Sunday, June 5, 2011

Credulous or Critical?

Mike and I are kind of critical people. OK, we're really critical people. Our fault lies in having a negative, critical, and even jaded attitude towards certain new ideas. On the other hand, it seems that we are living in a very credulous age; credulous meaning that one is ready to believe something too easily or on the basis of uncertain evidence. So we got to talking about the ideal.

I believe the spectrum goes like this:

Credulous - - - - - - > Analytical - - - - - - > Critical

On the far right end, you have people like Mike and I who can be cynical skeptics when faced with new ideas. On the other end you have people who too readily hear one anecdote from a friend and jump on a new fear-based bandwagon. (Mike and I would probably argue that we have become critical people in the face of too many credulous people, but that would sound a bit pompous and self-justifying, now wouldn't it?)

In the middle, lies what I would consider the golden mean: Analytical. One who thoroughly analyzes and questions any new proposition before accepting or denying it, without the bitter bent of the critic or the naivete of the credulous.

The problem lies in the fact that so many people do not know how to reason, analyze or, in other words, use logic. Logic used to be the basis of all education. Now it is a boring college course that most avoid (I know I did). Rather than logic, people rely on feelings and anecdotes at best, and at worst paranoid conspiracy theories. One of the many problems with a society that doesn't value logic is you end up with a population that is widely credulous to their own detriment on the one hand with us critical curmudgeon reactors on the other.

Any time we are deciding to let an idea, world view or belief into our repertoire, we should carefully consider it. We should research it to the best of our ability and use our reason to determine whether it is true or good. We should have an analytical mind, or a questioning mind.

There is a significant difference between a questioning mind and an open mind.

An open mind has been made a value in and of itself in our society. But an open mind is only a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Think of the mind as having a door. There is a reason we have doors, to keep the good things in and the bad things out. Doors are good. You can open the door to question the one who desires entrance to determine whether or not you should let him in.

But a fully "open mind" is like a house with no door. Forgive me for quoting a video game, but it is so apt: "An open mind is like a fortress with its gates unbarred and unguarded" (Warhammer 40,000). Having no gate at the entrance to the fortress of your mind is simply foolish. There are good thoughts and there are bad thoughts. There are true statements and there are untrue statements. What we call an "open mind" is often a mind without a door and without logic, far too willing and eager to let in all and sundry.

Of course, a closed mind is also not desirable. A closed mind with its doors boarded up can unknowingly keep in the bad and keep out the good. It doesn't have flexibility and becomes stagnant and shriveled.

A questioning mind, on the other hand, is like a guarded door to your fortress. It is there to investigate and scrutinize each passerby and determine whether or not to give it entrance. It is the golden mean. So another way to look at the spectrum would be:

An Open Mind - - - - - > A Questioning Mind - - - - - > A Closed Mind

So many of us live on the outskirts with feebly guarded or wrongly shut up minds, rather than in the happy middle. But how are we (or our children) to learn to reason when the examples and role models around us rely on their feelings, suspicions, or simply on the word of a friend? The internet has made it much easier and much more difficult at the same time. On the one hand, we have easily available to us many of the original sources that can help us make up our mind. On the other hand, it is also an open forum to any who have an opinion (educated or not).

My advice to those of us who skipped Logic and Critical Thinking and didn't go to prep school is to read Peter Kreeft (from whom I believe the door analogy is based on via Mike). Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston University, but unlike most philosophy professors, the average person can understand him. He writes many of his books in Socratic dialogue, teaching the reader logic by example. A good book to start with is Socrates Meets Jesus or Between Heaven and Hell, which is a discussion between JFK, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley, all who died on the same day, about the afterlife.

So, which end of the spectrum do you think you are on? Are you credulous? Do you jump on the bandwagon of the latest fad in food, medicine, exercise, child rearing, etc. based on the data presented on one web site or in one book? Do you tend to believe something because your friend told you a story about her friend who said so? Do you believe something simply because a pastor said it from a pulpit? Or is your mind closed for any new applicants? Was the last time you altered or changed a viewpoint on something when your last diaper was changed? Do you agree with me that the golden mean is the questioning or analytical mind?


Tara said...

This post is a perfect way to think about the best teachers. Those teachers who can truly get their students to think about topics beyond their own knowledge in a new way can change the way we think forever. I learned not to be stuck in my ways in HS when an english teacher taught us to look at controversial topics from the opposite perspective. My Masters Program also taught us as teachers to be open to a point but to be critical in what we accept as best practices in education. One can really interpret "research" in many ways no matter if it is on the internet or elsewhere. I feel Facebook really helps young people to reach outside of their circle of comfort and see things in a new way. The Golden Mean is the best in my mind!!

Amber said...

Tara, I'm sure this is something you're around a lot in the world of teaching and ever-changing theories!