How to think for yourself and why you should
"Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
- JOHN F. KENNEDY
"Reason obeys itself: ignorance submits to what is dictated to it."
- THOMAS PAINE
“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”
― BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
“No people can be both ignorant and free.”
― THOMAS JEFFERSON
"No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof."
-- HENRY DAVID THOREAU
"Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."
"The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking."
- JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH
The absolute necessity of the independent mind
It’s become a lost art these days; thinking for oneself, that is.
Research, reading, understanding opposing views, weighing the options, separating facts from opinions – in other words educating yourself – and then and only then, making informed decisions and choices – an exercise known as critical thinking: why that’s just too much work!
How much easier it is to accept pre-prepared, processed, canned doctrine; to pigeon-hole oneself with a label, be it conservative or liberal; Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist; Republican or Democrat; capitalist or socialist; or, or, or. So caught up do we become in “belonging” that we relinquish our individualism, our independent intellect; we lose the ability to make rational decisions.
When we stop making rational decisions, we give up our rights and freedom, twist in the wind of the popular view of the day, vulnerable to the manipulations of others who have their own motivations, and unable to discern truth from untruth.
The independent mind is one that chooses to believe or reject belief based on accumulation of the facts, examination, evaluation and reason. We are not born thus, nor are most of us taught this in our basic education. Indeed, current public school pressures us into exactly the opposite – here’s what you should know; memorize it.
By the time we reach the “age of reason,” we have no reasoning skills to exercise. Our minds have been molded by rote learning, acceptance without question and the ability to regurgitate what we’ve been fed. We are told what to think, not given the tools to think for ourselves.
Acceptance, or else! That is our training.
"The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered."
- JEAN PIAGET
"Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve."
- ROGER LEWIN, PHD
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police ... yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home -- all the more powerful because forbidden -- terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
― WINSTON CHURCHILL
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”
― ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
“Never blindly believe, never blindly follow.”
― ALEX TREACHER
"Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too"
"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."
“When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons.”
― ANAIS NIN
"I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think."
How many of us chose our religious beliefs based on open-minded study, the gathering of facts and theories, evaluation and analysis? Not many. We were born into a religion, raised in it and accept the “blind faith” on which it is dependent – with no thought to reasoning or evidence. And as such, we are confident in our righteousness, and comforted by the us-versus-them attitude that follows. Belonging becomes more important than thought. Our religion is often our first training ground of unquestioning adherence to dogma.
(Not that religion does not provide a moral compass in our increasingly complex lives, or doesn’t provide comfort. But there must always be some level of thoughtful deliberation in what we accept into our personal foundations, not belief based on "because I said so.”) Blind faith always remains blind to alternatives, and such training leaves us ill prepared to apply reason, logic and critical thinking to the rest of our lives.
Take politics, for another example. By choosing to set aside our individual diversity and complexity of political belief in order to conform to the simplistic idea of the party system, we end up squandering our rights of citizenship in a ritual more akin to cheering for a sports team than in choosing a government. We support a candidate based on emotion and bias – “My father was a Republican, so was his father and so am I” – even when we may disagree with their ideals or actions. More blind acceptance, willfully blind.
How many of us actually consider the issues critically? As evidenced in many of the writings commonly available, the comments made on various websites by ordinary citizens, the conversations overheard, too few. We seem to have become little more than jackdaws, mouthing the latest jingoes, speaking in bumper sticker slogans, deaf to argument and immune from persuasion. We are naught but cannon-fodder for whatever battle dreamed up for us.
In spite of the oft-repeated belief that we live in freedom -- and why is it so oft-repeated? Surely, were it so, we should not need such constant reminders -- lack of critical thinking has brought us to a culture more likely to promote strict adherence to a set of beliefs (real or not) of our chosen group, which means strict adherence to a way of life (true or false) – whether we are speaking of a religious cult, political creed or nationalistic propaganda.
What it really means is that we are open to manipulation – and by Jove, in this world of “ologies” and “isms,” manipulated we are!
