Here is an outline of my talk on “What is Knowledge?” as part of the PVCC Public Philosophy series on May 30, 2018.
Listen to audio recording of the talk here.
Here is the video of my talk at the Smart Faith conference on 4/28/2018 on the topic: What is Christian Philosophy?
Here is a link to the outline of the talk.
Dr. Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton
October 3, 2017
2) Who is Nietzsche?
3) What did Nietzsche say about the death of God?
The “Madman” quote, from The Gay Science aphorism 125, is lengthy, but important for the context of our discussion:
The madman. – Haven’t you heard of that madman who in the bright morning lit a lantern and ran around the marketplace crying incessantly, ‘I’m looking for God! l’m looking for God!’ Since many of those who did not believe in God were standing around together just then, he caused great laughter. Has he been lost, then? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone to sea? Emigrated? – Thus they shouted and laughed, one interrupting the other. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tel1 you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning? Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we still smell nothing of the divine decomposition? – Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers. The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!’ Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and looked at him disconcertedly. Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’ It is still recounted how on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there started singing his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but, ‘What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchres of God?’1
4) What did Nietzsche mean by the death of God?
5) Is what Nietzsche said about the death of God true?
6) What are the implications for us if God is dead?
Wolterstorff and a secular basis for justice: Having examined the best secular ethical theories, Wolterstorff shows the inability of any of them to ground human worth (and hence, equality), rights, and justice. He leaves us with four options:
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Bernard Williams. The Gay Science. (New York: Cambridge University Press; 2001).
3 Heidegger, Martin, trans. William Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.; 1977.
4 Leiter, Brian. “The Death of God and the Death of Morality.” (Forthcoming in a special issue of The Monist on Nietzsche. Posted on SSRN at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2661789, p. 19.
5 Leiter, p. 22.
6 Nietzsche, Friedrich and R.J. Hollingdale. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. (New York: Penguin Books; 1990, aphorism 48, p. 112.
ultimately grounded in what respect for the worth of persons and human beings
7 Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. xii.
8 Ibid, p. 340.
9 Ibid, p. 340.
10 Ibid, p. 340.
11 Ibid, p. 340.
12 For an interesting look at how Nietzsche would view our world, check out: West, Peter. Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche for Our Time (London: Societas; 2017). http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/nietzsche-for-our-times/20159#.WdPR5ky-Ki4
The Problem of Skepticism
The claim that nobody can really know anything for sure is nearly universal in the academy today. The view is not only held in the academy but has trickled down to the culture at large. How often do we hear the statement “that’s your perspective”? The notion that everyone has their own perspective, and that each perspective is “true” for each person but not “True” for all people, is an expression of skepticism. Skepticism, popularly held, is often stated as “there are so many views,” or “it’s all a matter of interpretation,” or still yet, “it’s all relative.” Philosophical skepticism is as old as the first philosophers and is the view that knowledge – certainty – is not possible. We especially cannot have certainty about what is True or what is Good. Skepticism is different from a stance of “being skeptical” or desiring more proof or evidence before committing to a belief. Skepticism, when held consistently, leads to nihilism, or the loss of all meaning.
Philosophical skepticism is a strong position which makes universal claims about knowledge, whereas agnosticism is a more individual and private form of skepticism. Agnosticism means “no knowledge” and the term is usually used to indicate that a person does not know what is True or Good. One often hears an agnostic say “I don’t know if God exists or not.” On the other hand, a skeptic will make the stronger claim “no one can know if God exists or not.” There is a religious version of skepticism called fideism. Fideism agrees with the skeptic’s claim that “nobody can really know,” but they see the danger of nihilism that follows from being consistent with the skeptic’s claim. Instead, the fideist says: “nobody can really know, but you’ve just got to believe anyway.” This is the blind leap of faith approach. We cannot really know if God exists or not, but for life to be meaningful we need God, so you’ve just got to believe that there is a God. Both skepticism and fideism share the assumption that we really cannot know.
