I did. That’s the time to shut up and listen. Here is an opportunity to see the world, however briefly and incompletely, through someone else’s eyes. This can only have a moderating influence, promoting empathy, mutual understanding, and respect.
We need more of this.
1 — Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition., The University of Chicago Press., 181.