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.