A Path Toward Critical Thinking

 Extreme credulity is a fraternal twin of extreme skepticism. Kurt Anderson

 A stimulus for this blog came from the writing of Kurt Anderson. * American devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, over the centuries, morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom made reality. He describes the history of this freedom in detail including: The Social Construction of Reality, The John Birch Society, UFO mania, Relativism, Esalen Institute, Conspiracy Theories, The New Age, Gestalt Theory, Psychedelics, and more. American history is full of beliefs and behaviors that have yielded today’s beliefs and behaviors. Reading Anderson made me realize that where we are today is where we have been heading.

I believe there are two major problems in today’s political and pubic discourse. One is extreme credulity and the other is extreme skepticism.  That’s like being too certain or being too uncertain. And I believe the remedy is critical thinking. We have reached the point where too many people believe only what they want to believe (extreme credulity, Post-truth). And also where too many people believe that every thing is relative and there is no such thing as truth (extreme skepticism, from the 60s). A contributing factor to both of these problems is modern technology, which has produced information glut and social media. This leaves little room for critical thinking.

As I am writing this blog, I realize that although uncertainty and doubt have been frequently employed in my writing for years, I don’t believe I have used the words skeptical or skepticism, or critical thinking. Critical thinking, disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence, is the theme of this blog.

Scott Lilienfeld calls critical thinking — reasoning that helps compensate for our biases. Reasoning is defined as: The action of thinking about something in a logical, sensible way. There is also scientific thinking that involves applying skepticism to ideas and forming testable hypotheses. These definitions help explain the need to understand today’s beliefs and behaviors, created by uncritical thinking and “custom made reality”.

 If critical/scientific thinking is a remedy for these problems of today, then there is some cause for encouragement because critical thinking is being taught more and more in public education, K-12, college and in adult workshops. Also new curricula are offered to help students spot fake news and develop proficiency in the ability to use digital technology, communication tools, and/or networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society. (Media Literacy Curriculum, Information and Communication Technology Curriculum, Media Literacy Teaching Critical Thinking.) Although we can’t expect todays adults, who are too certain or too uncertain, to learn critical/scientific thinking, teaching more open-minded adults and youth may be possible. Once I learn more about these, I may post another blog.

  • Anderson is the author of FANTASYLAND, How America Went Haywire; A 500 Year History, 2017. I have not read the book but did read his, How America Lost Its Mind, in the September Atlantic and a review, National Delusions by Hanna Rosin, in The New York Times Book Review, Sept.10, 2017





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Or Am I?

I think, therefore I am. Descartes, 1637

 Thinking has been written about for a long time; before and after we studied the brain, the unconscious mind, cognitive biases and the influence of technology. For example:

There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Shakespeare                            Thinking is the grand originator of our experience. William James                                           We don’t think the way we think we think. Duncan Watts                                                             All that is, is the result of what we have thought.   Buddha

And I have also participated more recently in my blogs. Thinking about thinking is a complex skill, using all your mindsight and full mind.   H B Blog 2014

If I don’t think, am I not what I am? Would a life without thinking be without good and bad? Is it possible not to think? I believe thinking is like breathing; it is something we do every day and we put it on auto pilot and don’t pay attention to it. And yet, paying attention to our thinking has been recommended many years ago. Be the witness of your thoughts, Buddha. This blog is to remind you and me to think about our thinking.

I wonder how many of us think the way we think we think? My guess is that most people don’t often think about their thinking. As I think about it, I realize I have been speaking and writing about thinking since 1989, Positive Uncertainty. Believing is a synonym for thinking and a big part of my writing. Thoughts and beliefs have consequences, even if I don’t think about them. They are the originator of my experience.

People know others by what they do, not by what they think. But to know why others do what they do, we need to know what others think. That is why I have focused on the complex skill of thinking about thinking for years. I believe that thinking is one of the most important things I do, along with the synonym believing. I have often proposed that “believing is seeing is doing”. Beliefs and thoughts become behavior; that’s important! It could be argued that the positives and negatives of the world’s history were caused by human thinking and believing. Has my thinking been an asset or a liability?

I have spent the most part of my adult life thinking about my thinking, and encouraging others to think about their thinking. I am not sure how successful I have been in either case. Others before me have been thinking and writing about thinking. How successful have they been? So, are you successfully thinking about your thinking?

A great many people think they are thinking when they are                                                        merely rearranging their prejudicesWilliam James                                                       Thinking is the greatest torture in the world for most people. Unknown                                 



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Credulity — A Disposition To Believe Too Readily

 Man’s natural state is not doubt, but credulitya combination of suggestibility in the face of whatever is clearly and strongly presented, and the will-to-believe whatever is personally or socially congenial.   Harold Larrabee, 1945

It is well known that we believe what we want to believe. We prefer to believe what we prefer to be true. Francis Bacon. Our tendency to believe what “sounds right” has become a big problem today, especially in politics. In order to become a rational, mindful believer today requires paying more careful attention to the difference between opinion and fact than ever before.

