Critical thinking

Arguing that critical thinking cannot be taught, Daniel Willingham gives an ideal definition of it. Thinking, whether reasoning, making judgments or decisions, or problem solving, may be critical or not. Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on. Critical thinking is novel in that you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you. For example, solving a complex but familiar physics problem by applying a multi-step algorithm isn’t critical thinking because you are really drawing on memory to solve the problem. But devising a new algorithm is critical thinking. Critical thinking is self-directed in that the thinker must be calling the  shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.

To think critically about an issue, he says, you need some understanding of it. Using primary sources in history takes a historian’s skills, and if you read, say, a Liberal backbencher’s opinion on Home Rule for Ireland in the 19th century, you need to know the context to consider it critically. By Willingham’s definition, a lawyer analysing what facts needed proved, what law needed argued, to win a case, would not clearly be “critical”, nor their ability to see through the opponent’s eyes, to imagine what they would argue, in order to refute it, even if the lawyer had not argued such a case before.

The historian of the period would have the skill of erasing hindsight and getting into the knowledge of that MP at the time; know what the issues were, and the opinions, and the interests and power of the different actors. But the journalist’s question, “Why is this bastard lying to me?” might get anyone somewhere. Children are capable of understanding that an experimenter must control all the variables but one- he calls this a “metacognitive strategy”- but in order to do that they need some knowledge of what they experiment on, including what variables might have an effect.

If Willingham is right, only experts can think critically, and only about their area of expertise; but this is too restrictive. Other metacognitive strategies, such as internal contradictions being an indication to trust a person’s statements less, can be taught. As everyone is a layperson concerning most matters, the main question is how much to trust any particular account of an issue. I could probably understand the evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but do not want to make the effort. I simply trust when I am told that it is. I have reasons to do so, from the way I have been taught about science and what I have read about climate change. It matters to me that those reasons are good enough. I care about the truth.

Many other political questions may be affected by personality. Should we apply the precautionary principle to particular pesticides? How much evidence do you need that neonicotinoids weaken bees, so that other causes kill them more easily? Careful souls may need less evidence before the pesticides are banned, pending more research. Anyone should realise, though, that those with a short term financial interest in using the pesticides, and their lobbyists, are less trustworthy than independent scientists, so we need a strong publicly funded University sector to maintain that independence for the good of all.

People think habitually and creatively, mistakenly and accurately, and sometimes believe the truth because of invalid reasoning. We work hardest thinking about things which concern us most, and often decide questions emotionally then rationalise retrospectively. We also hold particular opinions which don’t really matter personally- I am never going to have an abortion- because the opinion fits a particular group. The skill I need is to work out when I might trust an account, and when to disbelieve it; but to know stuff people can’t work out for themselves people need to trust, and undue trashing of trust drives us apart.

More: AC Grayling thinks philosophy, defined as “careful enquiry”, should be taught in schools.

An open mind

How could you know if you had an open mind? If something disproves what you believe you know, could you change your opinion, or would you just ignore it?

I still debate with young-earth Creationists, mainly on Violet’s blog. I listened to this fascinating programme on the Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum. About 56m years ago, over a period of about 1,000 to 20,000 years, vast amounts of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere, by volcanoes and burning coal deposits, and the temperature of the planet increased. There were forests at the poles. Global temperatures increased by 5-8°C. Different assertions will have different levels of dispute or certainty, and for the educated layperson a scientist might elide certain details for ease of explication, but the broad outline is clear. I find it wonderful how the evidence is recovered and interpreted, the care and precision of the investigators, the wealth of evidence. So I recommended the programme to two YECs, hoping that they would be as inspired by it as I was.

Sadly, Tiribulus wasn’t. He did not intend “sneering derisive dismissal”, he said, but accused the scientists of “spectacular intellectual dishonesty”. He claimed to understand their “claims”, but also their “method bias and out of hand pre-conclusions”. All unbelievers have similar bias, he says.

His response makes me miserable. The language of “bias”, formulated to enable us to see how we misinterpret evidence and help us perceive more clearly, he uses to write off something which challenges his view. Unbelievers cannot think properly, he says, as Jesus quoting Isaiah predicted- He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them.

He is defended against challenge to his falsehoods, because he has a great need to believe them- so that he can remain part of his community, so that he is not distressed by the falsehoods the community spouts, perhaps so that he can feel superior to outsiders, or ignore them, and possibly because he experienced his life before conversion as chaotic and “sinful”, and feels any backsliding from his current position means falling into similar sin.

