Whether it is an advertisement in Time Square, the opinion of a TV personality, or the rhetoric of a politician, we should always be mindful not to confuse the face with the idea. Often we get too caught up in the appearance of an idea and neglect how it relates to our world in the realm of logic, reason, and metaphysics.
Some like to blame corporations and mass advertising for our consumer culture, but I also believe it is partly our fault for accepting the lies that are constantly fed to us. Society, as a whole, seems like a very gullible bunch. Like savaged wolves we still like to travel in packs, always voting Republican or Democrat, always turning on our favorite TV shows, and constantly investing our time and effort into the same old patterns of thought.
Especially in this age of information, our minds are always being filled – like a sponge – yet at the end of the day we rarely if ever take the time to reflect, contemplate, and introspect on what ideas we should keep and what ideas we should throw away. We have become programmed by a culture filled with deception. It is not about who holds the truth, but who is the best persuader.
Be A Healthy Skeptic
Looking through our list of cognitive biases, it is hard not to be alarmed at all the different ways one can be duped. A big part of critical thinking is to be aware of these biases, another part is to always be what I call a healthy skeptic. By this I mean we should always leave room for doubt and always have the flexibility to change our views in the face of new information.
No kind of dogma, whether through religious authority or political consensus, should be held blindly as a truth – unless it stands to our own reason. People can certainly suggest ideas to us, but it is only through each individual’s critical thinking (or lack of) which determines if we accept an idea or not.
But even our own faculty of reason can be faulty. No individual is perfect or has all the information in the world; as the philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski points out, the map is never the territory, if it were it would have to be the same as the ground it covers. Since we are beings that can acknowledge our own ignorance, we must also include a healthy dose of skepticism in whatever it is we choose to believe regarding life. If we choose not to, we will surely find ourselves in the same cycles of behaviors and outcomes, and therefore never progress.
The Function Of Beliefs
A belief is confidence in the truth or existence of something without proof. For example, one can believe that “everyone is a good person at heart despite their actions,” but that is not a claim that can be properly falsified or proven (and therefore it is not a matter of science according to the philosopher Karl Popper). A belief is true only so far as it permeates each individual’s perspective. It is high-chunked information based on our everyday experience.
So despite beliefs inherit non-truthfulness in the face of scientific rigor, the human perspective necessitates that we hold beliefs about our existence in order to function effectively in our world.
Knowing that we all hold beliefs, we can begin understand why being a healthy skeptic is so important. A belief is only as important as it is a positive influence to our actions. And even our belief in what is a “positive influence” is a subject we should always debate (both in our heads and amongst friends).
So while I preach a philosophy of consistent skepticism, I also want to acknowledge that having beliefs, opinions, and presuppositions are important and necessary. They are information about how we view the world. The key is to be flexible with those views (and always willing to change in the face of new experience and evidence).
Reflection And Introspection
One important aspect to critical thinking is to contemplate why we believe the things we do. Why? is always the big question, and the more we ask it and attempt to answer it, the more we are aware of our patterns of thinking and our false assumptions.
The deeper we dig into our inquiries the closer we come to answers of “I just don’t know.” Acknowledging this ignorance can become an amazing insight, because to know what you know and know what you don’t know – that is true knowledge.
Introspection is such a great tool because it allows us to re-track the steps of our experiences and take notice of things we may have took for granted the first time around.
As far as we know, humans have the greatest ability to reflect on their experiences, but they aren’t the only animals to exhibit these characteristics. Studies have shown that when lab rats are given a chance to experience downtime after going through a maze, they are likely to learn the maze quicker than other rats who are simply put through trial-after-trial.
Researchers theorize through brain scans (although they can’t know the mind of a rat for certain) that this downtime is spent replaying memories. They paid particular attention to the hippocampus, an important structure of the brain responsible for learning. Researchers think this act of replaying memories may be a general mechanism of learning, and perhaps it explains the memory-formation theories behind dreams (which too can be seen as another kind of introspection).
What This All Boils Down To
The message I want my readers to walk away with is that our minds are incredibly powerful tools, and it is important that we actively and consciously use it to our advantage. I believe that sometimes we take our ability to think for granted and in the process we forget how to separate a lot of bullshit from the truth.
No scientist, politician, relative, or movie star can use our brains for us. And when it comes down to how we think of our world we need to distinguish between what we are told from what we believe to be true through our own experience and reason.
This doesn’t mean the scientist, politician, relative – or even movie star – can’t offer us information or insight into a particular perspective; I am only saying we must remain forever vigilant not to accept these ideas on any kind of dogma. Instead, we must look through our own mind’s eye to make the best and most cohesive sense of our world.
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