En masse, we are considered stupid, ignorant, too simple-minded and uneducated to think for ourselves by those that would control us. Instead of real information we are offered sound-bites, slogans, flash-card tidbits of information (much of it false or biased) set up in a “Sesame Street” format of quickly changing images in case our teeny-little minds become overwhelmed.
This is the problem with those in power; they consistently under-estimate us. We are not stupid. We may be ignorant but that can be fixed, and we don’t need a college degree to learn to think for ourselves. Education is out there, waiting for us, free for the taking. All we need do is practice critical thinking.
“You may chain my hands, you may shackle my feet; you may even throw me into a dark prison; but you shall not enslave my thinking, because it is free!”
― KHALIL GIBRAN
“Orthodoxy is a relaxation of the mind accompanied by a stiffening of the heart.”
― EDWARD ABBEY
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.”
― BOB MARLEY
“I do this real moron thing, and it's called thinking. And apparently I'm not a very good American because I like to form my own opinions.”
― GEORGE CARLIN
Become a thinker.
I hear a voice. It has been shouting for so long it has grown hoarse and faint. "Liberate your mind. You owe it to yourself, to your family, to your country (even if the powers-that-be suggest otherwise.) Learn to think for yourself and teach these skills to your children."
"The most controversial issues of the twenty-first century will pertain to the ends and means of modifying human behavior and who shall determine them. The first educational question will not be 'what knowledge is of the most worth?' but 'what kinds of human beings do we wish to produce?' The possibilities virtually defy our imagination."
- John Goodlad, "Learning and Teaching in the Future," 1968 Reprinted in "Our children are not being educated; they are being trained." 2010
Do we want to be “conditioned,” trained into mindlessness? Do we want this for our children?
Then we need to learn how to think for ourselves, how to eschew the packaged “ologies” set out for us, to develop a healthy cynicism without descending into being a cynic, to question, to learn and to analyze.
“Dare to think for yourself.”
"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."
- ALBERT EINSTEIN
"It is especially important to encourage unorthodox thinking when the situation is critical: At such moments every new word and fresh thought is more precious than gold. Indeed, people must not be deprived of the right to think their own thoughts."
- BORIS YELTSIN
Accept the first and most important rule for the independent mind:
Put no authority higher than your ability to think for yourself
We live in a world that offers more access to information than any generation has ever had before and it’s overwhelming in scope. We are surrounded by self-styled experts and pundits who proffer canned opinions. It’s tempting to reach out and accept without question, to stop thinking for ourselves – because it’s easier.
Unfortunately, we also give up control and lose the ability to discern what is true from what only benefits those who would have us believe their dictates. We swallow ideas without thinking. Do we do that because we consider ourselves inherently inferior in intellect than those who try to sway us? Or is it because the alternative is simply so daunting?
Have courage; believe in your own abilities.
The steps of critical thinking.
- Number one: Learn all you can about the issues that affect your life. The more different perspectives you read (which means stepping out of your own preconceptions and maintaining an open mind) the more you’re forced to think about what the real truth may be. Separate what is true from what is false, or even partially true, or incomplete, slanted or based on a false premise, or simply considered truth because everyone says so.
- Number two: Problem identification. What is the real issue here? What is it that has thrown you into questioning mode, conflicts with your understanding of the world and makes you uncomfortable? If you acknowledge that discomfort (what can be called personal development) and figure out the source, you may come up with a new way to understand the situation.
- Number three: Put the issue in context. Context is the set of circumstances surrounding the information which give it meaning. Understand the history of the issue, the source, what has thrust the issue under your nose for examination. Consider:
- The nature of the community. Big cities, small towns, rural neighborhoods have vastly differing resources, challenges and peculiarities, all of which are important in addressing the issue.
- The social situation. Any community will have within it divisions, often hostile ones, that have different ideas on how things should be done.
- Individuals involved and their personalities, goals and desires. Why do they want you to believe this or that?
- Cultures – Cultures and sub-cultures hold a whole spectrum of ingrained assumptions, tacitly accepted “truths,” and commonly held preconceptions.
- Physical environment. Where is our issue taking place? Certainly, a crumbling, dangerous urban neighborhood will operate on different “truths” than a well-to-do gated community in the suburbs.