He has threatened to recommend something to me, claiming “fairness” would oblige me to listen or read it. I might not spend fifty minutes on it.

How would I know if I were open minded? I am open minded on Creationism. I am aware of theories of the origin and development of the Bible, and how the story of the Flood was adapted from a Sumerian legend, part of the epic of Gilgamesh. As I pick up more about the detail and complexity of understanding of the geologic column, I am inspired by the beauty of it. But then my community does not require me to believe idiocies.

Why does he comment there? Because he sees unrepentant sinners, and wants God to “save us from our sin and give us a new heart”- Because you are fellow bearers of the image and likeness of our God and I care about you. 

Tiribulus believes he understands about the Bible and the errors of unbelievers, and that prevents him coming to the truth. I will not be open minded where I particularly need to believe something, or imagine I understand but do not. When I am not open minded I may imagine I am- for I could not know. I have sought out hints and subtle indications, and sometimes been rewarded.

Perhaps it is all a waste of energy. I grope for greater understanding, but perhaps those who are satisfied with their understanding are better off, devoting their attention to more important, worthwhile things. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. They might be more effectual.

The power of negative thinking

To be happy, you just need to decide to be happy. Visualise success and you will succeed. “Proud curmudgeon” Oliver Burkeman disagrees.

Try not to think of a polar bear, and you will think of it- the same with failure. We can’t control thought through willpower.

People who have had nothing to drink, and salty snacks, were imagining quenching their thirst. Imagining it paradoxically reduced energy and motivation- it felt the same as achieving it. Those positivity affirmations may backfire, and feel as good as getting Success might. People relax, and their blood pressure decreases. Dieters fantasising about losing weight lost less.

Fear, anxiety, disgust all have value for us. We face risks. The drunk driver thinking “I am a good driver, I will get home safe” may lead to disaster. Whether a thought is positive or negative is less relevant than will it work for my good?

Accepting all emotions is liberating.

Though- one who focuses on how to accomplish a task, rather than minor risks, will perform more efficiently. An athlete should envisage doing the somersault. Worry does little good. And- as a lawyer, I have to construct the case against me to find how to refute it. What is the evidence on any particular point? A safety officer on an oil rig, with all that flammable material, needs to imagine everything that might go wrong, in order to prevent it. His term was “chronic unease”- but he is dealing with serious risks. “Don’t worry about a problem- worry at it” said Ian Fleming.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT, does not judge thoughts as positive or negative but on whether it promotes effective behaviour. You have to be able to judge whether a risk is serious. Self-doubt improves performance, as it promotes thinking about ways to improve- if you also have self-compassion, and can value where you are.

Eliminate false hope. Mr Trump will not take the action the environment needs. Hope can make us bear unbearable situations, but blind us to possibilities. Hope works when we have no agency. Abandon hope, and do what you see may be done. When fortune is kind, the soul should fortify herself against its violence.

People after great life changes after a period of adjustment have the same level of happiness as before- the lottery winner gets pleasure from volunteering, and the paraplegic after a catastrophe gets pleasure as before. It is called “hedonic adaptation”- change has an effect, then we get used to it. Happiness is useful data: it may help you work out what can make you happy, so you can pursue that.

Buddhists say happiness does not depend on external circumstances, but on accepting things as they are- including what real chances there are of changing them. Everything is impermanent. Getting what you want may make you unhappy, if you imagine you desire something because the culture tells you you should. Change your relationship to thoughts and emotions generated by experience- do not resist them or dwell on them.

From The Power of Negative Thinking, radio 4.

Systematic thinking

Systems thinking is understanding how different parts of a system can influence one another within a whole.

Systemic thinking, unlike analytical thinking, requires multiple skill sets to establish a holistic view of a system and explain its behavior.  On the contrary, analytical thinking is used to break down a system in to simpler parts in order to identify the pieces and examine how they work together.  Unfortunately, humans most frequently analyze situations in a cause-and-effect relationship; we naturally handle these problems in isolation and solve them linearly. (Systems thinking works blog.)

At the highest level systemic thinking breaks down. There is no Theory of Everything: quantum mechanics explains subatomic particles and general relativity explains visible matter- but they are irreconcilable. Perhaps systems may be too complex for humans to understand.

