The unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates
I am writing a post about something as mundane as critical thinking – which already has entire websites and foundations devoted to spreading its gospel – because it is what has led me to my current understanding of the world. I hold many ideas that are not widely held, ideas which have lead me to choosing an unconventional lifestyle and are the basis of this blog. It is critical thinking – particularly challenging assumptions – that gives me the courage to go against conventional wisdom and forgo pursuing a career and the traditional trappings of success.
Likewise I think it is only through others thinking critically that they might come to see what I believe to be the grave problems facing our world. Looking only at the surface one is led to believe that while things aren’t perfect they’re getting better and the problems we do have will eventually be solved. This does not inspire action or change, it enables complacency and invites more of the same of what has led us into an increasingly untenable position as a species. To see beyond what is presented to us by the powers that be takes effort and the desire to do so. And thinking critically.
Critical thinking is the mental process of evaluating or analyzing information. This process is crucial because there is so much information in the world and much of it is partial or just plain untrue. Information we accept as true becomes a belief, and our beliefs shape our actions. In order to be able to be responsible for our actions we must be responsible for our beliefs. Taking personal responsibility for one’s beliefs is a huge part of being a mature human being and doing so requires critical thinking. As Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
This is why reading is so valuable. It exposes you to new ideas and new points of view and encourages you to evaluate them on their own merits as well as how they relate to beliefs you currently hold. It is for this very reason that books get banned and burned. New ideas can be disruptive to, and cause one to question, the status quo. This is not appreciated by those who have a vested interest in the Way Things Are. But the truth is not scared of the lie, nor of the smaller truth, and is happily incorporated into the bigger one, and hide it though we may always seems to out. As we grow in our understanding, so do we grow in our being.
“Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior”
The extremely difficult part of it is #2 – the application of intellectual belief toward behavior. It is one thing to believe in human-caused global warming, it is an entirely different thing to give up a car while living in Suburbia. I should know because I found it impossible. Despite having roughly the same understanding of the world for many years, until now I have been able to make only superficial changes in my lifestyle to align it with my beliefs.
Take again for example climate change. Despite 97% of scientists whose entire careers have been devoted to studying the phenomenon saying that human-caused climate change is real, somehow we collectively act as if this is a point up for debate. We have U.S. Senators bringing snowballs into Congress to prove global warming is untrue. This is because to accept human-caused climate as real, and more importantly to act as if it is real, would require monumental changes in the way the world is run – the global equivalent of me giving up my car in suburbia. Those in power don’t want the ways things are done to be changed and so there is a vested interest in keeping it an open question, from being accepted as fact. Which is why Exxon knew of climate change in 1981 but funded deniers for 27 more years afterwards, to protect their bottom line at the expense of us all.
In a more general sense, I am convinced that those in power lack the motivation to make the changes necessary to save our world from coming hardship. It is up to the each of us. So I encourage you to question what you are told, and what you currently believe. I also encourage you to send me a message if you disagree with anything you find on this blog. While I, like most everyone, like to be “right”, I like most to be Right. Thus I am thankful to be shown when I hold an incorrect belief and happily admit when I am mistaken.
I leave you with the Kalama sutta:
Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.
Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.
Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.
Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.
Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.
Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.
But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it.
Originally published July 11, 2015