Courage and Critical Thinking: Two Quotes

The first is from the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “What we need is not the will to believe, but the will to find out” (quoted in How to Think about Weird Things, by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, p. 11).

What strikes me about this quote is its moral gravity. Many of the things that we believe give us pleasure, and we are inclined not to doubt them unless they begin to make for some unpleasantness in us. And so the will and effort to inquire closely into the very things that we already want to believe (and that are causing us little discomfort in believing them) is a difficult thing to do. We may not have the energy to question our most cherished beliefs, or to test them in a particularly rigorous way. And we may not especially want to know the truth about ourselves or about the things that we are considering looking into. And so there is a certain measure of bravery, fortitude, and will required whenever we engage in critical thought and investigation–especially upon subjects where we hope that one answer, and not another, will be returned to us from our inquiry.

So on Russell’s account, the willingness to engage in critical thinking and investigation is a character issue. And Schick and Vaughn, by quoting Russell toward the beginning of their excellent book on critical thinking, are, in fact, making it one: are you, the reader, brave enough to follow the truth wherever it leads? Courage is among the central human virtues (alongside such things as honesty and perseverance), and so being a doubter or skeptic, and engaging in critical thinking, is virtuous.

At least that’s Schick and Vaughn’s position.

In this context, Sophocles’s noble Oedipus comes to mind. Oedipus, recall, was a brave lover of truth–and yet he nevertheless found that, in the end, he really couldn’t handle its revelations, and so he plucked out his eyes. Freud famously got a great deal of mileage from this part of Sophocles’s play, but I think that there is also something in Greek tragedy that is in Schick and Vaughn’s intellectual blind-spot. It appears to be in mine as well, and so I can’t quite put my finger on it (as yet), but it goes something like this: Is it sometimes better not to look too closely into matters? In a human’s life, can critical inquiry lapse from virtue into folly?

Another quote that struck me at the very end of Schick and Vaughn’s introductory chapter is on page 13. It is there that the authors quote Harvard biologist Stephen Gould: “When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.”

Schick and Vaughn are, I think, raising the stakes here. In quoting Gould they’re trying to show why critical thinking is so important to a functioning democracy, and why pseudoscience is so corrosive to it: when people get in the habit of shutting off their critical faculties, and hoping against hope in improbable or irrational things, they open themselves to manipulation by political demagogues. This is pretty sobering medicine. If you don’t know the tools for evaluating whether, say, a ghost is in your house, you might not have the tools for evaluating whether, say, an authoritarian politician lurks in your favored political party.

It’s often said that knowledge is power. But knowledge can also be absorbed passively, without much critical thought. (This is what advertisers hope you’ll do with their ads, and authoritarian teachers with their classroom presentations.) So perhaps “knowledge is power” needs modification to “knowledge and critical thinking make power.” That’s the energy circuit.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Courage and Critical Thinking: Two Quotes

  1. Peter Smith says:

    What we need is not the will to believe, but the will to find out
    Now this is a statement I can heartily approve of, with the minor quibble that he has created a false dichotomy. People with metaphysical axes to grind frequently resort to this dodge.

    Curiosity is the motor, the engine of life and progress. Curiosity, properly directed, is a source of endless delight.

    Unfortunately that thought then metamorphoses into a related idea ‘critical thinking’, a phrase you use frequently in the rest of the post. At least you didn’t throw around the dreadful ‘skeptic’ word, or for that matter the awful ‘rationalist’ word.

    My objection is that an admirable goal, ‘the will to find out‘(curiosity), becomes a questionable goal in the hands of other people. My objection is rooted in several grounds.

    1) ‘skeptical’ or ‘critical’ thinking contains within it it a presumption. That presumption is the wrongness of some statement or point of view. People generally find their presumptions and not the truth.
    2) it reflects a hubris. People who claim to be critical thinkers, rationalists or skeptics elevate themselves as judges over other people, claiming a privileged access to the truth. Their hubris becomes a form of blinkered thinking even worse than the thinking they attack.
    3) as a result of their hubris, the so-called ‘critical’ or ‘skeptical’ thinkers are critical of everything except their own thinking. This creates echo chambers of self-confirmation.
    4) from the hubris of the so-called ‘skeptical’ thinkers there is a short and direct path to the ugly, snide, mean, mocking derision that is so often manifest.
    5) it is morally dead. All actions have a moral component, chief of which is compassionate understanding. Every person, no matter how wrong they may seem to be, believes in their own rightness. Compassionate understanding demands that we seek to understand why this is so. It is called curiosity(surprise). By contrast, the so-called skeptics enjoy the schadenfreude of denouncing what they call wrong thought. This with their lack of curiosity makes them morally dead.

    No, I embrace curiosity and reject the the prejudices of ‘critical’ or ‘skeptical’ thinking. Curiosity is open, affirming and seeks the truth. Skepticism is not concerned with finding the truth but is more concerned with the denial of other people’s truth. This becomes in practice a habit of attack which often manifests as an ugly, derisive mockery. Leading atheist blogs are first class exhibits of this truth.

    Curiosity seeks the truth without prejudice. Skepticism brings prejudice to bear on truth seeking and only serves to confirm their prejudices.

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