What happens to our public discourse when the majority of people agree, either implicitly or explicitly, that nobody can really know what is objectively True or Good? We have no shared basis for conversation if all “truths” are merely perspectival and subjective. What happens when the academy – the university – teaches that knowledge is not possible? What happens when all the university students, who become future educators, lawyers, politicians, doctors, parents, etc., either assume, adopt, or propagate (if they don’t actively fight against) the dominant skepticism of the academy? What has happened is that skepticism has crept into every institution of culture as an institutional skepticism.
The problems of skepticism are many, but the most serious is that if we cannot know what is True and Good, then there will be deepening divisions within ourselves, in our families, within and among the institutions of culture, and between cultures within the global context. If there are divisions within a culture without change, then decay and collapse of that culture are inevitable. As we study world history, we can see that cultures and civilizations of the past have collapsed. We are not immune.
Sophistry and Pragmatism
Let us step back from the collapse of civilization for a moment and survey some of the other detriments of skepticism. If knowledge is not possible, then how do we know what to do? How do we live our lives? Often we fall back on an easy pragmatism. We do what works. But what “works” depends upon our goal. Our lesser goals depend upon the goal of all goals – the Good. However, if we cannot know the Good, then how do we order our lesser goals? If we assume skepticism, what is the goal of life? Skepticism says that the goal is relative to the individual, as Protagoras a Sophist has said: “Man is the measure of all things.” Either the Good is based upon reason, and may be known by all reasoners, or the Good is based upon desire – feelings – and is not known by all, but is relative to the individual. If It feels good, is it good? If it feels bad, does that make it bad? We see this attitude of going by feeling being played out in the reality of social media shaming, safe spaces, being offended, and in the hostility of campus protests. Feeling is what leads the day. Robert George, a Princeton professor of Jurisprudence, has said as the Medieval period was an Age of Faith, and the Enlightenment an Age of Reason, today we are living in an Age of Feeling. We use the appeal to pity fallacy – presuming upon one’s disposition to compassion – to get what we desire. Or, we resort to a will to power to obtain the “good life.” If we cannot get our way, perhaps an appeal to fear, such as a threat of a lawsuit, will help in our efforts. The appeal to fear fallacy was used against Socrates in the threat to stop doing philosophy or die. If knowledge is not possible, then we obtain what we want by the power of persuasion or by use of force.
We see the power of persuasion at work in Plato’s Apology in the characters of Meletus, representing the poets, or perhaps in the Hollywood figures of popular culture today; Anytus, and the politicians of both Socrates and our day; and Lycon, representing the orators, the professors and lawyers of our day. Together, these are the Sophists – those who help to propagate skepticism and its resulting pragmatism, which over time becomes institutional skepticism – where skepticism resides in each of the institutions of culture – the educational system, the government, the church, the family, the economic world and the media and social media. The effects of institutional skepticism are nihilism, cynicism, and hopelessness concerning objective Truth and Goodness. It adds to our anxiety and fear. Isn’t that what we are experiencing in an Age of Feeling?
If each person does what is right in their own eyes, then there can be no common ground and no basis for a common life together in the Republic. There is no objective Truth – we cannot know ultimate reality. That is, we cannot know if there is a God or not. There is no objective Good – we cannot know human nature and what is good for human beings and thus what is harmful to human beings. There is no objective Beauty – beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, if the skeptics are right, then there is no basis for Justice or social justice because all is relative to the individual. Man is the measure. What would Socrates say about the skepticism of our day?
