“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?  What characteristics might we look for; characteristics, if present, reveal to us a critical thinker? 

There are complementary questions, consider these: How can I/We recognize when critical thinking is occurring? I/We already possess the skill of thinking; what, then, are the major capacities we might develop or develop more fully that will help me/you/us become more astute critical thinkers?  What actually takes place when one thinks critically? 

Alas, Gentle Reader, the time and space required to address these crucial (‘crucial’ in my mind, at least) questions limits us.  Given this limitation, I invite us to consider five characteristics that together indicate that critical thinking might well be occurring.

Positive Activity.  Critical thinking is a positive activity.  It is also a productive activity.  It might not be seen/experienced by some as an efficient activity.  At times, a critical thinker might well be called a ‘cynic’ (one way of dismissing the person); critical thinkers are, however, skeptics (more on this later).  Consider that when a person thinks critically then he/she becomes aware of and seeks to understand a diversity of values, behaviors, psychological/social structures, motivations, and assumptions held (first by self and then by the other – ‘first by self’ is crucial to developing and engaging in critical thinking). 

Critical thinkers seek first to understand and thus to gain an awareness that others have the same sense of, say, ‘certainty’ about the world that they have or they might learn that the other has a different sense of ‘certainty’ about the world.  The critical thinker seeks to understand the other’s ‘certainty’ – this does not mean that the critical thinker has to agree with the other’s ‘certainty.’  [NOTE: ‘Certainty’ includes, but is not limited to: values, beliefs, prejudices, stereotypes, assumptions, guiding life principles, etc.]

Process not Outcome.  Perhaps most importantly, critical thinking entails engaging in and embracing a process of continual questioning.  There are many foci for the questioning.  Consider that the most important questioning-focus is to question my/your/our assumptions, especially my/your/our deep tacit assumptions.  The critical thinker is skeptical, for example, of claims to universal truth or total certainty.  ‘Doubt’ not ‘Surety’ enables one to engage a critical thinking process.  By its very nature, thinking critically never has an end point.  This idea drives some folks over the edge.  I remember sitting with a CEO many years ago.  I was attempting to be his thought-partner.  I kept inviting him to ‘consider’ and ‘think critically’ about the challenge he was facing.  After some minutes he looked at me, his face was getting redder and redder and the veins on his neck began to show.  Finally, he blurted out: ‘I don’t want to think about it; just tell me what to do!’ 

We are a ‘Doing Culture’ and, hence, an impatient culture.  We tolerate certain processes but we stress ‘outcomes;’ we seek ‘outcomes’ over ‘process.’ 

Context-Focused. [To be continued…]

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

The unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates

In a few days many of us will go to the poll and cast a vote.  For the past month or so I have been, once again, saddened by the lack of critical thinking that ‘We the People’ continue to demonstrate.  Given this I have decided to edit and re-post a six part series on Critical Thinking that I offered in October, 2018.  I will be posting one part each day for the next six days. 

To provide you with a bit of context here are a few of the experiences: The on-going lack of critical thinking that runs amok among our elected officials and the resulting increase in ‘tribalism.’ Then there is the lack of critical thinking that is blatantly lacking in almost all of the attack ads that recently ran amok on television and social media. Then there was the lack of critical thinking on the part of the candidates during their so-called debates.    

I am, however, not without hope.  I recall that prior to Covid-19 beginning to wash over us like a tsunami — I had the privilege of spending three hours with 19 undergraduate students; I was a guest in their case studies and ethics class.  The students were juniors and seniors and the course is a required course for their major (actually, at least 13 of them have double-majors).  With minimum guidance these students embraced the challenge of thinking critically. 

I presented them with an ethics dilemma; I was a thought-partner to the person who held the dilemma (in this case it was both a right-right and a harm-harm dilemma; talk about upping the dilemma ante).  The students embraced and engaged the dilemma; they helped each other; they challenged each other; they were open to listening to understand one another.  Their questions to me were thought-provoking as were the questions they offered one another.  I left the room hope-full. 

As I have noted in previous postings, as a nation/culture/society our need to develop critical thinkers is, today more than ever before, crucial and imperative.  For me, the development of critical thinkers is a national/cultural/societal priority.  This development is crucial and imperative for both civic and economic reasons. 

Civically, a critically informed society/populace is required for democracy to function effectively, efficiently and faithfully (think: being faithful to our constitution even if ‘our side’ does not win the election).  Economically, it is crucial that all of us learn to think critically so that we can both counter the greed that continues to run amok amongst us and to engage a global community that is both collaborating and competing with us economically. 