- Interests involved – who is part of the issue? Why? Who stands to gain or lose and what are the best interests of the community? Or can that be determined with the information at hand? Is more information needed?
- Number four: Exploration of the issue. Approach every aspect of the problem with a questioning mind with the aim of understanding on the deepest level. “Every aspect” includes yourself: identifying, admitting and examining your own assumptions, prejudices, biases, and preconceived notions, understanding how they may color your reactions to and interpretations of information. It also means being strong enough and willing to change those same inherent preconceptions if your objective view shows they may be erroneous. This may include:
- What's the source of the information? Knowing where information originates can tell you a lot about what is intended to make you believe. What would be that source’s biases and assumptions?
- Does the source generally produce accurate information?
- Does anyone in particular stand to benefit or lose if the information is accepted or rejected?
- Is the information complete? Logically consistent? Do arguments actually prove what they pretend to prove?
- Is the information relevant to the issue under examination?
- And most important: Is it true? Out-right lies, made up facts and snippets divorced from context are not uncommon when we are being asked to blindly accept information – particularly in politics
- Number five: Conclusion. Whatever that may be.
- the passive: simply holding a new, informed opinion
- the active: changing voting habits, becoming more active on the issue, writing an op/ed piece,organizing a community response or simply deciding on more study.
- Number six: Reflection. Have you attained the goal you sought? If not, what went wrong? How can it be rectified? What have we learned? Do we need to go back to step number one?
Why should I?
Yes, I can hear you asking. After all, you’re already on the path of truth and righteousness, I know, I know. But I do have an answer:
Because, as a species, we’re prone to the irrational, far more than we care to admit. We spend all of our time thinking; that voice in your head is never quiet, but are you aware of what happens to those thoughts one they’ve popped up? We are not inclined to evaluate our own thinking, to ask ourselves is that true; where did it come from? Is that really what I think or feel? We see little reason to take the time and effort to confront the source of our thoughts.
Being an all-too-frail human being, we tend to think we are right, even when we’re wrong. We skip over our illogical tendencies and often, in those of the voices to whom we listen. If what we hear jives with what we’ve thought at some point, no matter how erroneous, it tickles our egos. Without any further examination, we adopt it completely, cast it in stone and vow to support it, no matter what.
We tend to consider this accumulation of thoughts as our experience, and slowly construct a frame of reference we think is uniquely our own. This process of building a perspective, a point of view is part of the human condition and we are rarely aware of it happening. Much of it comes from other people. We are all inclined to allow others to do a lot of thinking for us, and a good portion is there from a very early age, long before we are capable of reasoning. Our subsequent experiences are colored by what has previously been internalized.
For example, if we are raised in the United States, we will have some typically American beliefs, most adopted at an early age and strengthened through years of repetition. Most likely, we are not even aware of these “givens” of life. If we enter into conversation with someone from somewhere else, we may be surprised to find our beliefs are not universal but a result of cultural conditioning, did not originate with us, but have been transferred to use, repeated and reinforced with the smiling approval of those with influence over us, until they became part of our perspective.
At this point, in the conversation with the “alien,” we can do one of two things: cover our ears and shout “You’re wrong,” as hard as we can, or use the opportunity to learn more of another’s cultural conditioning, apply critical thinking and grow.
The second option is difficult to impossible for many.
Our casual thoughts reflect our biases. We do not automatically interpret the world in a realistic manner. Undisciplined thinking can lead us to accept the erroneous as truth simply because it occurred to us. We may make standards of judgment, weighty decisions, enter into argument without ever questioning our underlying criteria.
In other words, we act and speak as prejudiced fools. We seek out only those whose faulty belief structure is the same as our own and dismiss all others as wrong, ill-informed and dangerous.
The application of critical thinking will not only save us from personal embarrassment (whether we feel it or not – believe me others do on your behalf) but will make our actions in society and the decisions we make sound ones. We will be less vulnerable to the machinations of those who would use us for their own purposes, more open to our fellow inhabitants of this world, and more capable of developing a realistic view of what is happening around us.