Archive for June, 2014

The ‘both-and’ way moves us away from the question: ‘Are we humans basically evil and corrupt or are we basically good and virtuous’ to ‘are we humans potentially both?’ For ‘people of the book’ (Jews, Christians, Muslims) the ‘Old Testament’ does not take the position of our fundamental corruption; nowhere is there a hint that their disobedience has corrupted human kind. On the contrary, their disobedience is the condition for our becoming ‘self-aware,’ for our capacity to choose – as Eric Fromm noted, ‘this first act of disobedience is man’s first step toward freedom.’

Thanks to Adam and Eve’s disobedience and expulsion from the ‘Garden’ we humans were able to make our own history, to develop our potentials, to strive to create our way of being in harmony with nature, to become ‘fully human beings’ (prior to their disobedience, we were not fully human beings). Because we have free will and thereby choice our potential for great good will not necessarily win out. The ‘Old Testament’ provides us many examples of both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and even exalted figures like King David are among those who chose ‘evil’ over ‘good.’ The ‘Old Testament’ affirms that we humans are indeed ‘living paradoxes’ – we are capable of great good and of great evil; each one of us has this capacity. Each of us, then, must choose between ‘doing good’ or ‘doing evil.’ Each of us, then, must choose between offering ‘blessings’ or offering ‘curses.’ Each of us, then, must choose between nurturing ‘life’ or nurturing ‘death.’ Even God does not interfere with our freedom to choose. God does care for us and at times sends us messengers to remind us (for example: Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad – more recently by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela); at times we wake up and pay attention –and become disturbed by their reminders – and at other times we give lip service to their messages and at times we kill the messenger with the hope that God will leave us alone. BUT….God loves us and so God will not leave us alone; God will continue to seek us out and remind us of our ‘better selves’ and invite us to choose the ‘good,’ the ‘truth,’ and the ‘beauty’ (life over death).

Because we are fully human beings God will continue to send messengers and these messengers will continue to teach us about that which will open the pathway (our ‘hearts’) to the ‘good’; they will help us discern the ‘evil’ that resides within each of us; they will warn us; they will protest the ‘evil we do to ourselves and to others.’ Then they will leave us alone so we can choose between our two potentials – the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’ that resides within each of us. Each of us has the ‘freedom’ and the ‘response-ability’ to choose and even if we seek to ‘escape from this freedom’ that does not change the reality: We are living paradoxes and we will choose!’ Perhaps the irony is that we have no choice – each of us will choose; each of us does choose.

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At our healthiest we human beings are, as many theists and philosophers have noted, living paradoxes. There are also those who believe that at our core we are one of two extremes: we are inherently weak or we are inherently powerful [at times this is framed as we are inherently evil or we are inherently good]. These ‘both-and’ folks and ‘either-or’ folks have been with us since history has been recorded – more likely they existed prior to recorded history.

Each of these ‘sides’ easily musters arguments for their positions. For example, those who propose that we humans are inherently weak (e.g. weak-willed) remind us that we are easily influenced to do what we are told to do, even if it is harmful to one’s self. We weak-willed folk have followed our leaders into wars which have brought mostly destruction; we have come to believe any amount of nonsense if it was presented to us with sufficient vigor and repetition and it if was supported by the strong willed authority figures in our lives – ‘priests and kings and presidents’ have spoken harshly to us (generating fear) and have spoken softly to us (generating ‘loyalty’) and we, like the proverbial lemmings, have lined up and followed. We are like half-awake children who are easily swayed by the harsh voice or by the sweet voice of authority (we are seduced by simplicity and shun complexity). The person who is strong-willed enough to withstand these voices of authority are often shunned by their peers, if not persecuted (some, centuries later these folks are held up as icons of strength or virtue or goodness).

