Rethinking Critical Thinking

by rsbakker

Below is an expanded version of an article I sent to The Globe and Mail as a rebuttal to several comments made by Martha Nussbaum in defence of the humanities.

Pretty rough, but then I suppose that’s what blogs are for… Even one that has yet to be read!

Critical Rethinking

It was my final year in university, the year I abandoned my philosophy PhD to pursue a career writing fantasy of all things, that I realized I was anything but a critical thinker–despite spending more than a decade knocking around in the humanities.

Once again, we find ourselves wringing our hands about the decline of the humanities, and once again its defenders have raised the flag of ‘critical thinking’ as its social and political raison d’etre. Without the humanities, the argument runs, we would lose the collective ability to critique authority, and so exercise our rights as citizens. Without the humanities, we risk slipping back into the darkness of unquestioning obedience to faith and dogma.

I can remember manning those trenches. I’m sure I even sent out a scathing letter to the editor or two.

Now I beg to differ.

Everyone, more or less, thinks they’re a critical thinker, probably because everyone is critical. Human beings are literally hardwired to pass judgement, to evaluate everything from movies and meals to ideologies and economic systems. But being critical does not a critical thinker make. Critical thinking, we like to believe, denominates a kind of special skill, one requiring practice and knowledge to attain. A special skill that the humanities claim to provide.

I genuinely believe that humanity needs critical thinking now more than at any time in its history. We live in a time when every major ecosystem on the planet is in decline, when technologically mediated social change (think the Industrial Revolution, only more drastic) threatens to outrun our capacity for adaptation, and when the means to eradicate each other on a mass scale are not only multiplying, but are becoming more and more accessible.

At the same time we humans have numerous cognitive shortcomings: a tendency to dislike criticism, to gravitate toward flattery, to oversimplify, to universalize our values, to cherry-pick confirming evidence and selectively ignore everything else, to become overwrought when contradicted, often to the point of intimidation and outright violence–to mention just a few.

We are a gaggle of fractious children who, thanks to our technical ingenuity, have picked the lock to Daddy’s rifle case. Only good, collective decision-making can save us now.

Of course, I believe in critical thinking.

In fact, I believe in it so much that I think individuals and institutions who misrepresent it are pernicious through and through. The most disastrous obstacle to critical thinking is the blithe assumption that you are, by dint of training or disposition, a critical thinker. Our psychology insures that no human has been or ever will be a ‘critical thinker.’ The best we can hope for are moments of critical lucidity–like the one I had before bailing from my philosophy program. And the most we can hope from our institutions is that they maximize the frequency of those moments.

And the humanities, I fear, do nothing of the sort.

Human beings are rationalization machines. Some researchers even think we have a module in our brain dedicated to the production of self-serving reasons–confabulations that justify what we do and believe. In other words, we suffer matching compulsions: to judge others, on the one hand, and to justify ourselves on the other. And we all live, to varying degrees, in dream worlds as a result.

Of course, it doesn’t feel this way. As bent as it is, your inner yardstick is the only one you have, the very definition of straight and true–for you. This is why all those conservative Americans think that Fox News really is ‘fair and balanced.’ We’re literally hardwired to confuse agreement for intelligence. And this is why literature and philosophy departments are anything but the shining beacons of critical rationality they purport to be: human beings, no matter how polysyllabic their vocabularies, tend to use their intelligence to better leverage their stupidity.

The stories I could tell.

According to Martha Nussbaum in her recent Globe and Mail interview, the humanities provide the tools of critical thinking. But the tools she enumerates–logic, systematic knowledge, imagination–are also the tools of rationalization, and make no mistake, our penchant for rationalization is the great foe. Simply turn to the front page, and you’ll see its destructive consequences staring you in the face. (This begs a larger and more troubling question, which is how such an obvious and harmful fact of human nature could be so thoroughly suppressed, not only in culture at large, but within institutions that take reason as their raison). The tragic fact is that the humanities are primarily in the business of dogma substitution, not critical thinking–something which, I imagine, will strike many conservatives as obvious. They train students to better rationalize their beliefs, not how to consider them ‘critically.’

And what’s worse, they churn out cohorts of students who think they are institutionally authorized critical thinkers, and so even more blind to the ways they are continually duped by their cognitive shortcomings.

In fact, the place you’re most likely to find critical thinking is the sciences, not the humanities. The sciences train you to suspend your commitment to your conclusions pending evidence, whereas the humanities train you cook up evidence for conclusions you have already committed to–usually because they ‘feel right.’ Where the sciences train us to swim against our cognitive instincts, the humanities train us how to more effectively indulge and exploit them–how to win arguments rather than how to get things right.

To think, despite our puny three pound brains, that we can pass armchair judgement on our supercomplex world. That science is just another ‘language game.’ That markets are pernicious. That world really does consist of texts…

A happy coincidence, that one.

There is no doubt that the humanities are in retreat, but I wonder how much they themselves are to blame. Having escaped the sanctum sanctorum I continually find myself troubled by the self-righteous insularity I encounter whenever I return, the tendency to blame others for their dwindling social relevance. They convince critically sensitive young writers to avoid popular cultural, then bemoan the fact that popular culture lacks critical sophistication–blame it on flattering things like ‘corporate cretinization.’ They lament the way whole swathes of the population believe in literal translations of ancient texts, yet spend all their time writing in code to one another. Where are the public intellectuals espousing ‘interpretative literacy,’ the way, for instance, the sciences produce legions in the battle to keep scientific literacy alive?

Lock yourself in your room long enough, and it will be only a matter of time before the rest of the household begins reevaluating your square footage.

Professor, critique thyself.