Critical Thinking is a real gem of information, a vast wealth of knowledge to the new student, given its small size. For me one of the most profound statements the authors Elder and Paul make, almost unnoticeable given its location on the last line at the very last page, is: If we want critical societies we must create them. Critical Thinking attempts to provide the perfect rubric towards that end, offering precise concepts and ingredients to making the perfect intellectual cake of conversation and engagement. I liked the book immensely and will no doubt refer to it throughout my student career, but with that said, I did leave with a feeling that something was missing.
How does one create these perfect critical societies given so many imperfect thinkers?
To be sure, an ideal critical society is a high and lofty goal to aim for, and despite its grand ambition, academics should not be discouraged from working towards that goal. Even so, I ask: how is it possible to work with true intellectual integrity and fair-mindedness and be entirely objective in one’s assumptions and points of view? When a thinker attains the highest of all intellectual virtues, it is a great accomplishment indeed. Yet how many truly ‘arrive’? I’ve encountered very few thinkers, if any, who dialogues from a completely unbiased opinion. Nor should they. After all, very often a writer’s motivation for his or her work stems from one’s personal convictions in the first place.
Consider British contemporary thinker, Richard Dawkins, and his respected work, The God Delusion. Is he completely unbiased in his attempts to disprove the existence of God? Surely Dawkins didn’t wake up one day thinking to himself, ‘I think I’ll spend my life trying to disprove God’s existence’ for no reason, no matter how intelligent a thinker he is. I ask myself, has he genuinely walked with intellectual empathy to put himself in the place of those who, say, wholeheartedly believe in and depend on God’s existence for their survival? I suspect if Dawkins walked through the poor streets of Calcutta, India, and saw the importance of the existence of God in the lives of the oppressed, he might just be tempted to soften his views. In the video I’ve also posted, it appears that Dawkins holds opinions that arise from personal convictions he has felt deeply about for many years. Does he separate what he argues intellectually from his personal biases and assumptions? I strongly suspect that is not the case, and I too would also be found guilty of that charge.
Let’s be honest, it’s a grand ambition for anyone to put one’s feelings and convictions totally aside towards that lofty goal of an ideal critical society. Dare I ask, is it really necessary to do so? I have often found mere intellectual argument alone, no matter how eloquently carved, inadequate and dry. Many thinkers today engage in the work they do simply because it’s so important to them personally. You have to regard the heart and spirit as well as the head.
My point is, while Elder and Paul attempt the perfect framework for an ideal critical society, I question whether this theoretical approach is adequate or even possible. We are too flawed and too biased. Instead, Elder and Paul should not only acknowledge the existence of people’s experiences and biases, but encourage the expression and value of them as part of the actual overall process. We can all learn from one another even though we may disagree with each other. Though I disagree with Dawkins’ conclusions about God, I’m sure I could learn something valuable from him, and hopefully vice versa.
While there is no doubt great value in engaging with thinkers of differing views with due intellectual humility and empathy, let’s not overlook entirely our personal convictions and experiences, giving them greater credence. We may not be able to reasonably argue their logic every time, but that does not mean they should be disregarded. Even personal experiences should be regarded as evidence. Even though I do not entirely understand how my car engine works, I know it gets me where I need to be in the end. Life is a journey.
As for application, it’s not about being academically perfect or right every time. By way of example, no doubt I will encounter precious brothers and sisters in my studies and ministry who differ from my charismatic beliefs. How does one explain how God speaks to the heart? Or how God impresses a message upon His child? How does one adequately explain a broken limb that re-grows after prayer? Honestly, I would probably struggle to provide adequate intellectual argument when pressed to do so. Yet I know these things are real and no one can convince me otherwise. I am permanently biased. Sometimes things are just not always clear-cut academically or critically.