Socrates and the Sophists
Socrates did not buy into the skepticism of his day, which was very similar to our own day. The first philosophers, also known as the pre-Socratics, rejected the traditionalism and fideism of the popular religion centered on the Homeric gods of the Iliad and Odyssey. The first philosophers held that all that exists is one and is material (material monism) and the way we know the material world is through our senses – a view called empiricism. Over time, the philosophers ran into problems: If all is matter is it always changing? Is it always one and permanent so that change is not possible? Are there many diverse particular things, or is there just one indivisible thing? Can our senses perceive the world accurately if everything is always changing, or at least always appears to be changing? Maybe nobody can really know? The skepticism generated by the uncritically held assumptions of the first philosophers gave rise to the Sophists, a group of skeptical-pragmatic rhetoricians. Protagoras, the one who claimed, “man is the measure” was the father of rhetoric – the art of speaking well for the purpose of persuasion because “nobody can really know.”
Plato, the writer of the dialogues, one of the primary ways that we know about Socrates, early philosophy, and the Sophists, often depicts Socrates in dialogue with Sophists or students toying with the idea of hiring a Sophist. In the dialogue Protagoras, Socrates is in deep discussion with Protagoras over the question: “can virtue be taught?” Early in the dialogue, Protagoras tells Socrates that he teaches the art of citizenry to young men including teaching them to be virtuous. Socrates, through the dialogue, proceeds to expose the fact that Protagoras cannot even define what virtue is. Socrates is interested in knowing what things are. He engages with the politicians, asking them “what is justice?”, and with the poets, asking “what is beauty?” He spends nearly 50 years of his life searching for what is. Over time he begins to gain a bad reputation. Sometimes he is labeled a Sophist. He is depicted as a silly figure by Aristophanes in his play The Clouds. He is a curious person that seems to have his head in the clouds. This play is the source of the early slander of which Socrates speaks in the Apology.
Plato wrote at least 35 dialogues with Socrates as a central character. The dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo give us a glimpse of the end of Socrates’ life, after 50 years of doing philosophy in the public sphere. Socrates is indicted by Miletus, a poet, and tried on the accusations of corrupting the youth of Athens and teaching strange gods not sanctioned by the state, or possibly for being an atheist. He is ultimately found guilty by 280 of 500 jurors. His penalty is death, or he could stop doing philosophy. Was Socrates corrupting the youth? If so, he did not believe he was doing so. He says that to harm the youth, he must first harm himself, and no one would knowingly harm himself. Was Socrates an atheist? He tells the story about being commissioned by the god to do philosophy. He thought he was serving the gods and his fellow Athenians by doing philosophy. Furthermore, he said he never denounced the gods. He did denounce the poets’ immoral depiction of the gods. The Apology shows us a Socrates that wants to know, a person who loves wisdom and is searching for those who have knowledge and wisdom to share. It turns out those who appear to be wise use words without meaning and are worse than unwise.
Those in authority, in a position to teach the youth, do not possess knowledge, just the appearance of knowledge. Socrates is not interested in mere appearances and wants to know what is. Was Socrates as a skeptic? Not possible. He said that he was the wisest man, according to the Oracle at Delphi, because he knew that he did not know. But he also knew what knowledge was, and he knew the benefits of having knowledge. He oriented his entire life, and death, towards the goal of obtaining knowledge.
The Theaetetus is a dialogue devoted to defining knowledge and to showing the absurdity of the empiricism and materialism of the first philosophers. Also, Socrates shows the absurdity of the relativism of Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things.” Socrates, and his young interlocutor, Theaetetus, a student of a Sophist, attempt to define knowledge. Theaetetus begins with the claim that “knowledge is perception.” Socrates, using his dialogic method, reduces Theaetetus’ claim to absurdity. By the end of the dialogue, the two characters have reformulated the definition of knowledge as true opinion tied down with a logos. “True” is how reality is despite our perceptions. An opinion is a judgment that may either be true or false. We are justified in acting upon true opinions, according to Socrates, but knowledge only comes when our true opinions are backed by a logos, or an account, or reasons. Knowledge is true opinion tied down with reasons or proof. When tied down, true opinions cannot run away from us. We are not likely to forget what we know. This is what Socrates was after, and possession of which would help one live the good life.