This is hard to do because of the incredibly easy access to whatever is clearly and strongly presented, and whatever is personally or socially congenial. This onslaught of data feeds our disposition to believe too readily. If there is such a thing as “extreme credulity”, technology of the future may achieve it.

Although credulity has probably existed forever, I believe it is possible to say that believing whatever we want to believe is an extremely serious problem today, even dangerous to democracy, because it dominates political discourse.  Mark Twain once said: A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on. In today’s politics, this lie can travel all the way around America.

The political strategy of today seems to be: Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is already made up. This allows believing whatever is personally or socially congenial. When today’s president speaks, he speaks with “baseless certainty” — as described by his associates. This frees him from restrictions on his opinions or beliefs. When he says something, that makes it the truth.

It seems to me that today it is important that we acknowledge that American democracy is in a credibility crisis. Something needs to be done. Who is capable of doing it? Not the president. Apparently not the congress. The overwhelming influence of credulity in today’s political discourse, needs public acknowledgement and action.

The remedy for credulity is to slow down our believing with uncertainty, which would lead to an investigation of the reality of one’s opinions AND facts. If doubt is not our natural state, it needs to be learned. Baseless certainty won’t work. My suggestion: “Confuse me with facts, so my mind can see reality.”  Facts may not be personally or socially congenial, so they challenge credulity. Political credulity needs to be challenged.

Every man prefers belief to the exercise of judgement.  Seneca

We have become so accustomed to our illusions                                                                              that we mistake them for reality.” Daniel J. Boorstin


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 Inside An Eco Chamber Of Like-Minded Friends 

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

 We are now in the world of alternative facts, truthiness, fake news and a growing number of opinionists: person fond of, or unduly attached to his own opinions, and fond of making them known. (Dictionary). Today it is hard to know what we know and don’t know. We fail to draw an accurate line between what is inside and outside our heads. And we fail because there is no sharp line. So we frequently don’t know what we don’t know. Stephen Sloman and Phillip Fernbach

This blog is the result of my recently reading The Knowledge Illusion, by Stephen Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Although I have frequently written about what we don’t know, this book presents an interesting new look. The authors suggest that we never think alone. They say individual thinking is a myth; we rely on the expertise of others for almost all of our needs. We treat knowledge in the minds of others as our own.

People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an eco chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged. Sloman and Fernbach

This presents a serious problem today. There once was a time when “truthiness” wouldn’t have made any sense as a joke. Today, everything about truth and knowledge is a joke. American politics is filled with opinionists. The same is true of the voting public. It is hard to make sense of political and public discourse. The problem today is determining the difference between opinion and fact. Treating opinion, knowledge, or fact in the minds of others as our own won’t work. And an unwillingness to challenge our own convictions also won’t work.

The world is becoming more complex, and people fail to realize how ignorant they are. Consequently, some who know next to nothing about meterology or biology nevertheless conduct fierce debates about climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done about Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate them on the map.  The Knowledge Illusion, 2017

f course, this brings me back to the theme of all of my writing: “Positive Uncertainty”. And one of my favorite quotes. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, its what you know for sure that ain’t so, Mark Twain. Be careful of facts you know for sure. Beware of your dogma. Beware of what others think. Try not to be an opinionist. Mentally step out of the “eco chamber”. Know where your opinions are coming from.

Whose knowledge to trust? An uncertainty will lead to investigating, questioning, and considering knowledge as a hypothesis. Both what you know and don’t know can get you in trouble, in spite of Mark Twain. Knowing is a complicated interconnection of personal experience, bias, opinion and the eco-chamber. Where do you look for your knowledge?

The utilization of knowledge is an art. Alfred North Whitehead




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Is This An Oxymoron?

Dictionary Definitions

Practical: Capable of being used or put into effect; useful.                                                       Theory: A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based.

 Often during my career, I was told that I preached theories, not practical advice. I have justified my practice by responding with: “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” Which leads to the title and subtitle above. I think the dictionary definitions help support my position. A good theory is one that presents a set of principles that can be put into effect and can be useful. That’s practical.

My Positive Uncertainty and The Process of Illumination decision making theories are also beliefs and principles. By definition a belief is a set of principles on which one’s behavior is based. Beliefs are theories that become behavior. Therefore, there is also nothing more practical than a good belief. The problem becomes: What is a good belief?  What is a good theory?

I have often written that some beliefs are better than others. Better beliefs are tentative and open-minded. They are not dogmatic or closed-minded. I believe the same would be true of a good theory. A good theory is a hypothesis, open for inspection and possible revision. Theories determine practice, beliefs become behavior; What could be more practical?

