Category Archives: Critical thinking

There is a better Way


I want to end this series on the paranoid elites trying to hunker down in a missile silo on a happier note. It is not all doom.

In the 60s and 70s Stewart Brand, now a Silicon Valley sage, owned the “Whole Earth Catalog.” It attracted a large and loyal cult following as it blended hippie-dippy advice with the technical. I loved their motto: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”. Brand experimented with survivalism but abandoned it.  Ultimately, he found it did not make sense. Things based on unreasonable fears seldom make sense. Evan Osnos described him in his current situation this way,

“At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience. In the past decade, the world survived, without violence, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; Ebola, without cataclysm; and, in Japan, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown, after which the country has persevered. He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, how do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”


As it has so often in the past, America is being pushed and pulled at the same time particularly by the extremes of left and right.  On the one  hand there are people like survivalists, neo-liberals, and their political puppets who have shredded all of their fellow feeling in order to fill their bags with as much money as possible. On the other hand,  are some genuine whackos on the left as well.  Yet there are the kinder gentler souls who see a better way, but seem to be increasingly crushed by the more vocal and bellicose camps. I don’t know who will win this battle, but I care. I hope that America (and with Canada dragging along behind) comes to its senses and abandons this philosophy of fear. Fear is all right but it must be managed. Don’t let it get unreasonable. When it gives way to panic we have to realize that smart decisions will no longer be made. We must abandon panic; we must embrace critical thinking and fellow feeling. If we can do that then we will survive. If we are unable to do that, we will sink into the mire, or worse. And we will deserve it.

We must remember: there is a better way. We may need to meander to find it, but its there.


Group Thinks v. Long Thinks


In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck encounters a number of deep moral dilemmas. The biggest of course is whether or not he should help Jim a slave escape from his “rightful owner” a woman who had never done him any harm. Huck “knows” what he should do. His conscience tells him that. He should not help a slave to escape. That would be wrong. But Huck stops and makes “a long think.” He must think critically.


Huck is also challenged by religion. He was taught that ever since he was born. Religion, together with the notion of white supremacy, is the ideology of his life. He “knows” it is right yet is challenged about it. Both of these are ideologies. They are both born from group think. We believe what we are taught by our team.

When Huck was having difficulties falling into the group think, Miss Watson would take him into the closet and pray with him.

“But nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for hooks there or four times., but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why. And couldn’t make it out no way. ”


As a result, Huck did what he should do.  He “set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think.” He thought about it critically with all his faculties. His reasoning would not be considered very sophisticated. As he said,

“I said to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow her snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, I says to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it and she said, the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for others, and look out for them all the time and never think about myself…I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people, so I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it anymore, but just let it go.”


Ironically this is exactly what Huck later did. He followed her advice when it came to helping Jim. He neglected in the extreme what was good for himself—namely avoiding hell, but helped Jim anyway. And this is really what religion is all about. It is not about praying for fishhooks. It is about felling empathy for others, like Huck did to Jim. In Huck’s case it was his critically thinking, not his religious ideology that led him to do the right thing. His religious ideology taught him to do the wrong thing, namely worry about eternal heaven at the cost of his friend’s freedom. His ideology misfired. He said he would listen to this ideology but could not do it. He rejected the group think and did the right thing, thanks to a long think.

A long think combined with fellow feeling is a most powerful force!

I think that is what the religious quest in the modern age is all about.

Shouldn’t we all make more long thinks?


The Revaluation of Morals


When Huck Finn does what he thinks is wrong—helping a slave to escape his master and gain his freedom and deprive his master of her property—Huck decides he must be wicked, because to do “the right thing” is the wrong thing. He turns morality on its head. In doing so, Huck helps to turn civilization on its head too.


Hopefully this can help all of us to think better by making a “long think” about what is right and wrong. Is it what we were taught in Sunday school? Is it what our parents taught us? Or our friends? Or our betters? Or is it something we can discern for ourselves? Are Indigenous children slovenly brutes as many of us were taught? Do Jews really smell as many were told? What is respectable? What is civilized?  Don’t just believe what we are told. We must look for ourselves. We must give it a “long think.” We must be willing, if necessary, to turn the world on its heads even if means risking a place called hell.


Azar Nafisi said this is what she tried to teach her students when she was a professor,  in Iran, where they were indoctrinated from birth to believe what the Imams and parents told them. Who can do this in America? Who can do this in Canada? In her view, gleaned from Twain and other writers, “I tried to share with my students in Tehran , explaining to them that moral choice comes from a sound heart and from a constant questioning of the world and of oneself and that it is just as difficult , if not more so in society that appears to give you every freedom.


I think it comes from starting with fellow feeling and then a long think where all the relevant facts must be ascertained and then weighed.


I remember one time having a serious discussion with a young lawyer on an issue of morality.  His argument against what I said consisted of saying, “Well this is what I learned at home.”  It is all well and good to be taught at home. We all needed parents to do that as we could not have survived without their help. But when we become adults, we have to learn to think for ourselves too. Mark Twain once said elsewhere that “education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” And as much as we loved our parents and respected their viewpoint they were not always right. Just as our children won’t think we were always right.  Thank goodness for that.


The same goes for teachers. I know I have learned a lot from good teachers. But Friedrich Nietzsche that great German philosopher, said “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil.”


Azar Nafisi said this source of wisdom was “the rebellious heart that beats to its own rhythm.” What we really need, in addition to good parents and good teachers is critical thinking combined with fellow feeling. This is what I have gleaned from one of my old philosophy professors. I am eternally grateful to him for that.