A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

How Do You Know That?


Critical thinking is a complicated subject. You can study structures of arguments, syllogisms, logical fallacies, science, philosophy, epistemology and ontology, all in the name of improving your critical thinking skills. You can learn the difference between an inductive and a deductive argument, contrary and contradictory statements, and a properly constructed argument compared to a simple assertion or conditional statement. However, ultimately critical thinking is the weapon of the sceptic, and scepticism is an attitude. The aforementioned skills help us to evaluate the answers to our questions, but first we must get in the habit of asking questions, the right ones to the right people. It is not just the desire, but the instinct to question everything, that makes a true sceptic.

It is the questions we ask, not the answers we find that dictate our lives. The most important question that any human being can ever ask is, ‘how do you know that?’. It is a question that is often soliloquised, but rarely verbalised. Too many people bite their lips for fear of being thought ignorant or stupid for needing to ask. Worse still, is the dread that their faith may be questioned.

The world would be a far better place if everyone were highly trained in the finer points of critical thinking. Certainly, if I had my way, critical thinking skills would be learned in schools all around the world, from an early age as a mandatory subject. Over time, the clouds of faith and dogma would clear, and every human being would be free to be happy and choose his own purpose in life. We would always have strays in the margins of society, but they would not pose any great threat to the freedom of humanity. Charlatans would go hungry and advertisers would have to earn their money.

But that is a lofty goal. There is nothing wrong with aiming high, and we should keep the ultimate targets of our efforts in mind at all times, even if it is near certain that we will not live to see them realised. In the meantime, we need to set realistic tasks that can be achieved in small steps.

We can start with the circulation of a meme: ‘how do you know that?’ This should not just be a question, it should symbolise an approach to life, a worldview. It’s ok to question, not just some things, but everything. You don’t have to accept anything because of faith, tradition, revelation or authority. Anyone who wants you to believe anything should be able to tell you why you should. Ask them, ‘how do you know that?’, and demand an answer. Don’t let them fob you off with pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. Accept nothing less than an explanation that satisfies your private curiosity.

Your mind has a finite capacity, there are only so many things you can believe. There are many thousands of beliefs you could adopt, and plenty of people who want you to buy them. Alien abductees, psychics, mediums, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, astrologers, transcendental meditators, scientologists and Born Again Christians are all falling over themselves because they want you to share their beliefs, and they’ll do almost anything to get the sale. Be choosy, don’t prostitute your belief quota on any half baked old fairy tale to satisfy your fantasy lust. Evaluate the evidence to the best of your ability, consider each possible explanation carefully, and choose class over convenience, truth over comfort.

Most importantly of all, having rejected the superficial, town whore belief in favour of something better, don’t go to the other extreme. Find an answer that satisfies you, but don’t marry it. Evanescent has a saying that I’m rather fond of, “atheists believe what they know, while theists know what they believe”. No matter how certain you may be about something, there is always a possibility, no matter how small, that you could be wrong. You should always keep the door of your mind ajar, and be open to evidence that contradicts what you hold to be true. If you begin to feel sentimentally attached to a belief per se, you are on a slippery slope. ‘How do you know that?’ is a question we should never shy away from asking anyone. Even, and in fact especially, ourselves.

Advertisements

22 Responses to “How Do You Know That?”

  1. I think both my article and a Dawkins’ letter has the same thing you’re trying to convey.
    Dawkins’ letter :
    http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/dawkins2.html
    My writing :
    http://horizonspeaks.blogspot.com/2007/06/in-his-interview-dawkins-said-about.html

  2. Excellent post.

  3. Of course your idea of teaching people critical thinking from a very early age would probably not go down very well here in the U.S.A..

    Why?

    Because many people in the U.S. see thinking for oneself in that manner is a Pandora’s Box; especially with regard to kids. There is fear of a loss control that would ensue from the young questioning everything. Remember, there are many people who are still smarting from events of the 1960’s.

  4. @ Diganta

    I read Dawkins’ letter to his daughter just a few months ago. I didn’t particularly have it in mind as I wrote this, but looking back over it and your fine interpration of it, I think there may well have been some unconscious inspiration (parituclarly the tradition, revelation and authority bit, I should have known that was too good to be mine!) 😉

    @ 911booger

    Thanks!

    @ Guitar Eddie

    Very good point. It’s sad that so many in society feel threatened by the next generation, and would stand in the way of their future happiness.

  5. @tobe38

    Yes, it is sad, man. But I also think that it has ever been thus.

    I also think that there are people who understand that the next generation is also our future. And that to stand in the way of their future happiness is to compromise our own happiness.

    Moreover, we need to understand that our children are not going to be clones of ourselves, and the present status quo is in a state of flux, as is all reality.

    GE

  6. Another excellent post, Tobe.

  7. Great post. I noticed that your take on critical thinking seems to emphasize a philosophical perspective. I found this interesting because I tend to approach critical thinking from a scientific perspective, viewing the skeptical attitude which underlies science as a core component of critical thinking. I see much of what you cited (e.g., structures of arguments, syllogisms, logical fallacies, contrary and contradictory statements, properly constructed argument, etc.) as having more to do with logic than with critical thinking. I’m not saying that logic is irrelevant here – it certainly is important. It is just neat that we get to the same point from somewhat different paths (not that you don’t discuss skepticism here too).

  8. Heh, “finite capacity” is exactly right. I run up against a wall in terms of my ability to analyze everything I believe or think I “know.”
    To the best of my ability, I try to root out ideas with no rational basis but, hey, I’ve only got 17 waking hours a day and only about 12.6 minutes of that belong to me! 😦
    I try to use logic and emphasize philosophy more, simply because I don’t always have the requisite background knowledge to make a decision based on information. But, in the long run, I recognize the need for both, sound thinking AND good data, for those ideas that I select as of primary importance.
    But, I keep inching my way toward Truth, knowing that it’s a journey and not a destination for a finite mind with a finite amount of time.
    To me critical thinking boils down to asking intelligent questions and “How do you know that?” is an excellent encapsulation of that – Great meme!

