The concept of “intellectual empathy,” when critically thinking about critical thinking, intrigues me. Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, in The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools under “Essential Intellectual Traits,” state “Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.” Basically, this trait requires that we “put ourselves in another’s shoes” in order to remove the egocentric nature of our thinking. The concept of empathy doesn’t always seem a natural part of intellectual thinking, but I agree with Paul and Elder that it is essential to critical thinking.
This week I was watching a debate on television between two atheists on one side and a Christian and Jewish rabbi on the other side. A statement that one of the atheist debaters gave in his final argument disturbed me. Basically, he alluded to the idea that most of what we have in the monotheistic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam came from a “goat herder.” I found this statement, although possibly true, to be completely arrogant. A goat herder has knowledge that he will never have, and, I would postulate, even critical thinking skills that he will never have. Why? Because it seems the atheist man has not done the humble and important work of enacting “intellectual empathy” in this situation. He thinks that his knowledge and critical thinking skills are beyond those of the goat herder. This argument stems from a Western ideological fallacy that we are more “intellectually evolved” than say an indigenous group of people. However, this mindset of self-importance crumbles when we learn of the sophisticated art, architecture, wisdom, and sustainable ways of many indigenous groups.
In order to practice intellectual empathy for the atheist man I will try to place myself in his mental shoes. He was trying to win a debate. Period. I won’t reflect on anything more since I don’t personally know him. In my opinion, egocentrism is dangerous to critical thinking. If I was looking for knowledge I might have coffee with the atheist man (unless I was looking for knowledge on how to herd sheep.) If I was looking for wisdom I would sit in the hills and have tea with the goat-herder.