My decision making theories come from a set of beliefs and principles and lead to advice about the practice of making decisions. These beliefs and principles are capable of being put into effect, useful. Therefore, I consider them to be practical

Here is a sampling of my theoretical advice from the beliefs and principles of my decision making theory. Hopefully they are useful and practical.

  • Be focused and flexible about what you want.
  • Keep your mind’s eye on what you cannot see.
  • Beware of your dogma.
  • Use goals to guide you not govern you.
  • Accept uncertainty without being paralyzed by it.
  • Treat truths as hypotheses.
  • Become as capable of change as the environment.

Practical wisdom investigates what we can change                                                                       and aims at making good choices. Aristotle



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And Its Subjective Transitions

The only journey is the journey within. Rainer Maria Rilke

 It is said that life is a journey, not a destination. It could also be said that life is an inner journey with inner transitions along the way. Life as a journey is a beautiful metaphor. Journey is a process, a passage or a course. Transition is a passage from one form, state, style, or place to another. Life’s journey is full of transitions.  This blog is about one’s personal inner subjective transitions on life’s journey.

At the end of every road you meet yourself.  Zen Saying

Wherever you go, there you are. Jon Kabat-Zinn

Your life’s journey always features you, the inner you. You are the one on your life’s journey. And this includes your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, fears, optimism, pessimism and all that is going on in your mind at the moment. And what is going on in your mind is  you — although you may not be aware of it. I am reminding you that what is going on in your mind (“in here”) is as important as what is going on along the journey ( “out there”). On your life’s journey, your mental map IS the territory.

The mind inhabits a private universe of its own devising. Diane Ackerman

There is no “out there” out there independent of what’s going on “in here”.  Fred A. Wolf

Many years ago the concept of transitions became very popular in the counseling and decision making literature. Transitions were described as having an ending, a neutral zone and a beginning; a good description of life’s journey and life’s inner journey. In his best selling 1980 book, Transitions, Bill Bridges made a point of the importance of the way you “see” these transitions periods. For example, reflecting on the past (the endings): Thus it is important in times of transitions to reflect on the past for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that from a perspective of a new present, the past is likely to look different. For the past isn’t like a landscape or a vase of flowers that is just there. It is more like the raw materials awaiting a builder.

This quote had a powerful impact on my thinking then, and still does. My subjective interpretation of my life’s transitions is significant. My image of the past, present and future may be the most important factor in determining what my future will be. I am the only one who can directly travel my inner journey. Others can tell me what they believe is the way I see things, or should see things, but they cannot see things the way I do.

These subjective transitions on our inner journey are often neglected, or out of awareness. Pausing to reflect on what’s “in here” has been a theme of mine. In choosing what door to open to the future, I urge you to sometime choose the door that opens to the inside. However, the journey within is not the journey most people travel.

Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great.  Ralph Waldo Emerson



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Isn’t What It Used To Be

 Or is it?

I have been advising about the decision making process since my first publication in 1962. This was my theory “by the book” and very rational. It was the accepted theory of the time. In the 55 years since then, clearly the interest in and attention to decision making has increased. And the opinions and knowledge has also increased and changed — several times. Has the way people make decisions changed?

How has deciding how to decide changed? For example, in 1989 I published my “Positive Uncertainty” article. It was in the same journal as in 1962 (Journal of Counseling Psychology). It was my confession that “I changed my mind” about my original decision making theory. But I wasn’t the only one.

Two Nobel Prize winners, Herbert Simon, 1978 and David Kahneman, 2002 changed popular theory and made it clear that human decision making is not, and probably cannot be, totally rational. Rational decision making is consciously analytic; nonrational decision making is intuitive and judgmental; irrational decision making responds to the emotions or deviates from action chosen rationally. Several recent popular books have tried to explain how to make “somewhat rational decisions”: Thinking Fast and Slow, David Kahneman: Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath; Mindset, Carol Dweck; Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz; among others. This is a history of varied decision advice.

Plus, our increasing knowledge of the unconscious mind and the identification of over 70 cognitive biases has influenced what we “know” about human decision making and made us less sure of how to define or prescribe the way people do or should decide.                                                               One’s unconscious mind is full of decision influencers acquired during a lifetime of personal experiences. And cognitive biases, acquired the same way, are usually out of one’s awareness. This means most of us don’t have a clue about how we make our decisions.

Other changes have influenced how people decide. The arrival of Information Glut: the reception of more information than is necessary to make a decision or that can be understood and digested in the time available. And social media, websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. There is no validity or reliability filter for all of this “knowledge”. Since it could be said that “decision making is using what you know and believe to get what you want”, what you know, believe and want could be influenced by Information Glut and social media. How is one expected to make a rational or somewhat rational decision?

My point in reviewing this is to wonder out loud: “What difference does all of this advice make? Do people today decide differently (better?) than they did in 1962?  Maybe decision making advice is overemphasizing the methods and principles of science.

Science can assist us in becoming more skilled choosers,                                                             but at its core, choice remains an art.  Sheena Iyengar

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