It is quite the oddity for Christians to claim that, if our brains are the products of an unguided process, we must then forever remain uncertain about our brains’ reliability.
You doubt your brain’s reliability? Simply test your brain. We all have goals. Simply divide your goals in half. Then for one half, use your brain. For the other half, don’t use your brain. Which method best accomplished your goals? To what degree did using your brain accomplish your goals? To the degree that your brain worked, to that degree you are justified in believing it will continue to work. Pretty simple.
Consider finding a compass on the ground in the woods. It appears to accurately point north based on its pointing in the same direction that most of the moss on the trees face. Now consider a friend telling you that you can’t ever know whether the compass is reliable unless you know the company that made the compass. Nonsense, right? You simply test the compass. If it reliably gets you home through the woods night after night, it is reliable. Nothing difficult here. Very basic.
I‘ve noticed several recent misunderstandings of what is commonly called “critical thinking” or “rational thought”. I’d like to make a few points that I hope will convince you that acquiring and promoting critical thinking will, indeed, have a positive impact on your own life, and on the lives of others.
1. Being critical does not mean doubting things absent reasons for doubt. Instead, being critical is simply not believing everything we hear without first assessing the claims. For example, if a neighbor, with a history of lying, claims something quite possible such as “Billy kissed Sue last night”, we have good reason to doubt Walter. Conversely, if hitherto trustworthy parents tell you a fat man will descend a chimney the day before Christmas, they are also to be doubted due to the absurdity of the claim. Critical thinking includes assessments of a) the track record of the sources of claims, b) the congruence of claims with reality, and c) the actual evidence/argumentation provided.
2. Critical thinking is not an ideology. It is a method of processing claims. It is not ‘what’ to think, but rather ‘how’ to think. It begins with no presuppositions. It honestly starts at the foundation and examines every nut and bolt in the construction of concepts and ideologies. And it welcomes the periodic breakdown and reconstruction of concepts and ideologies. And because arguments are independent of the arguer, it welcomes any contrary argument, no matter the source. Therefore, just as scientists working independently on scientific problems find their results converging on the objective truth of the matter, those who apply critical thinking will find their ideologies converging.
3. Critical thinking is not only logic. It is the acquisition of all knowledge that has been demonstrated to lead to the most reliable conclusions. So while it does include the more logic-based knowledge of valid argument forms and logical fallacies, it also includes the psychology-based knowledge of cognitive biases. In addition, it includes the acquisition of statistics, probabilities, standards of evidence, concepts related to cause/effect and experimental design, and very importantly, basic concepts of linguistics and epistemology. It is an investment, but the rewards are immense.
4. Critical thinking is not just academic. It is less philosophy and more science. It is the very set of tools actual scientists are currently using to understand the reality around us. It is what has lead to the medical advances that have doubled the average human lifespan, and to the technologies that have made our lives much more productive and enjoyable. Critical thinking is essentially the balanced application of all the tools currently employed by science to explain and predict our reality.
5. Critical thinking is not only effective in assessments of politics, religion and general ideologies. It is a toolbox that can be carried into the personal arena, and applied within the smaller scope of romance, career and lifestyle. Critical thinking leads to life becoming more predictable, and as a result, you becoming more confident and mature. Life is often messy. But acquiring a healthy toolbox of critical thinking skills will allow you to cut through the noise, and to discover and employ solutions to any problem you encounter. There is no guarantee critical thinking will rescue you from every jam, but it’s your best chance.
6. Critical thinking is not a formula. It is not an algorithm you can plug in to spit out an optimal result. There are no shortcuts to acquiring critical thinking skills. You’ll have to put in the time to explore it as you would any other subject. But, because it is so foundational to living, there is no other better investment you’ll make than to equip yourself with a healthy critical thinking toolbox.
For a fun introduction to critical thinking, check out the following link. They have an excellent podcast.
When you tell a friend “You mean a lot to me”, what are you actually saying? For me, I intend to communicate a deep emotional appreciation for my friend. This “meaning” was not given to me. It is a meaning that emerges from my personal emotions and desires.
Those who don’t believe in a personal god are frequently asked by Christians “If you don’t have a god to give you meaning in your life, why not just commit suicide since you must be miserable?”
Yet, the very Christians talk about a movie being “meaningful” to them, and their friends “meaning” a lot to them. These are “meanings” that are not handed to them by some god. Are these Christians knowingly equivocating on the word “meaning”? I’ll let you decide.
So we have 2 definitions of meaning.
1. Things that are emotionally significant to us.
2. Some purpose handed down to us by a superior.
Now for a couple questions.
Can someone be happy without a purpose being handed to them?
Can someone be unhappy after having been handed a purpose by a superior?
If you don’t think so, you’ve had a short career.