The assumption that we are inherently weak has supported innumerable Inquisitors, dictators, ‘priests,’ and elected officials as they strove to build their strong-willed systems. Weak-willed folk need strong-willed leaders to guide them and to make decisions for them; we give up our freedom in order to be ‘safe and secure’ (which, we too often find are illusions). We weak-willed folk come to ‘buy’ that in behaving this way we are being ‘loyal’ and we are being morally ‘dutiful.’ We did not have to be responsible nor response-able; these burdens were taken on by the strong-willed.

In many ways our history as human beings has been written in blood and continuous violence (physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – to say nothing of the ‘violence we have done to ourselves). The strong-willed have, and continue to use force to bend the weak-willed to their will. The strong-willed need the weak-willed: Pasha alone did not exterminate the Armenians; Hitler alone did not exterminate the Jews; Stalin alone did not exterminate the political dissidents; our elected officials alone did not exterminate the natives residing in this country. All of these strong-willed folk had thousands of weak-willed folk doing the ‘dirty work’ – these weak-willed folk killed for them, they tortured for them, they blindly (is this the word?) followed and could claim not to be responsible (they were, after all, only following orders).

The strong-willed have shown us, over and over again, how ruthless they are willing to be in order to keep the weak-willed in line: ruthless warfare (rooted in fear of the other), murder of the weak-willed who attempt to stand-up for their rights; sufferings of many types in order to maintain control. All of this had led certain theists and philosophers to conclude that ‘man is a wolf to his fellow man’ – to use Hobbes’ phrase). Strong-willed folk have helped nurture the other side of the paradox: we humans, by nature, are strong-willed, vicious and destructive and that we can only be restrained by becoming fearful of a more powerful strong-willed person.

YET. . .in the great scheme of things it does appear as if these strong-willed folks are in the minority; many more of us seek to find a ‘middle way’ between the two extremes (consider Aristotle’s ‘Golden Mean’). Yet, we still carry a fear: Will we be ‘revealed’ for what we really are once we learn to let go of our inhibitions (think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society’) – will we become the ‘mob’? As human beings we have had numerous opportunities to behave in strong-willed immoral ways and yet in the great scope of history few have chosen this path. Even folks who might have ‘gotten away with it’ have not chosen evil over good. So. . .perhaps our more traditional ‘either-or’ way is not what is at play; perhaps the ‘both-and’ way provides us with some answers.

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There are a number of freedoms: Freedom From. . .Freedom To. . .Freedom For. . . Eric Fromm reminds us in his powerful book, ‘Escape From Freedom,’ that we humans spend a great deal of time and energy attempting to figure out how to flee from freedom, its responsibilities, from the choices involved when one said to ‘be free,’ and from freedom’s consequences. In his essay, ‘The Varieties of Human Freedom,’ anthropologist David Bidney invites us to consider what he calls ‘Intentional Freedom.’ Bidney notes that the ‘defining characteristic of man’ is ‘Intentional Freedom’ – ‘the human capacity to form an intention and to seek to realize it in action.’

This implies that one knows the difference between ‘right and wrong,’ and ‘good and evil.’ How did we humans come to know the difference between ‘right and wrong’? For the ‘People of the Book’ [Jews, Christians, Muslims] this ‘knowing’ occurred with Adam and Eve. When they ate of the tree of knowledge one of the things they learned was the difference between right and wrong – a differentiation that only God previously knew. In order to decide whether to eat of the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve needed to have choice – ‘Intentional Freedom’ – ‘Free Will.’ For the People of the Book, God created human beings possessed of free will in order that they might be in a position to acquire merit by acting rightly ‘when it was possible for them to act wrongly.’ Thus, we human beings are free to choose – right and wrong, good and evil. Evil, then, must be present in the universe in order for evil to be chosen; without evil, good would not exist. Without free will, ‘intentional freedom,’ would not exist (neither would any of the other ‘freedoms’). St. Paul captures this quite wonderfully when he writes: ‘For the good that I would do I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.’

The great philosopher, Pogo, once noted: ‘I have seen the enemy and he is us!’ As human beings our true enemy lies within each of us and this enemy is as strong as our uncontrolled passions and appetites; a question each of us might ask: ‘What do I feed my passions and appetites so that they are fully nourished and sustained?’ Perhaps, then, the ‘true’ cause of wrong choice, then, lies within each of us and is rooted in our free will, in our ability to choose, in our ability to exercise ‘intentional freedom.’