  9. I think this is one of your best posts yet. And I concur, unfortunately, that powerful vested interests have reasons for not wanting to see critical thinking taught too assiduously. As Carl Sagan put it, that blade, once honed to a keen edge, might accomplish much more than just a limited heresiotomy.

  10. @ Vjack

    Great post. I noticed that your take on critical thinking seems to emphasize a philosophical perspective. I found this interesting because I tend to approach critical thinking from a scientific perspective, viewing the skeptical attitude which underlies science as a core component of critical thinking. I see much of what you cited (e.g., structures of arguments, syllogisms, logical fallacies, contrary and contradictory statements, properly constructed argument, etc.) as having more to do with logic than with critical thinking. I’m not saying that logic is irrelevant here – it certainly is important. It is just neat that we get to the same point from somewhat different paths (not that you don’t discuss skepticism here too).

    Sorry for the delay replying!

    To be honest, philosophy and science were both subjects I knew next to nothing about until a couple of years ago. I suppose because I started off at Skepdic on articles like Occam’s Razor and syllogisms, I think of that first and foremost as critical thinking. It’s only later that I’ve added knowledge of the scienitific method, but you’re absolutely right that in some ways, that should take precedence.

    @ Ebonmuse

    I think this is one of your best posts yet.

    Thanks. 🙂

  11. “How Do You Know That?”

    I love it! It would make a great bumper sticker or T-shirt slogan. Maybe you should copyright it.

    Great post and great site! Thanks!

  12. @ DocMike

    Thanks for your kind words! 🙂

    It would make a great bumper sticker or T-shirt slogan.

    Now that’s a good idea! It would certainly help with the circulation of the meme.

    To be honest, I’m considering quite a radical change to the visual layout of the site, and I’m thinking that I’d like to have “How Do You Know That?” as a subtitle, or caption somewhere on the header.

  13. Sorry to go OT, but I’ve been thinking about atheistic tshirt ideas recently – maybe something thought-provoking, amusing but fairly inoffensive. “How do you know that?” sounds like a good one. The other ideas I’ve had are Einstein’s “The most important thing is not to stop questioning” or maybe a big thunderbolt with “Thor?” written across it.
    Anyone else got any good ones?

  14. @ James,

    To be honest, since DocMike’s comment I’ve been thinking along similar lines. I would like to put “how do you know that” on a tee shirt. The Einstein one is good, but maybe a little wordy. I like the Thor one.

    There’s always the classic, “Thank God I’m an Atheist”. I seem to remember somone saying they had a tee shirt with “God Bless America” on it, but with the ‘b’ in bless crossed out, and an ‘n’ at the end of America, so it actually said “God-less American”. Very nice, but not much good for brits like me though.

  15. Excellent post. Your focus on the subject makes for an easy, thought provoking read. My only concern is that self-directed scepticism can lead to existential angst. It seems that some things must be taken on “faith” of a sort, such as the idea that our life can have meaning, at least to us.

    I am here from the Humanist Symposium at Green Atheist.

  16. @ GarnetDavid

    Welcome, and thank you for your comment.

    I agree with you in a sense, that too much introspection can be a bad thing, if only for the fact that it can make you go a bit loopy! 🙂 But, although a lot of people do, I prefer not to use the word ‘faith’ for the assumptions we have to allow. Faith is a belief held persistently in the absence of supporting evidence, and in the face of contradiciting evidence, in something that is not required to explain anything. The base assumptions we have to accept in our own minds are entirely necessary ones, which we have no reasonable grounds to doubt.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t include “the idea that our life can have meaning” as one with any doubt in it at all. Meaning is a human made concept, the only meaning that anything ever has is the meaning that someone ascribes to it. If you do things that you see as meaningful, and your life seems and feels meaningful, then it is meaningful.

  17. “How do you know that?”
    Absolutely great reminder & reinforcement to those who already try to think critically as often as they can.

    But I think that everytime a fundamentalist christian sees “How do you know?”, the already established meme in his/her brain will automatically pop up: “I know that because the Bible says so!” and a smile burst upon his/her face because s/he knows the answer without having to think.

    (Never mind that it doesn’t matter that its really the personal interpretation of said collection of books by just another human, his/her pastor; that he calls himself a Preacher & promises guidance to eternal life precludes his flock from having to think for themselves.)

    Sorry to be so pessimistic, but I have to be around fundies constantly, and this is what I’ve gleaned from their behavior: logic & reason will never shake them from their preachers’ indoctrination. The only thing that could shake it is an event which causes them severe emotional trauma, & in most cases not even then. Logic & critical thinking?, when they are getting along just fine & also have the promise of eternal life without those pesky critters?: no way.

    The Thor one, however, will not elicit that religious self-satisfaction when the fundie sees it. It actually might provoke some thinking by him/her.

  18. P.S. I found your site in this manner: regular reader of Pharyngula; PZ posted a link to The Green Atheist, who had this post of yours listed in the topic Humanist Symposium.

    Glad to have found your blog.

  19. […] skeptic world view Posted on November 24, 2007 by bluelyon I stumbled on this post today. Critical thinking is a complicated subject. You can study structures of arguments, […]

  20. You have copied word for word paragraphs of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. Well done for recognizing it’s brilliant wisdom…. less well done for claiming it as your own.

  21. The results from Beams of particles in particle accelerators will never be defeated by the results of beams of prayers from churches or mosques.

  22. Feel free to post this comment anywhere,peace to all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: