A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”
Though many may not agree, it is not unreasonable to assert that all of that which we perceive as reality is constituted of belief. Even our sense of what we think we ‘know’ is founded on beliefs. Belief by definition is the sense of assurance that we have about things including those things we have evidence for and those things that we do not. That assurance gives us a sense of certainty about stuff out there and the goings-on inside of us. Belief then seems to act much like our physiological sense of proprioception where all of the signals from our body tell us where it is we are and what it is we are doing in relation to maintaining equilibrium.
Belief as an orientation device functions as a module that attempts to balance the sense of self in relation to the entirety of existence in a manner of speaking. If this postulation is accurate it may go some way in shedding light on the fact that some people feel that their world has been turned upside down or even ‘right side up’ for that matter when some important parts of their belief system have been reconstituted.
On Solid Ground
“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
Beliefs add what seems to be a concreteness to things that fall within their auspices. I am using the word auspices here with respect to its meaning as a ‘divine or prophetic token’, wherein the ancient Roman augurs would look at the flight of birds ‘auspex’ for the purpose of descrying omens, when the birds flew the right way or in the right direction, all was well with the world. Should they fly the wrong way then the signs were (omin)ous indeed. The other meaning of auspices is that of protection and support. From these two ideas alone when intersected with belief we see that beliefs hold stewardship of our sense of order and predictability in the world, and that which is outside of the belief structures rubric is to be defended against. Sometimes defended at all costs too because they ‘fly in opposition’ to that which is sensical and can therefore only auger nothing but tumult and chaos. The sense of stability and security that the concretising illusion that belief generates is readily apparent by the same degree of annihilation, disintegration and non-existence that it applies to that which does not fit its scheme.
Loves of our Lives
“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
The root of the tenaciousness with which we hold on to beliefs is evidenced to a certain extent in the roundabout etymology of the word ‘ believe’ itself, and why belief by definition means that which we love and trust. Our English word ‘love’ comes to us originally from the Proto-Indo European word ‘leubh’ which meant ‘caring, desiring and loving’. This word leubh was initially incorporated into Old High German as giloubo and it referred to that which was held dear or highly esteemed, eventually, this word entered Old English as ‘geleafa’ with the meaning shifting from love and esteem more towards trust and faith and by the 12th-century morphology had played its part and the word became leave, and eventually evolved into our current words ‘believe and belief’ The word ‘belief’ as we have it today than at its core means ‘to love’, interestingly the component word ‘lief’ is still used as it is in Afrikaans and Dutch and mean ‘love’. and even the German word for love ‘Liebe’ holds to its ancient origins. This, of course, means that if we tell someone that their beliefs are wrong we are saying that what they love is invalid, that in a sense they should ‘break up’ with their most cherished and trusted life partner. Little surprise that people take umbrage and sometimes violently so in others meddling in their ‘love life’.
A Safe Haven
“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”
We tend to use our beliefs as a refuge from the assaults of an otherwise chaotic and random world to create a sense of order and control within our lives. The process of belief generation results in a couple of preconditions that allow us to take action in the world. Belief presents the believer with a sense of agency because it predisposes the agent to an assumption that not only the agent exists but that the world around it does too. To have a belief presupposes that there is something in existence able to generate opinions about itself as well as about the environment, so beliefs in this respect are self-affirming, and for the self to exist it must somehow be assumed to be resident in something, this sense of residency acts to confirm then that the environment must too exist on some level.
Further to this, our beliefs indicate to us how we should behave in certain situations as well as what the outcomes of those behaviours will be. If this is true for us, it must also be true for other agents out there, whatever it is that they believe about themselves will determine what they believe about the world and if I know what those beliefs are I can then predict what they are going to do and how I am going to react. This view is what is known as ‘Intentional Stance’ and was coined by the Philosopher and acclaimed autodidact Daniel Dennett.
“Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behaviour is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally, you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.”
— Daniel Dennett, The Intentional Stance
What this means is that our entire belief system regardless of its content is a mental function employed to position us within a prediction simulation. If the simulation is correct its sequence and outcomes will be reflected in reality. A problem sometimes happens when we fall in love with the simulation even if it is wrong, because we may have felt so good in the simulated state. We want it to be right so much that we erroneously retreat into the simulation and end up in self-delusional denial about that which is really happening around us. Why I say is that it is ‘sometimes’ a problem is because I have encountered executives of very successful global brands who expressed the opinion that it is that very act of self-delusion that others call ‘Vision’. The head of one company ones told me when I inquired of him how he had managed to beat all of the competition out of a very niched market said to me ” You have to cultivate a healthy delusion that what you are going to do is going to work because if you consult the ‘facts’ you’re f@#%d”. Peoples beliefs do not need to be ‘true’ for the beliefs to tell us the truth, for whatever is believed even if it poorly informs the holder, still informs us richly about the believer.
This Rings a Bell
Critical thinking as something aligned with a principle of self-mastery is not new, in fact, it goes back at least two and a half thousand years to both the Sinosphere and Greece. From the written records that we have available to us from ancient India, it appears that the oldest account of critical thinking is found in the teachings of Gautama Buddha and can be found in a collection of writings known as the Kalama Sutta. As the story goes the Buddha was travelling through the town of Kessaputta and he was met by clansmen called the ‘Kalamas’ who questioned Buddha on which of the travelling holy men that came through their village they should believe because each one of them had a different version of what the truth was. The Buddha then laid out what is considered the first recorded delineation of systemized critical reasoning. Buddha expounds his criteria for rejection of claims as follows:
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”
(Kalama Sutta: The Instruction to the Kalamas)
It’s Greek to Me
In ancient Greece, it was Socrates who insisted that individuals should use a process of constant questioning to really delve into what we think we know, as well as what others think they know. The original term, and sometimes still used term for this systematic questioning was ‘maieutics’ which was a reference to midwifery, where the truth was laboriously extracted from a matter under scrutiny, whether espoused by another or claimed by the self. Today this method is far less dramatically known as either ‘Elenctic Method’, from the Greek word for ‘refutation’, ‘Method of Elenchus’ form the Greek word for ‘uncountable’ or as is it is more commonly and less technically referred to as the ‘Socratic Method’ . The Socratic method is all about using a process of elimination to weed out contradictions in hypothesis and opinion. It is utilized as a system to assist people in getting to a clearer understanding of what may be missing at the base of their beliefs, or what truths are resident in those beliefs. This principle is a cornerstone of today’s modern scientific method. This interlocutory inculcation also sits at the heart of the types of pedagogy that teach children how to think, rather than how to merely memorize whatever is handed to them by figures of authority.