Systems thinking is a management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system. The whole system is a systems thinking view of the complete organisation in relation to its environment. It provides a means of understanding, analysing and talking about the design and construction of the organisation as an integrated, complex composition of many interconnected systems (human and non-human) that need to work together for the whole to function successfully…For every legitimate, official or consciously designed system (which is intended to be and is supposedly rational) there is a shadow system. The shadow system is where all the non-rational issues reside; e.g. politics, trust, hopes, ambitions, greed, favours, power struggles, etc. (Systemic Leadership Institute.)

Rationality is the quality or state of being reasonable, based on facts or reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action. (Wikipedia)

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. … It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought. (Ayn Rand, quoted by The Importance of Philosophy). No. Entirely and completely, No. Convictions of the nature of the World, possibly may come from reason and observation, but require knowledge of humanity- you need to know unconscious bias before you may eliminate it, or you become stuck in rationalisation, argument which only seems rational but which comes from the conclusion you desire. And we are social animals: we have unconscious instinctive understanding of each other, which we share with monkeys, and is therefore the product of thirty million years of evolution. Actions should be decided by an understanding of the world, but often come from unconscious processes rather than conscious thought. Goals and desires are non-rational: some people want children, some are appalled by the idea. Each is right for that person.

My values are chaos of thought and passion all confused– some seem to be aesthetic; the closest I can come to an axiom is, What contributes to human flourishing is good. Each of us must choose our own way to flourish.

The meaning of Life is human goodness. I heard that on the telly last night, in the context of a discussion of In Parenthesis by David Jones.

According to Aristotle, The human soul has an irrational element which is shared with the animals, and a rational element which is distinctly human. The most primitive irrational element is the vegetative faculty which is responsible for nutrition and growth. An organism which does this well may be said to have a nutritional virtue. The second tier of the soul is the appetitive faculty which is responsible for our emotions and desires (such as joy, grief, hope and fear). This faculty is both rational and irrational. It is irrational since even animals experience desires. However, it is also rational since humans have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality. Aristotle notes that there is a purely rational part of the soul, the calculative, which is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. The mastery of these abilities is called intellectual virtue. (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.)

This is only a beginning.

Bruegel, the return of the herd

Thinking emotionally IV

-What do you think about those, then?
-It’s not what I think about them, it’s what I feel about them.

I stand still, eyes closed, seeking access to my feelings. What could distance me from them? It is like being in the dentist: there, I relax and calm myself to be less flustered by the unpleasant sensations. Here, I seek feelings about the sandals I am wearing, rather than the interaction with the shop assistant or feelings about the crowded, cluttered shop or the need to choose-

I thought of writing, our society values thinking far more, and it is feeling which matters. I said something like that to her. No, it is me- not even “I was brought up to” value thinking more, but “I do, now”.

The other pair was prettier and cheaper but my heel can slip off the side of them, so I chose these. They are quite pretty, and also practical for walking in. I want to walk a mile in my own shoes.

And I was distracted and stressed by the situation from the choice itself. I am happy enough with my choice. And happy with the new sandals, or I would not return to them here.

Liz found early on that she could have shoes which were comfortable on her broad, GG fitting, feet, or which did not look dreadful, but not both. There are conflicting feelings.

Here is Ben Wood, claiming for Quakers the God of Pascal, whom one can know and trust, rather than the God of Descartes, a hypothesis to reason about. The hypothesis seems increasingly silly, and never reassuring- like the baby monkey alone in a cage, preferring a mannequin mother covered in fur to a mannequin mother of wire mesh with a teat for milk-

Oh! Who thought of such torture!

Harry Harlow.

Onywye. Feeling, there, distracting from exploring this for myself or explaining it to you. Here am I blogging. I will stick to this powerful simile for want of a better. Use, perhaps, rather than torture: crippling baby monkeys, as a way of finding how best to care for human children. The experiments have lasting value.

Thinking rationally, I can create ordered paragraphs, moving from point to point and taking you with me. I can write, and be understood on the other side of the world. Feeling, I produce single words rather than sentences- beautiful, seemly, pure, lovely- perhaps distilled to “yuck” and “yum”, or communicating wordlessly with body language and facial expression.

Poets can communicate emotion.

I might do it now: I seek to persuade, rather than convince. And I am not sure the word “convince” means entirely to persuade rationally and not emotionally.