How does one obtain knowledge? Socrates thought that we get it through engaging in the activity of philosophy. He was testing Theaetetus to see if he was a potential philosopher. Was Theaetetus a lover of wisdom? We define philosophy regarding its areas and features today, all of which were present throughout Socrates’ discussions in the dialogues. The areas of philosophical study include Epistemology, asking “how do we know?”; Metaphysics: asking “what is real, eternal and True?”; and Ethics, asking “what are our moral obligations, and what is the Good?” The features of philosophy include its area of study – foundational questions and the goal of life; the attitude of the love of wisdom; the method of the critical use of reason and asking what words mean before we accept the truth claims of judgments; applying philosophy to ourselves in the process of self-examination; and the last feature of philosophy is that it is systematic – involving a world and life view of the individual and cultures and civilizations of humanity.
Socrates contrasts the philosopher with the Sophist in Theaetetus 155c-d. He says the philosopher is a free man who always has time to converse in peace and at his leisure. He goes through a discussion, passing from one argument to another, no matter how long it may take until he attains Truth. The Sophist, probably a lawyer in this example, is always talking against time and is hurried by the clock. He does not have the time or opportunity to discuss or enlarge upon a subject that he chooses. He must confine himself to a set schedule of points. He is a “slave disputing about a fellow-slave before a master sitting in judgment” (172e). The philosopher is a free man in pursuit of knowing the Truth. The Sophist is a slave to his busy schedule, presumably in pursuit of some pragmatic goal, perhaps making money. The philosopher is free because he has been set free by knowing the Truth. He is set free from falsehood and misdirected goals. The Sophist is enslaved by his passions.
Philosophy requires a love of wisdom. This love is characterized by Socrates in the Symposium as eros. Eros is passion. It is what inspires a lover to pursue the beloved. To obtain wisdom, one must love wisdom with a passion that inspires pursuit. Socrates made the love of wisdom his first love. He loved it so much that he was willing to lose his physical life over giving up philosophy. One cannot passionately pursue what one does not love. The content of Socrates love can be seen in his quest to know the True, the Good, the Beautiful, and the Just. Finally, we see that Socrates teaches that philosophy, when done in private life, leads one to the good life (Crito 48 b4-5) and that public philosophy leads to the common good for the State (Republic). Philosophy is necessary for knowing the Good and the common good.
What Can We Learn From Socrates in our Time of Skeptical Crisis?
Through studying the form and content of Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom, we can learn valuable skills and arguments for countering the problem of skepticism in our day. In the area of Epistemology, we can know that empiricism (all knowledge is through the senses) leads to skepticism (we cannot really know). We learn from Socrates that knowledge is true belief with a logos (reason/ account), and that reason is our means for knowing. The use of reason is the alternative to empiricism. We learn that knowledge is possible, desirable, and attainable by using reason. We do not have to be stuck in skepticism, fideism, or agnosticism. Knowledge is gained by grasping meaning (giving definitions to words), by making judgments and providing proof for judgments. Proof is often by reductio ad absurdum in the dialogues, a method of showing what is true by the elimination of what is false because it leads to absurd and meaningless conclusions. Socrates is the master of the reductio, and we can learn much by studying his example and method. Knowledge is gained by fostering a sense of wonder at “what is” and eros in passionately pursuing the Truth. Knowledge is gained by engaging one another in the Socratic Method and exchanging logoi (reasons). Lastly, we can take courage from Socrates that Sophists can and should be silenced through reason. But we should be cautious. Silencing Sophists could cost us our lives, or livelihood.
In the area of Metaphysics, we learn from the Theaetetus that materialism as a description of reality is fatally flawed. As is Protagoras’ “flux doctrine” – that all is change and nothing is permanent. Rather, we learn in that same dialogue, that something must be eternal and permanent and that something non-material must exist. But we must be guarded here: though Socrates is a master of the reductio in addressing his interlocutors, he often fails to provide an argument for positive beliefs and sometimes resorts to mythos – imaginative stories – rather than logos to explain the non-material permanent Forms (see Timaeus, Phaedo, and Republic for some of these myths). We must use the Socratic Method to test even Socrates’ claims, especially regarding the Forms. Failure to know what is eternal/ real leads to skepticism. This is true for the Sophists, and it is true for us. Can you know what is real? Do you know?