“Whom do I call educated? First, those who manage well the circumstances they encounter day by day. Next, those who are decent and honourable in their intercourse with all men, bearing easily and good-naturedly what is offensive in others and being as agreeable and reasonable to their associates as is humanly possible to be… those who hold their pleasures always under control and are not ultimately overcome by their misfortunes… those who are not spoiled by their successes, who do not desert their true selves but hold their ground steadfastly as wise and sober-minded men.”
As our civilizations become increasingly technically complex and our societies more culturally diverse, we are faced with numerous situations wherein critical reasoning is vital to living peacefully, operating productively and engaging authentically with our fellow human beings. It does not serve us well if our thoughts are disorganized and fragmented, tied together in a tatterdemalion hodgepodge of notions, assumptions, half-truths and borrowed beliefs, which are but in essence the oozing effluvia of the manipulators of meaning and exploiters of ignorance accumulating in the self-affirming galvanized outhouse of an unquestioning mind.
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”
― Michelangelo Buonarroti
This process of mastery that we are about to embark on, is in no way meant to imply that it is mastery over anything other than the automatic processes that govern what we think of as ourselves and the circumstances that we imagine we are finding ourselves in. Critical thinking does not make us superior to anything but our own reflexivity, and only occasionally and tentatively at best. We are not going to get it right all of the time, and further to that what we think of now as right may turn out to be totally wrong at worst or moderately inappropriate at best. Science itself is by its very nature not a closed book, it is at its core always, if sometimes rather slowly, open to being updated.
Which is why when we take a look at the origins of the word master we see that it comes to us from the Proto-Indo European word ‘magis’ meaning ‘more’, and certainly in its meaning of more it is a suggestion to us that we need to move from scarcity to abundance, and the route to the acquisition of any treasure of worth as our popular myths and narrative inform us is via a quest. It is the same for the treasures of the mind, we too must embark on the route to that which is worthy, we too must (quest)ion.
The process of personal mastery can not be approached without proactively and skillfully framing, implementing, synthesizing, and testing our knowledge and beliefs to reach conclusions that are objective and useful. Granted that this process of continual mental self-regulation is not easy at first, it is a learnable and improvable skill though, and so with time, one can become highly efficient at it. According to an essay written by Dr Peter A Facione, in 2011 called “Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts” , critical thinking is:
Thinking critically also enters the larger domain of what is known as ‘critical social theory’ that was defined by Max Horkheimer the philosopher, sociologist and critical theorist; as an orientation towards critiquing and changing society as a whole, rather than merely explaining a society as being simply what it ‘was’. The Idea behind the critical social theory is that of radical emancipation towards being able to question the validity of authoritarian structures and improve societies by integrating all of the major sciences like psychology, geography, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology and history into the realm of general understanding for the populace.
As was seen with Nazism, without utilizing the faculties of critical thinking it becomes very easy to be swept along by the wave of popular mass delusion. Where questioning the reasons and factual basis of certain practices beginning with simple demanded rituals of hierarchical obsequiousness and ending with abasement to the incarnate embodiment of their own malevolent intent. Rituals which sowed the nettles that could not but blossom into heinous acts of self-aggrandizing barbarism and xenophobic genocidal mania, executed by mutually consensual self inculcated lowbrow lickspittles, who stood arrogantly tall all whilst cowering and clicking their heels together in the shadow of a misanthrope’s pompous flick of the wrist and callous snap of the finger.
.” Max Horkheimer – The End of Reason
When we engage with the processes of critical reasoning it is vital that we cultivate them the same way one does habits, these habits are not merely being developed for the sake of winning an argument with someone about whether their religion or political party are correct. Critical thinking as a tool to personal mastery is about building a set of abilities and engagement strategies, with people and information. It is a set of methodologies that gives an individual the ability to work out the real nature of problems and find functional ways to solve challenges. There comes with it an ability to create order and appropriately sequential prioritization.
One can discern and discard useless information and focus on what the real data is that one should be working with. With critical mastery, our judgments about things will be more accurate as we constantly engage in investigation to be certain that we are looking at the true causes. The system of critical mentation acts as an inoculation against getting locked into rigid patterns of perception that are not open to new information. One approaches what other people are saying with a refined scrutiny that can pick out the unstated assumptions that sit at the core of their values, and by being aware of this we can behave more appropriately and sensitively to what is transpiring ‘behind the scenes’ that the individual making the claims may themselves not be entirely aware of.
The critical discipline will demand of us that we truly and accurately comprehend the meaning of the words that we and others are using. This mastery is not something that is arrived at only once and then it is smooth sailing, this mastery exists in the constant practicing of it. We will not get it ‘right’ every time that is certain, but even in the moments when we do get it wrong we are given the clearer ability to discern ‘how’ it was that we got it wrong. The essence of the process is that of examination in both senses of the word. The first, wherein we must constantly look and observe, the second sense is the one in which we are the ones being examined by the very nature of how life tests us.