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Frequently the ‘context’ will move an assumption into a ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ or ‘neutral’ position. For example, most ‘if-then assumptions’ are appropriate depending upon the situation that exists at any given time (the ‘context’). Thus, it is crucial that we seek to understand the conditions that are in place as we strive to understand whether an assumption is ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ or ‘neutral.’ It seems that too often we believe that an assumption we follow has a much broader range of accuracy than is actually the case; we apply it ‘generally’ when it might well be more helpful – more accurate? – to apply it specifically. Here is a common example (an assumption that I have held to be true in the past). This assumption has been stated by many leaders and you, gentle reader, have probably heard it and you might well hold this assumption to be ‘generally true’ for you as well.

Assumption: When I praise someone for work well done the person being praised will continue to work hard (this is a classic ‘if-then assumption’).

This is rooted in the idea that positive behavior is repeated when praised (acknowledge, recognized, rewarded). The idea is espoused in many leadership manuals and workshops and is generally held to be true (by the leaders and by the led).

‘But wait a minute sparky,’ I say to myself. This assumption might not be relevant for some, it might even prove to be ‘harmful’ for some. What? Consider the following. . .

If the praise is not recognized (affirmed, accepted, acknowledged) as praise. . .then, praise will not have occurred. This idea is rooted in Nel Noddings concept of the ‘Ethic of Care’ where the recipient of the care (in this case the praise) must affirm, acknowledge, or accept the care as care.
If the person does not do so then care (in this case praise) has not occurred.

If the praise given is too public. . .then harm might actually occur. I learned this first-hand during my first trip to Singapore. Many Singaporeans are of Chinese descent and the Chinese have a ‘communal’ culture, not an ‘individual’ culture (as we do in the U.S.A.). By pointing out an individual publically for praise the person can actually be highly embarrassed (even by praising the person in private the specter of the community is always present). It is crucial to understand the ‘context’ (in this case the culture) before one simply praises publically.

If the praise is contradicted by one’s behavior. . .then harm might also occur. This harm is generally manifested by ‘cynicism.’ We know that we tend to believe a person’s non-verbal cues and behavior more than a person’s words. I have observed supervisors, managers, and executives verbally giving praise to a person – or a team – that they did not ‘like’ or ‘respect’ or ‘value’ and their non-verbal communication silenced their verbal praise. One result – unintended I believe – was that the seeds of cynicism were sown or nurtured into life (in some cases the tree of cynicism was already flourishing and the praise simply continue to nurture its growth).

So, uncovering and understanding our assumptions is crucial in many ways and so is the context within which we function. In one context my assumption might hold, in another the same assumption might be harmful. Once again, being awake and aware and intentional and purpose-full become important to us.


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I was introduced to a certain way of thinking critically (see my two previous postings) in 1963; I was a sophomore in college (it is interesting, to me at least, that sophomore means ‘wise fool’ – and I was one). Two professors, a philosopher and a Shakespearean scholar, took the time and helped me begin to learn about and understand what it was to think critically. They introduced me to the concept of ‘assumptions’ and after a few sessions with them I was hooked; I continue to immerse myself in seeking to understand them. My current thinking is that there are three types of assumptions that powerfully impact who we are, how we ‘see’ the world and help determine what actions we choose. So, this morning, gentle reader, I invite us to ‘Consider – Assumptions.’