In the area of Ethics, we learn from Socrates that knowledge of what is True leads to knowledge of the Good. Knowledge of the True is based on “what is,” or the nature of things. Knowledge of what a man is, knowledge of human nature, leads to knowledge of what is Good for each human and for all humans. The Good is the source of unity in ourselves and the source of community with others who possess the Good. Do you know the Good?
Lastly, what are some virtues that we can learn from Socrates as a means to the good life? The use of reason should lead the emotions and will, which when in balance, leads to a harmonious life. We learn in the Republic that the human soul is like a chariot. The driver of the chariot is reason, which needs the virtue of wisdom to control the other aspects of our soul. The driver, our reason, must control two contending horses. One horse, the appetites, he controls through the virtue of temperance. The second horse, the spirited will, is controlled using the virtue of courage. When the driver and the two horses are all striving together harmoniously towards the Good, we find the just man. Let reason be your guide. In an Age of Feeling, the appetitive horse is liable to take over creating an imbalance in our soul.
Another virtue we learn from Socrates is love. Love seeks the Good for oneself, for our neighbor, fellow citizens, and especially for and with our friends. Friendship is the highest relationship we can achieve because friends share a mutual love for the Good. We should cultivate the virtue of wonder at “what is,” following Socrates’ lead. We ought to be open to the Truth and teachable of Truth. We should actively and regularly engage in self-examination, asking ourselves “do I know what is True, Good, Beautiful, and Just?” Remember: the unexamined life is not worth living. To be taught the Truth requires the virtue of humility, knowing that we do not yet know as we ought to. Remember the source of Socrates’ wisdom? To find knowledge and to avoid skepticism, we will need to learn patience in dialogue. Sometimes the pursuit of the True requires much discussion. Much discussion requires much patience. Imagine the patience Socrates must have had after 50 years of discussion. We must create time in our busy, distracted, and frenetic lives to be leisurely and free to think and talk – face to face – with concentration. We can be sure Socrates would not have his smartphone out during philosophical pursuits. Would he have a smartphone? Would he engage in social media?
In our day, the “Age of Feeling” – of being offended or sparing our words for fear of giving offense – we must put on the virtue of courage. We need the courage to ask the hard questions and to accept difficult conclusions. Doing philosophy can be quite uncomfortable. We need the courage to work through the discomfort, and we need perseverance when comfort is slow in coming. Nothing good comes easily, and the Good, though easy to know, does not come to us easily. The pursuit of knowledge is hard work. What is the payoff? Was it worth it Socrates? The rewards of knowing what is True is peace and joy in growing in the Good. The Good is the source of meaning and all fulfillment in life. It’s what the Greeks called eudaimonia – flourishing. Peace and joy in knowing is the opposite of the anxiety and fear that we feel in the meaninglessness of skepticism. How does the Good make you feel? Happy. If you knew the good, would you be happy? Are you happy? If “yes” then why? If “no” then why? In this way, we begin the pursuit of the good life through self-examination, the application of philosophy.
Critical thinking is a virtue that we recognize as supremely necessary as we are inundated with greater amounts of information. We want our university graduates to be independent and critical thinkers. The words “critical thinking” seem to be on the lips of many in the field of education. What do we mean by “critical thinking?” To adopt the virtue and pass it on to the next generation, we must be very clear about what critical thinking is, and what it is not.
Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, a book about the nature of being, begins with a discussion of the laws of thought. The laws of thought are also the laws of being. These laws are the law of identity, which states that a is a; the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both a and non-a in the same respect and at the same time; and the law of excluded middle, which states that something is either a or non-a. These laws deserve a more detailed treatment in a future post, but these laws need mention here because they are necessary for all thought. If a statement violates a law of thought, then it is meaningless and cannot be true. The laws of thought are the cornerstone of critical thinking.