Thinking rationally seems easier to me because I have practised it consciously. Sensing feelings, they bubble up from unconsciousness. And every time I “think rationally” feeling is part of it.

Thinking and feeling II

What do you think about it? and What do you feel about it? are different questions, eliciting different responses. Each is half the question, neither sufficient by itself. After, I wished she had asked, “What do you think about the job interview?” as I would not have sounded so silly, self-centred and irrelevant.

Ah. I still despise my feelings. I find them unconstructive. They get in the way.

That dispute. It is a pecking order thing. I altered the way a question was to be put to Area Meeting. I altered the expression of the question, not the issue to be considered. My motive was to facilitate discernment, which I felt would be disrupted by the poor formulation of the questions. K thought I was changing the issue, and told me I should not. She asserted that the original question had been put by a particular authority. When I showed this was in error, she approached J to seek reconciliation of our dispute.

The facts matter. Was the original question badly expressed? Did my rephrasing cover the same issue? That can be assessed. Then there is the feeling: when I act for the good of the group, I resent being accused of favouring my personal preferences. I resent being told what to do, without justification.

Now I assert, I am standing my ground for the good of the group. If the whole group sets our agenda, and debates it, our time is wasted. No-one else should criticise my agenda-setting without good reason, because the only efficient way to deal with agenda-setting is to delegate it to one person, who gets it mostly right. So my agenda-setting should be tolerated unless it is particularly bad. This is arguable, but may be rationalisation. I know what I want, and construct arguments that it is right. The argument emboldens me to keep contesting the matter.

Here thinking and feeling intertwine. The question is, “How do I respond?

Earlier, I thought, give up. Then it nagged at me. I could not give up. I analysed the matter and found a way to assert myself. So much of this is unconscious. It just seems to happen.

I cycled past Boughton House, thinking, I have about another hour to go. The late afternoon sun is beautiful. The inclines can be a bit of a bind. I saw a tiny deer, only the height of a golden retriever, staring out from the woods. Exercise is good. Now, I am committed. I encourage and chivvy myself along. There are different voices in me, seeming more rational or emotive, and their relative power varies in different situations.

Hammershoi, interior with potted plant on card table

Freedom from common sense

Of course I “think rationally”. “Thinking emotionally” cannot mean not thinking rationally. I love puzzles. I can make legal argument: I analysed two sentences in a benefit regulation, and got my client an extra ÂŁ20 a week, which is a lot when you are on ÂŁ50 a week.

I perceive intuitively, rather than thinking, often. I read people. That is what she is thinking, or feeling. This is how we are together. Some of this is subconscious: I note my posture mirroring another’s, my face mirrors her expression, I feel directly what she feels. These tricks can be learned: a friend is a teacher, who had two boys with Asperger’s Syndrome in her class. Those two, with four neurotypical boys, were drafted into the “Social Skills” group, where they consciously and deliberately learned about reading emotions from visual clues such as facial expression or posture. After a year, they had the task of putting up a tent without the instructions. The six co-operated, and the two Aspies read the others as quickly and naturally- unconsciously, even- as other children would.

Thinking emotionally means knowing what I want, and what I don’t. I was brought up with rules, including rules about what was appropriate recreation. Such conventional fun limited me. One ought to enjoy classical music, say, so I decided that popular music was inferior and not for my attention, and missed much which might have spoken to me viscerally. The Emperor Concerto delights, but Gloria Gaynor singing I Will Survive fits my mood perfectly, at particular times. It echoes, reinforces and validates my own feeling. Though it was released ages ago: I seemed trapped in my false rationality, but it penetrated my consciousness anyway.

Who wants to be common? I want to be counter, original, spare, strange- fey- myself, unlike any other person. There are common sense ways of proceeding, and one might cut through them. Rational thought is necessary to work out what short-cuts might work; intuitive perception might discern others’ opposition; but that Einstein quote, something like, insanity is doing the thing that does not work again and again, is far more likely to apply to conventional, rule-based common sense: you imbibe from the culture that this is the way to achieve that, and when it does not, you feel cheated. It ought to. Whereas if you go your own way, you can find your own way of achieving. There are no rules.

What are the reasons anyone should accept me as a woman? Well, I am beautiful and strange, it is enriching to know me. Artificial barriers between people do no-one any good. These are feeling reasons.

This is my 1600th post.

Magritte The Large Family