There is therefore no necessary causal connection between purpose and happiness.
Those who claim you can’t be happy without some god handing you purpose and “meaning” are either knowingly equivocating on their terms, or are severely confused about what purpose and meaning actually are.
Can you imagine a slave claiming he can not be happy without a master giving him orders? Can you imagine a person unable to find happiness in life because the have no god to guide them? I can’t. I find no evidence for any god, yet I find so many things to be happy about.
Don’t let people fool you by suggesting life without some god is miserable.
Write a comment below if you still don’t believe me. I’ll contact you personally to tell you my story of how I went from being a Christian slave, dependent entirely on the will of the god of my imagination, to a life full of meaning and happiness.
One of the most common fallacies in reasoning is the notion that dictionaries reflect what words should mean.
A quick thought experiment will put this to rest.
Someone is asked to write a modern dictionary.
Why do we need a new dictionary? What is wrong with the old one?
Languages and words are not static. They evolve over time. Consider the word “suffer” which used to mean “allow”. I’ve actually heard one female preacher claim that when Paul the Apostle said “I suffer not women to speak”, he was saying that women speaking didn’t bother him, when, in fact, Paul was saying that he did not allow women to speak. Another wayward word is “awful” which used to mean “awe inspiring”. A more recent evolving word is “gay” which disturbs some conservatives when they sing “Don we now our gay apparel” during Christmas.
But words contain meaning, don’t they?
Words are simply sounds or symbols. You can have the same sound or symbol understood in vastly different ways. Here in Japan, Kinki University decided to change its name for reasons obvious to most English speakers. The word “smart” means “intelligent”, “fashionable” and “slim” in America, Britain and Japan, respectively. Minds contain meaning, and where you have 2 or more persons who have assigned the same referent to the same sound or symbol, there you can have communication. Individuals can communicate to the degree that they share the same mental representations of sounds and symbols.
But how can we communicate if the meanings of sounds and symbols are dynamic and based on convention?
Cautiously. Those living in a shared culture can communicate in their shared language quite effectively since the mental concepts they assign to sounds and symbols are highly common due to common experiences and education. The words “proof”, “critical”, “valid” and “theory” have quite different meanings for academics than for the general population. The more technical or more insular a culture is from mainstream culture, the less there will be convergence in the mental concepts that are evoked by various linguistic tags between the 2 cultures. This is why it is important to stipulate the meaning of more vague or ambiguous word with a lengthier definition when speaking cross-culturally.
Then how can I produce a quality dictionary?
By considering the current usage of words in the target language community. By querying convention, various current denotations and connotations of words can be detected as standard. The utility of your dictionary will be determined by how closely it reflects the actual current usage in the language community for whom it was written.
But doesn’t that mean I’ll have to update the dictionary every few years to accommodate swings in denotation and connotation?
Yup. That’s the inevitable fact of it. No one owns words. No single person defines words. Words may be coined, but their currency depends on their acceptance by the language community.
So sounds and symbols are not obligated to carry a particular meaning. Dictionaries are not the final authority on meaning. Convention is. To place dictionaries above convention is to invert the reality of language.
I’ve previously argued extensively that there is no moral realm.
Now, consider the following 2 questions.
- What is morally wrong with lying if there is no morality?
- What is wrong with lying if there is no morality?
I get asked question #2 quite often, and upon further interaction, usually I discover the questioner is actually asking questions #1.
The answer to questions #1?
Nothing. You can’t have moral fact where there is no moral realm in which those moral facts can exist. Nothing surprising here.
The answer to question #2?
That will depend on your goals.
If you intend to live honorably in a society that values honesty, chronic lying is the wrong way to accomplish this. If you hope for others to believe you in the future, you’d be misguided if you thought lying would be consistent with that hope. If you make a habit of lying, you’ll discover the response will be anger, mistrust, and marginalization. Most people consider lying shameful, a useful emotion that maintains social cohesion and advances most personal goals. Very few thriving individuals have achieved their happiness with lies.
However, if you wish to protect a child from a criminal seeking to harm the child, then telling the truth about the whereabouts of the child to that criminal is definitely wrong.
“Wrong” can refer to the notion that something is morally wrong, and “wrong” can refer to the pragmatic mistake of acting in a way inconstant with your goals. I’ve argued in other posts that moral wrongness is impossible in our universe which is absent a moral realm.
So the word “wrong” obviously has several meaning. It is there for the equivocation for those who consider intentional equivocation a noble way to further their goals. I hope my readers are not of this shameful mendacious mindset.