What is the activity of thinking? In his Organon, Aristotle defined three aspects of thinking, which are logically ordered from more basic to less basic. The most basic, and perhaps most important, level of thinking is forming concepts. We form concepts, according to Aristotle, when we grasp the essential nature of a thing. Grasping the essential nature of a thing requires understanding what a thing is. It involves understanding what is an essential feature and what are accidental features of a thing. When we grasp a concept, we express it with words, terms, or symbols that allow for communication of concepts with others. Words are either meaningful, or they lack meaning. Meaning is the category for evaluating concepts. Meaning is prior to truth, and without understanding the meaning of the words we use with one another, we cannot agree on whether what we say is true or not.
We may make errors in falsely identifying what a thing is. We may fail to understand the words that others use to communicate concepts to us. Critical thinking begins at the level of concept formation and concept communication. Often, we must ask one another “what do you mean?” when discussing. For example, two people may say that “God is love” but have very different understandings of the concept “God” and “love.” This level of critical thinking requires that we carefully define our terms, and seek agreement on our definitions. If we fail to find agreement here, the next level of thinking will result in an inability to understand one another, and frustration in communication.
Following concept formation in the act of thinking is making judgments. A judgment is not a bad thing. It is an unavoidable activity. Every time we are engaged in thinking or saying “x is y” we are making a judgment. For example, “the horse is brown,” “tomorrow is Thursday,” “God is love,” and “the marker is blue” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false. If we do not first know the meaning of the concepts being used in a judgment, such as “God” and “love,” then we cannot know whether a judgment is either true or false. Pausing for clarification and understanding is what it means to say that meaning is more basic or is logically prior to, truth. Critical thinking involves understanding the meaning of the terms used in a judgment, but it also involves assessing the truth claim being made in a judgment, since judgments are either true or false. We should note that some judgments are neither true nor false, but are matters of taste, such as the claim “ice cream is better than pie.” To think critically, one must also be skilled at identifying those judgments that are neither true nor false.
Judgments that are either true or false ought to be supported by giving an account. Plato says in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief “tied down” with an account. The word for “account” that Plato uses is logos, which is translated as “reason.” Knowledge is true belief supported by reason. In the Theaetetus, Socrates demonstrates by example what it is to support a judgment by reason. He does this by asking for and giving arguments for the judgments that he and his interlocutors make. Theaetetus begins the dialogue by making the judgment that knowledge is perception. “Knowledge is perception” is a judgment that is either true or false. In effect, Socrates asks young Theaetetus to “prove it.”
Proving a judgment requires an argument. An argument uses premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (a judgment). One of the most famous arguments goes like this:
Major Premise: All men are mortal
Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Arguments may be tested (this is the function of the discipline of Logic) for validity and soundness. The validity of an argument is a way to test the form of an argument. Some argument forms are invalid and thus cannot possibly support the conclusion. Soundness of an argument is a way to test the form and truth content of an argument. If an argument is valid, and the premises are true, then the conclusion will necessarily be true. A necessary truth is equivalent to knowledge. It is a true belief with an account.
Some people will object that we cannot prove everything, or that necessary truths are rare and do not prove much. To respond to the first objection, it is true that not all judgments will need support by an argument. Determining which judgments do, and which do not require an argument is a crucial role for critical thinking because it requires that we have the ability to identify assumptions. Philosophical assumptions and judgments require support using an account, proof, or an argument. Non-philosophical assumptions and judgments may require some other kind of support or evidence. If I claim that “saturated fat is healthy,” I would be more likely to prove my point by providing empirical data than a syllogism. Critical thinking requires us to be able to identify different kinds of assumptions, which require different kinds of support, evidence, or account, and then supplying the proof when necessary.