Sadly, it seems to me, and to others, that there continues to be a lack of correspondence between what is required of an educated citizenry and what is ‘taught’ in our schools – beginning with our elementary schools.  Recorded history taught us – continues to teach us – that although individuals can develop critical thinking skills and capacities (and use them effectively), as a collective the ‘emotional mob/tribe’ continues to win out.  The insightful Reinhold Niebuhr captured this in his 1934 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society.   A must-read for We the People (my view, at least). 

Consider that as adults we are on the verge of thinking critically whenever we question why we, or others, behave in certain ways.  Parents are on the verge of thinking crucially when they begin to question why they parent as they do (critical thinking can help us parents discern, for example, why we might choose an encouragement model of parenting or why we might choose a discouragement model of parenting,  As I observe parents today the discouragement model is alive and well).

A populace that asks ‘awkward’ questions of their elected officials and those seeking our ‘vote’ is on the verge of thinking critically.  A populace that calls for our elected officials to account for their choices and actions and who challenge existing policies and political structures (think: gerrymandering) are on the verge of thinking critically.  A populace who is skeptical of all media depictions is on the verge of thinking critically (a democracy requires a major tap root of healthy skepticism, rooted in critical thinking, if it is going to survive and thrive). 

So, Gentle Reader: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking? 

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver. –Gandhi

Good day, Gentle Reader.  Today I invite you to consider our health and well-being. 

Consider that the character traits (individual and collective) engendered by our Culture (think, for example, by our way of living) are pathogenic and will eventually result in sick people and thus a sick society.

A healthy society (Culture, if you will) is possible, only if a healthy human being also develops; what is required for this development to occur is a fundamental change in our Character.

The need for profound transformative human change emerges not only as an ethically moral or religious challenge (or is it a ‘demand’), not only a psychological challenge arising from the pathogenic nature of our present social character, but also as a condition for the survival of the human race.

Perhaps for the first time in history our physical survival depends upon a transformative change of the human heart. [NOTE: Transformation = a fundamental change in Character involving a fundamental change in one or more of the following: one’s core values, one’s core guiding life principles and one’s core deep tacit assumptions].

The almost unbelievable reality is that, thus far, no serious effort is being made to avert what appears to be a final decree of fate.  No one except a mad person would remain passive in view of a threat to our total existence and yet even those who are in charge of public affairs do little and those (think: ‘We the People’) who have entrusted their fate to them continue to do little AND support them.  As Rabbi Heschel reminds us: ‘Few are guilty; all are responsible.’

How is it possible that our deep and powerful instinct for survival seems to have ceased to move us?  One obvious explanation is that our leaders (chosen and by role) undertake many actions that make it possible for them to pretend that they are doing something effective to avoid our demise: endless conferences, resolutions that are not passed nor fully embraced and on-going talk-talk-talk – all give the impression that the challenges are recognized and something is being done to resolve them.  YET, nothing of real importance happens; but both the leaders and the led anesthetize their consciences and their wish for survival by giving the appearance of knowing the road and affirming that we are walking on the right path.

We are about to engage in an election and so another explanation is that the ego-centeredness our Culture generates encourages leaders to value personal success more highly than social responsibility.  Sadly, it is not shocking when political and business leaders make decisions that seem to be to their personal advantage, but at the same time are harmful and dangerous to the community.

At the same time ‘We the People’ are also so ego-centered focusing on our private affairs that we pay little attention to all that transcends our self-centered focus.

Consider another explanation that contributes to the deadening of our survival instinct: that the changes in living that would be required are so drastic that we prefer the future catastrophe to the sacrifice they would have to make now.  As I reflected upon this I thought of Arthur Koestler.

Consider Arthur Koestler’s description of an experience he had during the Spanish Civil War.  It is a telling example of this widespread attitude:  Koestler sat in the comfortable villa of a friend while the advance of Franco’s troops was reported; there was no doubt that they would arrive during the night, and very likely he would be shot; he could save his life by fleeing, but the night was cold and rainy, the house, warm and cozy; so he stayed, was taken prisoner, and only by a miracle was his life saved many weeks later by the efforts of friendly journalists. 

This is also the kind of behavior I am too familiar with: This behavior occurs in people who will risk dying rather than undergo an examination that could lead to the diagnosis of a grave illness that would require major surgery.

There is another explanation.  Currently we have no alternative to the models of corporate capitalism, social democratic or Soviet socialism, or technocratic ‘fascism with a smiling face.’ 

