SUMMARY: There may be several pillars of a well-educated mind, but to me, the three most important are intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and critical thinking.
(About a 12 minute read)
“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” ―
Like most people who do not suffer from a crippling over-abundance of sanity, I am a staunch believer in the notion that we could do a much better job than we are doing in teaching people to think.
Saner people might point out the many ways in which American culture discourages teaching people to think. For instance, there is a deeply rooted strain of anti-intellectualism in our society that has been present ever since the 1820s or 30s, and which most often manifests itself as contempt for anything exceeding a narrowly practical education.
I freely concede that making a living is of periodic importance in life, such as roughly during the period between the ages of twenty and sixty or so. But to me, that doesn’t mean you should so focus your education on getting a good job that you fail to develop the skills necessary to lead a fulfilling life.
Of course, most Americans these days would probably say the skills necessary to lead a fulfilling life consist mainly in how to shop for the best deals, have sex like a porn star, and become gratuitously outraged at everyone else’s politics.
And they have a point. Those do appear to be crucial life skills in America today, given how many people seem hellbent on mastering them. But for the few who wish to go further than that there can be more to life than a sizeable discount on a new car.
More to life than having sex like a porn star? Did I mention yet I was not afflicted with a crippling over-abundance of sanity? To me, it is even more crucially important to the quality of your life that you learn to think than it is that you have a threesome with a Mallard duck and a Balinese donkey, say what you must about my sanity.
Learning to think will not only make you inscrutable to most people — which always helps in poker — but it might also lead to the excitement of discovery, and the satisfaction of understanding.
Unfortunately, learning to think is often enough something you must largely accomplish on your own time, outside of the educational system. There are many dedicated teachers who might help you with it, but the system itself seems so often to be stacked against them — especially on the primary and secondary levels. Today’s fetish of standardized testing alone translates into an unholy emphasis placed on rote learning over and above learning to think.
Having said all of that, I think there are three habits of thinking that a person can acquire which will stand nearly anyone in good stead. I call them “pillars of an educated mind”, but I do not necessarily mean a formally educated mind. One can cultivate them regardless of whether one is formally schooled in them.
In the end, they are ways in which a mind can be disciplined. An odd thing about human nature is that we have very large brains, but those brains are not born disciplined. It has been scientifically shown, for instance, that rationality is largely acquired. Undisciplined brains tend to sooner or later conjure up all sorts of notions that are fantastic — in the sense of being fantasies. Disciplined minds, on the other hand, tend to be much more realistic, and therefore in a position to help their owners, rather than hinder them.
Here, then, are the three pillars:
THE COURAGE TO BE INTELLECTUALLY HONEST
“Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.” ―
One of the most courageous people I have known in my life was William Davenport. I have blogged about him here. Davenport was a professor of philosophy and a logician. He was also such a shy, quiet man that some of us took to calling him, ironically, “Wild Bill”.
Yet, there was a way in which the nickname literally fit the man. Wild Bill was — so far as any of us could tell — exceptionally dedicated to following sound logic, supported by a solid weight of evidence, wherever it took him — and no matter how unpopular or ridiculed that made him. I don’t know if he was physically courageous, but intellectually, it seemed to us no one surpassed him.
In life, intellectual honesty is much less often subverted by a disposition to dishonesty than it is subverted by social pressures to conform your thinking to that of others in your group. It’s not any desire to lie that gets to most us, it’s our friends and acquaintances.
This is nowhere so true today than in the echo chambers. That is, the internet and media sites where we might first go out of curiosity, or to find people of like mind, but which we involve ourselves in at risk that they evolve into intellectual straight-jackets confining us to whatever opinions are politically correct within our group.
No matter what we might tell ourselves, it is nearly impossible for most humans to long resist strong social pressure to conform to any group they care about, and nearly every social group encourages some kind or degree of conformity.
Despite myths to the contrary, not even scientists are immune to that pressure. In fact, one of the very reasons for the scientific method is because it features checks to social conformity. The method actually rewards informed dissent. But without it, scientists would most likely be no more successful as a group than fanatical sports fans are at expressing serious dissent — no matter how well-informed it is.
It can take immense moral courage to always go wherever reason and evidence leads you.
As I understand them, the four most important core principles of intellectual honesty are:
- You do not allow your personal beliefs to interfere with the pursuit of truth.
- You do not purposely omit relevant facts and information when doing so might seriously call into question your point of view.