The Goal and Means of Critical Thinking
Why do we so highly value critical thinking? What is the goal of thinking critically? It seems pretty clear that the goal of critical thinking is to reject what is false and to arrive at what is true. The truth is the goal of critical thinking. We want the judgments that we accept to accord with reality. Also, we want to grow in our understanding of what is true. If Aristotle is correct, then all men by nature desire to know. Critical thinking is the means by which we come to know.
How is critical thinking a means to attain knowledge? We have to begin with self-knowledge. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is a failure of self-knowledge. It is to go through life with little to no reflection upon who we are, and what makes for a good life. The unexamined life is a life lived according to unexamined assumptions, or what we often call biases. The most basic assumptions we carry with us are our philosophical assumptions. We may have picked up these assumptions from our upbringing, our culture, our education, our religion, etc.. Our philosophical assumptions are the uncritically examined answers that we provide to the following questions: How do I know things? What is ultimately real? And what is the good life? We have all answered these questions. Answers to these questions are what stir our emotions and drive us to action. Poor assumptions lead to unruly emotions and bad actions. Critical thinking begins with self-examination about our answers to these basic philosophical questions. Why do we believe as we do? What reasons, proof, or evidence do we have for believing as we do? Have I ever considered alternatives to what I believe? What reasons, proof, or evidence is there for alternative positions? Going beyond self-examination, can I thoughtfully articulate my beliefs and reasons with my parents, peers, or professors? Critical thinking begins with self-examination regarding our philosophical assumptions.
Beyond our assumptions, critical thinking enables us to identify and analyze philosophical assumptions and biases all around us in the media, online, in what our fellow human beings say. Every time we speak, we speak from a philosophical position. Anytime anyone speaks, they speak from a philosophical position. Are those positions well founded and supported by reason? Are they true? Critical thinking helps us to identify assumptions and then test those assumptions for meaning, or rational consistency. We start with concepts, are they meaningful? Then we examine judgments made, are they true? If they are true, we should be able to support them with a sound argument. Critical thinking is essential for meaningful human communication in pursuit of the truth.
Several virtues and attitudes accompany critical thinking in pursuit of truth. To find the truth, one must look for it. The attitude of seeking for truth, what Socrates attributes to “wonder,” is necessary for obtaining the truth. The truth may be hidden; it may need searching out, like a rare hidden treasure, it requires digging and dedication. But the truth is much more valuable than gold. So, if we are willing to work hard for gold, we must be all the more willing to work hard for truth and the wisdom that results from knowing the truth.
Critical thinking requires humility. Socrates, when told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, did not accept the judgment. First, he asked, “I wonder what the oracle means?” Then he set out to show that someone else was wiser than he. When he could not find one wiser, he realized that his wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. Humility rests in our knowledge that we don’t know as we should, that our understanding is limited, and that as finite beings we will always be growing either in truth or falsehood. Let us hope that we are engaged in critical thinking and growing in understanding in the truth. This growth may require grace, a gift that we don’t always talk about in philosophy, but a gift about which Socrates knew. He attributed his philosophical pursuit to a calling from the god. Grace is a gift from outside of ourselves, either from the Divine or from our fellow human beings that helps us to grow. As social beings, we are meant to live in a community. The community is meant to help us to achieve the good life. Grace is for this purpose.
Critical thinking requires courage. It’s hard to examine oneself. It is difficult to subject one’s views to others who may not extend the gift of grace and may instead criticize. Self-examination is uncomfortable. Courage, the willingness to move forward in the face of difficult challenges, is necessary for thinking critically about one’s presuppositions. But, courage is also needed to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in every area of life, for the whole of one’s life.