Consider, given all of this, that there are basically two modes of existence: the mode of having and the mode of being.  We continue to be motivated by the first and yet we need to embrace the second if we are going to survive. 

It is not the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind. – Aisha Mirza

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. –Saul Bellow

Good day Gentle Reader.   Today I will conclude our brief exploration of ‘The Grand Illusion’ by briefly exploring the second premise: the pursuit of individual egoism (think: being self-centered) leads to harmony and peace and growth in everyone’s welfare.

Consider that being an egoist refers not only to my behavior but to my character.  Being an egoist means that ‘I’ want everything for myself, that possessing not sharing, gives me pleasure; thus I must become greedy because if my aim is having, I am more the more I have

My hunger to have is insatiable – thus I can never be satisfied; there is no end to my desires.  I am envious of those who have more than I do and I am afraid of those who have less.  On the other hand, I strive to repress these feelings in order to represent myself to myself and to others as the rational, sincere and kind person that I pretend to be (and that others who are like me are also pretending to be). 

Consider, Gentle Reader that this passing for having inevitably leads to class warfare.  The pretense of the communists, for example, is that their system will end class struggle by abolishing classes continues to be fiction; their system, like ours,  is based upon the principle of unlimited consumption as the goal of living.  As long as everyone wants to have more, there must be formations of classes, there must be class war and, thus, there will be international war.  Greed and Peace preclude each other. 

Up until the mid-1700s economic behavior remained ‘human’ behavior and, hence, was subject to the values of humanistic ethics.  Beginning in the late 1700s capitalism underwent a radical change – a fundamental change, a transformational change; economic behavior became separate from ethics and human values.  Economic behavior became rooted in the mechanical metaphor – the machine metaphor. 

This economic machine was supposed to be an entity independent of human needs.  The human metaphor suffered as the machine/mechanical metaphor expanded and grew and became our dominant Cultural Metaphor. 

The development of this metaphor and of this economic system was no longer motivated by the question: What is good for us human beings?  The motivating question became (and still is): What is good for the growth of the system?  We humans were told – continue to be told – that what is good for the system is good for us human beings. 

This illusion was enhanced by another illusion: the qualities that this system required – egotism, selfishness/hedonism and greed – were innate in us human beings; they are part of our very nature.  Thus, both the system and our ‘nature’ fostered them.  Thus, they are virtues not vices AND they are necessary for our very survival. 

Today, people continue to be attracted to the mechanical metaphor and since the 1940s to the banking metaphor and to the technological metaphor and thus to the grand illusion.  These inhuman, life-less, metaphors continue to support the grand illusion and they also continue to be the pathway to our own destruction. 

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth. –Ludwig Borne

Illusion is the first of all pleasures. –Voltaire

Good day, Gentle Reader.  I concluded PART I with a question: ‘Why did the Grand Promise fail and become the Grand Illusion?’  Today we will briefly explore the ‘Why.’ 

The failure is rooted in our Cultural System.  There are two major tap roots that feed, nurture and sustain our Culture: (1) the aim of life is happiness (think: maximum pleasure); happiness is defined as any desire, want, subjective need a person may feel (the technical term is radical hedonism); (2) that egotism (think: self-centeredness) and greed are the pathways to harmony and peace and contentment.  For thousands of years none of the great Masters that such desire constituted an ethical norm.  These Masters were concerned with our optimal well-being (think: our Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual well-being).  For these Masters an essential element in their thinking was a clear distinction between those desires (wishes, wants, subjective needs) that are subjectively felt and whose satisfaction leads to momentary pleasure and those high priority needs that are rooted in human nature and thus whose realization is conducive and supports healthy human development and produces Eudaimonia (‘well-being’).

If we are paying attention – if we are awake and aware – we will notice that observable data continues to reveal that our kind of pursuit of happiness does not produce well-being.  As a society we are an unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent on and addicted to distraction and lovers of violence.  We actually ‘kill the time’ we are so anxious to save.  Even though the great wisdom traditions tell us, over and over and over Be Not Afraid! we continue to be fear-full. 

We have been immersed for hundreds of years in the greatest social experiment ever made – to answer the question whether pleasure can be a satisfactory solution to the challenge of human existence.  The grand experiment continues to affirm a negative response and yet because of our addiction to pleasure we are not willing to seek another solution. 

In PART III we will briefly explore the second premise (see it above). 

Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion. –Arthur Koestler