The most challenging assumptions to uncover and to let go of and replace are what I have come to call ‘Deep Tacit Assumptions.’ These are the tap roots that feed our view of our world. We insist, by the by, that these are not assumptions; we insist they are ‘facts’ and we insist they reveal the ‘truth’ to us. I have learned firsthand – in my own life and as I have had the privilege and opportunity to be a thought-partner to others – that deep tacit assumptions are only examined following a great deal of resistance. It requires a great deal of ‘disconfirming evidence’ if one is going to even begin to accept that an assumption is afoot. We can begin to uncover our deep tacit assumptions by becoming aware of our word choice, our personal metaphors (and the metaphors that others hold that resonate with us), by the questions we ask and pay attention to or dismiss, and by the stories that we tell and that we affirm when others tell their stories. This will take some time and energy as it requires us to see where ‘alignments’ among all of these exist – once we have identified an alignment we are on our way to uncovering – and naming – a deep tacit assumption. Here is an example of a deep tacit assumption: ‘Humans are inherently competitive.’ So, gentle reader, I invite you to take five minutes and generate some words, metaphors, questions, and stories that would be in alignment and hence support this assumption as ‘being true.’

The second type of assumption I call ‘Ought Assumptions.’ These are easier to uncover and name for they are rooted in what we believe ‘ought’ to happen in a given situation. When we say ‘people ought to behave’ in a certain way we are tapping into an ‘Ought Assumption.’ These assumptions, like the third one yet to be named, are rooted in our Deep Tacit Assumptions. For example, I assume that adult learners are ‘self-directed learners’ and hence my teaching methods reflect this assumptions: ‘A true adult learner ought to be a self-motivated learner’ is an example of one of my ‘Ought Assumptions.’

The third type of assumption I call ‘If-Then Assumptions.’ This is a type of cause-effect assumptions; they are the easiest to uncover and name.  These assumptions ‘predict’ what will occur. A variation of this type of assumption is the one rooted in ‘history’ – this happened, the events today appear to be the same so we can assume that ‘this will happen again’ (if we don’t learn from our history we will repeat it). We rely upon the past in order to emerge an ‘If-Then Assumption.’

The power in all three of these is that at times the assumption actually plays out in reality; the trap is to ‘assume’ that this will always be so and then to act as if this is true and to dismiss the times when it is not ‘true’ and name these times as ‘abnormal’ or as ‘aberrations.’

We need assumptions in our lives for without them we would spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to figure things out (this, of course, is another assumption). I leave us with this wonderful quote from George Bernard Shaw: What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts.

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In my previous posting we briefly explored two of the four elements that are tap roots for critical thinking. As a reminder, the first two of these elements are: Discerning and Naming Our Assumptions and Checking Our Assumptions. Today we will briefly explore the other two.

Seeing Things from Various Points of View. In order to do this I must hold an attitude of being open to the other’s point of view and I must hold an attitude that I will be open to the possibility of being influenced by what is offered to me and I must be open to the possibility that my assumption is not ‘true.’ I know, first hand, that being open in these three ways far from being easy; I often become aware of my resistance when I check to see if I am open in these three ways. If I affirm that I am open in these three ways I can then take the next step: to seek to see my assumption(s) from a variety of points of view. First I might approach them through the multiple lenses of ‘roles’ I play (parent, educator, philosopher, son, sibling, friend, companion). Then I will seek out others that I trust to be ‘truthful’ with me and invite them to provide me with their views. For example, I too often assume that the other interprets my assumption(s) as I do and when I check this out I discover that their interpretation does not mesh with mine; I recall speaking with a colleague a number of years ago about how ‘flexible’ I am (one of my major assumptions) and this person looked at me and responded ‘You are one of the most rigid people I know when it comes to this topic.’ I was stunned – my defenses went up. It took me some time to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ and ‘accept’ what was being offered to me. Today we can laugh at my ‘rigid flexibility.’ It is helpful for me to have others ‘confirm’ or ‘disconfirm’ my assumptions.