- You present facts in an unbiased manner, rather than twist them to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another.
- If you are debating some competing point of view, and it is open to interpretation, you state it in its strongest possible formulation, even if that weakens or defeats your own point of view.
It is the rare human in any age who is notably intellectually honest, but those who are, are usually in some sense morally courageous.
THE STRENGTH TO BE OPEN-MINDED
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” — Aristotle
It is a curious fact of human nature that we usually find it difficult to be truly open-minded. As Charles S. Peirce explained, genuine doubt is an emotionally uncomfortable state. Thus, we try to bring an end to doubt by rushing into any belief we can find that we can convince ourselves is true.
Yet, most often, for us to be open-minded about a new idea, we must seriously entertain the possibility that one or more of our comfortable beliefs is wrong. That requires emotional strength.
To be open-minded is to be willing to consider new ideas in a fair, impartial, and unbiased manner.
At one time in Japan, there lived a master of traditional Japanese painting. He did not, however, like French impressionism. But he decided to reserve judgment until he had actually learned a thing or two about it.
Therefore, he spent the next 20 years mastering impressionism until he became known as Japan’s foremost impressionistic painter. Then — and only then — did he write a book on the subject explaining in great detail what he thought was wrong with impressionism.
Suppose you decided to be open-minded about the notion that there might be circumstances in which some forms of socialism were workable ways to achieve certain goals. You would first — above all else — at least momentarily put aside any reservations and preconceptions you had of socialism in order to as fairly and impartially as possible learn about it.
Then — and only then — would you assess it in as fair, unbiased, and impartial way as you could muster. Obviously, this process would cause you some emotional distress if you started off with firm beliefs opposed to socialism. But true open-mindedness often demands no less than the strength to endure such discomfort.
However, some people think the concept requires you to always freshly consider every idea no matter how often you have heard it before, and no matter how well you have examined it in the past. But the concept does not apply to old ideas or familiar experiences you have already considered, and which have not changed since you first considered them.
THE INTEGRITY TO THINK CRITICALLY
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” ―
It’s my opinion that those of us who cannot or will not think critically imprison ourselves in the ideas and opinions of other people. That is, we lose something of our integrity to them.
Growing up, I had quite a reputation for thinking critically about nearly everything. However, I was far from deserving it. Instead of really thinking critically, I was inclined to merely think contrary to everyone else. If you had told me the grass was green and the sky was blue back then, I would have at the least been tempted to tell you the grass was blue and the sky was green.
Being a contrarian is very different from being a critical thinker. A good critical thinker is guided by reason. A contrarian is guided reaction. That is, they are merely reacting against whatever idea or opinion is offered to them, rather than reasonably assessing it.
Critical thinking involves a number of skills. Skill at logical reasoning, weighing empirical evidence, and semantic analysis are perhaps the top three. Logical reasoning is well mapped out these days. There are hundreds of textbooks on nearly all aspects of it.
Weighing empirical evidence is a little less firmly defined. It can be something of an art, and I suspect it’s best picked up — like medicine — mainly by studying case studies. Those can be found in scientific journals, among other places.
Semantic analysis is the most neglected of the three. It shouldn’t be. It consists in closely analyzing how someone is using their words. When you get into it, I think you will find that over half of all errors in reasoning are based on errors in word usage.
For instance, I commonly see people use the word “truth” as a synonym for “reality”. By itself there’s nothing wrong with that. There are no laws that say you cannot define words however you wish to define them, although if you define them in unusual ways, it’s a good idea to explain how you are using them to people — unless your intention is to confuse or bamboozle them.
At any rate, so many of us define “truth” as “reality”, but don’t quite grasp that’s what we’re doing. The result is we can go for perhaps years wondering “What is truth?” without realizing we’d get much further along if we would only ask “What is reality?”
Critical thinking thus involves several skills, the three most important of which might be logical thinking, weighing empirical evidence, and semantically analyzing statements and arguments.
In my view, three pillars of a well-disciplined, or well-educated, mind are intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and critical thinking. These are by no means the only pillars, but to me they are the most important.
I see a good education as much more than learning facts. It is learning how to thinking and — ultimately — learning a way of seeing things, a way of perceiving them, in light of how to think about them. This way of seeing things, or perspective, requires training. It does not come natural to us. But it can enrich our lives to acquire it. Not only does it lead to the excitement of discovery, but also to the satisfaction of understanding.