“I don’t know about other disciplines, but academic writing in the humanities has become notorious for its jargon-laden wordiness, tangled constructions, and seemingly deliberate vagary and obscurity.” -Steven Pinker
The crafty cuttlefish surrounds itself with ink to obscure itself from enemies. Most things worth saying can be said clearly with few words. Lengthy and convoluted arguments are justifiably suspect.
Here are a few good signals that an ideology does not map to reality.
- When the founding document/scriptures is so conceptually disjointed that it has given rise to hundreds of variations, all hostile towards each other.
- When the “scholarship” (commentaries) written to explain the founding document/scriptures is so voluminous that it would take several lifetimes to wade through it, and the commentaries themselves reflect mutually hostile doctrinal positions.
- When you are told that, to properly understand the ideology, you must invest a considerable amount of time exploring the founding document/scriptures, as well as the accompanying “scholarship”.
Once you give in to the notion that a significant investment of time and focus is necessary to make sense of an ideology, you are susceptible to the trap of vested interest. The more you invest exploring an ideology, the more difficult it is to honestly assess it since you don’t want to feel your investment was wasted.
If you have time to invest, invest it strengthening your filter of rationality as others have to effectively defend against hundreds of false ideologies. Explore logical fallacies, cognitive biases, standards of evidence, statistics, probabilities, and other essential tools of rationality. That foundation will allow you to quickly and correctly assess any ideology that comes your way, and to avoid the false promises offered by the pit of “scholarship”.
This, of course, does not include domains of scientific or technical knowledge that requires acclimation to a body of literature before new discoveries are made.
(Note: Any mention of morality below is in the context of a reductio ad absurdum argument. The author does not believe a moral realm exists.)
You will often hear Christians attempt to salvage their Jehovah from moral incoherence by arguing that the slavery, treatment of raped women, and other atrocities ordered or condoned by Jehovah were not quite as horrible as they appear. Let’s call this argument “The Argument from Diminutive Account”. This argument fails on two counts. To employ this argument requires the apologist to hold that…
- the more severe version of events they are arguing against would constitute a moral offense if Jehovah were to order or condone these more severe versions of events
(If it were not a moral offense, why make the argument the event is a milder form than what it seems?)
Yet by what moral standard do they determine the more severe account transgresses the threshold of what is moral? What could be their moral standard? How do they know the harsher version is morally wrong?
- the milder version of events is not a moral offense
(Yet, Christians today refuse to act consistent with the milder version, out of a belief that it would be immoral
Yet, by what standard do they judge these actions immoral now, but moral then?
The formalization of this is as follows.
- P1: Christians hold that whatever their god condones is moral.
- P2: Christians hold that the apparent condoning of activity “X” found in the bible is not immoral because the activity is actually a diminutive “x”.
- C1: Therefore, Christians hold that “X” would be immoral even if their god condoned “X”. (P2)
- C2: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P1 & C1)
- P3: Christians would refuse to follow diminutive “x” because they deem it immoral.
- C3: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P2 & P4)
Let’s deal with each of these two problems with the Christian’s argument that “God’s actions were not as bad as reported.”
1. If you are going to argue that Jehovah remains moral because action “X” was actually of a lesser severity we’ll tag “x”, then you are admitting that “X” is immoral. Yet, how did you arrive at that conclusion? What is your standard for that belief? Would Jehovah had been immorally if he had ordered “X”? Why else would you be arguing that “X” is actually “x” if not to make Jehovah moral? Yet, is it not the words and actions of Jehovah that define morality? Would not “X” then be, by definition, moral since it deemed moral by the author of morality? What other possible standard of morality is there within Christian ideology? This is the first incoherency of the Argument from Diminutive Account.
2. If you are going to argue that Jehovah remains moral because action “X” was actually of a lesser severity we’ll tag “x”, then you must hold that the diminutive “x” is moral. However, the milder versions of slavery and stonings and slaughtering of infidels Christians argue for they admit they would not themselves perform. When pressed, they will admit that even that milder version of what Jehovah ordered or condoned is immoral. Yet how do they arrive at the conclusion that this action is now immoral, yet was moral in the past? Where does this standard of morality come from?
To be more precise, Christians would would not hesitate to condemn all forms of slavery today. What makes slavery of any sort moral then but immoral now? Would it now be moral to burn alleged witches or homosexuals if Jehovah were to command it? Can any coherent and consistent standard of morality be offered for moral dilemmas today? I’ve seen attempts, but they all amounted to ad hoc fragmented “principles” that are only accessible to “scholars” of their own particular Christian sect.
For these two reason, the Argument from Diminutive Account fails. You can’t claim a diminutive version of a Jehovah-sanctioned action is any less than immoral then the harsher version unless you clearly state your criteria for that moral assessment. And if you currently consider immoral the diminutive account of an act once approved by Jehovah, you’ll need to explain why moral facts can change and still be deem objective.