Taking Action Rooted in Knowledge and Understanding. The end goal of critical thinking is to take action. Life is too short not to take this type of action (now that I am in my 70th year of life I can truly affirm the old adage that ‘life is too short’). This type of action is supported by understanding and convincing evidence (I had to understand and convince myself that I was, indeed, quite rigid – no one could do this for me). Now, we also know that some ‘evidence’ can be misleading (‘So and so says this is true so it must be true’ – a certain person, a certain group, a certain philosophy, a certain religion). I have a sense that most of us can be ‘seduced’ by the right ‘other’ into accepting ‘their evidence’ (perhaps it is their ‘belief’) without critical judgment (see ingredients 1-3). We must, all of us, be cautious when relying upon people with ‘authority’ or ‘credibility’ or ‘credentials’ regarding their telling us what to think (see Janis re; groupthink, or Fromm re: automaton conformity, or Gramsci re: hegemony); at worst some of these folks are manipulative, seductive or evil and at best they are prejudiced (believe it or not, we are all prejudiced). It is our obligation and responsibility and response-ability to ensure – to the best of our ability – that our actions have the effects we wish them to have; an action rooted in knowledge and understanding is one whose intended effect provides the results we had in mind (I am reminded of the advice: if you are not getting what you want from your actions then change your actions until you obtain the result you want – I ask designated leaders: ‘Does the way you lead get you what you want?’ If it doesn’t then change the way you lead!).

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A few days ago I was visiting my favorite coffee shop and as I was meandering to my table I passed a table of four folks. I had just passed by when I heard, ‘That’s not critical thinking…’ After settling in at my table I emerged this question: ‘What is critical thinking – what does it mean to think critically?’ I’ve been holding this question for more than three days now; yesterday afternoon a reply began to emerge and I made some notes. I am not sure how many postings I will devote to this topic, but it will be more than one. So, ‘What is critical thinking?’

Let’s begin with what it is NOT. It is not something that only philosophers do; in fact, it is not something that only ‘well-educated’ folks do (if they do it at all). It is not the same as ‘being critical’ of something (being critical of an author, a child, a friend, a play, etc.). It’s not something professional ‘critics’ do (although there are elements that are present in both ‘being critical’ and in ‘thinking critically’). I do have a sense that with discipline and the ‘right’ practice most of us can develop our capacity for critical thinking.

Consider, gentle reader, critical thinking happens when we engage four steps:
Discerning and Naming Assumptions. We all hold a variety of assumptions. Some are easy to discern and name (‘I assume that if I travel this route I will reach my destination’); some are discernable with a bit of effort (‘I assume that if I follow my physician’s counsel that I will feel better.’) and some assumptions are deep tacit assumptions – we hold these to be ‘truth’ and we believe they are rooted in ‘reality’ (‘I assume that people are inherently trustworthy’). The most difficult assumptions to discern and name (and own) are the deep tacit assumptions I hold (for they are ‘truth’ for me and who wants his or her truth challenged). The first step in thinking critically is to discern and name our assumptions – particularly our deep tacit assumptions. As I think about it, most of the actions I take are rooted in the assumptions I hold to be ‘true’ (this, of course, is also an assumption I hold to be true). Anyone who has attempted to discern and name his or her deep tacit assumptions knows how difficult it is to do so.

Checking Our Assumptions. Once I discern and name the assumptions that inform my thinking, my perceptions, and that guide my choices and actions the next step is that I will take some time to check whether these are as ‘true’ as I believe them to be. Are my assumptions valid and are they reliable; do they inform my thinking and my choices and my actions – are they ‘good guides’ for me? Are my assumptions ‘situational’ and yet I apply them generally? It is crucial, it seems to me, that we identify and assess the ‘convincing evidence’ for our assumptions (what validates them for me). Sometimes the evidence is based in my experience (when I do ‘A’ this has happened again and again and so, based upon my experience, I believe that if I do ‘A’ then this will happen again). Sometimes the evidence is based upon an ‘authority’ (a person we trust tells us it is so and so we assume that it is so – the person speaks ‘the truth’ and we trust). At other times the evidence is rooted in disciplined searching and seeking – inquiry and research; we do the searching and seeking, it is not done for us.

So, thus far, we have ‘Discerned and Named’ our assumptions (especially our deep tacit assumptions as in ‘life is a competitive struggle’) and then we have taken the time (sometimes a great deal of time will be required) to check our assumptions. Next time we will explore steps three and four.

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