Having spent some time discussing thinking, we should address the “critical” part of critical thinking. To think critically is to be engaged in rational analysis. It begins first with understanding what a statement means. We then analyze arguments presented in support of the statement given. In addition to this, we must recognize that truth is not piecemeal but fits into a system of truth. To think critically is also to think systematically. How do the truths that I hold, that I have rational support for, fit together coherently? If the foundational beliefs in our system of beliefs are faulty, the structure that we build upon those foundational beliefs will be unsupported. Critical thinking helps us to lay a strong foundation, to analyze the supports and pillars, to construct a strong and beautiful house from which to live a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life.
Critical thinking enables us to reject what lacks meaning by means of reason. We cannot discern what is meaningful or meaningless based on emotion, prejudice, pragmatism, tradition, ideology, what goes by the name of science but is not science, and what goes by the name of reason but is not reason. Emotion, will, and experience may be aspects of human life, but they are not critical thinking, nor can they substitute for the pursuit of meaning and truth.
Critical Thinking and Assumptions
Knowing the truth would be relatively easy if we would seek after truth and we could recognize assumptions in ourselves and others. Recognizing assumptions requires training, practice, and the lifelong habit of self-examination. We must get into the habit of asking ourselves “what do I think about x?” and “why do I think that about x?” Self-examination is hindered by our not seeking after truth, and by our thinking that we are doing okay. We are self-deceived about our seeking to know. Who in their right mind says “I do not want to know what is true.” We all like to think that we are interested in the truth, but if we were, wouldn’t there be a lot more people who were producing sound arguments for the judgments that they make? In addition to self-deception, we tend to justify ourselves. We have other goals besides knowing the truth that motivates our communication and action. Perhaps our motivations are pleasure or power. We justify what we do with rationalizations rather than reason. Rationalization is just another word for self-justification. Self-examination would help us to cut through our lack of knowledge and the excuses we make for ourselves for not knowing.
Self-examination would be easier if we recognized that some things are clear to reason. When the truth is clear, and we do not see it, we should repent. Repentance is a change in mind, thinking, or direction. If we are going down the wrong path, we should turn around and show the results in our way of thinking and living. Being self-aware of our tendency to be deceived about our interest in seeking the truth will help us in a forward moving direction. Engaging in dialogue with others with the goal of understanding ourselves and others will help us to overcome self-justification in the pursuit of philosophical justification (i.e., knowledge).
The Ethics of Critical Thinking
Aristotle tells us that we are rational, political, animals. With this nature comes moral responsibility. We are responsible for the use of reason to the fullest. Failure in the use of reason to the fullest is dehumanizing and destructive to ourselves and directly leads to the harm of others. It leads to intellectual stupor and societal decay.
We are political beings. We live in society and have moral obligations to one another. We are a society of rational beings and participation in, or separation from society is predicated on our use or non-use of reason. We are morally obligated to one another to give an account for what we say and what we do because what we say and do affects us all. Also, we are morally accountable for upholding the dignity and responsibility of every rational being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc..
We are animals. We have bodies and sensations. We are embodied rational beings, but we are not merely animals. We have sensations, but we do not merely have sensations. Our rationality is what distinguishes us from other animals. It is what makes us different and what gives human dignity. To reduce human beings to mere animals is to dehumanize. Reason is to rule over our animality or our senses. We cannot deny the demands, needs, and joys of the body, but we can rule over them. This rule requires critical thinking.
Rational political animals require critical thinking to rule over our physical nature, to thrive in human society and to have a thriving society, and to achieve what is good for all human beings – knowing the truth. Knowing the truth results in happiness and a fulfilling life. Therefore, critical thinking is a means to the highest end. It is our most valuable tool. Let us encourage one another in the virtue of critical thinking in pursuit of what is true and good.
To sum up: Critical thinking begins with using reason to identify the meaning of the words that we use, assess the truth of judgments that we make, and to prove the judgments that we make with arguments. We cannot substitute critical thinking with emotion or bypass it for pragmatic reasons. The goal of critical thinking is knowledge of the truth. Knowing the truth is a communal activity. Therefore, critical thinking is for the good of the individual and the common good.